Emond EugÃ¨ne Joseph Alexis Rostand was born on 1st April 1868 in Marseilles, eldest child and only son of a prosperous and cultured family. After a happy childhood and education at the lycee de Marseilles, Edmond moved to Paris to take his baccalaureate and to study for his law degree...
But he was determined to be a poet and never practised law. Nor did he return, except for brief visits, to his native town of Marseilles, but he never lost his love for the warm sun of Provence. Another major influence on the young Edmond was the spa of BagnÃ¨res de Luchon, in the Pyrenees. Here as a boy he learned to love nature and the countryside.
At first the would-be poet had little success. His first book of poems, Les Musardises
(1890), was a flop. An early attempt to write in prose for the theatre: a farce, Le Gant rouge
, written with a friend and performed at the Cluny Theatre in 1888, also failed. But in 1894 the ComÃ©die-FranÃ§aise put on Rostand's first verse play, Les Romanesque
s, as part of a triple bill, and it was a success. A lighthearted treatment of the Romeo and Juliet story, it was agreed by all to be charmingly entertaining and written in sparkling verse. (The success of Les Romanesques
continues to this day in the form of the musical, The Fantasticks.
But Rostand wanted to write more serious plays. He was appalled by the materialism and cynicism of his times, and dreamt of restoring to France the ancient gallic virtues of heroism, wit and self-sacrificing enthusiasm for a noble ideal. His aim as a dramatist was to give ?leÃ§ons d'Ã¢me? ? lessons for the soul. Encouraged by his success with Les Romanesques
he poured all his idealism and poetry into a verse play about a distant princess, loved from afar by a troubadour. La Princesse Lointaine
is about the redeeming power of love, and is based on the true story of Joffroy Rudel.
This, too, should have been a success, given that the heroine was played by Sarah Bernhardt, then at the height of her popularity. The play appealed to her desire, in her mature years, to perform in serious poetic plays. However, the Paris public and especially the critics, expected another lightweight entertainment from the young poet, and did not appreciate Rostand's fine sentiments. La Princesse Lointaine
had a cool reception and was taken off after thirty performances.
Rostand was disheartened and, not for the first time, went through a period of depression. But Sarah Bernhardt still had faith in him, and had commissioned another play in verse for Easter week, 1897. La Samaritaine
, about Jesus's meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, was warmly received by both press and critics.
While writing La Samaritaine
, Rostand was also working on another project. Sarah Bernhardt had been so enthusiastic about La Princesse Lointain
e that she had invited a friend to attend the first reading. Constant Coquelin, known for his playing of classic comic character roles in particular, had known Sarah earlier at the ComÃ©die-FranÃ§aise, from which he had recently retired. He had been so impressed by Rostand's play that he had exclaimed to Edmond: ?Write a role for me and I'll play it when you want, where you want!?
Rostand had long wanted to write a play based on his childhood hero, Cyrano de Bergerac, a seventeenth-century poet known for his refusal to conform or compromise. Coquelin would be the ideal actor to incarnate Rostand's idea of this character, whose ugly exterior would belie a noble soul. The dramatist exaggerated the ugliness by giving his character a grotesque nose (an exaggeration dating back to ThÃ©ophile Gautier's account of Cyrano in Les Grotesque
, Book VI (1844)), and invented a plot in which Cyrano would woo the woman he loved on behalf of another.
The success of such a play in the commercial theatre was dubious: verse plays were generally performed at the state theatre, if at all, and few had heard of this minor 17th-century poet who was the hero of the play. However, Coquelin believed in Rostand's drama, and put up some of his own money to produce it at the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre, where he was a director.
The Success of Cyrano de Bergerac and its aftermath
The amazing success of Cyrano de Bergerac
at its premiere on 28th December 1897 is unique in the annals of the Paris theatre. Never had there been such a unanimous triumph. The audience was delirious with enthusiasm and joy. Rostand's dream of reviving national pride with his hero's heroism, wit and typically French panache had succeeded beyond his expectations. Life would never be the same again.
Rostand became a national hero overnight. At the next performance he was awarded the ribbon of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. His photograph was in all the shop windows, along with hastily produced Cyrano wines, Cyrano sweets, Cyrano ashtrays, and even Cyrano hats. He was interviewed by journalists, along with his family: his wife Rosemonde, also a poet, and their two young sons. Invitations from the rich and famous flowed in, along with bouquets and letters of congratulation. Rostand's publishers, Fasquelle, printed the play in the distinctive pale-green covers that were to be used for all Rostand's plays; by the first of February, it was already on its sixth printing.
