January 12, 1998: Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac

Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, Royal Shakespeare Company

In London for four weeks, on sabbatical. Antony Sher as Cyrano. Sher puts out tremendous energy in this 3-1/4 hour production, to great good effect. The ensemble playing is well up to the usual high standards. There is much spectacle, but not too much. The stage is almost flat, as it seems, rather than deep; there is a unit set, a huge background of slats that open out as needed to become alcoves, balconies, windows, and so on. Scenes change swiftly and effortlessly, though most scenes are long, and fully articulated. A structural analysis of Rostand’s play based on close textual scrutiny would yield a very simple design, I believe. The length partly serves to reify Cyrano’s long and hopeless love for Roxanne.

An essay in the program sets the play perspicuously in the context of fin de siècle France, the Dreyfus affair, and urgent issues of national identity. A journalist writing in 1976 said, “Cyrano, c’est la France.” Rostand, reminiscing in 1913, said he had written the play for the pleasure of it but also in an attempt to fight “against the tendencies of the time … which, to be truthful, infuriated and revolted me.” The play is in a real sense a reactionary, backward looking play, nostalgic for a former France that has now lost its ideals and is vitiated by betrayal and intrigue. If Cyrano is France, then France is the victim of its own gratuitous and superfluous belief in words as more real than actions and yet plagued by a nagging suspicion that words are the instruments of self-betrayal. The play is terrifically sentimental and hopelessly romantic — even while it is a sure-fire vehicle for acting in the grand style. Sher’s bravura style is equal to all the challenges set by the role. I heard some of Olivier’s consummate own vocal tricks in his voice from time to time — e.g. the punctuating of highly emotional speeches with unorthodox vocal pauses, and constrictions of the throat that are meant to convey “choking up” without really getting choked up. My companion said she heard some W. C. Fields intonations as well. The extremely effective long nose was apparently very securely glued on; it was quite realistic and absolutely convincing. (One wonders whether the noted “ugliness” of the long nose was a symbolic gesture toward Jews, a kind of anti-Semitic motion on Rostand’s part. At any rate, it answers the question “What does a man have to have in order to be really, unaccept­ably ugly in this society?”)


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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