Friday, October 2, 2009

My Friend Cyrano

I'm pretty sure it all started with Mr. Magoo.

For those who don't know, Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Baucus, Mr. Thurston Howell III himself) did many an animated version of various classics. One of these was Cyrano de Bergerac, arguably the most famous play by Edmond Rostand (although one of his other works became the basis of the long-running musical The Fantastiks). Watching that show introduced me to the swordsman of big nose, bigger brain, and even bigger soul. Or it might have been Illustrated Classics. These many years later, who can say? Does it matter?

Not too long after a brilliant production of the play was televised on PBS. Peter Donat and Marsha Mason (yes, Neil Simon's later wife) played the title character and his lady love, Roxanne, in this showing from the Acting Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco (my home town, not altogether incidentally). You can find that one on DVD without too much trouble. I can still recall so many wonderful details of that production. The way Cyrano tilted his head to kiss a flower girl's hand (later, I learned it is in fact very rude to allow your nose to touch a lady's hand while kissing it). The expression on Roxanne's face as her cousin reads the last letter from Christian. And the sword fight in Act One, of course. Rostand knew how to start a play with a Bang!

Years and years later, Donat appeared in a revival production at the ACT, and I paid to see it. It was sad. He was well into his sixties at least by then. The sword fight was almost in slow motion, and he still missed the blade of his opponent once.

By then I had a degree in Theatre Arts from the University of West Florida. No longer a child, a teenager, or even a callow youth in his twenties, there was much more I understood about the play and about the central character. Maybe you did not realize Hercule de Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person? He was. Many details in the play are accurate. The duel while writing a ballad. His battle against a hundred men, on behalf of a drunken poet friend. His cousin Roxanne did indeed marry Baron Christian de Neuviette, who died in battle during the Siege of Arras where Cyrano himself was wounded. She retired to a convent, visited by her cousin and his friend LeBret who entered the religious life. His death was not unlike what is in the play. While his nose was big, it was not quite so large as described.

The most famous version of the play in terms of film is almost certainly the one with Jose Ferrer, who won an Academy Award for the part. It hasn't been the last. For my money, one of the best was the 1973 musical with Chritopher Plummer. Cannot tell you how many times I listened to that album back at my university, then on vinyl and long before CDs were dreamt on. The heart break of that last song...

"I never loved you/I must not lie/And say 'I loved you'/Not I. I never loved you/Those words must fly/And fade like smoke in the sky... Be grateful for all the love that lives on/ But sometimes let fall just one gentle tear upon/ The memory of this truth/Or this lie... I never loved you/My Dear Love! Not I."
Regular readers will know I am a softie in my way. Surely this is proof enough? But then, to be honest, Cyrano's love life felt all-too-familiar to me for most of my youth. It wasn't that I didn't look with love upon a pretty girl now and then. I did, or at least what seemed like love to me at the time. But not until well into my twenties did any member of the female sex see me and feel anything but friendship. Or pity. At best. Like Cyrano, I was convinced of my own ugliness. And to be honest, a part of me believes that to this day. My voice is a fine one, my posture excellent, my wit is sometimes keen and I am an excellent listener to other peoples' woes. Compensation, really. For the ugly man in my mirror, trying to get through life without being too lonely.

Methinks I'm hardly alone in that. Is that why Cyrano has remained so popular? How many plays were first put on in 1897? How many of them are still being produced? Cyrano embodies that terrible sense we all have of never knowing appreciation, much less love. Oh, he has his applause, but he pays for it dearly. All are impressed with his skill with a rapier, but think what it must have cost for him to achieve it. How many bullies and cruel hit their mark before he finally reached the level to make them fear speaking a word? Who wants to live like that? Needing to be dangerous enough to silence others, for something as trivial and unimportant as a big nose!

Haven't we all felt that? What does it matter that I'm not tall? Or if my features aren't like those of a model? Does forty or fifty extra pounds of extra weight really cancel out my mind, my character, my personality? And God Help Me if I show any pain--nothing more guaranteed to make people avoid you than to admit to soul-crushing loneliness. Ironic. Or maybe some part of them fears it is catching. More likely, they're afraid their own masks will slip.

And another thing, we all wish we could respond to life's travails with half as much courage, much less style. Cyrano has every reason you might imagine to be bitter, but he's not. Sarcastic, yes. Judgmental, oh my yes. But he is the character who brought "Panache" into the English language. In French, the word means "white plume" as in the plume atop one's hat. As Cyrano dies, he calls it "One thing unstain'd, by death by doom unfinger'd; See it there? A white plume above the battle!" He ends his life, dignity and integrity intact. He knew pain, loss, failure and regret -- but he never once gave up. "A man fights for far more than the mere chance of winning" he says, "Better by far to know the battle is hopeless!" He ends in pride, with a smile on his lips, looking into the eyes of the woman he loves.

Don't we all wish to do as well?

There's a lot about his life's philosophy that doesn't work too well if you take it too literally. Discretion in the real world is a fine thing, as long as it doesn't turn into deceit. We don't (hopefully) need to wield deadly force to shut people up. But then, aren't those really just details? What in the end grabs me about Cyrano is his courage, his style, the generosity of spirit that never let him be jealous (and wouldn't you be jealous, in his situation?).

His panache.

A few other things to consider. We know the real Cyrano's birthdate, and the date when Rostand's play opens. It is right there on the page. So when you look at Cyrano's life in that work, consider this -- as the story begins, he is eighteen years old.


Beezer said...

David, you certainly have a way with words. Cyrano has always been my favoourite character; I fall in love with him every time I see him. I saw the original ACT production that you wrote of, in fact I saw it four times. I also saw the rivival a couple times years later as well as both movies. I have to say I do not remember Mr. Magoo's version but I probably did see it.. One of the best productions I saw was at the junior college with James Harper in the title role. It saw it four times and again fell in love with "Cyrano". My favourite is the french film with Gerard Depardieu. And for the record David, you are not ugly, you are good looking man with a good heart.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had excellent posture...

For some reason I always forget Rostand wrote this play, and I think it's one of Moliere's. thank you for reminding me.

You may laugh, but I do like Steve Martin's funny and sweet portrayal of a modern Cyrano in the movie Roxanne. Instead of a sword fight they duel with words, and Martin comes up with a good number of insults for his own elongated nose (giving new meaning to the term 'rapier wit').

Zahir Blue said...

Nicole - That was a very charming movie.

Beezer - Thanks for your kind words.