Cyrano de Bergerac
Act I, scenes i–iii
Valvert: Your nose is . . . very big.
Cyrano: Yes, very.
Summary — Act I, scene i
In the year 1640, the Hall of the Hotel de Bourgogne—a large, crowded Parisian theater—buzzes with activity in the minutes before a performance of the play La Clorise. People mill about and converse, divided according to their social class. A citizen guides his son through the room, impressing upon him the intellectual magnitude of the performance. A thief moves through the crowd, stealing handkerchiefs and purses. A group of pages runs about firing peashooters at one another. Two elegant marquises, with swords strapped to their waists, tread through the crowd, aloof and condescending. The lamps are lit, and the crowd cheers, knowing the performance will commence soon.
Summary — Act I, scene ii
The audience waits for the play to begin. The disheveled satirist Ligniere enters, arm in arm, with the handsome young nobleman Baron Christian de Neuvillette, who tells a group of admiring marquises that he has been in Paris only two or three weeks and that he will join the guards tomorrow. Ligniere has come to report to Christian about the woman with whom Christian has fallen in love. Christian says she is always at the plays. But she has not arrived yet, and Ligniere prepares to leave—he says he needs to find a tavern. When a refreshment girl passes by with wine, Ligniere agrees to stay. Ragueneau, a baker who caters to and idolizes poets, enters, looking for Cyrano de Bergerac. He says he expects trouble because an actor named Montfleury is performing in the play. He knows Cyrano hates Montfleury and has banned him from performing onstage for a month.
Christian has never heard of Cyrano de Bergerac, but Ragueneau and Ligniere seem to be almost in awe of him. Christian asks who Cyrano is, and his friend Le Bret says that Cyrano is the “most delightful man under the sun.” The others describe him as a poet, swordsman, scientist, musician, and “wild swashbuckler” with a long sword. They also say he has an unbelievably long and imposing nose. But he is a formidable figure, and Le Bret, who serves with Cyrano in the guards, says he too expects trouble.
Suddenly, Christian spies the woman with whom he has fallen in love. Ligniere tells him that she is Roxane, a brilliant, young heiress and intellectual. She sits in a box with a somewhat older man—the Comte de Guiche, who is also in love with her. Ligniere says the Comte is married and hopes to marry Roxane to his lackey, the Vicomte de Valvert. Christian is most upset to learn that Roxane is an intellectual. Ligniere leaves to find a tavern, and there is still no sign of Cyrano. The crowd grows anxious for the play to begin.
Summary — Act I, scene iii
The two marquises discuss de Guiche distastefully as he walks toward them. Christian observes their exchange. Christian decides to challenge de Guiche’s lackey, Valvert, to a duel; as he reaches for his glove, with which he plans to challenge Valvert by slapping him in the face with it, he catches the hand of a pickpocket. In exchange for his release, the thief tells Christian that Ligniere’s latest satire has offended a powerful man, who has arranged for Ligniere to be ambushed by a hundred men later that night on his way home. Christian leaves to save Ligniere.
The crowd begins to chant for the play. Three raps sound from the stage, and the crowd becomes quiet. The curtains open. The violins play. Le Bret and Ragueneau decide that Cyrano must not be in the audience since Montfleury, the actor whom Cyrano detests, is about to make his entrance. Dressed as a shepherd, the pudgy actor walks onto the stage and begins to deliver a speech. Suddenly, a voice from the crowd cries out, “Haven’t I ordered you off the stage for a month, you wretched scoundrel?” The speaker is hidden, but Le Bret knows it must be Cyrano. Montfleury makes several attempts to begin his lines, but the heckling speaker continues to interrupt him. Cyrano finally stands upon his chair, and his appearance creates a stir throughout the audience.
