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Valvert: Your nose is . . . very big.
Cyrano: Yes, very.
See Important Quotations Explained
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Cyrano de Bergerac!