It was one of Dad’s fondest hopes that we would one day be able to read great classics in their original languages.
It is one of my fondest hopes that, one day, I will fulfil his hope. Foreign languages were never one of my strong points.
*side-eyes Duo Linguo*
The 1990 version of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac – with Gérard Depardieu, Anne Brochet, and Vincent Perez – is the first time I can remember experiencing a subtitled film. With the added complication that when Dad sat us down to watch it, he admitted he didn’t really like the translation used in the film’s subtitles.
“The script that this version’s using was written by Anthony Burgess. It’s not very faithful. The original play’s all in verse, so Burgess tries to stick to that format, and it’s not as good.There’s a much more accurate translation in the 1950 film with José Ferrer, but we’ll save that for another time.”
And so we experienced the sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always exciting story of the comic-tragic love triangle between the radiant and demanding Roxanne, the gallant but tongue-tied Christian and the brash, swashbuckling, intensely self-conscious Cyrano, he of the honeyed tongue and the huge schnoz.
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as 1897 when the play was first performed. (Or, if we want to get picky, 1619-1655, which was when the real Cyrano lived and duelled, brawled, composed and wrote science fiction novels. Needless to say, pretty much everything that happens in the play is fictional, or at the best fictionalized.)
- Cyrano loves his cousin Roxane, but is too proud, stubborn and self-conscious about his large nose to say so, believing no one could ever love him.
- Also, people learn by sharp example not to say ‘nose’ or anything nasal related in his presence. Otherwise they’ll get verbally eviscerated and physically skewered.
- It’s a nervy nerve.
- Christian, a young man who’s recently joined the Cadets that Cyrano leads, instantly falls in love with Roxane as well.
- She reciprocates, because Christian is apparently sex on a stick.
- But, alas! Roxane is one of les précieuses, a witty and educated lady who needs to be wooed with fine words and eloquence.
- Christian, as mentioned previously, gets tongue-tied whenever he talks to her.
- Woe is him.
- This looks like a job for:
- One’s a Renaissance Man (who’s actually only a century off from the ‘real’ Renaissance) who’s incredibly touchy about his nose! One’s pretty! Together, they make the perfect lover!
- At one point there’s a balcony. Remember that; it may be important later.
- But what will the intrepid pair do, when it emerges that Roxane has fallen in love with the soul of the man she believes has wooed her with his words, rather than his looks?
- Oh the pain, the pain of it all.
Plus a poetry loving baker, various arrogant Gascons, a musketeer who is quite probably D’Artagnan and is also a bit of a shit, sponging poets, the Comte de Guiche who wants to pressure Roxane into being his mistress, mentions of Molière, rejections of patronage, duels, pretending to be a man who fell from the moon, a harsh military campaign, some nuns, and lots of ranting about a ‘panache’.
Back in the day, did I have a clue what was going on half the time, even with subtitles? Not really. But Depardieu was very entertaining, the film was really nice to look at, there were several bits of physical comedy that made me laugh even though I couldn’t understand them properly, and Dad provided running commentary and explanations throughout. It was fine for an afternoon’s viewing, but it didn’t leave much of an impression.
A few years later Dad tried again with the aforementioned José Ferrer version, this time in English and based on the 1923 translation by Brian Hooker.
I was amazed as Cyrano, incompetently insulted on the size of his nose, fires back twenty improved insults, then composes a ballade on the spot (emerging from his sarcasm and cynicism to display real joy at his own wit and cleverness) and recites his poem whilst duelling and then stabbing the man who mocked him – “Then, as I end the refrain, thrust home!” I was hooked.
I understood what Dad meant when he pointed out what had to be one of the saddest moments in the play. At one point Roxane hurries off, totally focused on Christian, absentmindedly reminding Cyrano to tell her all about his fight with a hundred men the previous night at some later time: “A hundred men!” she exclaims as she’s out the door. “What courage!” Cyrano, who’s learned that Roxane loves another man and that he’ll have to work alongside that man, has promised to watch over Christian, and has kept his heartbreak utterly hidden, quietly says “I have done better since.” My heart!
