'Cyrano,' Gaining in the Translation

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Sometime in the early 1950s, when I was in my early teens, the boarding school at which I was being held against my will decided to amuse the inmates by showing a movie one Saturday night. It was something called "Cyrano de Bergerac," written by someone named Edmond Rostand, with someone named Jose Ferrer in the title role. A film version of a French play? Ouch. I went into the auditorium with all the enthusiasm of Robespierre approaching the guillotine.

Two hours later I was a changed boy. "Cyrano" had knocked me off my feet, and Ferrer had knocked me out of the park. I hadn't been to all that many movies -- they weren't the obsession among the young that they are now -- so my basis of comparison was narrow, but nothing since Laurence Olivier's "Henry V," with its French sky blackened by English arrows, had so thrilled and moved me. I bought the LP recording of the soundtrack, with Ferrer declaiming the most stirring speeches, and soon after that I got my hands on the Modern Library edition of "Cyrano," in Brian Hooker's incomparable translation (the one used in the movie). The recording got lost somewhere along the way in the half-century that followed, but the little book in its faded red binding has been with me ever since.

These words are written the morning after an umpteenth viewing of Ferrer's 1950 film, in a print that shows its age but has lost none of its power to rouse, move and amuse. Watching it after rereading the play for the first time in many years, I was struck by how intelligently Carl Foreman had adapted the Rostand/Hooker text for the screen: tightening it up, in particular with regard to the comic relief provided by the poetic pastry chef Ragueneau, keeping the focus at all times on Cyrano and his frustrated love for the beautiful Roxane. A couple of years later Foreman was on the blacklist, receiving no credit for his work on the screenplay of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and other films, but at the time he worked on "Cyrano" he was at the top, and it shows.

But this isn't a movie review, it's a second look at the play itself, as published rather than as performed. Many English translations are available, including those by Christopher Fry and Anthony Burgess, but the Hooker version is the one I grew up with, and reading any other (or watching a performance by anyone other than Ferrer) is unthinkable to me. Hooker's translation is available now only in the Bantam Classics edition, which unfortunately does not include Clayton Hamilton's introduction to the original 1923 version.

Unfortunately, that is, because Hamilton explains how Hooker's translation came to be. He is little known now except, presumably, among scholars of the theater, but in the first decades of the 20th century Hamilton was among this country's most prominent and influential theater critics; his many books include "The Theory of the Theater and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism" (1910), "Problems of the Playwright" (1917) and "So You're Writing a Play" (1935). Most important to the subject at hand, he was lifelong friends with the celebrated actor, theater manager and producer Walter Hampden. As boys in the late 1890s they "used to squander the after-midnight gas, reading and rereading the magic text of this entrancing play," which had first been produced in Paris in 1897, and a quarter-century later Hamilton persuaded Hampden to mount a production with a new English translation, the existing ones failing to capture "the zest, the fire, the spontaneity, the brilliancy, the lyric rapture of Rostand."

For this Hamilton turned to Hooker, a poet who is now as forgotten as everyone else in this undertaking. Hamilton correctly writes "that Brian Hooker has succeeded in a literary task of extraordinary difficulty, that he has written a text which is both speakable and readable, and that he has made the vivid spirit of Edmond Rostand accessible . . . to English-reading lovers of belles-lettres who are not able to read French."

The "vivid spirit" to whom Hamilton refers was not yet 30 years old when his famous play appeared. Born in Marseilles in 1868, Rostand grew up in privileged circumstances that permitted him to indulge his love for writing. He published poetry and had three plays produced before "Cyrano," but the overwhelming success of his masterpiece seems to have immobilized him. Nothing he wrote in the rest of his life came even close to "Cyrano" in either literary or commercial terms, and at his death in Paris in 1918 he seems to have been a frustrated and disappointed man.

Had it not been for Brian Hooker, it is possible that Rostand's great play might have remained little more than a bewitching rumor in the English-speaking world. Before his translation was presented on Broadway in 1923, with Hampden in the title role, only three productions of the play had appeared in New York, and only one of these in (presumably bad) English. But Hooker's "Cyrano" ran for 232 performances -- an exceptionally good run for just about anything in translation -- and Hampden must have loved it, because he appeared in four more productions between 1926 and 1936. Not until 1946, when Ferrer played the role (and produced the show), did Broadway see anyone else's "Cyrano."

