M. Edmond Rostand

THE world is seeking a poet. There was a time the poet came uncalled, but that is past. Now men search diligently lest the light be hid forever beneath its bushel, and leave the earth in darkness. Slender volumes of verse, tentatively put forth by publishers, are zealously examined. To stand sponsor to a poet is the secret hope of the reviewer. Academies offer prizes for poetry with signs of permanence. The laurel wreath is plaited and trimmed. The feast of welcome is spread. Out in the highways and hedges the critics search to find a poet, and compel him to come in.

The wisdom of this course is a vexed question. Should a poet, to borrow a phrase of Burke’s, be “coaxed and dandled into eminence,” or do the winds of adversity provoke a sturdier growth ? There is little use in citing witnesses. What Johnson would swear to, Mat Prior must deny; while Goldsmith would shake his head sadly over Gay. The truth lies between the poles. Much depends on temperament, the rest on circumstances. It is safer to run no risk. Let us be generous, not lavish. The poet should be of his own making; but when he has made and proved bimself a poet, then let not our praise halt reluctantly behind.

And our welcome should be catholic as it is generous. The realm of poetry is wide, but it is one. Neither race, nor language, nor class divides it. The poetic dramatist, the pastoral poet, the writer of sonnets, the singer of songs, are all members one of another. Homer, Horace, Victor Hugo, Heine, Tennyson, are the common heritage of all who love them. It is the same with lesser men who have delighted generations. And now we are glad that another name may worthily be added to the list of poets,— the name of the young French dramatist, M. Edmond Rostand.

The success of a young man carries with it an exhilarating sense of possibility that can never come from the work of a veteran. M. Rostand has not yet passed his thirtieth year. The fullness of his power lies, we hope, in the future, although it is hard to believe that he can outdo the merit of his last achievement.

M. Rostand was born at Marseilles in the autumn of 1868. The passion of his boyhood was for the stage. Plays and acting soon became his favorite study. Given romance, ambition, poetry, and a boy, and who shall tell the reams of paper used ? His proficiency in verse increased amazingly, and at eighteen he was the author of a metrical comedy — in manuscript. For some time the play was laid away. We believe it must have been revised, but, however this may be, the author plucked up courage, dispatched his work to the Comédie Françhise, and waited for an answer. Like editors, the managers of theatres are but poor correspondents. If we may trust report, the reply was postmarked one year later. Even then the managers were not to be hurried to a rash conclusion. They required the author to appear before them. He obeyed, and read his work in the presence of his assembled judges. The ingenuity, the drollery, the nimble verse of Les Romanesques delighted the audience. The play was accepted and promptly filed. The author returned to the provinces. Soon afterward he joined a theatrical company, and appeared before the footlights in a drama called Le Gant Rouge. It was not, however, until the 21st of May, 1894, that, together with two other brief pieces, both the work of young playwrights, Les Romanesques was actually performed upon the stage.

The plot of this three-act play is an inversion of a traditional farce. Two fathers, in reality the nearest of friends, wish their children to marry each other. But the youth and maiden, living in dreams of romance, would never hear of a smooth road to love. Wise parents know their children. The fathers feign the hate of Capulets and Montagues, and to their delight the enraptured children play Romeo and Juliet in earnest. And so the theme runs on through a succession of absurd misadventures to a happy ending.

It is all mere farce. In the love scenes the verse is heightened to playful burlesque. At times the humor broadens, and we fear buffoonery. But buffoonery never really comes, and all the while we laugh as at the high spirits of a child. We cannot criticise the work seriously ; we do not care to. We think of the author as some charming boy who has within him the traditions of a noble school. His verses show the elegance of his breeding. We need have little fear for his future. Let him frolic as he will.

In his second piece, played at the Théâtre de la Renaissance the following year, M. Rostand has grown older. La Princesse Lointaine is romance in very truth. Jeffroy Rudel, prince and troubadour, sails eastward in search of the princess of his waking dreams. When the boat reaches Tripoli, the crew are fainting from starvation, and the minstrel himself is very close to death. Calling his brother-in-arms, Bertrand, he bids him land and implore the princess to come to the ship that he may behold her once before he dies. Bertrand plights his word. He goes ashore, and finds Messalinde beautiful beyond dreams, and surrounded by the splendor of the East. The messenger pleads his cause too well. Struck by his grace, his bearing, and the passion of his words, the princess determines to make him hers. Gradually she seduces him from his loyalty. Her own love swells with her success. She exclaims to her maid : —

“ Qu’on doit l’aimer celui que l’on rendit infâme
Et qu’il faut consoler de ce qu’il fit pour nous.”

