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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edmond Rostand (1868–1918)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Curtis Hidden Page (1870–1946)
 
EDMOND ROSTAND, unquestionably the chief poetic dramatist of the past half-century in France, was born at Marseilles in 1868. He came of a good Southern French family, well-to-do, though not rich, and distinguished in the arts and in public affairs. His father, Eugène Rostand (1843–1915), in youth a brilliant journalist, gradually won high reputation as a student of economic and industrial questions. He published volumes on savings-bank reform, on agricultural credits, and on ‘Social Reform through Individual Initiative,’ several of which were crowned by the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. He was also a poet, of fine quality though not of great power or range. His translation of Catullus into French verse (1882) was crowned by the French Academy. His ‘Simple Poems’ (‘Poésies simples,’ 1874) and ‘Level Paths’ (‘Les Sentiers unis,’ 1885) contained much good verse, in simple, healthy, and happy vein; and some hearty denunciations of realism and Beaudelairism:
  “I am athirst for virtue, chastity,
For honor, goodness, beauty, nobleness,
For the ideal….”
  1
  In this case it was “like father like son.” In the ‘Poésies simples’ there is a large group of poems ‘To Eddy,’ full of the charm of home love and noble hopes for the son’s career and character, none of which were destined to be disappointed. The father received high honors from the Government, was a member of many important commissions, national and international, on social and financial reform, and was made Officer of the Legion of Honor, Grand-Officer of the Crown of Italy, and a member of the Institute of France in the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. One of his brothers, Alexis Rostand, was president of the Comptoir National D’Escompte, and also a distinguished musician and writer on musical subjects.  2
  Edmond Rostand was educated at the Lycée of Marseilles and, like Anatole France, at the Collège Stanislas in Paris, where he had a thorough classical training. He also, like his father, and like so many other eminent men of letters of all nationalities, went through law school, but did not practice law. His first important work was a volume of poems, ‘Les Musardises,’ published in 1890. In the same year he was married to Rosemonde Gérard, daughter of Count Gérard and granddaughter of Maurice Gérard, a Marshall under Napoleon. It was at once a love match and a mariage de convenance, in many ways like that of Percinet and Sylvette in the ‘Romancers.’ He, like Percinet, was twenty-one and a poet, worshiper of Shakespeare and the romantic school. She, like Sylvette, was eighteen, slender, with fair hair and blue eyes, and of exquisite charm. And they lived happy ever after. She was a poet too, and published in 1891 a volume entitled ‘Pipeaux,’ which won the commendation of Leconte de Lisle and was crowned by the French Academy. She also proved herself a clever actress in amateur theatricals, and even had the ability and courage to take, without notice, the chief woman’s rôle, that of Roxane, in her husband’s most important play, when the leading actress was taken ill just before the dress rehearsal. She has recently published a play in verse, ‘Un bon petit Diable’ (1912), written in collaboration with the older of their two sons, Maurice Rostand, who has also published a volume of poems (‘Poèmes,’ 1910).  3
  Rostand’s first important play, the ‘Romancers’ (‘Les Romanesques’), sometimes called in English the ‘Fantasticks,’ was produced at the Théâtre Français on May 21st, 1894, and had considerable success. It is a charming fantasy in three acts, poetic, yet composed with fine dramatic sense of what will be effective when seen across the footlights. The scene is laid in the stageland of fancy, yet everything seems real and true to human nature. As the author says, “The scene is where you will, provided the costumes be charming”; and a critic has added, “The characters are as charming as the costumes.” When the curtain rises, Percinet and Sylvette are playing the rôles of Romeo and Juliet across a wall which their fathers have put up for this very purpose—for the fathers are old friends who wish to unite their families and their neighboring estates, but who pretend to be deadly enemies in order that their children may romantically fall in love with each other, instead of revolting against the obvious and commonplace marriage of convenience. There is good comedy when the fathers are caught embracing each other across the wall and have to turn the embrace into a hand to hand fight to deceive their children, who zealously pull them apart by the coat-tails. The fathers arrange a false abduction of Sylvette, at the hour of the lovers’ daily evening rendezvous, thus giving Percinet a chance to display his prowess in beating off the abductors and rescuing her. This brings about the reconciliation of the families and the happy engagement of the lovers, and the first act—one would think the whole play—is ended. But no; in the second act we find the wall destroyed, the two fathers living together in comfort but no longer in peace, themselves missing the romantic element of their former secret meetings, and seeing a bit too much of each other; irritated too, by the children’s consciousness of superiority in having achieved such a beautiful romance under the stupid parents’ noses, just like the lovers they have read of in romantic comedies. The fathers can not keep up the game quite long enough, and reveal the real circumstances just before the marriage contract is signed, by showing the itemized bill of the hired abductor. Sylvette and Percinet, disillusioned by the sight of it, make fun of each other’s false romantics, and there is a general quarrel, at the end of which Percinet departs in search of real adventures.  4
