It is 1640, the Hotel de Bourgogne. An indoor tennis court has been turned into a theater. The audience begins to assemble -the bourgeois, footmen, pages, pickpockets, noblemen, an orange-girl, Cuigy, and Brissaille all enter. It is clamorous.
The footmen suggest swordplay, a guard tries to kiss a flower girl. Men gamble, a bourgeois bemoans the lack of class, and pickpockets get ready to pounce. A son asks his father what play they are going to see, and the father replies that it is Balthasar Baro’s Clorise. He tells his son the fine actor Montfleury will be there.
An orange-girl plies her wares as the marquises arrive. Cuigy and Brissaille enter.
The chandeliers are lit. Ligniere, drunk, enters with Christian de Neuvillette, who seems preoccupied.
Ligniere introduces Christian to Cuigy and Brissaille. Christian is from Touraine and is joining the Guards tomorrow as a cadet. The men watch as the ladies enter their boxes. Many of the literary ladies arrive next.
Ligniere tells Christian he is there to help him with his lady but since he does not see her, he is going to leave. Christian begs him to stay. He bets she is one of the precieuses, and he knows where she usually sits. Ligniere orders wine from the orange-girl.
Ragueneau, the pastry-chef, enters and is hailed by the crowd. He jests with Ligniere, and then asks where Cyrano is. He then explains Cyrano is fighting with Montfleury and warned him not to come on stage.
A marquis asks who Cyrano is, and Cuigy replies, “a fair hand with a broadsword” (15) and cadet in the Guards.
Cyrano’s friend Le Bret enters, and proclaims that Cyrano is “the most remarkable man you’ll ever…” (15). Others chime in with his praises, Ragueneau focusing on his tremendous nose.
The crowd murmurs because Roxane has taken her box. All the men admire her, and Christian tells Ligniere she is the one. The latter acknowledges she is a precieuse and the cousin of Cyrano. Christian despairs.
Another man, the Comte de Guiche, enters, and Ligniere says he too loves Roxane but is married and is thus trying to get Roxane married off to Valvert, a viscount.
Christian states he is going to find Valvert. Pickpockets target him while Ragueneau and Le Bret wonder where Cyrano is.
De Guiche, followed by other men and Valvert, leave Roxane’s box. Christian prepares to confront Valvert but finds a pickpocket’s hand in his pocket. The pickpocket tells him he will tell him a secret if he lets go -Ligniere is in trouble for a song he wrote about an important man, and will be met by one hundred men at the Porte de Nesle. Christian, torn between confronting Valvert and warning his friend, decides to find Ligniere.
The audience calls for the play and then falls silent. Whispers about the cardinal being there are passed around.
The curtain opens on a pastoral scene. Cyrano is nowhere in sight but Montfleury enters the stage and begins to speak his lines. Another voice speaks up, and everyone realizes it is Cyrano. He threatens the actor and tells him to leave the stage. His voice combines with his figure when he stands up, “his nose ferocious” (22).
Montfleury begs for help and the Marquises try to intervene until Cyrano menaces them too. The audience calls for the play and Cyrano asks if they want to see his blade at work; they withdraw. Ladies and bourgeois men boo.
Cyrano calls for everyone to be silent, that he challenges everyone to a duel. He says all can come up and get in line. He laughs when no one does so, and turns back to explaining why “I wish to see the stage freed of this rank imposthume” (25).
He counts to three and Montfleury disappears off the stage, as through a trap door. People laugh and clap. Bellerose and Jodelet joke that he had to leave, and make fun of his fatness.
Someone asks why Cyrano hates Montfleury, and he answers that he is both a terrible actor and he has a private quarrel with him. Someone else asks why they cannot see the play, and Cyrano says it is worthless. The girls are angry, but Cyrano teases them to be beautiful and not critique verses.
Cyrano tosses a bag of money onstage to compensate for the ticket prices, and Jodelet and Bellerose are pleased. The audience departs.