Bertrand struggles in vain against the gilded meshes of her net. He yields, and renounces honor, loyalty, everything, for her.

Suddenly black sails, the token of death, are seen in the harbor. The horror of their crime comes over the lovers. The signal is a mistake, but their awakening has come. In an agony of repentance, they hasten to the galley. The nobleness of Jeffroy Rudel, as he lies dying, strikes to the soul of Messalinde. The minstrel dies in her arms, and thenceforth she consecrates her life to God.

The play is pitched upon a note of deep intensity, and supports it well. The author attempts to relieve the stress by the introduction of a semi-comic villain, Squarciarfico, who serves the turn with indifferent success. A better expedient is the grace of the lighter verse, while a charming little love song adds a touch of archness that is all too slight. In the love scenes, the verse is rich and passionate, though unequal. Like a born playwright, the author shapes his situations to fine powers of acting. Indeed, one feels instinctively that the key of the play is in its dedication "à Madame Sarah Bernhardt; ” for as if to suit the part the great actress loves best to play, the character of Messalinde finds its prototype in the Serpent of Old Nile.

La Princesse Lointaine is a remarkable literary accomplishment. Its romantic passion and dramatic power deserve high praise, yet we cannot but regret that the author’s gayety and sprightly humor find no outlet here. We recognize his ripening power, but we would not have him lose his earlier charm. We would counsel him : —

“ Enjoy your dear wit and gay rhetoric
That hath so well been taught her dazzling fence.”

It is a custom of the Parisian stage to produce each year, during Passion Week, plays based upon some religious topic. And so it seemed little out of the common, when the bill for Holy Wednesday night in 1897, at the Theatre de la Renaissance, was announced as La Samaritaine, Evangile en vers par M. Rostand.

In substance, the play is an elaborate paraphrase of the pathetic story in the fourth chapter of St. John. After the conversation at the well, the woman of Samaria, mocked and despised by the people of her city, confesses her sins before them, and describes with passionate adoration the Saviour sitting at their gates. The crowd listens with incredulity; then, suddenly taking fire at her words, streams from out the city. Jesus talks with them, sometimes according to the Gospel of St. John, sometimes according to that of M. Rostand; and when the emotional fervor has reached its height the play ends in prayer.

It is hard for an Anglo-Saxon to attempt an impartial judgment of the literary worth of this astonishing performance, so opposed is it to every ingrained principle and prejudice of our inheritance. The Passion Play at Oberammergau is a religious rite. This is an emotional pastime. The simplicity of the Gospels remains in our minds as the noblest type of dignity. It has even been hard for many of us to accept the New Version of the Testament, and now this Frenchman mutilates, amplifies, alters at will, to suit the nice requirements of his verse, and gain the plaudits of a holiday crowd. The words of Jesus, so familiar in their English rendering, are in our ears : “ But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And then we read: —

“ Quiconque
Boira l’eau de ce puits aura soif de nouveau ;
Mais il n’aura plus soif, celui qui boira l’eau
Que je lui donnerai; car en lui naîtra d’elle
Le bondissement frais d’une eau perpétuelle,
De sorte qu‘il sera sans fin désaltéré
Celui qui boira l’eau que je lui donnerai.”

The dilution sounds weak and mawkish. If worse were wanting, we might find it in the parable of the Good Samaritan in verse of complicated metre. Nor is this all. Ill satisfied with the words which sixty generations of men have learned as the perfect expression of a simple faith, this metrical evangelist turns the Lord’s Prayer into rhyme, and uses it for a stage climax.

But it would be folly to deny that there is merit in the play. There is skill and there is poetry. Take, for instance, these verses in which Photine (such it seems is the name of the woman at the well) speaks of her jar of water :

“ Tu vois cette eau, cette eau limpide, si limpide
Que lorsqu’il en est plein, le vase semble vide;
Si fraiche que l’on voit en larmes de lueur,
En perles de clarté ruisseler la sueur,
La sueur de fraîcheur que l’amphore pansue
Par tous les pores fins de son argile sue ! ”

One must seek far for a description more delicate than this.

