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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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Cyrano de Bergerac!