Cyrano, Rostand, Coquelin by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Among the proverbs of Spanish folk-lore there is a saying that good wine retains its flavor in spite of rude bottles and cracked cups. The success of M. Rostand’s brilliant drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, in its English dress proves once more the truth of this adage. The fun and pathos, the wit and satire, of the original pierce through the halting, feeble translation like light through a ragged curtain, dazzling the spectators and setting their enthusiasm ablaze.

Those who love the theatre at its best, when it appeals to our finer instincts and moves us to healthy laughter and tears, owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Mansfield for his courage in giving us, as far as the difference of language and rhythm would allow, this chef d’œuvre unchanged, free from the mutilations of the adapter, with the author’s wishes and the stage decorations followed into the smallest detail. In this way we profit by the vast labor and study which Rostand and Coquelin gave to the original production.

Rumors of the success attained by this play in Paris soon floated across to us. The two or three French booksellers here could not import the piece fast enough to meet the ever increasing demand of our reading public. By the time spring came, there were few cultivated people who had not read the new work and discussed its original language and daring treatment.

On arriving in Paris, my first evening was passed at the Porte St. Martin. After the piece was over, I dropped into Coquelin’s dressing-room to shake this old acquaintance by the hand and give him news of his many friends in America.

Coquelin in his dressing-room is one of the most delightful of mortals. The effort of playing sets his blood in motion and his wit sparkling. He seemed as fresh and gay that evening as though there were not five killing acts behind him and the fatigue of a two-hundred-night run, uninterrupted even by Sundays, added to his “record.”

After the operation of removing his historic nose had been performed and the actor had resumed his own clothes and features, we got into his carriage and were driven to his apartment in the Place de l’Etoile, a cosy museum full of comfortable chairs and priceless bric-à-brac. The conversation naturally turned during supper on the piece and this new author who had sprung in a night from obscurity to a globe-embracing fame. How, I asked, did you come across the play, and what decided you to produce it?

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Coquelin’s reply was so interesting that it will be better to repeat the actor’s own words as he told his tale over the dismantled table in the tranquil midnight hours.

“I had, like most Parisians, known Rostand for some time as the author of a few graceful verses and a play (Les Romanesques) which passed almost unnoticed at the Fran�ais.

“About four years ago Sarah Bernhardt asked me to her ‘hôtel’ to hear M. Rostand read a play he had just completed for her. I accepted reluctantly, as at that moment we were busy at the theatre. I also doubted if there could be much in the new play to interest me. It was La Princesse Lointaine. I shall remember that afternoon as long as I live! From the first line my attention was riveted and my senses were charmed. What struck me as even more remarkable than the piece was the masterly power and finish with which the boyish author delivered his lines. Where, I asked myself, had he learned that difficult art? The great actress, always quick to respond to the voice of art, accepted the play then and there.

“After the reading was over I walked home with M. Rostand, and had a long talk with him about his work and ambitions. When we parted at his door, I said: ‘In my opinion, you are destined to become the greatest dramatic poet of the age; I bind myself here and now to take any play you write (in which there is a part for me) without reading it, to cancel any engagements I may have on hand, and produce your piece with the least possible delay.’ An offer I don’t imagine many young poets have ever received, and which I certainly never before made to any author.

“About six weeks later my new acquaintance dropped in one morning to read me the sketch he had worked out for a drama, the title rôle of which he thought would please me. I was delighted with the idea, and told him to go ahead. A month later we met in the street. On asking him how the play was progressing, to my astonishment he answered that he had abandoned that idea and hit upon something entirely different. Chance had thrown in his way an old volume of Cyrano de Bergerac’s poems, which so delighted him that he had been reading up the life and death of that unfortunate poet. From this reading had sprung the idea of making Cyrano the central figure of a drama laid in the city of Richelieu, d’Artagnan, and the Précieuses Ridicules, a seventeenth-century Paris of love and duelling.

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“At first this idea struck me as unfortunate. The elder Dumas had worked that vein so well and so completely, I doubted if any literary gold remained for another author. It seemed foolhardy to resuscitate the Three Guardsmen epoch-and I doubted if it were possible to carry out his idea and play an intense and pathetic rôle disguised with a burlesque nose.

“This contrasting of the grotesque and the sentimental was of course not new. Victor Hugo had broken away from classic tradition when he made a hunchback the hero of a drama. There remained, however, the risk of our Parisian public not accepting the new situation seriously. It seemed to me like bringing the sublime perilously near the ridiculous.

“Fortunately, Rostand did not share this opinion or my doubts. He was full of enthusiasm for his piece and confident of its success. We sat where we had met, under the trees of the Champs Elysées, for a couple of hours, turning the subject about and looking at the question from every point of view. Before we parted the poet had convinced me. The role, as he conceived it, was certainly original, and therefore tempting, opening vast possibilities before my dazzled eyes.

“I found out later that Rostand had gone straight home after that conversation and worked for nearly twenty hours without leaving the study, where his wife found him at daybreak, fast asleep with his head on a pile of manuscript. He was at my rooms the next day before I was up, sitting on the side of my bed, reading the result of his labor. As the story unfolded itself I was more and more delighted. His idea of resuscitating the quaint interior of the Hôtel de Bourgogne Theatre was original, and the balcony scene, even in outline, enchanting. After the reading Rostand dashed off as he had come, and for many weeks I saw no more of him.

La Princesse Lointaine was, in the meantime, produced by Sarah, first in London and then in Paris. In the English capital it was a failure; with us it gained a succès d’estime, the fantastic grace and lightness of the piece saving it from absolute shipwreck in the eyes of the literary public.