  In the third act, the wall is being rebuilt—and the fathers are beginning to long for each other’s company again. Straforel, the professional abductor, bent on getting his bill paid, is working on the wall in the disguise of a mason; but under this disguise he wears the costume of a Spanish Count, and when he catches Sylvette alone he gives her a vision of real abduction and of love amid hardships and pursuers. Percinet, who has had enough and too much of real adventure, nearly broken his neck in failing to climb a lady’s balcony, been beaten by a suspicious husband, shut up in a closet, stripped by robbers, and badly wounded in a duel, without finding anything poetic in it all, returns to Sylvette, and they decide that their love was genuine even if the stage setting of it was not.  5
  Jules Lemaître, in reviewing this play, welcomed Rostand as a new master of the stage:
          “It is brilliant, witty, full of life, and sometimes overflowing with broad and easy gayety…. It shows a natural and happy fusion of the comic and the lyric…. It makes you think of Regnard, of Musset, and of Banville, but more than that, it shows you the author as a clever fellow who can follow with independence the masters of laughter and poetry, and give us, what has grown rare in these days, an impression at once of hearty good humor and of plastic grace.”
  6
  The next play was the ‘Far-Away Princess’ (‘La Princesse lointaine’), produced by Sarah Bernhardt at her own theatre on April 5th, 1895. It did not have so much popular success as some of Rostand’s other plays, but is perhaps the finest of his works in poetic quality and significance. It is the old story of the Troubadour Rudel and the Lady of Tripoli (see Browning’s poem), made symbolic of all devotion to the ideal, to beauty, and to poetry. Yet unlike most symbolic works, it loses nothing in common reality and truth, but gains rather; it is intensely alive, both with real life and with stage life, for Rostand is always a clever playwright as well as a poetic dramatist. Rudel’s passionate worship of his distant princess takes possession of all the rough crew that he has engaged to take him on his half-mystic quest; even, finally, of the man of science, the pilot; till the quest of beauty becomes a modern quest of the Holy Grail. And though the princess is in reality a very human woman, weak and selfish, she too is made noble and strong, and even holy, by this passionate idealization of her.  7
  ‘The Woman of Samaria’ (‘La Samaritaine’) was first played by Sarah Bernhardt at the Théâtre de la Renaissance on Ash Wednesday of 1897, April 14th. Rostand calls it “A Gospel in Three Tableaux.” It shows us Jesus just entering upon his mission, meeting the Woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well, giving her to drink of the water of life, and inspiring her to win the whole city of Sichem to accept his teaching. The simplicity and unquestioning faith of the mediæval mystery plays by which it was partly inspired, are successfully reproduced, with added gentleness, tenderness, and beauty.  8
  Then came the great, the overwhelming triumph of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac.’ No other play has ever created such a furore throughout the Western civilized world. Its first performance, with Coquelin in the leading rôle, was at the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre, just at the end of 1897, December 28th; within a year it had been given in every country of Europe, in both the Americas, and in far islands of the seas. French critics of all schools, except the Decadents, acclaimed it as the renewal of the greatest days of French poetic drama. Lemaître, the impressionist, called it “a marvelous event … by far the greatest success of my lifetime … an exquisite romantic comedy … of rare and amazing merit.” “With the ease of perfect mastery,” he said, “and with startling brilliance, it unites and fuses into itself, while remaining entirely original, three centuries of dramatic imagination and creative grace.” Faguet, the academic, said it was not only the “finest dramatic poem of the half century,” but “the making of a new epoch.” “Can it be true?” he exclaimed: “All is not over, then! We shall have yet again in France a great poetic literature worthy of 1550, worthy of 1630, worthy of 1660, worthy of 1830. It is here! It has begun!” And Sarcey, the dean and at that time the acknowledged master of all theatrical critics, who had ruled the drama for more than thirty years, always insisting that a play, whether literature or not, whether poetry or not, must first, last, and always be practical drama, exactly fitted to the demands and conditions of the stage, or be counted for nought, was no less enthusiastic:
          “This 28th of December will remain an epoch-making date in dramatic history…. A new poet is born to us—and, what pleases me more, this poet is a master playwright…. ’Tis a delightful poem, but first and most of all it is a triumph of stagecraft…. The enthusiasm at the first performance was so prodigious, that we must at least go back to the accounts of Victor Hugo’s first productions to find anything like it.”
