Most people know one thing about Cyrano de Bergerac - he had one massive schnozzola.
French playwright Edmond Rostand made Cyrano into a household name in 1898 with this classic romance, which opens at the Civic Theatre tonight. In the ensuing century, we have seen Jose Ferrer, Gerard Depardieu, Derek Jacobi and Steve Martin all play Cyrano, or at least Cyranolike characters.
But did you know that Cyrano de Bergerac was a genuine literary, theatrical and philosophic figure, 258 years before Rostand set pen to paper?
The real Cyrano (1619-1655) bore little resemblance to the romantic figure in the play. He was a lover, but not a particularly frustrated one. He was “a libertine in both senses, as freethinker and loose liver,” according to Will and Ariel Durant’s “Story of Civilization.”
He was also a well-known soldier and duelist.
However, he was mainly a prodigious, exuberant writer, producing Swiftlike satire, dramatic tragedy and what we would today call science fiction. In his most famous story, Cyrano imagines himself being shot into space by a rocket, where he lands on a moon populated by a tribe of strange animals who quote Greek philosophy.
“Cyrano tried his pen in almost every literary form, seldom seriously, but usually finding the nerve,” wrote the Durants.
He cut quite a high profile (no pun intended) in 17th-century Paris, both as swordsman and pensman. However, the real Cyrano was “probably much less given to altruism and introspection than Rostand’s hero,” according to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre.
He died at 36, Rostand might say romantically, after being struck by a falling beam.
The real Cyrano did resemble Rostand’s Cyrano in one important respect - he had one big honker.
It was this attribute that Rostand celebrated (“travestied,” in the Durants’ opinion) in his famous romantic play.
Rostand turns him into a comictragic buffoon who is so ugly that he must woo and win his true love (Roxane) by proxy. Cyrano supplies the beautiful and romantic words - and another man reaps the benefits.
Yet his character is also dashing and swashbuckling, full of panache. No wonder so many great actors have wanted to play this part.
The play was an immediate smash in Paris. It was immediately translated and sent to London and New York, where it was also a hit. It was so successful in New York that it spawned a successful spoof, “Cyranose de Bric-a-Brac,” within a month of its opening.
Maybe it’s not historically accurate, but the play itself became one of the world’s best-loved romantic stories. It has stood the test of time.
“In `Cyrano de Bergerac,’ Rostand achieved a marvelous fusion of romantic bravura, lyric love, and theatrical craftsmanship,” says the Oxford Companion to the Theatre. “Its success was overwhelming. It became a perennial favorite.”
The Civic production is directed John G. Phillips, the theater’s executive director. He said his directing style is an attempt to be true to the material: “It is not `realistic’ like you would see on television or in the movies. … What we do onstage has more to do with an idealized adventure than with a look at the way life was in the 17th century.”
Cyrano will be played by Maynard Villers, who returns to the Civic after a long absence. Roxane will be played by Kyrsten Lee.
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: “Cyrano de Bergerac” Location and time: Spokane Civic Theatre, N1020 Howard, tonight through March 11. Curtain is 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m, on Sundays, Feb. 26 and March 5 Tickets: $12 Fridays and Saturdays, $10 Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, $9 for seniors, $7 for students. Call 325-2507 for tickets and reservations.