During his lifetime, Edmond Rostand was in revolt against the important movements of his age — naturalism, symbolism, and lbsenism — and all his plays illustrated his idea that an illusion or unattained ideal is superior to real life. Although his plays, particularly Cyrano de Bergerac, are undeniably romantic, the Romantic movement in drama had been over for almost 50 years before Rostand wrote, and although anything as popular as Cyrano was naturally imitated, Rostand did not spark a general revival of Romantic drama. What he did do was to prove that historical drama was, and still is, a viable theme for the modern stage. Most of the characters and events in Cyrano — the conflict with Montfleury, for instance — are historical.
In Cyrano, Rostand had an opportunity to blend all his unique talents, interests, and spirit to produce a masterpiece; none of his other works, including the unfinished La Derniere Nuit de Don Juan (The Last Night of Don Juan), demonstrated his talents so well. In Cyrano, his southern spirit of exuberance, his lyricism, his fascination with unrequited love, all blended so well with the historical Cyrano's exploits that Rostand found in him the perfect subject. This seems almost to be a play of the seventeenth century rather than of the nineteenth century.
The historical Cyrano — Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac — was born near Paris on March 6, 1619. His parents, who were prominent but not noble, came from the town of Bergerac in southern France. And so, when he became old enough to care, Cyrano added "de Bergerac" to his name for the sole purpose of impressing people. He did, indeed, have an enormous nose, and on one occasion actually did describe it as preceding him by a quarter of an hour. In fact, he was such a renowned swordsman that no one else would have dared to make such a remark; many men died for much less. He entered the military profession, fighting and sustaining wounds at Arras. He retired because of his wounds and became a philosopher at the College de Beauvais in Paris.
The historical Cyrano wrote poetry, political pamphlets defending Mazarin, some plays — Moliere really did use two scenes written by Cyrano — belles-lettres, and science fiction. His books on voyages to the moon and sun show his interest in science, and many of his ideas are startlingly modern. He was a Renaissance man — dashing, courageous, gallant, and intellectual.
Like the Cyrano of the play, the real Cyrano was a man of many talents, high courage, and equally high spirit. He guarded his intellectual freedom and made many enemies, and he was destitute until he found a patron who suited him. Unlike the Cyrano of the play, however, he did find such a protector. And, like the Cyrano of the play, he was fatally wounded by a falling object — a stone, actually, instead of the log of wood mentioned in the play — that may have been dropped by an enemy. Some sources say that the accident, if it was one, happened in the house of his patron. He died on July 28, 1655. There is no record of such a romance as appears in the play, but Rostand has invented one that admirably suits the character and is dramatically necessary.
The real Cyrano, of course, was as much a man of his own time as Rostand was not a man of his own time, and perhaps that is what lends a note of authenticity to the drama. However foreign the ideas of Cyrano may be to any generation or country, they seem to strike a responsive chord in many and varied audiences. Cyrano is true to his own ideals and to himself, though he never really loses sight of reality or expects his quixotic behavior to be rewarded in any worldly way. He is true to himself merely for the sake of being true to himself — the ultimate idealism.