A busybody approaches Cyrano and asks who his patron is, as the Duc de Candale is Montfleury’s. Cyrano tells the man that he has none, and tells him to go. When the busybody does not, Cyrano asks why he is staring at his nose. The man stammers that he was not, but Cyrano feverishly starts asking him questions: is it limp? Is it remarkable? Was he trying to look at it? Is it disgusting? Is its shape obscene? The man is flustered and digs himself in deeper.
Cyrano waxes poetic about his nose, calling it his pride and joy and claiming “a fine nose is the unfailing mark of a fine man, witty, good-natured, brave” (31). After this declamation he kicks the busybody out.
De Guiche and Valvert are annoyed by now. Valvert walks right up to Cyrano and tells him he has a big nose. Cyrano is amused, and tells the man he clearly lacks creativity because he could have said much more. He could have been aggressive, or facetious, or motherly, or pedantic, or dramatic, or deferential. He provides many examples of clever insults Valvert could have used, then says only four letters are necessary to sum him up: F-O-O-L.
Valvert is enraged, and criticizes Cyrano’s lack of social standing. Unfazed, Cyrano boasts that when he walks about, he wears “a haughty plume of independence” (34). He wears only his soul and his reputation.
Valvert tries to leave but is too mad, and Cyrano tells him he will fight him and compose a ballad while he does. He calls it, “Ballade [sic] of Monsieur Cyrano’s Encounter with a Paris Coxcomb” (35).
Spectators gather. Cyrano narrates his actions as he and Valvert fences, and then, as he closes his ballad, strikes. Valvert falls, and his friends take him away. Everyone congratulates Cyrano.
Bellerose and Jodelet say it is time for the theater to empty, though they will have rehearsal later. Cyrano and Le Bret linger. Cyrano says he is too poor to eat dinner and says the bag of gold was all his money. Le Bret marvels at his friend. Cyrano takes one grape, a glass of water, and half a macaroon from the shy orange-girl who comes in.
Le Bret calls the men “duel-mad” (39) and says Cyrano should not be like them. He has too many enemies, Le Bret says, and asks what his aim is. Cyrano replies he wants to be admired. He admits he hates Montfleury because he thinks he is God’s gift to women, and that he himself is in love.
Le Bret is surprised and asks who she is. After Cyrano’s flowery praise, Le Bret guesses correctly that it is Roxane. Cyrano says she can never love him because of his face, but Le Bret tries to remonstrate with him that his courage is very appealing to women.
A doorman says Roxane’s duenna is here to see Cyrano.
The duenna says her lady wants a private meeting. Cyrano, excited, agrees -it will be after first mass at St. Roch’s tomorrow, at Ragueneau's because it is private.
Cyrano is ecstatic and crazed. He and Le Bret prepare to leave because rehearsal is starting. Ligniere, completely drunk, staggers in, held up by Cuigy and Brissaille. Ligniere tells Cyrano he is in danger and asks to stay with him. Cyrano agrees.
Le Bret asks him why he is risking his life for a “drunk you hardly know” (46)? Cyrano says he admires the man’s spirit.
A whole procession forms, including actresses and officers. The orchestra plays them out. Cyrano opens the door onto moonlit Paris. He says one hundred men came to find one poet because that man was a friend of his.
Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the most beloved and oft-staged plays in theater history. Throughout its history it has been all the more renowned for being based on real individuals and being set in a particularly exciting historical time period. Rostand’s character of Cyrano is based on the real swordsman, poet, and amateur scientist, who, while not a Gascon, did indeed fight at the siege of Arras and had a cousin with whom he was involved (any romantic relationship is not known). Rostand’s Cyrano, as many critics have pointed out, also has literary precedents. Critic Clarence D. Brenner compares him to Figaro from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, noting the similarities of “wonderful self-confidence, ready wit, and the resourcefulness which [enables] him to recover his composure quickly in the face of adversity.” Cyrano’s gallantry, skill with a sword, generosity, and love of poetry are paralleled in Don Cesar from Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. There are possible connections with the famous D’Artagnan (who even has a cameo in Rostand’s play!), observable in the shared skill with a sword, and with Theodore de Banville’s Riquet à la Houppe, “who has a deformed body and a beautiful soul.”