Analysis — Act I, scenes i–iii
This long scene introduces a host of important characters, the main facts of the story, and a suspenseful, miniature story line designed to demonstrate the overwhelming character of Cyrano de Bergerac. The exchanges between the characters in the first two scenes provide the ground for the subsequent action of the play, heightening the suspense surrounding Cyrano’s character by keeping him physically absent until just after the performance begins. Cyrano stands apart from the rest of the characters, who appear to be somewhat dull and predictable.
Rostand’s play romanticizes an era that was looked upon nostalgically by some nineteenth-century writers. Written around 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac is set in 1640. The play is not a realistic interpretation of the time it describes, but rather a historical romance, designed to evoke the glory of France during the age of Louis XIII and to provide an entertaining escape for its audience. The play takes many of its stereotypical representations from Dumas’s popular novel The Three Musketeers. Several references to Dumas’s work appear in the play. In Act I, scene iv, after Cyrano fights in a dramatic duel, his friend Cuigy wittily claims that Cyrano’s name is Dartagnan. (D’Artagnan is the hero of Dumas’s novel, written 200 years after the time in which Cyrano de Bergerac is set.) Later, Le Bret admonishes Cyrano to “stop trying to be Three Musketeers in one!”
The opening scenes emphasize the importance of the theater in seventeenth-century France. The theater patrons include thieves, lackeys, pages, and cavaliers—a veritable cross section of French society at the time. Several patrons come to the theater to do everything but watch the play. Some pick pockets, others play cards, others want to be seen and improve their social status. Rostand parodies inattentive audiences and supposedly bad actors like Montfleury to provide a critique of the theater of his era. By opening the play with such a critical portrayal, Rostand captures the audience’s attention and subtly encourages them to listen up and behave appropriately.
Act I, scenes iv–vii
Summary — Act I, scene iv
Montfleury cries out to the group of marquises for help, and several respond. They try to quiet Cyrano, who invokes several poetic metaphors as he threatens to kill them all: “Please have pity on my sword: if you don’t stop shouting you’ll frighten it out of its scabbard.” As the crowd gasps and strains to see, Cyrano offers a universal challenge to the marquises, saying he will take their names and fight them each in turn. None of the marquises take his challenge. He gives Montfleury to the count of three to leave the stage, and the actor flees.
The crowd is in a tumult. Cyrano proclaims that Montfleury is a horrible actor and that the play is wretched. Moreover, Cyrano says he has personal reasons for forbidding Montfleury to perform. The manager of the stage indignantly asks about the money he will lose from the performance, and Cyrano dramatically tosses him a purse full of gold. A meddler storms up to Cyrano and declares that Montfleury has a powerful patron. Cyrano exclaims that he himself has no patron or any need for one because he can protect himself with his sword. He accuses the meddler of staring at his nose, and he bullies him about the room. Cowed, the meddler insists that he was not staring and suggests that Cyrano’s nose is small. Cyrano angrily exclaims that his nose is magnificent.
De Guiche declares to Valvert that Cyrano is tiresome. Valvert agrees to put him in his place and, approaching Cyrano, tries to goad him by saying that Cyrano has a “very big” nose. Affecting astonishment at the man’s lack of wit, Cyrano offers a long list of better insults that he himself might have used in Valvert’s situation. He continues to mock Valvert, who challenges him to a duel. Cyrano declares that as he fights Valvert, he will speak an extemporaneous poem and kill Valvert on the last line.
Enthralled, the crowd forms a ring around the combatants. Cyrano and Valvert draw their swords and begin to fight. As they fight, Cyrano invents a poem that matches exactly the action of the duel. As promised, on the last line of the refrain, he thrusts, and Valvert falls backward, beaten and badly wounded. The crowd cheers ecstatically. Gradually, the crowd disperses for dinner. Le Bret asks Cyrano why he does not go to eat and Cyrano replies that he has no money. Le Bret asks about the purse of gold Cyrano threw to the stage manager, Bellerose, and Cyrano reveals that it was all the money he had and that it should have lasted him for a month. The refreshment girl offers him food. Eager not to injure his pride or betray a lack of respect for the girl’s offer, he accepts only one grape, a half of a macaroon, and a glass of water.
