PCS Blog

Cyrano: The Man, the Legend and the New Translation

Posted by Alice Hodge | 31 March 2015

Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) was a French dramatist, novelist and soldier. True to the legend, he was known for his skills in dueling, his mastery of word play and, yes, even his big nose (though it certainly wasn’t as large as is often depicted). He was known as an audacious freethinker whose works, and life, inspired a great many artists. Molière borrowed freely from his play Le pédant joué (The Pedant Tricked, 1654) that showcased his love for play on words, as well as his comic mastery. His two satirical novels – Historie comique des États et Empires de la lune and Historie comique des États et Empires du soleil, published together posthumously in 1687 as Voyages to the Moon and the Sun – were examples of early modern science fiction, skewering the church’s authority and social norms of the day; and paving the way for future authors like Voltaire, Jonathan Swift and Edgar Allan Poe.

Cyrano’s mastery of swordplay and language was the basis for the character in the play created by French playwright Edmond Rostand. The playwright also based the character of Roxane on the real Cyrano’s distant cousin – but the romantic trials were Rostand’s own invention, elevating Cyrano to the romantic hero that is still beloved today. Cyrano de Bergerac was Rostand’s fourth, and easily his most celebrated play. It was first produced in Paris at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in 1897 to huge acclaim, playing for over 400 performances. Hundreds of translations and countless derivative works have followed – novels, operas, ballets, poems, films and even episodes of Brady Bunch and Star Trek, among many others – keeping this romantic, quick-witted, large-nosed swordsman in our hearts. There is even an asteroid named after Cyrano.

Modern audiences might be most familiar with film adaptations of the tale. A 1950 film version, starring José Ferrer, Mala Powers and William Prince, earned Ferrer an Academy Award for Best Actor in the title role (Ferrer also won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Cyrano on Broadway in 1946). The 1990 French film starring Gerard Depardieu had subtitles from Anthony Burgess’ translation of the play; a version first produced by Guthrie Theater in 1970. The 1987 modern spin on the tale, Roxanne, written by and starring the inimitable Steve Martin (alongside Daryl Hannah), earned Martin a Writer’s Guild Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, along with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. The 1996 film The Truth About Cats and Dogs offered a gender reversal of the plotline, with Janeane Garofalo as a radio host with low self-esteem who asks her model friend, played by Uma Thurman, to stand in when a man wants to meet her.

The version of Cyrano you’ll see today is a new adaptation by longtime collaborators and friends, Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner. Posner is known to Portland Center Stage audiences for his fresh adaptations of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (produced at PCS in 2010) and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion (at PCS in 2008). Hollinger is also familiar to PCS audiences from his play Opus, presented in 2011. Hollinger and Posner’s take on Cyrano transforms Rostand’s rhyming verse into lively modern prose. Hollinger has said of the translation, “language that is alive, that wakes the ear up, is more important to me than strict adherence to poetic form.” This fresh take on the play maintains the essence of the original story – all of the scenes remain the same – and also calls to mind the original setting and glorious costumes of 1640s France.

Cyrano certainly deserves to live on as a legend for modern times. To cheer for Cyrano is to cheer for the triumph of intellect over appearance; kind-heartedness over bullying; and panache over self-doubt. Cyrano is the hero for those who want to be accepted for who they are and loved despite their imperfections. There is a little bit of Cyrano in all of us.

- Claudie Jean Fisher, Public Relations and Publications Manager
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