When Cyrano de Bergerac was first performed on the Paris stage at the Porte Saint Martin theatre in 1897, its author, Edmond Rostand, was so convinced the play would be a flop that he apologised beforehand to the leading actor for wasting his time.
He need not have worried. At the play’s premiere, the audience gave it a 20-minute standing ovation and the French finance minister rushed backstage to pin a Légion d’Honneur medal on the playwright’s chest.
At the time the French public – especially Parisians – needed cheering up: France was still reeling from its defeat in 1870 by Prussia and the siege of Paris, which had left the people of the city starving. The Dreyfus affair was the latest bad news story and the general atmosphere at the time has been described by historians as “morose”.
On Tuesday, almost 120 years since that original triumph, Cyrano – he of the unfeasibly long nose – will return to the Porte Saint Martin for the first time since 1938. Today’s Parisians also need some cheering up, following the 13 November terrorist attacks at cafes, restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall that left 130 dead and have hit theatre, cinema and ticket sales hard.
Prodiss, an umbrella group for 340 private businesses in the French entertainment sector, including cinemas, theatres and music venues, said the consequences of 13 November had been dramatic.
Malika Séguineau, the Prodiss delegate general, told Le Figaro in the days immediately after the attacks that ticket sales had fallen by up to 80%. By December, they were still 50% down.
In the latest Cyrano, the lovelorn hero finds himself wooing in a retirement home, in an updated production that features a jukebox and a romantic conversation conducted via Skype.
Traditionalists will be pleased to learn that the alexandrine rhyming couplets of 12-syllable lines remain, including the “nose tirade” (Act 1, Scene IV: “It’s a rock! A peak! A cape! A cape? Forsooth it’s a peninsula!”)
Rostand was 29 and struggling with depression when he wrote Cyrano. Between 1897 and 1913, 150,000 copies of the manuscript were sold and the original show ran to 1,000 performances.It has been made as a ballet, a musical, several Hollywood and other films and even in bandes dessinées – grown-up comic books. Rostand is also credited with introducing the word “panache”, meaning lively, spiritual, a poet even in adversity. “Panache, it’s not really grandeur, but something that makes things even grander,” Rostand is credited as saying.
Cyrano is brave, dashing and talented. He duels well, and also writes poetry. (His real-life eponymous inspiration was also a playwright, and a leading light of the libertine literature of the first half of the early 1600s.) He also has a very extensive nose, of which he is extremely self-conscious.
Cyrano is in love with his distant cousin, Roxane, a beautiful and clever heiress. Assuming that his nose means Roxane won’t look twice at him, he pens love verses to her on behalf of the man with whom she has fallen in love, Christian de Neuvillette.
A 1990 French film version starring Gérard Depardieu as Cyrano was reasonably well received. The New York Times review of a 2007 Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac that had been translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess and starred Kevin Kline declared: “Sometimes a glass of moonshine is just what you need to take the sting out of life… [this is] a double shot of silvery hokum, sweet but surprisingly potent. And it goes down so easily, you’re drunk and misty-eyed before you know it.”
Over more than a century, the play has become a staple of French education. Jean-Luc Choplin, general director of Paris’s Châtelet theatre, which produced Cyrano de Bergerac with the tenor Plácido Domingo in the lead role in 2009, told the Observer: “Cyrano is part of the French collective memory. We all know it because we learn it at school.
“It’s classic, with lovely writing and a very good love story that is also a little tragic. Echoes of Romeo and Juliet, but also literature like that of Hugo.”
Choplin said his theatre, which specialises in Broadway musicals – its run of Singin’ in the Rain has just finished and a new Kiss Me Kate opens on Tuesday – had escaped the downturn since 13 November. “Our audiences have been wonderful. I think they have wanted to show that we will not be intimidated.”
At the Porte Saint Martin, they are hoping people will not allow the attacks to put them off and that, 120 years on, Cyrano’s nose can still bring an audience to its feet.