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.
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.