Social Representation in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac is a French play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897. It tells the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, a clever and talented cadet with an unfortunately large nose. This insecurity of his prevents him from confessing his love for his beautiful cousin, Roxane. Instead, he romances her through a proxy; he helps Christian, a handsome, but dim, cadet, in wooing her. This play first attracted attention for its rejection of literature norms and gradually became internationally beloved with its dramatic humor, heartbreak, and relatable themes of insecurity and unrequited love. Another interesting aspect, however, is its representation of Gasons, a French minority. Several characters, including the protagonist, are Gascons which compelled an exploration of how and why the Gascons are represented in Cyrano de Bergerac.

Gascony is a region in southwestern France that, for several centuries, was harshly discriminated against, mostly because many of them were Cagots. Cagots were a despised minority found in western regions of France, including Gascony. The Cagots were severely persecuted and segregated; for example, they could not use public fountains, sell food or wine, or marry non-Cagots. In addition, they were forced to live separately at the outskirts of towns and were “excluded from all political and social rights” (Hawkins, 2014).

The play does not mention that Cyrano is a Cagot, but because many lived in Gascony, most Gascons were treated with similar disdain. However, it is worth noting that a common Cagot stereotype was that they were ugly, often with strangely shaped facial features, like ears and noses. Cyrano is infamously known for his oversized nose so it is possible that he is a Cagot, but either way, being a Gascon was enough for him to be a minority. The play does also include other Gascon characters, notably the Count de Guiche, an antagonist of the story and a man of considerable power. He is also enamored by Roxane, but is already married, so he tries to orchestrate a wedding between Roxane and a viscount who would allow de Guiche to have an affair with her. Cyrano and de Guiche sharply contrast one another and they feel very different about their Gascon identities.

Cyrano is the ideal hero; he’s clever, humorous, theatrical, noble, and willing to do anything for other people’s happiness. He also shows to be sensitive and insecure and, while not entirely perfect, he is a sweet and sympathetic character. Cyrano embodies many typical Gascon qualities, like his pride and passion. He is unashamed about his identity and praises the Gascon spirit:

The bold Cadets of Gascony,

Of Carbon of Castel-Jaloux!

Brawling and swaggering boastfully,

The bold Cadets of Gascony!

Spouting of Armory, Heraldry,

Their veins a-brimming with blood so blue,

The bold Cadets of Gascony,

Of Carbon of Castel-Jaloux:

[…]

What, ho! Cadets of Gascony!

(2.7)

Of course, he is flawed; his pride, idealism, and selflessness do reach extremes as he refuses help and struggles financially.

On the other hand, de Guiche is quite the opposite. He shares Cyrano’s intelligence, but as a count, he is powerful and wealthy while also shrewd and treacherous. Moreover, he tries to be as Parisian as possible. He denies his heritage, to the point of concealing his accent and worming among the higher class to disassociate from his Gascon identity. A lot of his actions throughout the play are villainous, for example, he orders a hundred men to kill a drunkard for insulting him. Similarly, he sends Christian and Cyrano to war in anger after learning of Roxane and Christian’s marriage. He’s a “Gascon, yes—but cold/ And calculating—certain to succeed—” (1.1).

It’s noticeable how these characters make it seem like an unapologetic Gascon would have to be ugly and poor and the only way for a Gascon to be successful would be for them to completely disconnect from their identity. Consequently, it seems like Rostand included Gascons into his play for mockery, not representation.

Another perspective, however, says otherwise. A Gascon protagonist is already quite a statement, especially since he is likeable, and his predominant flaw is caring for others more than himself. De Guiche isn’t as instantly admirable, but Rostand does give him a chance to redeem himself. In Act 4, the cadets are resting between battles when Roxane shows up. De Guiche first insists that she’s unsafe and must go back. When she refuses, he decides to stay and fight for her sake, showing to be honorable and respectful. Interestingly enough, as de Guiche announces that he will fight, his accent wavers and, for a moment, he sounds like a Gascon, much to the other cadets’ delight.

DE GUICHE (proudly, with a light touch of accent on the word ‘breaking’):

I will fight without br-r-eaking my fast!

FIRST CADET (with wild delight):

Br-r-r-eaking! He has got the accent!

DE GUICHE (laughing):

I?

THE CADET:

‘Tis a Gascon!

(All begin to dance.)

