One hundred and fifteen years ago, Cyrano de Bergerac leapt into history. Following the opening performance of Edmond Rostand’s play on December 28, 1897, a dazzled audience obliged the cast to make forty curtain calls. The following night, government officials came to the theater and awarded Rostand with the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. A rapid decision, but hardly hasty: Rostand’s swashbuckling hero, embodying that most elusive of qualities, le panache, has ever since belonged to France’s pantheon of immortal literary creations.
The play’s anniversary arrives in France at an apt moment: the era’s most famous Cyrano, Gérard Depardieu, has just loudly quit his native France for Belgium. Did the manner of his leaving thrum with panache or a rather less heroic quality? This is just one of many issues the French are now frantically debating: To a degree perhaps unimaginable in our country, the controversy fuses politics and poetry, history and myth, ideology and ideals.
Depardieu’s dramatic exit stage left occurs at a time that resembles the moment Cyrano first stepped onto the French stage. Fin-de-siècle France was rocked by a series of economic and political crises. With the nation mired in an economic recession, demagogic politicians channeled the desperation of French workers against Italian and Jewish immigrants, while the Socialists and conservatives battled over the nation’s future.
At the same time, Germany and Great Britain were busy maintaining their reputation as France’s traditional enemies: the humiliating loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was still fresh, while Great Britain was winning the race for imperial conquest. The basso continuo to these seemingly endless crises was the Dreyfus Affair, which pitted France against itself over the very definition and vocation of the Republic.
Yet, this deeply divided nation immediately united in common adoration over Cyrano. Here was a hero for all of France: a man who recited rhymed couplets while dueling a foe — and running him through just as he reached the poem’s climax; a man who gives his life for his nation and his great love, Roxana; a man who not just sacrificed his life to great ideals, but did so with that “thing unstained, unsullied by the brute/Broken nails of the world.” In a word, with panache.
And un pif, or schnozz, nearly as long as his sword. In a majestic and hilarious speech, Cyrano memorably challenges an aristocrat who had clumsily mocked his nose, by riffing a series of variations on his “Gothic perch” for birds. But what is perhaps most majestic, though more elusive, is that Rostand was an ardent Dreyfusard: a supporter of the French Jewish captain who had been falsely accused of treason. Though Rostand himself never made the association, notes the historian Ruth Harris, it is intriguing that the attribute he gives his hero — one Cyrano overcomes through integrity and intelligence — is the one so central to anti-Semitic stereotypes.