  9
  This was enough to turn anyone’s head. But Rostand felt the burden even more than the glory of the place thus given him, so suddenly and yet so certainly, in the history of literature. He neither remained content with past success, nor hastened to take advantage of it and follow it up. He chose his next subject carefully and with courage, and hid himself from the world to work at it, slowly, with devotion, energy, and enthusiasm. But before going on to the story of his other works, we must give some account of Cyrano.  10
  Savinien Hercule de Cyrano Bergerac was a poet, philosopher, dramatist, fiction writer, and swashbuckler, of the first half of the seventeenth century in France. He was a member of the famous regiment of the Cadets of Gascony, commanded by Carbon de Castel-Jaloux; this sounds like a name manufactured by Dumas or Gautier, and might be freely paraphrased as Fire-brand of Haughty-Hall; but it is in fact historical. Even in this regiment of the “Gardes-Nobles” Cyrano was known as a “triple Gascon,” and a “triple brave.” One of his exploits was a fight, single-handed, against a hundred ruffians, posted by a great lord at the Porte de Nesle to waylay Linière, a poet-friend of Cyrano, who had lampooned the “grand seigneur” in satiric verse. When the poet came to take refuge at Cyrano’s house for the night, the hero refused to receive him. “Here,” he said, “take this lantern, walk behind me and hold the light, and I’ll make bedquilts of them for you!” Of the hundred, two were killed, seven wounded, and the rest took to flight. The round number may not be exact; but the story was common in contemporary annals, and was never denied; not only Cyrano’s friend Lebret, but others, including Monsieur de Cuigy and Monsieur de Brissailes, men of some importance at the time, bore witness to the facts. The story of Montfleury, the fat actor whom Cyrano detested, is hardly less fantastic; and in connection with it we have the witness of Cyrano’s own letter “Against Montfleury the Fat, bad Actor and bad Author.” According to the books of theatrical anecdotes, Cyrano ordered him off the stage and forbade him to reappear for a month; when two days later he did appear, Cyrano drove him in disgrace to the wings. The audience protesting, Cyrano challenged them each and all to meet him in duel, and carried his point. Cyrano was also a serious soldier. The regiment of the Cadets of Gascogne was sent against the Germans, entered Monzon, and was besieged there. In a sortie, Cyrano was seriously wounded. He was again wounded at the siege of Arras in 1640. He is said to have fought in a hundred duels—again the round number is to be taken as such. Lebret says he always fought as second, for his friends, never on his own account; but Lebret was a timid and righteous soul, always “white-washing” Cyrano’s reputation. We know enough of his character from other sources to make this gentle peacefulness somewhat doubtful as a constant characteristic of Cyrano; and then—there was his nose.  11
  The famous nose is authentic. It appears in all the portraits, of which there are four; not a long, pointed, turned-up nose, such as some actors have worn in representing the character; but a large, generous, well-shaped, Roman nose, squarely planted in the symmetrical middle of the face; not ridiculous, but monumental. Legend relates that this nose brought death on ten persons; one could not look upon it but he must unsheath; if one looked away it was worse; and as for speaking of noses, that was a subject which Cyrano reserved for himself to do it fitting honor. He has treated it in his comedy ‘The Pedant Tricked’ (‘Le Pédant joué’), and in a passage of his ‘Voyage to the Moon,’ where he defends large noses as the sign of valor, intelligence, and all high qualities. Cyrano’s ‘Pédant joué’ suggested to Molière two of his best scenes, one of which Molière took almost literally. Cyrano’s ‘Letters,’ among which is a considerable group of ‘Love-letters,’ were full of “pointes” and conceits, in the extravagant style of the Précieux and Précieuses; but they also contained some genuine feeling, and many beautiful passages of nature description, such as are not found again till Rousseau, or even till the nineteenth century. His tragedy ‘Agrippine’ was Cornelian in its heroic quality, Voltairean in its philosophy; as a play, it was better than Voltaire, and as good as all but the five or six best of Corneille, but was too