Edmond Rostand swam against the current. He is known as a neo-romanticist in the age of naturalism. In this sense, one could call him a traditionalist, but talent runs against all literary classification. And Rostand was talented indeed. He was born 150 years ago. He died 50 years later, just after the conclusion of World War I.
Edmond Eugène Alexis Rostand (1868-1918) was a French poet and dramatist. He was born into a wealthy and cultured family in Marseille. His father, an economist, was also a poet who translated the works of Catullus from Latin. Rostand studied literature, history and philosophy at the Collège Stanislas in Paris. He wrote his first play at the age of twenty.
His comedies, dramas and poems went largely unnoticed until the production of Cyrano de Bergerac at the end of 1897 at the Theatre of the Porte Saint-Martin. This heroic comedy in verse was performed for more than 300 consecutive nights. It was quickly translated into English, German, Russian and other European languages.
The entire play is written in verse, in rhyming couplets of twelve syllables per line. The only difference from a classical alexandrine verse is the occasional lack of caesura. The main character is based on a 17th century historical figure, and the historical context is meticulously researched, down to the names of the members of the Académie française of the time. The play is responsible for introducing the word "panache" into the English language.
The main protagonist of the play, Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, is in fact a panache, a flamboyant cadet with reckless courage and many talents. He is a remarkable duelist, poet and musician. The only flaw he has is an unusually big nose, and he is diffident in love matters because of this deficiency.
The play is successful on multiple levels. The plot is clear, simple and unified. The characters are vivid and contradictory, like most of us are, which makes them credible. The themes are universal, but not hackneyed. The love story seems spontaneous, truthful and inspiring. The poetry is beguiling. The verses Cyrano recites underneath Roxanne's balcony, especially the dithyramb on kiss have a genuine romantic allure. His soliloquy before his death about the great people he would meet upon his passage to the other world sounds like a deep spiritual insight.
Rostand wrote a few more plays and collections of poems after Cyrano, but none as successful. Its popularity is reflected in the fact that it was adapted to the large screen eleven times. The best known version is probably the second French adaptation, made in 1990, with Gérard Depardieu and Anne Brochet in the main roles.
In 1902, Rostand became the youngest writer to be elected to the French Academy. He died in December 1918 in the flue pandemic, and was buried at the Cemetery of Marseille.