It is a wonder that "Cyrano de Bergerac" ever got staged at all. Any producer could see it would cost a fortune and was too long -- five acts, and in verse! The hero had the double disadvantage of being historical yet forgotten, except by 17th-century scholars. The plot was absurd: the brave, brilliant but ugly soldier Cyrano adores his beautiful cousin Roxanne; he discovers she has fallen in love at first sight with a brave and handsome young cadet too dumb to voice his passion. The noble Cyrano supplies his rival with flowery speeches and passionate letters of courtly love. As the regiment leaves for war, Roxanne marries Christian; he is killed and Cyrano seriously wounded. Gallantly, until his own death Cyrano conceals his enduring love and his authorship of the letters the widow cherishes, in order not to betray the dead Christian or to disillusion his beloved Roxanne.

Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Kennedy Center, "Cyrano" is currently playing to standing-room audiences. In 1897 such a play was an anachronism, 50 years too late. Romantic theater had expired in 1843; fin de sie cle Parisian audiences expected problem plays and dramas of naturalism, scenes of unhappy marriages and talk of social diseases, the latest works by Ibsen, Becque and Brieux. This elegant young playwright from Marseilles, Edmond Rostand, had had a modest success at the Come'die Franc,aise in 1894 with the aptly titled "Les Romanesques" (The Romantics); but the next year his "La Princesse Lointaine" was feebly applauded, even though its producer and star at the Renaissance theater was Sarah Bernhardt, at 51 still exquisite as the lily-crowned young princess.

Sentimental and ethereal, "La Princesse Lointaine" lost money; but it did win for its author two prizes. The divine Sarah awarded Rostand her love (platonic in this rare instance) and dubbed him "mon poe te." And her poet's dreamy play caught the eye of her friend Coquelin, the baker's boy who was the finest actor of his day. He proposed that Rostand write a play for him. And thus Rostand created Cyrano.

To a modern audience, the real surprise is that so many of the events and characters of this extravagantly romantic play are true. There was a Cyrano de Bergerac, and yes, he did have a huge nose. He gloried in it or at least made the best of it; he liked to say that the nose was the seat of the soul and "by its length are measured valor, art, passion and skill." Born in the age of Richelieu and Molie re, like the play's Cyrano the young aristocrat joined the elite Guard under Captain Carbon de Castel-Jaloux. He became notorious for his quixotic bravery, his wit and his libertarian ideas. As in the play, de Bergerac was gravely wounded at the siege of Arras fighting the Spaniards. He resigned his commission and spent the rest of his life traveling, writing and exercising the unhealthful hobby of making fun of those in power.

Some of de Bergerac's literary works, like his character and career, are reflected in Rostand's drama. He wrote two odd volumes of Utopian satirical science fiction (anticipating Swift's "Gulliver's Travels") which contributed to his reputation as a free thinker. From one, the 1657 "Histoire Comique des Etats et Empires de la Lune," Rostand took de Bergerac's sometimes prescient recipes for reaching the moon, for example, "I might construct a rocket, in the form/ Of a huge locust, driven by impulses/ of villainous saltpeter from the rear,/ Upwards by leaps and bounds."

And he wrote a play admired and plundered by Molie re who also, incidentally, loathed the florid actor Montfleury, whom de Bergerac drove from the stage. There was also in fact a patissier named Ragueneau bankrupted by his love of poetry; he really did end up as official candle-snuffer in Molie re's troupe.

Finally, there was a pretty fashionable cousin, Magdeleine Robineau, who married a young Baron de Neuvillette. After his death in 1641 at Arras she renounced society, as did Roxanne, devoting herself to prayer and charity. And, in collusion with the Ladies of the Cross, she gently tried to save the soul of her atheist cousin. But Cyrano's love for her and his surrogate courtship are apparently Rostand's genial invention. It is said that while he was beginning work on the play he was asked by a lovelorn acquaintance how he, a poet, would woo a fastidious lady, and he amused himself by coaching the aspirant. Later he is supposed to have recounted this to Coquelin, who reputedly exclaimed, "There is your story!"

Yet how ingeniously Rostand utilized history to make his plot plausible! For Magdeleine Robineau was one of those charming, affected aristocratic 17th-century ladies known as pre'cieuses. Molie re ridiculed their exaggerated gentility and euphemistic language -- they called fish "denisons of the kingdom of Neptune" and candles "supplements of the sun" -- but they were courted by musketeers for their beauty and by noblemen for their elegance. In a still quite crude and brutal society they had reason to be proud of their independence, wit and fastidious manners. Such women would have felt ashamed to entertain the courtship of an unsophisticated, inarticulate young cadet newly arrived from the provinces, no matter how handsome or devoted.

Thus Rostand wove together this preciosity of the historical Roxanne, the provincial provenance of the real Baron de Neuvillette and the superb wit of de Bergerac into a comic-poignant triangular love story, with Cyrano as gallant ventriloquist. He did it so well that the play seems less an invention than a discovery and a revelation.

But when "Cyrano" was ready, theater managers looking for realism were contemptuous; only Coquelin was pleased. Determined nonetheless to have it staged, "dear Coq," as Bernhardt called him, paid most of the expenses himself, even buying a half-interest in a theater. Rostand was asked to contribute as well, and every sou was saved by using secondhand scenery and refurbished costumes. The rehearsal period was fraught with minor calamities. Only Coquelin and the leading lady continued to have faith in the play. Amid otherwise almost universal misgivings -- especially the author's -- Cyrano opened at the Theatre Porte-Saint-Martin on Dec. 27, 1897.

At first the audience seemed distracted, but from the moment Coquelin-Cyrano rose up with his huge nose and mustaches, denouncing the wretched actor Montfleury as a fat swine, the play's success was assured. But it was much more, a succe s fou, a triumph! There were nine curtain calls after the first act, and after the last act, more than 40. The audience milled about, laughing, weeping and cheering; they refused to leave until 2 a.m. In the words of one critic, it "brought unbounded relief to audiences weary of 20 years of sordid naturalistic dramas." Another testifies that the first-night audience was filled with "delirious joy." Still in her makeup from performing at the nearby Theatre Renaissance, Sarah arrived to congratulate her poet, who had bravely played a tiny part himself as one of the cadets.

In a New York Times piece on a 1968 production of "Cyrano," Clive Barnes sneered at the play as dated romantic fustian and falderal. T.S. Eliot, however, wrote that he looked back nostalgically on Rostand, that "Cyrano" had a gusto uncommon on the modern stage.

The public has usually agreed with Eliot. Like Dumas fils' 1852 "La Dame au Came'lias" (Camille), "Cyrano de Bergerac" became one of the most popular plays of all time in Europe. And in America, too, where Roxanne hats and pre'cieuses slippers were soon the vogue. Bernhardt and Coquelin took both plays on tour, he playing Monsieur Duval to her fragile Marguerite, she Roxanne to his swashbuckling Cyrano. As for Rostand, he was elected to the French Academy and made a commander of the Legion of Honor.

How that flouter of authority and free-thinking gadfly, de Bergerac, would have laughed.