advanced to be successful in his own time. His ‘Voyage to the Moon’ and the ‘States and Empires of the Sun’ were the inspiration of Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ especially in the Laputa chapters. The ‘Voyage’ has been translated into English at least three times, and has had some twenty-five editions in French. In it he describes six different ways of arriving at the moon or sun, and in some of these, as well as in many other passages, he anticipates modern science and invention. In short, though he did not achieve any great reputation or success himself, he was the prompter, inspirer, and anticipator of many who did. His death was as unsuccessful as his life. Soldier, duelist, and swashbuckler, he died of a wound on the head given by a wooden beam dropped accidentally—or perhaps intentionally, for he had made many enemies by his frankness and independence—from a window under which he was passing. In his last illness he was cared for by Lebret and three women of the Convent of the Daughters of the Cross: Sœur Hyacinthe, his aunt; Mère Marguerite, the mother superior; and his cousin Madeleine Robineau, Baronne de Neuvillette, whose husband, Christophe de Neuvillette, had been killed many years before at the siege of Arras. After his death, prejudice and compromise had their way with him; he was buried in holy ground; and his works were published only in mutilated form, especially the ‘Voyage to the Moon,’ in which many asterisks indicate the omissions made by friend Lebret in order to cut out his “belles impiétés.”  12
  Every one of these historical incidents, characters, and characteristics, and many more besides, have been used by Rostand in his play. It has what might be called an all-star cast: D’Artagnan, of the ‘Three Musketeers,’ has a minor rôle of one line—but a thrilling one; the Cardinal Richelieu, and Corneille, both “walk on,” in silent parts; the Count de Guiche, friend of the Cardinal, is one of the principal characters; the most obscure of the forty members of the Academy play their transitory rôles as “immortals.” Cyrano’s cousin, called in the play Madeleine Robin, becomes the heroine, under her name as a Précieuse, Roxane. The Baron Christian (instead of Christophe) de Neuvillette is the handsomest of the Cadets of Gascogne, just enlisted in the regiment, and loved at first sight by Roxane, who confides her love to Cyrano and begs him to protect the new cadet. But Cyrano is himself secretly and passionately in love with Roxane—and despairingly, for he can not conceive that any woman, still less the fairest of all women, could love one so ugly as he is. He seizes the chance to serve her; and, since she has asserted that she will die of grief unless Christian turns out to be as eloquent at love-making as he is handsome, Cyrano must prompt the stupid Christian and compose for him his speeches and letters. Once, in the darkness under Roxane’s Juliet-balcony, Cyrano has the joy of speaking himself; and from the siege at Arras, he sends letter after letter filled with his untold love. It is not until years after, on the day of Cyrano’s death, that Roxane learns from his reciting, under the gathering darkness of an autumn evening in the convent garden, the last letter that she had received from Arras, that it is Cyrano’s true self, his soul, as beautiful as he thought his face was ugly, which she has really loved all through the years. The play is so full of action and incident, and of eloquence and poetry, that no impression of it can be given by a summary or even by extracts. It must be read or seen. There are at least six or seven translations in English, two or three of them not impossible, though none, of course, at all adequate. Cyrano has taken his place with the heroes of old, from Don Quixote to D’Artagnan, and is one of the eternal possessions of the human race.  13
  ‘L’Aiglon’ (‘The Eaglet’) was first given at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt on March 15th, 1900. Many of the French, for whom it expresses much of their national character and aspirations through a crucial moment in their history, consider it superior even to ‘Cyrano,’ but it has not made so great an impression in the rest of the world. It tells the pathetic story of the son of Napoleon, christened King of Rome, whom Victor Hugo had first called the eaglet in a famous line describing what happened after Waterloo,
  “England took the eagle and Austria the eaglet.”
