The curtain rises to show the interior of a dimly lighted theater. Some cavaliers enter without paying and practice fencing; they are followed by two lackeys who sit on the floor and begin gambling; a middle-class man and his son enter; then a pickpocket and his accomplices come in. Through conversations we learn that this is the theater where Corneille's Le Cid was first performed, and that the play tonight is Baro's Clorise, and that its star is Montfleury.
This opening scene is a very good example of two things: the playwright's problem of providing his audience with necessary information, and Rostand's craftsmanship in dealing with the problem. While the novelist can give descriptions, explanations, and background material in many ways, the playwright has only the dialogue and setting — and sometimes the latter must be explained in the dialogue if it is especially significant.
Notice the many types of people — those who come to play cards, to picnic, to flirt, to steal, and even a few honest souls who really want to see the play — whom Rostand introduces in this brief scene. But he is not only describing a cross section of seventeenth-century French society; he also manages a comment on that society by having the two cavaliers enter the theater without buying tickets. Overall, he gives the very distinct impression to the audience that this is an exciting period in the history of the French theater. And, since the student of French civilization automatically thinks of Corneille, Moliere, and Racine when he thinks of seventeenth-century France, what better place to begin a play set in that period than in its most famous theater? (Le Cid was not actually introduced in this theater, however.)
Apart from all the information conveyed, there is also the mood of the play, which must be established at the beginning. Rostand does this with his setting, for there is a distinct excitement in a theater before a play just as there is before a symphony or opera when the musicians are tuning their instruments.
If the playwright's problem at the opening of a play were simply that of conveying information and establishing mood, it would be relatively easy to solve. But one must remember that the playwright must not only capture the attention of the audience, but must also hold its interest for the full course of the play. The air of anticipation created by the setting in this scene is added — and the element of suspense is introduced — to the scenes immediately following.