(4.7)

This scene suggests a connection between the kinder side of de Guiche and his Gascon accent. The other cadets’ celebration further reinforces the idea that a Gascon identity is valued. By Act 5, a friendship has bloomed between Roxane and the newly titled Duke de Guiche. He has won her forgiveness and the two engage in companionable conversation. Additionally, his contempt for Cyrano has seemed to dull, in fact de Guiche claims to be jealous of him.

Ay, true,–I envy him.

Look you, when life is brimful of success

–Though the past hold no action foul–one feels

A thousand self-disgusts, of which the sum

Is not remorse, but a dim, vague unrest;

And, as one mounts the steps of worldly fame,

The Duke’s furred mantles trail within their folds

A sound of dead illusions, vain regrets,

A rustle–scarce a whisper–like as when,

Mounting the terrace steps, by your mourning robe

Sweeps in its train the dying autumn leaves.

(5.2)

De Guiche’s character has clearly undergone development as he seems to be a lot less materialistic, proud, and hateful as he willingly begs Roxane for forgiveness and is able to somewhat replace his disdain for Cyrano with admiration.

With the likeable main character and partially redeemed villain of his play being Gascons, Edmond Rostand provides rare positive representation for a minority. Several of Cyrano’s best qualities are typical Gascon characteristics, and there seems to be a correlation between de Guiche’s Gascon identity and the better side of his personality. Moreover, there are other characters in Cyrano de Bergerac that aren’t explicitly said to be Gascon, but it’s implied. For example, Roxane and Le Bret, two characters who are both very close with Cyrano. Roxane is Cyrano’s cousin and, at one point in the story, they recall shared childhood memories in Gascony which suggests she is from there as well. Similarly, Le Bret is Cyrano’s best friend and a fellow cadet, which implies that he too, is a Gascon. These two characters provide positive representation for Gascons too. Roxane is clever, eloquent, and very beautiful, a divergence from the common belief that Gascons are ugly. Le Bret is wise as well which encourages the impression that Gascons are intelligent since all four of Rostand’s Gascon characters are. In addition, Le Bret opposes many of the typical Gascon characteristics; he’s very rational and level-headed, a sharp contrast to Cyrano’s prideful and dramatic behavior. Consequently, Le Bret’s character as well as Roxane’s beauty entertains the idea that Edmond Rostand was also trying to combat Gascony stereotypes.

The question, however, is why? Why was Rostand trying to provide supportive representation for this minority? Cyrano de Bergerac was loosely based on the life of a real French man by the same name. That Cyrano was believed to have been a Gascon, but in 1862, before Rostand wrote his play, it was proven otherwise. Therefore, Rostand didn’t make his Cyrano a Gascon for the sake of historical accuracy.

The next idea would be that Rostand made several Gascon characters because he himself was a Gascon. This isn’t true either; Rostand was born in Marseilles and his family was from Provence, a southeastern France region. Further research, however, shows that Rostand did have ties to Gascony. “Traditionally, the entire Rostand family traveled to the village of Luchon for their summer vacations. Luchon was, at the time, a quaint village situated between Spain and Gascony” (Ledford, 2009). Luchon’s proximity to Gascony probably exposed Rostand to Gascon people and culture. Moreover, this is where Rostand met his wife (Ledford, 2009) which suggests he had an emotional connection to southeastern France and could have further influenced his decision to emphasize on Gascon representation in his play.

Cyrano de Bergerac, while well known for its famous love triangle story, is also admirable for its great strides in representation, especially for such a despised minority. By creating several Gascon characters with flawed but still likeable personalities, Edmond Rostand was able to build positive associations to the region he spent much of his early life in.

 

Zainab Hassan is a teenager precariously balanced on the tottering bridge between high school and university. She has been a writer longer than she has been anything else and am hoping to nudge herself into the writing world.

Works Cited

“10 Facts About France’s ‘Untouchables’.” Listverse, Listverse, 24 Dec. 2018, http://listverse.com/2018/03/29/10-facts-about-frances-untouchables/

Burgess, Anthony, and Edmond Rostand. Cyrano De Bergerac. Knopf, 1981.

Hawkins, Daniel B, and Daniel B Hawkins. “’Chimeras That Degrade Humanity’: the Cagots and Discrimination.” Academia.edu – Share Research, www.academia.edu/15057536/Chimeras_that_degrade_humanity_the_cagots_and_discrimination

Ledford, Traci Elizabeth. “The Ideal World of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac: a Director’s Approach.” Baylor University, 2009.

Thomas, Sean. “The Last Untouchable in Europe.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Oct. 2011, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/the-last-untouchable-in-europe-878705.html.

Photo by henri meilhac on Unsplash

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