Summary — Act I, scene v
Le Bret reminds Cyrano that his extravagant behavior is making him enemies. Cyrano says that the thought of having so many enemies makes him happy. Cyrano confides in Le Bret that he has insecurities concerning his nose and his romantic failures. He also reveals to Le Bret that he hates Montfleury because one day Montfleury glanced flirtatiously at the woman whom Cyrano loves. Le Bret asks about the woman but quickly realizes that the only woman beautiful and brilliant enough for Cyrano to love must be Roxane. Cyrano says that given his appearance, he can never reveal his love.
Summary — Act I, scene vi
Roxane’s duenna appears and interrupts their conversation. She has a message for Cyrano: Roxane wants to see him. Tremendously excited, and perhaps a bit nervous, he agrees to meet her at Ragueneau’s shop at seven o’clock the next morning.
Summary — Act I, scene vii
Ligniere rushes in. He tells Cyrano about the hundred men waiting at the Porte de Nesle to kill him and announces that he is too afraid to go home. He asks if Cyrano can host him for the evening, but Cyrano scoffs: “A hundred men, you say?—You’ll sleep at home tonight!” He declares that he will fight all hundred men and escort Ligniere safely home. Le Bret asks why Cyrano would want to help a drunkard, and Cyrano says that he once saw Ligniere drink a whole font of holy water dry after a beautiful woman had blessed herself with it. For a gesture like that, he says, he will -protect Ligniere.
The actors and musicians rehearsing in the theater buzz about Cyrano’s behavior. He tells them that he wants an audience and that they can follow him. But he warns them that he wants no protection. As he strides boldly out of the theater, the crowd forms a procession to follow him to the Porte de Nestle.
Analysis — Act I, scenes iv–vii
In these scenes, Cyrano appears almost superhuman in his grace, agility, and wit. He demonstrates his uncanny sense of humor and his willingness to laugh at himself and his nose. In standing up to Valvert, he shows off his unparalleled wit, as well as his courage and strength. His ability to compose a ballad while simultaneously displaying his talent for swordfighting is remarkable. His display of modesty and humility toward the theater patrons and the refreshment girl shows his gentlemanly nature. Cyrano’s unsightly nose becomes only one of many characteristics that distinguish him from everyone else in the play. This first act establishes Cyrano as uniquely gifted and heroic. More than merely a central character, he is a living legend.
Cyrano also shows his humble side in these scenes. He presents his heroism and eclectic skills to the public, and shows his emotional turmoil and self-doubt to his closest friends. He explains to Le Bret that he sometimes becomes depressed because of his nose and because he is not like the other lovers he sees. In some ways, his sense of alienation seems to prompt Cyrano to search for love even more ardently. But he is also unreasonably tough on himself, focusing only on his failures, imperfections, and weaknesses.
Rostand subtitles Cyrano de Bergerac a “heroic comedy,” a description that applies perfectly to the first act. Cyrano’s brash, arrogant behavior is so astonishing that his ridiculously long nose, which might otherwise be the defining feature of his character, is humorous only for a moment. The nose becomes another extraordinary feature of this extraordinary character, and we are moved to laugh with Cyrano rather than at him. Rostand successfully diverts the tendency to fixate on Cyrano’s odd appearance by emphasizing his extraordinary character instead. Cyrano’s countless displays of wit, valor, and heroism—most notably his resolve to defend Ligniere from a hundred men—make him into an exaggerated stereotype of the swashbuckling, seventeenth-century poet-cavalier.
There is an inherent parallel between the audience in the Hotel de Bourgogne and the audience watching (or reading) Rostand’s play. The reactions of the crowd enable us to sense the scope and magnitude of Cyrano’s feats. They shout platitudes and celebratory adjectives that help put Cyrano’s feats into perspective, evoking a sense of immediacy and presence.
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