It is a fair generalization to say that whenever M. Rostand is able to shake off the shackles of his paraphrase his verse gains in strength and dignity. Sometimes, however, he ventures upon sentiment dangerously at variance with our conception of the Gospel. As Photine first comes upon the stage she sings some lover’s verses, which, were not their original familiar to us in the Song of Songs, we should think charming. A little later, when, marveling at the gracious words of Christ, she seeks to give voice to her love and adoration, she breaks forth involuntarily in the same strain, — a strain that had been but too often addressed to earthy lovers. In a moment she checks herself, with a sense of sacrilege; but Jesus comforts her, saying : —

“ Je suis toujours un peu dans tous les mots d’ amour.”

Surely we Anglo-Saxons may rejoice that a wise Providence withheld from the French the original writing of the four Gospels!

It was not until last winter that M. Rostand’s reputation crossed the Channel, upon the burst of applause that followed the production of Cyrano de Bergerac. Here for the first time the playwright’s talents found their proper measure. His wit, his mastery of verse, his spirit, his young enthusiasm combined in a romantic masterpiece. Not since She Stoops to Conquer and A School for Scandal has so brilliant a play been written for the stage. Success was immediate and overwhelming. Critic and audience were swept away in a torrent of delighted approbation. Even M. Jules Le Maitre, striving hard to maintain his judicial composure, exclaimed that his thirteen years of critical experience had never witnessed any such performance; while M. Emile Faguet and an army of connoisseurs fairly shouted themselves hoarse in a tumult of unreasoning admiration.

The story of the play is well known. Cyrano de Bergerac, prince among wits, king among his comrades, poet, gascon, and swashbuckler, blessed with a thousand graces, but penniless and cursed with a fatal nose, adores his cousin, Roxane. She, unsuspicious of his secret, likes his companionship, but her own affections lean toward Christian, a soldier with a generous heart, a dull wit, and a pretty face. As for Christian, he worships Roxane, but, distrusting his own eloquence, he dares not plead his cause. With romantic unselfishness, Cyrano teaches him the nice art of gallantry, and even writes for him his love letters, pouring into them all his own passion. Roxane is touched by the fascinating importunity of the lover. While she leans one night from her balcony, Christian wooes her with words whispered in his ear by Cyrano under cover of the darkness. She is conquered, and Cyrano raises his rival to receive the kiss that he himself has won.

But the chivalrous hero does not pause till the victory is complete. By his contrivance the lovers are married. Then Christian and Cyrano are compelled to depart for the wars, and the next act opens upon the siege of Arras. Roxane’s love for her husband has been fanned by every letter Cyrano has written in his name. Fearful of his safety she comes to the camp. She tells him that hers is no common love : she loves him for his soul ; she would deem it an insult were her passion for his beauty alone. Poor simple-hearted Christian is overwhelmed. He seeks out Cyrano, and tells him that all dissimulation must cease. Roxane must choose between them. Cyrano feels that it is he who is loved beneath the mask of another ; but his constancy does not falter. He implores Christian, for the sake of her whom they both adore, to keep the secret, and hastens to Roxane. All that he has heard is true. Her love is more than skin-deep. Were her husband ugly, hideous, — nay, were he disfigured, — she swears that she should love him still. Nothing could make him grotesque in her sight. Cyrano scarcely trusts himself to speak. Just then a comrade whispers something in his ear. Christian has been mortally wounded by the enemy. His friends hurry to his side, and as he lies dying in his mistress’s arms Cyrano whispers a noble falsehood in his ear : — “ J’ai tout dit. C’est toi qu’elle aime encore.”

The last act takes place fifteen years later. Roxane, who ever since the tragedy has been living in retirement, is cheered every Saturday by a visit from Cyrano, who tells her of the doings of the great world of Paris. One day he is wounded by a billet of wood hurled at his head by a skulking valet. Unwilling to renounce his audience, he goes to see Roxane without telling of his hurt. They talk of old times, and she shows Cyrano her last letter from Christian, which through all these years she has worn near her heart. As Cyrano reads aloud the familiar words, the daylight fades. Unconsciously he goes on. Roxane watches him in amazement. All at once she understands. But Cyrano’s wound is mortal. “ I have loved but a single being, and I have lost him twice! ” she exclaims. And presently he dies.

