Cyrano de Bergerac is a play about an eloquent, talented, and brave, but physically unappealing, man and his love for a beautiful woman, Roxane. Playwright Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac as a comedy, and something of a satire of the overly romanticized literature of France in the 1600s (literature such as Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, which was published in 1844). As such, you’ll find it chock-full of historical references to writers, royalty, philosophers, dramatists, and scientists of the time. Light-hearted in nature, this work is full of frivolous pomp and overblown dialogue. Adding to its showy, intentionally grandiose quality is the form: rhyming couplets of twelve syllables per line in the original French. The translated meter you often see in English is iambic pentameter, which, we all know, is a party waiting to happen.
Published in French in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac hit the stages of Paris to instant acclaim. Under the flourishes of renowned stage actor Constant Coquelin (to whom Rostand dedicated his play), Cyrano came to life. Basing his main character on a historical figure of the same name, Rostand accurately recounts much of the real Cyrano’s life – as told by Le Bret and a number of other biographers – in his beloved play.
The real Cyrano de Bergerac was a French dramatist who lived from 1619-1655, which means Rostand got his dates correct in writing his play. De Bergerac really did fight at the Siege of Arras in 1640 and died in 1655. (And we’re thinking he probably wasn’t as much fun as the fictional guy, but still.)
The standard, after-school-special lesson of Cyrano de Bergerac is that we should all look past appearances and try to see people for who they really are.
But things get more interesting if you look at Cyrano (witty but ugly) as compared to Christian (attractive but ineloquent). Everyone wags a finger at you for judging Cyrano for his appearance, but we’ve got the go-ahead to judge Christian for his stupidity. Think of it this way: Christian can’t help being inarticulate any more than Cyrano can help being ugly. It’s either just as reasonable to condemn Cyrano for having a nose big enough to swordfight, or just as frivolous to look down on Christian for being about as articulate as a chimpanzee.
In essence, we learn from Cyrano that we can’t write off appearances as the domain of the shallow and petty. Even de Bergerac himself, our hero and man of principle, lets his own looks affect his actions. They shape who he is as a character. Looks certainly aren’t everything, but this play reminds us that in society, they aren’t nothing, either.