He is just growing to manhood, learning secretly of his father’s glories, studying his campaigns, fitting himself by intense physical and mental training to answer the call which has already come from France to take up his inheritance. Meanwhile there is going on within him a constant struggle between the energy of his father and the impotence inherited through his mother from the long line of Hapsburg ancestors, many of them weaklings or even madmen. Metternich controls him and keeps him always conscious of the weaker half of his nature. His own ambition, his devotion to his father’s memory, and the presence of Flambeau, a typical old grenadier of Napoleon’s bodyguard, inspire him to attempt the return to France, only to be captured through a moment’s hesitation on the battlefield of Wagram and brought back to die in his Austrian palace.
  14
  There seems to me to be a special significance that has never been noticed, in Rostand’s choice of this subject and in his treatment of it. Rostand lacks the physical health and energy characteristic of abundant producers like Victor Hugo and the elder Dumas, which are necessary to the constant exercise of such creative power as he possesses. He is compelled, on account of serious lung trouble, to live much of the time in the Pyrenees, and to spare his strength so far as possible. At the time of the great triumph of ‘Cyrano,’ he had been hailed as the direct descendant of Corneille, Racine, and Victor Hugo, as the legitimate son of their imperial line, the one destined to rule the empire of letters and to lead in a new epoch of world-triumphs for the poetic drama, and he lacked the mere physical strength to rule that empire and to serve it. Yet he was bound to do his utmost, in spite of the handicap, and to die fighting, if need be, for poetry and for France.  15
  The success of ‘L’Aiglon’ brought him his election to the French Academy, in 1903. At the time of his election he became the youngest member of the Academy, and was in fact elected at an earlier age than any other of the great poets of the nineteenth century had been.  16
  The subject for his next play, ‘Chantecler,’ was suggested to him by watching the many denizens of a farmyard near his estate at Cambo in the Pyrenees, with their distinct individualities and more or less human characteristics. The idea was developed through reading the sixty thousand lines of the mediæval ‘Roman du Renart.’ After long preparation, it was finally given at the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre, on February 7th, 1910. The chief characters are Chantecler, representing all that is most native and close to the soil in the French national spirit, and all that is most virile and masculine in humanity; Patou, the faithful old hound dog; the Blackbird, representing cynical skepticism and self-conscious cleverness; the Hen Pheasant, a “new woman,” yet intensely feminine; the Peacock, the Cat, the Swan, the Duck, the Turkey, a Hunting Dog, a Messenger Pigeon, the Nightingale and other birds of the forest, chickens, hens, fighting cocks, owls and other night birds, toads, rabbits, and a score more of animals. The great secret of Chantecler, which the Hen-Pheasant wins from him, is that he believes that his crowing alone drives away the powers of night, brings back the dawn, and makes the sun rise. All the forces of night conspire against him, the forces of skepticism ridicule him, the clever hangers-on of the Guinea-Hen, who is a society leader and the would-be mistress of an intellectual salon, belittle him and conspire with the forces of night to have an armed fighting cock do away with him; but he triumphs over all of them, until the Pheasant, who has lured him away to the woods, hides the coming of dawn from him with her wings until the sun has risen. Disillusioned and ready to despair, he is saved by the message that all his farmyard subjects are in need of him, and have grown to believe in his power to bring order and light into the world.  17
  The play is an allegory of the national French spirit, and of the human spirit. Chantecler is self-deceived perhaps, but heroic and idealistic self-deception is better than cynical aloofness or the skeptic sneer. This is the essential thought of Rostand’s work, which is always heroic and ideal. But it gives no idea of the richness, variety, and humor of the detail of his work, or of its closeness to the average human character. Rostand is a national poet and even more a universally human one. Like Chantecler, he sinks his talons deep in his native soil before he can shout to all humanity his summons of courage and enlightenment, and of the glory of doing one’s daily work in one’s place in the world.  18