As for Roxane, Rostand models her on two different women -Cyrano’s cousin, Madeleine Robineau, who married the Baron de Neuvillette, and Marie Robineau, a precieuse who went by the name Roxane. The precieuses were Parisian women who met in small circles to discuss literature as well as morals and manners. While beginning in aristocratic homes, such circles spread quickly amongst the bourgeoisie, of which the real and fictional Roxane is a part. As Carol Clark writes in her “Historical Note” to the Penguin edition of the play, “the project of the precieuses, in various forms and to different degrees according to the circles in which they met, was to assert the independence and intellectual abilities of women.” They discussed marital norms, and spend a great deal of time concerned with different types of love and attached “a great deal of importance to an idealized, a sexual kind of love.” Their endeavors also included reforming social behavior and refining the French language by eliding vulgar words and “developing the vocabulary of fine psychological analysis required by the kind of literature they wished to read and write.”
The first act reveals the size and scope of the play, presenting readers/the audience with dozens of characters in a lively, energetic tableau. There is humor, pathos, rage, deceit, and longing all within these first few scenes. It is fitting that the setting of the first act is a theater, then, as plays can be viewed as microcosms of the human experience. The Hotel de Bourgogne was a real place -a highly respected theater in 1640s Paris. Montfleury was a real actor, known for his massive girth as well as his propensity to play lovers and heroes. There is no evidence that the real Cyrano challenged him, but in Rostand’s play it helps to cement Cyrano’s commitment to the pure ideals of poetry.
We are introduced to every main character in this first act -the young and handsome Christian, the beautiful and alluring Roxane, the pompous De Guiche, the loyal Le Bret, the bumbling but lovable Ragueneau, and, of course, the bold and witty Cyrano. Cyrano is referred to as the “proudest Gascon alive” (15); indeed, being a Gascon is intrinsic to the character’s identity. Gascons were from the region of Gascony in France, located in the southwest of the country. They were seen as brave, boastful, and hotheaded. The company of cadets that plays such a major role in the work is comprised of Gascons. Cadets, such as Christian and Cyrano, were usually younger sons of aristocratic families who entered military units to learn soldiering, and were supervised by a captain (not yet introduced in this act).
Rostand seeks to display his own learnedness as well as reinforce that same quality in his titular characters by frequently making literary and historical allusions. In the first act, Cyrano speaks of the Muses, Cleopatra and Caesar, and Berenice and Titus (see literary terms). Cyrano’s intellect is just one part of his complex, multifaceted personality. When first introduced, dramatically rising up to insult Montfleury, he comes across as pugnacious and impassioned, irascibly committed to impugning the actor’s honor and claiming he wants to “puncture this inflated sack of gout” (23). He is brash, challenging all men to a duel at one point, but seems to know what he is doing as he revels in upsetting and exciting the crowd. He enjoys piquing those whom he considers beneath him, such as De Guiche and Valvert, reveling in his superior swordplay and wordplay. His puns and quips and poetry are more accomplished than anyone’s, and, as he sallies forth into the Parisian night with his retinue, seems to have an uncanny flair for the noble, theatrical, and romantic.
However, Cyrano’s bravura and wit conceal his deep lack of self-confidence thanks to his large nose. He tells his only confidante, Le Bret, that while he loves Roxane, he cannot help but think to himself, “Who in the world would love a face like this! My nose goes everywhere ahead of me!” (41). He confesses that he envies passing lovers and wants to be like them until he catches sight of his nose and realizes that is never to be. It is “sometimes painful to feel myself so ugly, so alone…” (42). Cyrano turns this deep-rooted despair into fuel for his wit, gallantry, and courage, allowing himself to be the first one to mock his large proboscis as to preclude others from doing so and assuming they can affect him. His encounter with Valvert is simultaneously hilarious as well as heartbreaking, for Cyrano’s jokes about his nose only mask his inner pain.