The Man Behind the Nose: Edmond Rostand

Posted on: September 11th, 2012 by Education @ Roundabout

The life of French playwright Edmond Rostand has been called “a barometer of that turbulent yet heady era” in which he lived. Rostand was born in 1868, just a few years before France’s self-confidence was shaken by defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The government was shifting from monarchy to republic, while the rise of industrialization changed the economy and social life. Rostand lived through these changes and the end of World War One, to see France re-emerge as a major European power.

Rostand was born into an affluent and cultured family in Marseille, an important center for industry and maritime trade.  His father Eugène was an economist and poet, a member of the Marseille Academy and the Institute de France, and his mother, a strict Catholic, raised Rostand in the Catholic tradition. As an adult Rostand was not devout, but he used elements of Catholic themes and symbols throughout his plays.

Rostand excelled as a student of history and philosophy.  Pushed by his father, he went on to study law at the Sorbonne in Paris. As a student he also published poetry and essays in literary magazines. After publishing his first volume of poems Les Musardises in 1890, he abandoned the law to pursue literature -- much to his parents’ disapproval. Around this time, he married fellow poet Rosemonde Gérard, the granddaughter of one of Napoleon’s marshals.

Rostand was fascinated with theatre and played with a puppet theatre when he was growing up but his first attempts at playwriting were unsuccessful. The French theatre at this time favored social realism -- plays that looked at difficult social issues by authors like Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen. Alternatively, popular Boulevard theatre offered light farces and vaudevilles. Rostand’s plays were historical, heroic, and poetic, reviving the Romantic tradition, which made them feel out-of-step with popular tastes. He had his first theatrical success in 1884, when Les Romanesques (The Romantics, a revision of Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending) was produced at the Comédie Française; many years later it became the source of the popular American musical The Fantasticks. Rostand developed a friendship with France’s greatest actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt, who starred in two of his most important plays: La Princesse Lointaine (The Princess Far Away, 1895) and L'Aiglon (The Eaglet, 1900) -- a historic tragedy based on the life of Napoleon’s son.

In 1897, Rostand created the play that would fix his place in history with the premiere of Cyrano de Bergerac, a poetic, five-act verse drama written for Constant Coquelin, one of France’s leading actors.  Prior to opening, no one expected a success. Rostand apologized to Coquelin, “Pardon me for having involved you in a disastrous adventure.”  But on opening night, the first audience applauded for a full hour after final curtain. Cyrano brought 29-year-old Rostand fame and success. At the height of his popularity he was elected to the Académie Française. But he found it difficult to adjust to the dramatic change in his life. Biographer Sue Lloyd summarizes the mixed experience,  "[his] future was assured but he had to live up to the expectations of the French people... the fame he had set out to achieve from his very first book of poems turned into a crushing burden.”

Rostand’s later years are marked by depression, illness, and a failing marriage.  He retreated to his country estate at Cambon and continued to write plays (including a version of Faust and Chanticleer, based on the animal characters of La Fontaine), as well as a dramatic poem based on Don Juan. None of these works achieved the same success and popularity as Cyrano.  He had several mistresses and eventually separated from his wife.  His last years were reclusive, though when France went into World War One, he joined the war effort, visiting French soldiers in the trenches.  Rostand died of pneumonia on December 2, 1918, six weeks after the war ended.  He was succeeded by two sons, Jean and Maurice, who both went on to become writers, but he is best remembered in France and throughout the world as the creator of Cyrano.

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, Cyrano de Bergerac, Education @ Roundabout

1 Comment
  1. George Barker

    August 26, 2013

    Great biography – thanks for posting this.

    It’s hard to believe Les Romanesques was written *before* Cyrano. It’s a pretty nasty mockery of romanticism. Then again – if my math is right – he must have been sixteen when he wrote it. I suppose at that age he might have been ashamed of his romanticism which he later embraced.

    Too bad the rest of his works are not available in English.



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