On December 28, 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac, one of the most revered stage comedies of all time opened at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris, France. Described by critics as a heroic farce, the play was written entirely in twelve syllable rhymed couplets.
There was a real life Savien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a French soldier, poet, and playwright noted for his freethinking and a prickly personality prone to dueling. Born in 1619, he died at the age of 36 after achieving fame for his provocative plays. A homosexual, the real Cyrano engaged in a famous feud with a former lover that entailed both death threats and exchanges of viciously satiric verses by both men. Most of Cyrano’s plays are forgotten today, but he is revered as the author of a fantasy tale of a trip to the Moon which was one of the earliest pre-cursors to science fiction.
Edmond Rostand was just 26 years old when his play was first produced. A leader of a brief flowering of French neo-romanticism, Rostand’s work was a rebellion against the realism that was beginning to dominate the stages of Europe in the aftermath of Heinrich Ibsen. Among Rostand’s other works was Les Romanesques, which was adapted much later as the American Off Broadway record breaking musical The Fantasticks.
Rostand admired de Bergerac and created a fanciful play on the barest threads of his biography. Portraits of the original Cyrano show a man with an impressive Gallic nose, but not one of the outsized claims of the play. There was a Roxanne, his cousin, who was in convent schools with his sister. And there was a Christian, a fellow soldier at the Siege of Arras in 1640 who did wed cousin Roxanne. But the plot of a brilliant swordsman so convinced that his huge nose would frighten his beloved that he puts words of love into the mouth of the dull witted Christian, was made up of whole cloth.
The play opened with 56 year old Benoît-Constant Coquelin, long acclaimed as France’s greatest comic actor, in the title role. On opening night the audience cheered for a full 30 minutes. The play went on to more than 200 performances in its initial run and the Coquelin took it on tour, playing the part in Germany and London. It was revived three times in Paris in the next five years to equal success each time. In 1900 he teamed with Sara Bernhardt as Roxanne for a triumphant engagement at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway and in a subsequent American tour.
Translations were soon made into several other languages and productions were mounted across the continent. The popular German born Shakespearian actor Richard Mansfield successfully mounted the first American production in English. In 1926 the American actor Walter Hampden using new translation by Brian Hooker had a legendary hit at New York City’s Colony Theater. He was so popular in the part that he reprised the role on stage in 1928, 1932, and 1936. The Hooker translation became the standard text for most English language productions until Anthony Burgess penned a new version in 1970.
For most Americans José Ferrer became the definitive Cyrano when he starred in a 1946 Broadway production in which Hooker played the part of the aging hero in the final act. Ferrer went on to present the play twice on live television, in 1949 and again in 1955. In 1950 Stanley Kramer produced a film version for United Artists for which Ferrer won the Academy Award for best actor.
In 1990 a new French film adaptation staring Gérard Depardieu was a huge international hit.
The play is still revived, with both the Hooker and Burgess translations in use. The main plot devise has frequently been borrowed for other plays and films including innumerable situation comedy travesties and even the 2010 animated film Megamind.
The best known update/adaptation was Steve Martin’s 1987 film Roxanne with Daryl Hannah as the heroine. In the movie the Cyrano character is a small town American fire chief who gets the girl in the end.
The play has also inspired one of Victor Herbert’s few failed operettas; at least two full blown operas, two English language and one Indian musical, as well as a 2007 ballet.