Upon Paris, crammed to repletion with plays of an outworn and degenerate type, Cyrano de Bergerac came with a quickening spirit. The school of the classics had long been neglected. The reign of Dumas fils had scarcely been challenged. The problems of conscience which he loved dearly to exploit under most untoward circumstances were favorite texts for polite conversation. Le DemiMonde and Monsieur Alphonse afforded ample opportunity for debate. Denise went further, and united the two absorbing questions : Should a young woman who has sinned confess her fault to an honest man who has asked her hand in marriage ? Should a man who has betrayed a woman tell the truth to his best friend, if he wishes to marry her, but is suspicions of her past? In the name of all that is reasonable, here were subtleties enough to enliven a dozen soirées. But other decadent types were not wanting. The menage a trois had been acted in all its variations from light comedy to suicide and murder. Social problems, treated in their most brutal forms in Les Mauvais Bergers and a host of lesser pieces, had played upon the passions of the people. The question of woman’s position in every rank of society had been a favorite theme to juggle with. Only recently, the crowd had applauded as a masterpiece a play which discusses in its nakedness the problem which confronts the wife of a debauchee, and suggests as a solution that marriage vows once broken by the husband are no longer binding upon the wife. After all this, the noble touch of idealism that makes Cyrano de Bergerac the play it is was hailed with intense relief. It was the same relief that in a petty scale comes to the reader of some sparkling romance after he has toiled through shelves of bald and arid realism. People love extremes, and M. Rostand came in the nick of time.

Yet all this detracts not one whit from the merits of the play. M. Rostand’s venture commanded success, but it deserved it. At the moment, Parisians thought the play a creation of a new type. In reality it is the lineal descendant of the best traditions of French literature. The author has schooled himself in his Molière, his Corneille, his Hugo, and he knows them as well as ever Stevenson did his Scott or Keats his Shakespeare. Read Cyrano de Bergerac carefully, and you will find reverence for the masters at every turn. The note of high romance, which Corneille caught from Ronsard and from the literature of Spain, is struck again by M. Rostand. In Cyrano’s disdain for the world there is something that reminds us of Le Misanthrope himself. Perhaps it is not fanciful to imagine that, in part at least, our hero inherits his adventurous spirit and merry humor straight from Le Sage’s Knight of Santillane. Certain it is that the blood of Ruy Blas flows in his veins, and who would deny his kinship to the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan to boot ? But M. Rostand has been the master, not the servant, of tradition. In the best sense his play is original, for it is instinct with his own genius.

The keynote of the plot is the hero’s self-sacrifice. His unselfishness is complete, but it is not without compensation. In the intensity of his pain, he is conscious of a subtle delight in knowing that he himself is loved in the person of Christian. This is far from pure altruism. It is more sensuous, more complex, more human, more interesting.

Yet were it not for Cyrano himself, we should care little for his ideals. Bar but his nose, and he fits snugly in the choicest niche left vacant in our fancy. Again, he is just as once he was when all Paris was his stage. In a pleasant volume that has long lain undusted on library shelves, Gautier recalls the Cyrano of history, and numbers him among Les Grotesques, the odd fish of literature.

Born in the province of Périgord in 1620, Cyrano early grew impatient of a quiet home and a parochial school. At eighteen he hurried to Paris, and speedily became the gayest and most brilliant of a gay and brilliant throng. His caustic wit made a new jest at every enemy, and a new enemy at every jest. Soon, too, all good Churchmen swelled the number of his foes; when he wrote the tragedy of Agrippine, he was promptly accused of atheism, because, as was pointedly remarked, neither Agrippine nor Sejanus played a truly Christian part. Indeed, it could not be denied that Sejanus spoke like a downright heathen when he said : —

“ These gods whom men have made, and who have not made men.”

