This is the greatest love story of all time, and it ends in tears. The story itself is familiar, if not somewhat derivative: Cyrano, cursed with ugliness and an abnormally huge nose, loves Roxanne; Christian loves Roxanne; Cyrano and Christian are friends; Cyrano, a great poet and master swordsman, woos Roxanne on Christian's behalf under cover of night and eloquent love letters. All the elements of romantic adventure are here—swordfights, battles, witty repartee, evil plots, tender love, violent passion—but Rostand's elegiac ending and mastery of language raise this play almost immeasurably higher than most similar stories.
Cyrano de Bergerac isn't primarily about love, however. While that is Rostand's vehicle, his real concern is with Cyrano's honor, but not in an over-sentimental sense. A lesser writer would have had Cyrano somehow get the girl through his genuine efforts to win her for his friend; Rostand's genius lay in the creation of a character outwardly arrogant and devil-may-care who stays true to his love and to his sense of honor despite never winning the object of his affections. And it isn't as if Christian and Roxanne lead a miserable married life—they are quite happy until he eventually dies, thus refuting the typical plot device of a woman denied happiness for denying her true love. Christian is her true love.....and so is Cyrano, though he will not tell her for love of his friend.
In the convent housing Roxanne at play's end, Cyrano's devotion to her and to Christian, as well as his own sense of honor, is symbolized in one of the most brilliant metaphors of literature. The poet-warrior's white plume, his panache, is at once his larger-than-life image and his utter selflessness, a paradox and a perfect unity as he cannot maintain one without the other. It is ultimately Cyrano's humility that is the hero of the play, not his undying love for Roxanne, certainly not his ostentation.
We might be tempted to identify most deeply with his personal tragedy, but this too is a misdirection of sentiment. Rostand's intent is not to make us feel sorry for Cyrano. His white plume guides us throughout the text, directing attention away from Cyrano himself, away even from Christian and Roxanne, and to Cyrano's white character. Not white in the sense of cowardice, obviously—white in the sense of purity, white as a source of light, and light as a source of guidance. In the end it doesn't matter who gets who, or when, or how; what matters is that integrity has been preserved, and that Cyrano remains a great man despite great sorrow, despite the denial of his own great joy so those he loved would know it instead.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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