Wit and Wisdom in Cyrano de Bergerac
By Tomek Grzesiak
When one thinks of classic drama, familiar titles include works such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Oedipus Rex. But one lesser-known play worthy of our attention is Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Despite its relative anonymity today, its first public performance was allegedly met with a full hour’s standing ovation, after the final curtain had already closed. What is this French play and why should our students, or even we more experienced readers, read it today?
Rostand’s work centers on its swashbuckling title character, Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, a poor nobleman marked by his flair, his wit, his brilliant swordsmanship, and his hideous and unsightly nose. Cyrano’s quick tongue is evidenced throughout the work, such as when he dispatches a critic in swordfight while simultaneously composing a ballad about the encounter.
Joining Cyrano are his love interest, the intelligent and beautiful Mademoiselle Roxane, and Christian, a handsome, honorable, but dull cadet similarly enraptured with the young woman. Despite his confidence and panache, Cyrano believes that Roxane would never be happy with so hideous a figure as himself. Recognizing Roxane’s interest in Christian and desiring to provide her with the perfect suitor, Cyrano lends his wit to Christian’s looks, tricking Roxane of Christian’s cleverness and causing her to fall in love with the young cadet.
In addition to the clever wordplay of Cyrano’s soliloquies and the humorous situation overall, there is depth in these scenes. Careful readers cannot help but notice a number of difficult and worthwhile questions: Can a lie be justified if its intent is noble? What are the qualities for true romantic love between two persons? Is Cyrano a hero worthy of our admiration or a fool to be pitied?
The intelligent discussion and consideration of these questions thrust the reader into topics that, while often not raised in our day-to-day life, are no less essential to it. But even if we readers don’t dwell on those questions, literature ought to be a source of enjoyment and delight. Through the workings of this mad Frenchman, Rostand gives us the opportunity for both.
Click here for a downloadable (PDF format) Cyrano de Bergerac poster for use in your classroom.
Tomek Grzesiak is an assistant director of the Barney Charter School Initiative.