Since then, Rostand's play has travelled all over the world and been translated into almost every language. It has been transformed into operas, musicals, films, parodies and even ballets. Cyrano's nose, familiar to all, has often been used in advertisements; his psychology has been investigated by experts. Cyrano's wit and courage, his panache and integrity, are qualities which continue to inspire audiences worldwide.
For the rest of his life, much would be expected of Rostand. The public wanted more plays like Cyrano de Bergerac
; theatre critics expected him to inaugurate a new age of classic French verse drama. His fame, however welcome at first, would become a heavy burden which made writing a sacred duty he had to fulfil, while fearing he did not have the creative ability to do so successfully.
However, with his next play, L'Aiglo
n (The Eaglet
), written for Sarah Bernhardt to perform at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, Rostand continued to satisfy both critics and public. The tragic story of Napoleon's son, brought up as a an Austrian duke by his mother Marie-Louise, but secretly longing to return to Paris and regain his rightful position as ruler of the French people, was told in lyrical and moving verse. Bernhardt triumphed in the role of the young duke, which she revived again and again for the rest of her life.
But the strain on Rostand was beginning to tell. Never in robust health, he succumbed to pleurisy and pneumonia immediately after the successful premiere of L'Aiglon
. For some days his life was in danger ? the nation held its breath. On recovering some of his strength, he moved, on the advice of his doctor, to the milder climate of Cambo-les-bains, in the French Basque country. Here he found the life of a quiet country gentleman suited him very well. Forbidden by his doctor to do any work, he walked or rode through the country lanes, rediscovering the joys of nature he had known as a boy, on holidays in the Pyrenees at Luchon.
But Parisian literary life would not leave him in peace: he was begged to stand for a vacant seat in the AcadÃ©mie franÃ§aise, a seat which he won, the youngest academician ever to be appointed. It took Rostand three years to write his acceptance speech. When he did take his seat, in 1903, le Tout Paris was there, crammed onto benches and overflowing into the courtyard.
Life in Cambo
Rostand and his wife had by now decided that they wanted to make their home for good in the peace of the Basque countryside. Their villa, Arnaga, now open to the public as a Rostand museum, took many years to build. Rostand designed much of it himself, down to the smallest details. He also took enormous pleasure in planning the gardens. But at the same time, Coquelin was demanding another play from ?his poet?.
These works of creativity ran side by side, interrupted by periods of illness and depression. Yet again, Rostand found the burden of his fame inhibiting. His creative juices did not always flow, and when they did, he was afraid that what he wrote was not good enough. Just as he had expressed his youthful idealism in his character Cyrano, he now expressed these fears about his creativity in his new character, Chantecler, who was not a man but a cockerel. Rostand's characters in this projected new play would all be animals, a fact which caused some resistance by the audience when the play was finally performed.
is the most moving and lyrical of all Rostand's plays. In it, he expresses his deep love of the countryside, especially the countryside around Cambo which he now knew so well. It is also the most personal of all his plays, so it was a terrible blow when, after many delays, it was finally performed in Paris in February 1910 to a less than enthusiastic audience. There were many reasons at the time for this lukewarm reception. Rostand's support for Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer wrongly accused of spying, had made him many enemies on the political right; other writers were envious of his success; the use of animal characters was in advance of his times, and the poet's idealistic attitude and his harsh criticism of Parisian moeurs was resented by society people.
The play's true worth was shown by the enthusiasm it has generated at later French revivals. It deserves to be better known, in France and abroad.
Rostand returned to Cambo and continued to write poetry, but not plays for performance. An exception was the short verse piece, La DerniÃ¨re Nuit de Don Juan
, written for his actor friend Le Bargy. This inventive drama has some special effects which make it more suited to film than the stage. However, it was performed posthumously in Paris in 1922.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, Rostand was declared unfit to serve as a soldier. Deeply disappointed, he did what he could to help the wounded in local hospitals at Cambo, and wrote patriotic verse for the papers. But his plays, especially Cyrano de Bergerac
, were already helping to boost morale, as many fighting men wrote to tell him how inspiring they found them.
Rostand was determined to celebrate the armistice in Paris. But he caught the virulent strain of Spanish influenza, and died on 2nd December 1918 after a brief struggle. He was only fifty years old.
His sons were later eminent in their own right: Maurice as a poet and playwright, and Jean as a biologist and philosopher. Rosemonde Gerard, his wife, continued to write poetry and lived until 1953.
Â© Sue Lloyd Genge Press