“Between ourselves,” continued Coquelin, pushing aside his plate, a twinkle in his small eyes, “is the reason of this lack of success very difficult to discover? The Princess in the piece is supposed to be a fairy enchantress in her sixteenth year. The play turns on her youth and innocence. Now, honestly, is Sarah, even on the stage, any one’s ideal of youth and innocence?” This was asked so naïvely that I burst into a laugh, in which my host joined me. Unfortunately, this grandmamma, like Ellen Terry, cannot be made to understand that there are rôles she should leave alone, that with all the illusions the stage lends she can no longer play girlish parts with success.

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“The failure of his play produced the most disastrous effect on Rostand, who had given up a year of his life to its composition and was profoundly chagrined by its fall. He sank into a mild melancholy, refusing for more than eighteen months to put pen to paper. On the rare occasions when we met I urged him to pull himself together and rise above disappointment. Little by little, his friends were able to awaken his dormant interest and get him to work again on Cyrano. As he slowly regained confidence and began taking pleasure once more in his work, the boyish author took to dropping in on me at impossible morning hours to read some scene hot from his ardent brain. When seated by my bedside, he declaimed his lines until, lit at his flame, I would jump out of bed, and wrapping my dressing-gown hastily around me, seize the manuscript out of his hands, and, before I knew it, find my self addressing imaginary audiences, poker in hand, in lieu of a sword, with any hat that came to hand doing duty for the plumed headgear of our hero. Little by little, line upon line, the masterpiece grew under his hands. My career as an actor has thrown me in with many forms of literary industry and dogged application, but the power of sustained effort and untiring, unflagging zeal possessed by that fragile youth surpassed anything I had seen.

“As the work began taking form, Rostand hired a place in the country, so that no visitors or invitations might tempt him away from his daily toil. Rich, young, handsome, married to a woman all Paris was admiring, with every door, social or Bohemian, wide open before his birth and talent, he voluntarily shut himself up for over a year in a dismal suburb, allowing no amusement to disturb his incessant toil. Mme. Rostand has since told me that at one time she seriously feared for his reason if not for his life, as he averaged ten hours a day steady work, and when the spell was on him would pass night after night at his study table, rewriting, cutting, modelling his play, never contented, always striving after a more expressive adjective, a more harmonious or original rhyme, casting aside a month’s finished work without a second thought when he judged that another form expressed his idea more perfectly.

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“That no success is cheaply bought I have long known; my profession above all others is calculated to teach one that truth.

“If Rostand’s play is the best this century has produced, and our greatest critics are unanimous in pronouncing it equal, if not superior, to Victor Hugo’s masterpieces, the young author has not stolen his laurels, but gained them leaf by leaf during endless midnight hours of brain-wringing effort-a price that few in a generation would be willing to give or capable of giving for fame. The labor had been in proportion to the success; it always is! I doubt if there is one word in his ‘duel’ ballad that has not been changed again and again for a more fitting expression, as one might assort the shades of a mosaic until a harmonious whole is produced. I have there in my desk whole scenes that he discarded because they were not essential to the action of the piece. They will probably never be printed, yet are as brilliant and cost their author as much labor as any that the public applauded to-night.

“As our rehearsals proceeded I saw another side of Rostand’s character; the energy and endurance hidden in his almost effeminate frame astonished us all. He almost lived at the theatre, drilling each actor, designing each costume, ordering the setting of each scene. There was not a dress that he did not copy from some old print, or a passade that he did not indicate to the humblest member of the troop. The marvellous diction that I had noticed during the reading at Sarah’s served him now and gave the key to the entire performance. I have never seen him peevish or discouraged, but always courteous and cheerful through all those weary weeks of repetition, when even the most enthusiastic feel their courage oozing away under the awful grind of afternoon and evening rehearsal, the latter beginning at midnight after the regular performance was over.

“The news was somehow spread among the theatre-loving public that something out if the ordinary was in preparation. The papers took up the tale and repeated it until the whole capital was keyed up to concert pitch. The opening night was eagerly awaited by the critics, the literary and the artistic worlds. When the curtain rose on the first act there was the emotion of a great event floating in the air.” Here Coquelin’s face assumed an intense expression I had rarely seen there before. He was back on the stage, living over again the glorious hours of that night’s triumph. His breath was coming quick and his eyes aglow with the memory of that evening. “Never, never have I lived through such an evening. Victor Hugo’s greatest triumph, the first night of Hernani, was the only theatrical event that can compare to it. It, however, was injured by the enmity of a clique who persistently hissed the new play. There is but one phrase to express the enthusiasm at our first performance-une salle en délire gives some idea of what took place. As the curtain fell on each succeeding act the entire audience would rise to its feet, shouting and cheering for ten minutes at a time. The coulisse and the dressing-rooms were packed by the critics and the author’s friends, beside themselves with delight. I was trembling so I could hardly get from one costume into another, and had to refuse my door to every one. Amid all this confusion Rostand alone remained cool and seemed unconscious of his victory. He continued quietly giving last recommendations to the figurants, overseeing the setting of the scenes, and thanking the actors as they came off the stage, with the same self-possessed urbanity he had shown during the rehearsals. Finally, when the play was over, and we had time to turn and look for him, our author had disappeared, having quietly driven off with his wife to their house in the country, from which he never moved for a week.”

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It struck two o’clock as Coquelin ended. The sleepless city had at last gone to rest. At our feet, as we stood by the open window, the great square around the Arc de Triomphe lay silent and empty, its vast arch rising dimly against the night sky.

As I turned to go, Coquelin took my hand and remarked, smiling: “Now you have heard the story of a genius, an actor, and a masterpiece.”

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