You probably remember his protuberance, but not his other standout features, like his swordsmanship, rapier wit, poetic brilliance and medical knowledge. And did you know that Cyrano de Bergerac was a real-life character?
He was a 17th century freethinker, a popular poet, writer and duelist. By all reports (there’s even a statue of him in the town of Bergerac today), he had a big nose, but not nearly as colossal an olfactory organ as Rostand gave his oversized character. He was not a Gascon, like the fictionalized Cyrano, though he did fight in the 1640 siege of Arras, a battle of the Thirty Years’ War. The real de Bergerac, a contemporary of Molière, wrote proto-sci-fi novels that included space travel.
Rostand’s model for Roxane was Bergerac’s cousin, who lived with his aunt at a convent, where the real Cyrano was treated in 1654 for injuries sustained from a falling beam. As in the play, it was never determined whether the incident was accidental or deliberate. It’s clear that the love between Roxane and the cadet Christian is entirely fictional, and that Rostand creation spawns the most interesting parts of the play.
The dramatic Cyrano is in love with his distant cousin, but so fearful of rebuff, because of his freakish appearance, that he silently harbors the devotion, and suffers for it. When she calls him to her, he is elated, thinking this is his big moment and that she, too, has fondness for him. But alas, she has eyes only for Cyrano’s younger and handsomer fellow cadet, Christian. The man is a pleasant enough fellow, but a bit of a dullard, particularly inarticulate in the ways of courtship. So Cyrano volunteers to step in and feed him the words, write the letters; this allows him to pour out his heart, but also to have it broken. When Roxane later retreats to a convent, he visits her regularly, for 15 years, never revealing what had transpired in that early romance. Beneath the veneer of bravado, he is honorable, caring, principled to the last. When Roxane discovers the truth of the words and wooing, it’s already too late, and a tender, tear-jerking scene ends the play.
Cyrano, a delightful, swashbuckling, larger-than-life character, is also an arrogant braggart, but we’ll accept his few foibles, in light of his enormous wit and brilliance. Of course, he’ll brook no comments on his nose, though he expounds freely on it, at great – and hilarious – length. He refuses to be subservient to any man, and not having a wealthy patron, he winds up poverty-stricken, unlike his rival, the Comte de Guiche, who ends the play wealthy but barren and purposeless, envious of Cyrano’s life-long honesty, freedom and independence.
It takes a big space to accommodate this huge epic of a play, and a remarkable actor to fill the great man’s shoes. Patrick Page is perfection itself, offering us a multi-hued, complex character who is both admirable and insufferable, loud and brash, kind-hearted and tender. The astonishing performance is delicately nuanced, both thrilling and heart-breaking. Page has played the character before, but not with the splendidly warm, literate and lyrical translation by Anthony Burgess (“A Clockwork Orange”), that late master of linguistic legerdemain. Employing an American accent, as does the entire outstanding ensemble, Page makes the poetry pellucid, the emotions crystalline.
This is the first of the Shakespeare Festival openings, and the first non-Shakespeare play in the six years that Darko Tresnjak has been artistic director of the summer season. The production highlights this year’s repertory company spectacularly; the scope of the play is an ideal counterpart to the works of the Bard.