The scandal was patent, and the author was duly held responsible. His rapier, however, proved a ready defense, and beyond a duel or two a day he ran little danger. But the hero was not invulnerable. His nose was a tender spot. The vaguest reference to this inimitable feature threw him into a paroxysm of rage. If a stranger stared, it was an insult; if he pointed, it was a signal for instant execution.

At the siege of Arras, in 1640, Cyrano’s prodigies might have put Froissart’s heroes to the blush. When a hundred enemies hurl an insult at his friend, he charges them single-handed: kills two, wounds a score, and chases the remnant breathless from the field. But valor without a patron is worth little. Cyrano’s services went unrewarded, and soon he left the service in disgust.

Again at Paris, he turned his attention to literature. His Voyage a la Lune was famous in its day, and his Pedant Joué contained a brilliant scene worthy of a place among the master strokes of comedy. It was laid aboard a pirate’s galley, and Molière, then just rising into fame, felt little compunction in preying upon it, stealing the dialogue almost verbatim, and adorning the Fourberies de Scapin with the borrowed refrain : — Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère.”

As an inventor, too, Cyrano was born to make his mark, and the principle of the balloon can clearly be traced to his ingenious mind. But wit, skill, and courage served the poor fellow ill. His reputation was stolen, his money left him, and in 1655 he died miserably at the hand of an assassin. As he lay on his death-bed, like many a worse sinner, he renounced forever the glittering folly of the world. His soul would rest in heaven, were it not reincarnate in M. Coquelin to-day.

M. Rostand’s hero is the very Cyrano of real life, though his brilliancy is now beyond poor human limits. The scenes about him lend him fitting scope. A dozen butts stand ready for his ridicule, and every shaft he wings strikes home. An unpresented viscount, angered at his bearing, stalks up to him.

“ Rascal, knave, jackass, idiot! ” he exclaims.

With perfect gravity Cyrano removes his cap, and, as though his lordship had just introduced himself, replies : “ Ah ? And I am Cyrano Savinien Hercule de Bergerac.”

If Cyrano can shine as a wit, he can burn as a lover. Though spokesman for another’s heart, his words pour forth straight from his own. In the tumult of his feelings, he forgets everything but his own love. But all the while a quaint affectation that might rival Lovelace clings to his speech in a charming extravagance of simile and conceit: —

“ Un baiser, — qu’est ce ?
Un point rose qu’on met sur l’i du verbe aimer;
C’est un secret qui prend la bouche pour oreille,
Un instant d’infini qui fait un bruit d’abeille.”

A Sidney would, we fear, have numbered this lover

“ Of them who in their lips love’s standard wear.”

When Cyrano grows old, as is the way of life, his charm declines. He comes on the stage feeble and wounded. It is not in nature nor in art that his attraction should be strong as once it was. And yet though the play must needs be rounded out, we half regret that we have read the closing act. The hero’s name shall not be spoken when we do not think of him as he was in the heyday of his romance.

Roxane is a perfect type of the preciense. A past mistress of affectation, she never wants for wit or spirit. About these central figures cluster a score of minor characters. The play itself sweeps forward with a rush of splendid spirit. Jest follows jest; retort, retort; and there is action in every line. The verse, where it is not broken up in conversation too greatly to allow it, is fluent and melodious, and shows the stamp of careful workmanship. The songs are full of fire, and go dashing along in an infectious metre that will not leave the mind at rest. We defy anybody to listen to “ Ce sont les cadets de Gascogne,” and then to go home and forget its gay refrain. A man might as well stuff his fingers in his ears, and swear he should not know the Marseillaise when next he heard it. In the fourth act the fight is worthy of a place in the bastion of the Three Musketeers before La Rochelle. The duel in the first outrivals Bob Acres’s bout with Sir Lucius. We scarcely know how we had rather spend an evening than in watching M. Coquelin play Cyrano de Bergerac.

For M. Rostand himself our hopes are high. His is a lucky star, and since his birth it has been in the ascendant. He has never played at buffets with the world. Fortunately for him, his ancestors have spent their days upon high stools, and he is free to court the muses in a drawing-room. Thus far, comfort has not spoiled him, and success has but served to sharpen his ambition. His education is of the best, he is young, and he has ideals. Let us trust that he will follow them.

“ In uns selbst liegen die Sterne unseres Glucks.”

Ellery Sedgwick.