Irony may be loosely defined as a distinct difference between what appears to be and what is. Because the main idea of Cyrano de Bergerac is the conflict between appearance and truth, it is obvious that theme and irony are closely woven in the play.
Irony is, of course, one of the most intriguing of literary devices. It has been in use at least since the early Greek dramatists, and it has seldom failed to capture the interest of an audience. And that is one of the major reasons that Cyrano has remained popular for so many years. Here are just a few of the ironies of the play:
It is ironic that Christian's beauty makes him appear to Roxane to be all that she thinks her heart desires, and it is ironic that Cyrano's ugly appearance hides from Roxane that which she truly desires — beauty of soul.
It is ironic that Roxane confesses to Cyrano, not her love for him, but for Christian. And it is doubly ironic when she begs Cyrano to protect the man she loves.
It is ironic that it is Cyrano's deception that makes possible the blossoming romance between Roxane and Christian. And it is even more ironic that when Christian tries to be honest, he fails hopelessly, and it is Cyrano's words and Cyrano's presence that enable Christian to marry Roxane.
It is ironic that Christian is killed before Roxane can be told what only Christian and Cyrano know — that the man she loves is, in reality, Cyrano. And this irony is compounded by the fact that it is Cyrano's letter which Roxane carries next to her heart, "like a holy reliquary," during her years of mourning.
The crowning irony — certainly, at least, for Cyrano — is that he is dying, not with "steel in my heart and laughter on my lips," but murdered by "a lackey, with a log of wood!" "How Fate loves a jest!" he says.
And, finally, there is irony in Roxane's discovery — too late that it is Cyrano whom she has loved for so long. "I never loved but one man in my life, and I have lost him twice."
All these ironies and the many more that are to be found throughout the play add up to the great irony that appearance is not always truth, and truth is not always clothed in appropriate appearances. The eternal nature of this theme is one explanation for the continued success of the play. Another reason could be the suitability of the ending to the characters.
Imagine Cyrano as a husband. Imagine Roxane as a wife. Their romance, with Cyrano playing the part of the chevalier servant, could go on for all their lives; their marriage would have been miserable. But Cyrano did not really want to marry Roxane. She was lovely, and he loved her for exactly the same reasons that Roxane loved Christian. Christian is the only major character in the play that makes any attempt at being honest. He wants very much for Roxane to love him for himself. Neither Roxane nor Cyrano have any desire to face reality, however. They are happy in their make-believe world.
The historical Cyrano once killed a monkey. The monkey's owner, who operated a puppet show in Paris, had dressed the monkey as Cyrano, even down to a false nose. Cyrano heard of it, went to the puppet show and ran the monkey through with his sword. The owner sued, and Cyrano said that because the whole affair had taken place in the make-believe world of the theater, he would pay in kind. The judge accepted his payment — an ode eulogizing the monkey.
Just as the real Cyrano paid in the coin of the make-believe realm of the theater, so the emotions in the play are altogether theatrical-divorced from reality. The audience senses that this flamboyant character could never accept mere reality. He demands more from life. He fulfills the adolescent dream of an unrequited, tragic love. He is realistic enough to know that he could not have his cake and eat it, too. He enters the pact with Christian with relish because it allows him to escape humdrum reality and to continue a delightfully boyish relationship. He is allowed to be misunderstood and tragic and to write beautiful love letters without the usual result of marriage and daily problems.
Just as Huckleberry Finn owes part of its charm to the return to childhood, so does Cyrano. These are children, not adults. Cyrano never faces adulthood, with its responsibilities, where he would not be able to toss his month's income away as a gesture. He would not want to pass up the beau geste because of duty. And Roxane enjoys her role as the grieving widow, solaced by visits from the attentive Cyrano.
In summary, Cyrano pleases audiences because it satisfies the Cyrano adolescent dreams that are a part of all adults; it pleases because it is well constructed and because the characters are consistent and romantic; and it pleases because there is harmony in the theme, characters, plot, and language. The ending is sad and bittersweet, but it is the only possible ending. It satisfies because any other solution to the ironic dilemma would be unromantic; a romantic play must have a romantic ending.
There is no jarring note in this play. The theme, plot, and characters are theatrical but somehow believable, because they are childhood dreams. The most fantastic thing about the play is that it is based on an historical character that was every inch as romantic and unrealistic and boyish and charming as the Cyrano in the play. The play has harmony and unity throughout, and allows us to live for a while in a make-believe world. The ending satisfies because any other solution to the ironic dilemma would be unthinkable.