A Nose By Other Names
Saratoga Shakespeare’s upcoming Cyrano might not be the Cyrano de Bergerac you remember. Instead of a traditional translation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, we’re using a 2011 adaptation created by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner for D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Theatre. Although hewing close to Rostand’s original, it ramps up the comedy and action, streamlines the plot, and updates the language for a twenty-first century audience. Hollinger and Posner are, of course, far from the first to put a spin on the classic work. There are Cyrano musicals, operas, and films (most notably from 1950 with Jose Ferrer and 1990 with Gérard Depardieu), not to mention plenty of other versions created for the stage.
Even in more distant guises, however, variations on Cyrano are all around us. The fundamentals of the story are well known: in seventeenth century France, the brilliant but large-nosed Cyrano de Bergerac helps the handsome but dim-witted Christian woo the beautiful Roxane, who they both love, by writing gorgeous love letters purportedly from Christian. In the most famous scene, Roxane stands on a balcony rapturously receiving Christian’s words of love; little does she know that those words are being fed to him by Cyrano, standing just out of sight. These plot elements and tropes are constantly appearing in movies and TV shows, novels and cartoons, even video games. Some of those works, films in particular, have taken the entire plot as inspiration, altering the story and placing it in new contexts to create Cyranos for their own time:
Love Letters (1945)
The first major movie inspired by Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac was technically an adaptation of a different work: the 1944 novel Pity My Simplicity by Christopher Massie. The author hired to pen the film, however, declared the book a “holy mess,” and combined it with a piece of literature she admired far more: Cyrano. Actually, that screenwriter, one Ayn Rand (yes, that Ayn Rand) would later say that the “top three plays are: Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano de Bergerac and Cyrano de Bergerac. It is without a doubt the greatest play in world literature.” Combining romantic drama and psychological mystery, the film’s central characters are a WWII soldier who, like Cyrano, writes letters for his boorish friend, and the girl back home, who he has never met but who falls in love with those letters. Despite dramatic twists and turns involving amnesia and murder, the two, unlike Cyrano and Roxane, ultimately get a happy ending. So did the film itself: starring popular duo Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton, it was a commercial success, nominated for four Academy Awards and providing the melody for the hit song “Love Letters.”
The Steve Martin classic is perhaps the most popular cinematic retelling of Cyrano. Martin, like Rand, was a lifelong fan of the play and particularly of the 1950 Ferrer film: “I remember just thinking it was the greatest thing I ever saw. I think it’s because the character is so strong. He’s like a very smart version of what, coincidentally, is popular in movies today. He’s smarter than everybody else, quicker than everybody else, wittier than everybody else and tops everybody.” After deciding to adapt the story himself, Martin proceeded with two major changes. First, he modernized and Americanized the story, trading 1640s Paris for a 1980s Washington state ski town and Cyrano’s Gascony Guard regiment for a band of firemen. The balcony scene even features Martin feeding lines to the Christian figure, now Chris, through a shortwave radio. Secondly, Martin’s Cyrano, fire chief C.D. Bales, actually gets the girl (Daryl Hannah’s astronomer Roxanne, with two N’s). Otherwise, however, Martin sought to parallel the play as much as possible, from the characters (pastry shop proprietor Ragueneau becomes café owner Dixie) to the fights (duels happen not with swords, but with ski poles and tennis rackets) to specific scenes, like the one in which Cyrano lists creative insults for his big nose (Martin even kept one from Rostand: ”You must love the little birdies to give them this to perch on”).
The Truth about Cats and Dogs (1996)
In this romantic comedy, the basic plot of Cyrano was given a gender twist: Cyrano becomes Janeane Garofolo’s insecure veterinarian radio host; her more beautiful but shallower counterpart is played by Uma Thurman; and their mutual object of affection is a male caller to Garofolo’s show. Taking a cue from its plot switch, the film focuses largely on the implications of the brains/beauty divide for women (Thurman: “Together we make the perfect woman.” Garofalo: “No, you and I combined make the perfect political prisoner. What we do really well is act self-righteous and starve”). While Cyrano and Christian have little relationship beyond their mutual feelings for Roxane, The Truth About Cats and Dogs delves into the friendship between its two main characters, who actively value and protect their relationship despite their romantic rivalry. And, like many a Cyrano update, it includes a more modern day style of remote courtship: in this case, phone sex.
These three movies only begin to scratch the surface of Cyrano’s contributions to American pop culture, which range from Seinfeld to The Simpsons, The Munsters to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Disney Channel to MTV. Even some of the greatest artists of our time have taken it on. Its themes (unrequited love, struggles with self-esteem, outer appearances and inner life, to name a few) are eternal, and so is its humor. Start looking for Cyrano, and you’ll find him all over the place—including in Congress Park on July 19th – 23rd and 26th – 30th at 6:00pm and July 24th at 3:00pm.
Talia Feldberg is the Dramaturg and Assistant Director for Saratoga Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of Cyrano. She recently received her BA from Vassar College in Drama and Victorian Studies. Other training includes the National Theater Institute. Directing credits: Next Time I’ll Sing to You, Rappaccini’s Daughter, Sweeney Todd, and Choephori (a devised piece based on the Oresteia). She also served as resident dramaturg of Vassar’s Shakespeare Troupe. She will be guest blogging throughout the summer season.