One of the most beloved heroes of the stage, Cyrano de Bergerac is a magnificent wit who, despite his many gifts, feels that no woman can ever love him because of his enormous nose. He adores the beautiful Roxanne but, lacking courage, decides instead to help the tongue-tied but winsome Christian woo the fair lady by providing him with flowery sentiments and soulful poetry. Roxanne is smitten—but is it Christian she loves or Cyrano?
A triumph from the moment of its 1897 premiere, Cyrano de Bergerac has become one of the most frequently produced plays in the world. Its perennial popularity is a tribute to the universal appeal of its themes and characters.
Peter Connor is Associate Professor of French and comparative literature at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
There is some truth to the argument that Cyrano de Bergerac succeeded because it permitted a demoralized population to believe once again in the ideals of valor, courage, and sacrifice that recent experience had so severely challenged. At the same time, there is something inherently unsatisfying about such a line of reasoning. It seems a peculiarly negative way of assessing the worth and impact of a work of art, interesting enough from an extratextual perspective, but neglectful of the intrinsic merits of the play, which might also help explain the thralldom of spectators at the turn of the century and beyond. For a great deal of the aesthetic appeal of this play stems from within: from the ingenuity of its characterization (I refer to Cyrano, obviously, but also to Ragueneau, Cyrano's alter ego, in a sense), from the drama as well as the sheer unexpectedness of its plot (no one was expecting a play about a man with a big nose), from its thrilling dynamism (Rostand is superb at handling large-scale crowd scenes with lots of action; see the opening act). Moreover, in broad terms, Cyrano succeeds because it stages so well the tension between the earthy and the ethereal, between the base and the sublime, and because theatergoers recognize in it an intelligent balance of irony, realism, and fantasy. To go a step further, Cyrano stages the triumph of the ethereal over the earthly, of the sublime over the base. To put this in the language of the play, Cyrano is a staging of panache, without doubt the single most important word in the play and one we will examine here in some detail.
But first things first. As the title of the play suggests, Cyrano de Bergerac is very much about Cyrano, and Cyrano is a likable character. There is hardly a juicier role in the dramatic repertory: Cyrano is almost always on stage, and it is almost always Cyrano who does the talking (to such an extent that even when Christian is speaking, it is often in a sense still Cyrano). Rostand fully exploits the dramatic potential of a character whose physical and verbal assuredness "dominates the situation," to use a phrase Rostand applied to panache. If Cyrano's centrality to the play corresponds to Rostand's dramatic vision, it stems partly also from the circumstances of composition of the play. The part of Cyrano was written for one of the leading actors of the time, Constant Coquelin, whom Rostand had met through Sarah Bernhardt. Rostand got into the habit of showing Coquelin completed sections of the play as he went along. Some of the speeches scripted for other characters so pleased the star of the Paris stage that he claimed them for himself. The famous scene (act two, scene vii) in which Cyrano presents the cadets of Gascony, for example, was originally scripted for Carbon de Castel-Jaloux. (During rehearsals, when the actor playing Le Bret complained that he had very few lines, Coquelin responded: "But you have a fine role. I talk to you all the time.")
Theater that stages a hero allows for a more immediate and arguably more gratifying forms of identification than the theater of ideas. Like the cadets in the Carbon de Castel-Jaloux's company, the spectators of this play watch and listen to see what Cyrano will do and say next. Now everything Cyrano does and says is governed by what we could call an ethics of panache. Panache is Rostand's word, or at least a word he made his own; before him, no one had used it in quite the same sense. In its simplest and literal sense, panache refers to the feathered plume of a helmet or other type of military headgear. This is the meaning of the word as it appears in act four, scene iv, where Cyrano speaks of Henri IV, who urged his soldiers during the battle of Ivry to "rally around my white plume; you will always find it on the path of honor and glory" (cited in the Bair translation of Cyrano; see "For Further Reading"). But when Cyrano uses the word again at the end of the play-poignantly, it is his and the play's last word-it has acquired a metaphorical dimension, and suggests at once a commitment to valor, a certain elegance, self-esteem verging on pride, and also a certain . . . je ne sais quoi. Such vagueness is disappointing but also inevitable: Rostand himself warned against limiting the meaning of the word to a dictionary definition, as though to do so would be to imprison a sentiment the essence of which is to insist on absolute freedom from convention.
In his speech to the Académie française in 1903, Rostand described panache, rather mystically, as "nothing more than a grace." "It is not greatness," he said, "but something added on to greatness, and which moves above it." Panache is not just physical courage in the face of danger; it includes a verbal assertiveness in the face of possible death. "To joke in the face of danger is the supreme form of politeness," Rostand said. Hence panache is "the wit of bravura"—not bravura alone (which might be perfectly stupid), but the expression in language of that bravura and indeed language as an expression of bravura: "It is courage that so dominates a particular situation, that it finds just what to say."