Monday, January 20, 2014

Eloquence I will lend you

It isn't often that Sarah reads things I haven't read, but when she does, she often picks good ones. Recently, Sarah was away nannying for two weeks and came home with Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, insisting I read it. (For those of you new to the blog, Sarah is one of my multitudinous younger sisters who is the sensible one in our room.) There were reasons  I wanted to read this book (once I heard about it), not the least of which is that one of our friends and Sarah insisted that we get together for a day of baking and reading the play (Cyrano is a play) and that I be assigned the part of Roxane. Now, when people assertively assign you parts, you begin to want to know what this character is like, that they think you have to play her.
Cyrano De Bergerac is, in its essence, a play about love and friendship. It is a comic tragedy (I was laughing aloud and didn't see the tragedy coming so it kind of stunned me) and figures a terribly witty and hilarious man with a terrible nose who thinks no woman can ever love him. He is in love with his beautiful cousin, Roxane, but knows that she will not think of him since he is so ugly. When Roxane confides in Cyrano that she is in love with his fellow-soldier, Christian De Neuvelitte, Cyrano hides his own love and helps Christian (a comely, but stupid youth) to win Roxane's heart by teaching him clever things to say to the lady.
"Eloquence I will lend you!....And you, to me, shall lend all-conquering physical charm...and between us we will compose a hero of romance!...Roxane shall not have disallusions! Tell me, shall we win her heart, we two as one? will you submit to feel, transmitted from my leather doublet into your doublet stitched with silk, the soul I wish to share?"
At a simple level, Cyrano is a good laugh and an improbable love triangle. There are many scenes that had me laughing aloud, as when Cyrano dares people to comment on his nose and beats them up when they do, or denounces them in a torrent of scathing wit; there are many wonderful side-characters like Raganeau, the pastry-cook-poet-turned-jack-of-all-trades and Le Bret, Cyrano's faithful companion.
But on a deeper level, I was impressed with the noble values portrayed through Cyrano's choices. When (SPOILER) Christian dies in battle, having told Cyrano that he wants Roxane to know the truth and choose between her two lovers, Cyrano will not take advantage of the situation and ask Roxane to marry him. Roxane is a new widow and, believing that the soul she loves belongs to the man that died, is in deep mourning. If I was the guy who was still very much in possession of the soul Roxane loved, I would have mourned dumb little Chris for a few months and then had out with it in Roxane's hearing, telling her the truth--especially since Christian had asked Cyrano to do just that.

Fourteen years pass (FOURTEEN) and Cyrano visits Roxane every Saturday without fail, where they spend the evening talking about good times. On one such evening, Roxane realizes that it was not Christian who wrote the eloquent farewell letter she wears about her neck, but Cyrano. She quizzes him and Cyrano is still unwilling to spill that Christian was a dummy. He like Christian, for all that, and sacrificed his own love and happiness to see his friend happy:

Roxane: "And he...for fourteen years, has played the part of the comical old friend who came to cheer me!"
Cyrano: "Roxane!"
R: "So it was you."
C: "No, no Roxane!"
R: "I ought to have divined it, if only by the way in which he speaks my name!"
C: "No, it was not I!"
R: "So it was you!"
C: "I swear to you..."
R: "Ah, I detect at last the whole generous imposture: the letters...were yours."
C: "No!"
R: "The tender fancy, the dear folly...yours!"

And on the scene goes with many more exclamation points and emphatic denials from Cyrano and the whole pivot of the book and the part that turns it, for me, from a funny farce to a touching play is this quote:

Roxane: "Ah, how many things within the hours have many have been born! Why, why have you been silent these longs years, when on this letter, in which he had no part, the tears were yours?"
Cyrano: (handing her the letter) "Because...the blood was his."

How much smoother and better life would go if more men (and women) had the character to give up a thing they desire so deeply because though the tears were theirs, the blood was his; this is the measure of a true man. There would be nothing easier than for Cyrano to have told Roxane the whole thing (while Christian was still alive); she would probably have chosen Cyrano and the play would have closed in a rosy pomp of the Gascony Cadets singing and rapiers flashing. But Cyrano waited because he knew he was the better man; he waited because he didn't want to be so weak as to take advantage of a widowed woman. He waited because he might have cried for love, but Christian died for it.
That is the kind of friendship we need more people to display. That is the kind of selfless love given to us by Jesus Christ. And to think, of all things, I was reminded of it in a book about a man with an "unfortunate profile."

And for the record, I did think I was a bit like Roxane:
Roxane: (throwing a folded tablecloth to Cyrano) "Unfold the cloth...hey, be nimble!"


Rachel Rossano said...

I knew of the story, but have not read the play. Now I shall. :) Thanks.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Now here's a classic I've managed to miss, even though I've always known about it. Now you've made me want to read it!