Brief Biography of Edmond Rostand
Edmond Rostand was born in Marseille to a middle-class family of intellectuals. His parents encouraged him to study philosophy, literature, and history, and as a teenager Rostand enrolled in the prestigious Collège Stanslas in Paris. He published poetry during his twenties, and succeeded in putting on many plays even before he turned 25. In 1894, he saw the premier of one of his most popular works, Les Romanesques, the play that would form the basis for The Fantasticks, one of the longest running Broadway musicals of all time. His next play, Cyrano de Bergerac, was hugely popular when it premiered in 1897, and as a result Rostand became one of the most famous writers in Europe. His later efforts included plays about the Napoleonic Wars and Metternich, none of which measured up to the success of his earlier works. He died in 1918, one of the millions of victims of the global flu pandemic.
Historical Context of Cyrano De Bergerac
It’s important to understand some French history when reading Cyrano. The majority of the play is set in 1640, when Louis XIII was King of France. Louis was widely regarded as a weak and ineffectual king, more interested in decadent parties than nation building. His most trusted advisor—and, supposedly, the “Grey eminence” of the French court—was Cardinal Richelieu, whose name is synonymous with power and prestige in Cyrano. During the reign of Louis XIII, France clashed with its neighbor, Spain, in a series of battles throughout the 1630s and 40s. At times, France invaded Spanish territory in an effort to expand its borders. In 1640, France attempted to invade the Spanish province of Arras, and for more than a year, French soldiers tried to starve out Spanish troops in their fortresses. The siege was largely a failure—indeed, it wasn’t until 1654 (around the time when the final act of Cyrano is set) that France succeeded in conquering Arras. Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that Cyrano takes place at a time when France was still building its identity as a modern nation-state. For centuries, the provinces of France had been only loosely connected, and it wasn’t until the 1600s that these provinces began to be grouped together into a strong, stable state. Even in the 1640s, many Parisians—the dominant cultural group of France—regarded people from other parts of France with suspicion and amusement. People from the Gascon region of France—bordering Spain—were considered uncouth, similar to the stereotypes associated with American Southerners. It’s easy to see this dynamic in Cyrano, as the wealthy and powerful characters regard the cadets of Gascon as foolish and crude.
Other Books Related to Cyrano De Bergerac
Cyrano de Bergerac alludes to many famous European books. During the Siege of Arras, Cyrano reads from a book by the great French philosopher René Descartes—presumably the book is the Principles of Philosophy. Descartes was instrumental in the rise of the Enlightenment, and in books like Principles of Philosophy, he popularized the philosophical method known as systematic doubt, positing that the only entity that one can be sure exists is the mind—this sounds something like Cyrano’s rugged, independent worldview. The play also alludes to various genres and styles of European literature. The love verses that Cyrano delivers to Roxane throughout the play imitate the convention of the Petrarchan sonnet. During the 1600s, new translations of the classical poet Petrarch resulted in a “boom” in love sonnets. In a love sonnet, the speaker usually professes his sincere, immortal love for a beautiful woman. Evidently, Cyrano has read some of these works, and riffs on them freely when speaking to Roxane. Finally, Cyrano’s character resembles that of a Romantic hero-poet, such as Lord Byron. Byron—often praised for his “panache”—was famously free with his money, and wrote hundreds of romantic poems to the women he loved, including “She Walks In Beauty” and “When We Two Parted.” It’s entirely possible that Rostand, writing at the end of the 19th century, was thinking of the famous Lord Byron when he devised the character of Cyrano—a dashing, flamboyant, warrior-poet.
Key Facts about Cyrano De Bergerac
Full Title: Cyrano de Bergerac
Where Written: Paris, France
When Published: Premiered in February of 1897
Literary Period: Late Romanticism
Setting: Paris and Arras, mid-17th century
Climax: The death of Christian in Act 4
Antagonist: For most of the play, the Count de Guiche
Extra Credit for Cyrano De Bergerac