Edmond Rostand was born in Marseilles, France, in 1868. His father, a part-time poet, pushed Edmond toward a law career, but as a college student in Paris, he instead fell in love with French literature and theater. He eventually did earn a law degree, but he focused primarily on succeeding in his first love, the theater. His early career featured a string of accomplishments: his first play, Le Gant Rouge, was produced when he was only twenty years old, and his next two plays followed shortly. Each new play proved more successful than the previous one, and Rostand’s name began to lure prominent actors and actresses to star in his productions.
In 1897, Rostand enjoyed his greatest triumph with the production of his sensationally popular Cyrano de Bergerac. With the famous Benoit Constant Coquelin (to whom the play is dedicated) performing the lead role, the play was a tremendous success. Late nineteenth-century theater had been dominated by grim, realistic stories and unsentimental characters. But in Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand departed from the realist tradition to present an unabashed historical romance, set in the 1640s and featuring a swashbuckling hero. Audiences loved the play’s passionate love story, comedy, fast-paced action, and tragic ending. Above all, they responded powerfully to the larger-than-life character of Cyrano, the genius hero with a ridiculously long nose. After Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand’s career began to slowly decline, and he never again enjoyed the kind of success he had achieved with Cyrano. He died in 1918, but his most popular creation continues to live on in hundreds of productions. Most recently, the play spawned a pair of popular films: the French Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gerard Depardieu, and the modernized American adaptation, Roxanne, starring Steve Martin.
While Rostand wrote more than a century ago, the play evokes an even older era: France during the age of Louis XIII. In the nineteenth century, it was popular to romantically recall this seventeenth-century era as France’s golden age—a time when men were musketeers, women were beautiful heiresses, and the wit flashed as brightly as the swordplay. In fact, Alexandre Dumas had published his famous sentimental romance, The Three Musketeers, a full half-century before Cyrano took to the stage. Cyrano parodied, paid homage to, and proved itself a blatant copy of Dumas’s popular novel. Nineteenth-century audiences viewed Cyrano’s honesty, courage, wit, passion, and extraordinary willpower as the embodiment of this lost golden age. The play sounded a clarion call to remind France of what it believed it had lost.
The real Cyrano de Bergerac is a novelist and playwright who lived from 1619 to 1655, around the same time as the fictional Cyrano. The real Cyrano probably inspired the idea for Rostand’s protagonist, but the play’s events, as well as its other characters, are solely the product of Rostand’s imagination.