Everyone is allowed at least one vain obsession in life; "Cyrano de Bergerac" is mine. I fell in love with Cyrano -- big nose and all -- when I was 12 years old. Adrift in a sea of blond, well-developed Debbies and Jodys and Karens of the world, I alone shared a name with the heroine of Edmond Rostand's classic play. While I've gone on to Shaw, Coward and Sondheim, Cyrano still holds a special place in my heart, if only to see the name Roxane go down in literary history as a worthy object of affection. As a result, I have seen a dozen productions, a dozen different Cyranos and a dozen different noses.
Luckily, millions share my affection. The hero is the most popular literary character in France; the story has been a favorite since its debut in 1897 and is now one of the five most frequently performed plays in the world.
The role of Cyrano -- romantic, flamboyant, swashbuckling, lyrical, witty, heartbreaking -- is an irresistible chance for an actor to strut every trick in the book. Tyrone Power, Ralph Richardson, Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella and Derek Jacobi, to name just a few, have played Cyrano on stage. Orson Welles and Charles Laughton both tried and failed to bring the story to the screen; it was Jose Ferrer who won an Oscar for his 1950 film performance. Even Steve Martin nosed in with his 1987 adaptation, "Roxanne."
Now the French have reclaimed their national treasure with a new version -- one of the most lavish productions in the history of French film -- starring Gerald Depardieu. The New York Times called the ubiquitous actor the "definitive Cyrano" -- a claim that, to be fair, goes to the real Cyrano de Bergerac, a 17th-century writer and soldier on whom Rostand's hero is based.
Rostand, writing with all the fervor of the romantic movement, stacked the emotional deck with universal themes of unrequited love and noble sacrifice, intellect and wit against power and corruption, the ugly poet with the beautiful soul.
The plot is simple: Cyrano loves Roxane, but Roxane thinks she loves the handsome young Christian. Cyrano, convinced that no woman could love him, helps Christian woo and win Roxane by secretly writing love letters for his rival. Christian is killed in battle but Cyrano is too noble to tell Roxane he actually wrote the letters. Roxane doesn't discover the truth -- the man she really loved is Cyrano -- until the day he dies.
The character of Cyrano is an intellectual, in love with words and his ability to manipulate them. He is a true romantic, in love with ideals as much as Roxane. He's an expert swordsman, which gives him the arrogance to challenge authority as he sees fit. He is -- contrary to many interpretations -- proud enough to love the one woman desired by all and tender enough to secretly hope Roxane might love him despite his nose.
Critics are almost universal in their assessment of the character and the play: An overblown, romantic piece of nonsense but a theatrical tour de force nonetheless. Rostand's tale is hopelessly melodramatic and sentimental -- which accounts, no doubt, for its tremendous popularity.
I have never found the perfect portrayal of Cyrano but, like any true fan, I am overly critical if unflaggingly loyal. The noses have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. But certain actors and certain scenes are etched in my memory.
I saw my first performance of the play 20 years ago at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The playbill is long lost; I can't remember who starred as Cyrano; it may have been Christopher Plummer, who triumphed in the part a few years earlier at Stratford, Ontario, under the same director, Michael Langham.
This was a witty Cyrano, a baroque Noel Coward who preferred to draw his rapier wit more than his sword. He was a clever and funny if not passionate Cyrano; a man who delighted in the mind. When Roxane, unaware that the letters she is receiving are written by Cyrano, boasts that the words are the work of a master, this Cyrano's pleasure is almost as great as if he had won her heart.
This actor probably took his cue from Jose Ferrer, who played Cyrano both on Broadway and in the most famous film version. Ferrer's Cyrano was essentially a wordsmith -- a bit more sardonic, perhaps, with a soldier's wit and a nice feel for the irony of his situation. I never warmed to this version: It was too swashbuckling for my taste and Roxane was, in my opinion, completely insipid and not worthy of any effort by anyone, anyhow.
I once rode a bus for five hours to see Frank Langella play Cyrano at the Williamstown Festival in Massachusetts. Here was an arrogant, poetic Cyrano. It was easy to believe that this man -- offended by bad acting and mangled verse -- would take it upon himself to order a ham actor off the stage and get away with it. He had an unforgiving quality that suited a brilliant duelist and the detachment of someone who stirs up trouble for his own amusement.
Langella brought an elegance to the role. It is important to believe that Cyrano is alone by choice, not because he lacks the style to mingle with the beribboned courtiers of the 17th century.