  Rostand is the most “high fantastical” (with the possible exception of Rabelais), and perhaps the most imaginative, of all French writers. He is flamboyant and extravagant, but none the less true to the essentials of life and character. Everyone accepts without question the fantastic impossibility of ‘Chantecler,’ and realizes its essential imaginative truth. There is no reason why we should not accept, equally without question, the fantastic improbability of ‘L’Aiglon,’ where a grenadier of Napoleon’s guard is posted, in full uniform, at the door of the Duke of Reichstadt in Austria in 1831; or the fantastic originality of the whole plot of ‘Cyrano’; or the fantastic romantics of ‘Les Romanesques’; or the fantastic idealism of the ‘Princesse lointaine’—and realize the fundamental truth of these plays. This is just what we do in the parallel cases of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Henry IV.,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ and ‘As You Like It.’ All of Rostand’s plays are improbable from the modern realist’s standpoint, except those which are impossible. So are all of Shakespeare’s. What is more important, Rostand justifies himself, as Shakespeare does, not only by fundamental human truth, but by glorious flights of imagination, creative power over language, nobility of sentiments and character, fantastic and tender humor, sparkling wit, and wondrous verse.  19
  His style is inimitable. For richness and reconditeness of vocabulary he surpasses even Victor Hugo; and in vitality and verve at least equals him. Never since Rabelais, to borrow Sainte-Beuve’s phrase, “has the French language kept such festival.” In abundance and freshness of imagery, only Victor Hugo is comparable to him; and he is not guilty of the same abuse of repetition and antithesis as Victor Hugo. His fantastics and extravagances often offend the sober standard of French taste, but the foreigner is inclined to say, so much the worse for the somewhat narrow French conception of style. He ranges from delicacy to flamboyance, from simplicity to spread-eagle eloquence, from short thrusts and sharp fencing to long-flowing phrases. He is equally successful in dialogue and in the long speech, and equally dramatic in both. And always he gives the sense of rapid improvisation in what has really been written with slow carefulness and infinite pains.  20
  The construction of his plays can not be praised so unreservedly. They are—again like Shakespeare’s—overloaded with scenes and incidents. The long speeches, magnificently written and dramatic as they are, are too long and too frequent. Rostand is over-generous, over-abundant, in substance as in style; and in substance the fault is more serious, dramatically. Like his Flambeau, he could say,
                      “Mon défaut
Est d’en faire toujours un peu plus qu’il ne faut.”
But it is a joyous and genial abundance. Every scene and speech is in itself dramatically effective. Very little, if anything, in ‘Cyrano’ or the earlier plays can be spared; but ‘L’Aiglon’ and ‘Chantecler’ are improved for stage purposes by judicious cutting.
  21
  The spirit of Rostand is the spirit of eternal youth and vitality, unconquerable by old age or even death. One of his chief motives is the love of glory, “la gloire.” His chief idea or significance, if one must try to formulate in a word the meaning inherent in the life and character of his plays and people, is the glory of an ambitious and noble failure. It is Browning’s
  “What I aspired to be, and was not, comforts me.”
Failure is more glorious, more noble, even more joyful, in Rostand, than success in Hervieu or Hauptmann, Ibsen or Sudermann. Death is more alive in Rostand than life in Maeterlinck’s early plays, or Brieux’s later plays, or any of Strindberg’s. He has voiced the ideas, hopes, dreams, jokes, most characteristic of the real French people. He is the expression, and the inspirer, of present-day heroic France.
  22
 
 
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