As one of those "English-reading lovers of belles-lettres who are not able to read French," I cannot testify with any authority to the accuracy and fidelity of Hooker's translation, but the passion with which it was embraced by Hamilton and Hampden, both of whom were fluent in French, leaves no doubt that it captures the essence of Rostand. Written in blank verse, it is as much a poem as a play. Indeed, in the most brilliant speeches -- Cyrano's witty defense of his "great nose," his "No, I thank you!" declaration of independence, the balcony scene when, in the guise of Christian de Neuvillette, he professes his love for Roxane -- Hooker rises to heights of romantic verse that few others have achieved in any language.

The play is set in France, Paris primarily, in the mid-17th century. As just about everyone knows, Cyrano is a brave soldier, leader of the Cadets of Gascoyne, a writer and poet of sublime gifts and accomplishments who possesses every quality to which a man could aspire, except beauty: his long nose ("a rock -- a crag -- a cape -- A cape? say rather, a peninsula!") precedes him wherever he goes, and persuades him that for all his nobility of heart and soul, he can never win the love of Roxane. Instead she tells him of her love for Christian, and he agrees to help Christian win her by writing, for him, the great romantic words that so enthrall her. Roxane and Christian marry but he soon dies in battle. A decade and a half later Cyrano, visiting Roxane in the convent to which she has repaired, himself dies from wounds inflicted in an ambush, but not before inadvertently confessing his love, to which Roxane replies in stunned sorrow, "I never loved but one man in my life, And I have lost him -- twice."

Any number of excerpts could be published here for the benefit of readers who do not know Hooker's "Cyrano," but I have chosen two of my favorites. The first comes after Cyrano is derided by an aristocratic fop as "A clown who -- look at him -- not even gloves! No ribbons -- no lace -- no buckles on his shoes," to which Cyrano replies:

I carry my adornments on my soul.

I do not dress up like a popinjay;

But inwardly, I keep my daintiness.

I do not bear with me, by any chance,

An insult not yet washed away -- a conscience

Yellow with unpurged bile -- an honor frayed

To rags, a set of scruples badly worn.

I go caparisoned in gems unseen,

Trailing white plumes of freedom, garlanded

With my good name -- no figure of a man,

But a soul clothed in shining armor, hung

With deeds for decorations, twirling -- thus --

A bristling wit, and swinging at my side

Courage, and on the stones of this old town

Making the sharp truth ring, like golden spurs!

What language that is! "But inwardly, I keep my daintiness," "I go caparisoned in gems unseen," "With deeds for decorations" -- it is difficult to imagine that Rostand's original French could be more musical or evocative than Hooker's English. Here it is again, in an extract from the "No thank you!" speech, which follows Cyrano's friend Le Bret's plea that he "stop trying to be Three Musketeers in one!" Cyrano asks:

What would you have me do?

Seek for the patronage of some great man,

And like a creeping vine on a tall tree

Crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone?

No thank you! Dedicate, as others do,

Poems to pawnbrokers? Be a buffoon

In the vile hope of teasing out a smile

On some cold face? No thank you! Eat a toad

For breakfast every morning? Make my knees

Callous, and cultivate a supple spine, --

Wear out my belly grovelling in the dust?

No thank you! . . . Shall I labor night and day

To build a reputation on one song,

And never write another? Shall I find

True genius only among Geniuses,

Palpitate over little paragraphs,

And struggle to insinuate my name

In the columns of the Mercury?

No thank you! Calculate, scheme, be afraid,

Love more to make a visit than a poem,

Seek introductions, favors, influences? --

No thank you! No, I thank you! And again

I thank you!

Is there, anywhere in any language, a more devastating repudiation of toadying and apple-polishing than that? In this city, where those practices have been raised to something approximating high art, every word of that speech should be posted on every office wall on K Street and Capitol Hill, not to mention the White House. With eloquence that almost literally takes the breath away, Rostand/Hooker constructs a great avalanche of words, each one of them exactly right, each target hit dead center.

Cyrano the man and "Cyrano" the play are romantic to the core: romantic in the grand manner rather than in the simpering Hollywood style. Romance on such a scale has long been out of literary fashion, with the result that many self-appointed arbiters of literary and cultural fashion look down their own (very short) noses at "Cyrano." The last word belongs to Clayton Hamilton:

"This gallant play is still as thrillingly alive as it was in 1898. Rostand was like Shakespeare in one respect at least; for he wrote 'not of an age but for all time.' It is only the realists, who write about contemporary manners and contemporary morals, who grow speedily old-fashioned: the romantics, who escape from their own period, remain forever young and forever new."

Brian Hooker's translation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" is available in a Bantam Classics paperback ($4.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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