I was nodding as Cyrano, in his resounding ‘No, Thank You!’ speech, rejects the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful man in the country, in order to retain his independence, integrity and self-respect:
And what would you have me do?
Seek for the patronage of some great man,
And like a creeping vine on a tall tree
Crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone?
No thank you!
I waited with bated breath to see if the balcony scene (Roxane above, Christian and Cyrano below in the dark, with Cyrano at first coaching Christian on the fly and then internally deciding ‘the hell with it’ and swapping places to woo Roxane properly) would descend into farce. It did not. It ascended into something beautiful.
One of Dad’s favourite bits (now one of mine) was when, during the siege of Arras, “the Comte de Guiche is talking about how brave he is for leading a charge against the enemy, even though he had to throw away a white scarf which showed he was a military leader so he could sneak back to his forces at one point. And Cyrano says that if he’d been there at the time, he’d have put the scarf on himself, and asks for it to lead the next charge. Guiche scoffs, saying the scarf’s in an incredibly dangerous spot, impossible to reach. And of course Cyrano, who’s been travelling between the enemy lines every single day to post letters to Roxane, just smiles and takes the scarf out of his pocket.” Genius.
Spoilers ahead: I was sniffing when the final scene that Dad had described so movingly eventually came up. All I’m saying is:
Your tears – You knew they were your tears!
The blood was his.
This was epic stuff, and it is epic stuff, and it will always be epic stuff. I love Cyrano de Bergerac with all my heart, both the 1950 version and, to a lesser extent, the 1990 version. (Sorry, Depardieu, but Ferrer is just a better Cyrano to me.) Also the 1985 recorded version of a 1983/4 production, starring none other than Derek Jacobi; a production which Dad counted himself very lucky to have actually seen live.
And of course, there are the various different texts Dad collected.
First, there are the Brian Hooker versions:
From Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, George Allen and Unwin Ltd and Bantam Classics, respectively. I think we got the Allen and Unwin whenever we asked for the play to read; the Bantam is in rather fragile shape with a heavily mended spine, so Dad obviously didn’t dare risk it with us. Thanks to a note inside, I know Dad bought the Bantam in January 1960.
Then there’s the Anthony Burgess translation:
I love the blurb on the back of this Hutchinson edition:
Typically, Burgess has re-arranged some of the scenes, cut the text slightly and even interpolated some moments of pure Burgess into the play in order to make this Cyrano totally plausible, playable and readable for today’s actors and readers. In his version one of the most entertaining works in the theatrical repertoire comes alive, both on the stage and on the page.
Despite Dad’s dismissive stance towards it, I don’t think Burgess’s translation is inferior to Hooker’s; I like them both, for different reasons. I prefer Hooker’s translation of the duel ballade – “Then, as I end the refrain, thrust home!” just works so much better than “The poem ends, I hit!” But the way Burgess does honour to Rostand’s original rhyme scheme means that reading through his translation yields all sorts of lovely surprises as you discover, quite by chance, the connections throughout.
Finally, there’s Rostand’s original text:
Bought for £2.25 secondhand, from Gallimard, this one’s always fun to read for Rostand’s wonderful rhyming. I’m familiar enough with the English texts now that I can roughly understand what everyone’s saying when referring back to Hooker or Burgess, but I’m working to improve myself all the while so that I’ll be able to read the text in its’ own right.
In conclusion: Cyrano de Bergerac. Hooked me, loved me, made me want to perform as Cyrano some day. I CARE NOT HOW. Go find a translation, or the original, or one of the filmed versions, and enjoy.
As a parting gift, here are the film’s respective nose insults and their ballade duels:
(Sorry, I couldn’t find a version with subtitles: have Derek Jacobi performing it in English: skip to 7.45)