Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A diamond in the ash

Here's a great review of a production in New York of Cyrano de Bergerac, a play I've seen several times, once in a ruined abbey, once with Philippe Volter, not to mention the films with the great Depardieu and with Jose Ferrer. Unlike most reviews for anything, it's made me want to see the show John Lahr is talking about: Kevin Kline stars, it's the Anthony Burgess translation, it's a fantastic work in the first place. So much so that it could survive even Roxanne, the 1987 film with Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah which stripped the story of its setting, which is essential, and removed from it a fundamental characteristic: it's a pastiche. Rostand was writing in fin de siècle Paris, the most fashionable spot on the planet, about Arras in 1640, and writing too in alexandrines. Those are two important effects in Rostand's original which the Martin film loses. Although to be fair, Steve Martin himself would be hard to better had the film gone down a more traditional track. Kevin Kline might give him a run. Remember Otto in A Fish Called Wanda? Otto had what Cyrano has, until his dying breath -- panache.

It's often said that Rostand provided a counter to the increasing naturalism in the theatre (and the arts in general) with his fantasy of temps perdus. I think that view is superficial and simplistic, and ignores the fact that realism had been a current in painting (where France led the world) since the time of Courbet half a century before, and in drama Europe-wide for at least 20 years prior to Cyrano -- Ibsen's A Doll's House was produced in 1879. Rostand wasn't countering artistic realism, he was employing contrary techniques to do the same job by forcing the issues to stand out. The important point about pastiche is that it is an alienation effect, as Brecht later called it. Even a cursory reading of the text, meanwhile, would make it clear that Rostand was not telling a story set in 1640 as such. That's something there's no room to go into here (nor any desire, I should imagine). A translation is available at Project Gutenberg, though not the Burgess translation sadly.

Incidentally, Cyrano was a real person, a military man and playwright. At the time of the main action in Rostand's play, he would have been 21. Edmond Rostand, meanwhile, was the youngest person ever admitted into the Académie Française, though he had to wait until he was 33 years old, four years after writing Cyrano.