Saturday, 22 December 2012

Edmond Rostand: The Man Who Was Cyrano

The success of Cyrano de Bergerac throughout the world and for every succeeding generation seems to justify his faith in humanity's aspirations towards the ideal. 

There's nothing I like better than reading about Cyrano de Bergerac, and I thoroughly enjoyed Sue Lloyd's biography on Edmond Rostand. Riding the London tube, I read of Paris theatres, strolls in the Cambo-les-Bains countryside, friendships with flamboyant actors Constant Coquelin and Sarah Bernhardt; and the people, idealism and circumstance that inspired Rostand to write Cyrano.

The biography paints a picture of a man not quite of this world, more in touch with his dreams and art than the people around him, a condition that became starker as he got older.

His youth was protected by a close family, loving friendships and bonds, teachers who encouraged his poetry, and an idyllic romance with poet Rosemonde Gérard, whom he went on to marry. As a young poet, he idealised the poor, seeing something noble in failure, les Râtes, the failed poets.

Throughout his life, he suffered from depression and insecurities about his work. It's a shame he couldn't enjoy his success and the fact that his ideal was universally aspired to. As is obvious from the faultless verse in his work, he was a perfectionist. Burdened by his aspirations, then living up to his success, friend Jules Renard commented, 'A triumph would give him hardly any pleasure, and a failure will kill him.'

He paid with his health for the masterpieces he created, unable to work without being in a state of exaltation, 'a giving of his whole being, and exhilaration, a transportation, a sort of mental fever… when he tensed all his strings, he vibrated and sang from his head to his feet; and then he liberated that amazing eloquence.' (Louis de Robert) 

One of his running themes was that sensual love and women were a distraction from life's most important goals, work and creativity, which is surprising as Rosamond was his support and encouragement. She rescued work thrown away in his moods of despair and helped him reconstruct it, she gave up her own career to further his, she copied out his verse, learned his speeches by heart (the actress playing Roxanne fell ill on the historic premiere of Cyrano, and as Rosamond knew the part by heart, she took up the mantel), she nursed him during illness, she made a peaceful home, devoting herself to Edmond and the family, ambitious for him and wanting the world to know his work. 

Despite all this his determination to fulfill what he saw as his destiny, to inspire with beauty, console with grace, give lessons for the soul in a time when passion and enthusiasm had been replaced by banter and cynicism, only distanced him. 

A man who wrote so ingeniously about love neglected his family. His sons’ childhood memories were of a father locked in his room in a depressed torture waiting for those rare moments of divine inspiration. Rostand disapproved of his son (Maurice)’s homosexuality and aspirations to be a writer, and after neglect to appreciate his wife giving up her career for him, he demanded the same of his mistress, up-and-coming actress Mary Marquet, later in his life.

I recently read in Maugham's 'The Summing Up'  about the impracticality of the disappointment we feel when we learn our idols are 'full of fault'. It's the mistakes that make a man. In a line from Lloyd's biography, Rostand asks, 'How can the soul come into its own in this prim landscape?' 

And how can a masterpiece come from a prim soul?


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