What Langella lacked was the sweet, adolescent quality that makes Cyrano so appealing. Late one night, Cyrano masquerades as Christian and pours out his heart to her. The one thing, the only thing, he fears is that Roxane will think he is ridiculous. Safe under a veil of darkness, it is his one chance to speak his love.
Langella, full-faced in the light of the moon hanging above the stage, leapt around like an overexcited Romeo. I couldn't help but think that any Roxane with half a brain could simply glance down and immediately spot the famous nose.
The most touching balcony scene, in fact, came from a low-budget production by the Soho Rep off-off Broadway about 10 years ago. The actor, with only two pillars and a single vine of ivy on the stage, stood quietly under the darkness of her balcony. It is the best and worst moment of Cyrano's life -- he wins Roxane with his eloquence but it is Christian who claims her kiss. The young actor created an intensely real and intimate moment in the theater.
Now comes Depardieu, who won Best Actor award at the Cannes festival for his performance. Passionate, impatient, bursting with the frustrations of his life -- Depardieu is the most physically imposing Cyrano I have ever seen. This Cyrano rages: at hypocrites, at fools, at anyone and anything that gets in his way, at every injustice in the world -- especially his nose.
Depardieu, in one perfect moment, sums up his approach to the character: Just when he believes -- miracle of miracles! -- that maybe Roxane might love him, could love him; as he nervously awaits her arrival, he catches sight of his profile in a small mirror in front of him.
Startled by the reminder of his greatest obstacle, he knocks the mirror off the table in one impatient sweep of his arm and discovers only moments later that she loves someone else.
The real Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac was born in Paris in 1619 with, in fact, a very large nose and the talent and temperament to match. There is a story that the owner of a puppet show dressed a monkey as Cyrano -- including a false nose. When he heard about it, Cyrano ran his sword through the monkey. The owner sued and a judge allowed Cyrano to pay the debt with an ode eulogizing the monkey.
Some of the facts of his life are reflected in the story: He was an expert swordsman and, at age 21, wounded at the Siege of Arras. He was a philosopher, mathematician, scientist and author of two science-fiction accounts of journeys to the sun and moon (a fact alluded to in the odd scene in the play when Cyrano diverts Comte de Guiche with a tale of a trip to the moon).
He was also the author of a tragedy and comedy; Moliere is said to have lifted scenes from his plays. But his favorite sport was to ridicule authority and 17th-century religious beliefs by writing cutting satires -- it is probably no coincidence that he was killed at age 36 by a large stone dropped on his head.
But there is no evidence of a romance between that Cyrano and his cousin, Madeleine de Robineau, who was his patroness but probably not his lover. That was Rostand's invention -- an invention that vaulted an obscure historical character into a legendary name.
Which brings us back to Roxane.
My husband can't believe any male would be so corny as to actually recite "Your name is like a golden bell hung in my heart ... Roxane ..." but a few romantic souls did and I loved them for it.
It is, I freely admit, self-serving to believe that the character has not yet been properly portrayed. But bear with me. I like to believe that Roxane, in fact, is worthy of Cyrano. Every woman, after all, can be temporarily distracted by a handsome face.
Roxane was a cousin to Cyrano both in history and in the play. She is also, at the opening of the first act, an orphan; Cyrano is her only family. As children, the two played together at his country home.
The roles of Cyrano and Roxane are almost always miscast; Cyrano is often a middle-aged man to Roxane's ingenue. More realistically, Roxane and Cyrano are probably quite young -- in their twenties, at most -- and no more than five years apart in age. That fits the characters in both temperament and circumstances of their life.
A key scene between the two characters comes early in the play: Roxane, believing herself in love with handsome Christian de Neuvillette, arranges a secret meeting with her cousin. Christian has just joined the Guards under Cyrano's command. She wants Cyrano to convey her feelings to Christian and, before she confides her secret, speaks to Cyrano of their childhood together.
They are many ways to play the scene; most often, actresses flirt or giggle or tease before striking what turns out to be a devastating blow for Cyrano.
But there's another way to look at this: Roxane uses the memories to reestablish her bond with the man she considers a big brother; a man she loves but thinks of as family, not a romantic possibility. The tender teasing is not a cat toying with a mouse -- but a bird who unwittingly flies in a net that Cyrano and Christian then construct together with the letters.
In "Roxanne," Daryl Hannah punches out Steve Martin when she discovers the deception -- an altogether appropriate response, all things considered. Anne Brochet's Roxane in the new movie is much better than most: a gentle beauty but still a bit lightweight.
But these are just quibbles. I intend to keep seeing Cyrano and Roxane until they get it right.