THE PALADIN OF PANACHE
Cyrano: The Life and Legend of Cyrano de Bergerac
By Ishbel Addyman (Simon & Schuster 307pp £16.99)
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Almost everything most of us think we know about Cyrano de Bergerac was made up by the nineteenth-century French dramatist Edmond Rostand (1868-1918). The title role in his 1897 drama is that of a brilliant swordsman, and a poet and epigrammatist of dazzling versatility. He has an enormous nose, about which he is a good deal funnier than those who seek to mock him for it. This sense of humour owes much to the fact that he is a Gascon, who rouses the spirits of his beleaguered fellow soldiers, the alliteratively named cadets du Carbon de Castel-Jaloux, during the siege of Arras with a sentimental appeal to the beauties of the Dordogne. He falls hopelessly in love with his enchanting cousin Roxane, herself captivated by the younger and physically more prepossessing Baron Christian de Neuvillette. The tongue-tied Christian gets Cyrano to do his wooing and write his love letters for him, but is killed before Roxane can discover the truth. In the play's final act the now elderly hero falls victim to a cowardly ambush and dies after confessing to her that the eloquent soul she worshipped as a result of Christian's courtship was that of his long-nosed surrogate all along.
The spectacular success of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac was not merely due to its swashbuckling plot, its mellifluous alexandrines or the way in which the part of Cyrano himself seemed to fit the actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin like a glove. For the play is just as much about late nineteenth-century France as it is about the life of an author and duellist in the reign of Louis XIII. Rivalled only by the Americans in their need to feel good about themselves, the French, still nursing the wounds of the Franco-Prussian War, were looking around for someone to blame for their unfamiliar sensations of inferiority and found the British and the Jews would do as well as anybody. Cyrano de Bergerac was premiered shortly before the Fashoda Incident almost triggered a war with Britain. The Dreyfus Affair, meanwhile, though the Captain himself languished at this point on Devil's Island, had reached its critical phase, with Zola poised to issue his famous 'J'accuse' to the very same anti-Semitic, bien-pensant elements of French society for whom Rostand was writing. The whole thrust of the play is therefore consolatory. France - dashing, romantic, a cradle of high culture and fine living - will survive, her panache personified by a hero whose big nose differs so significantly from those sinister hooks popular with Jew-hating Parisian cartoonists of the period.
But now here is Ishbel Addyman's Cyrano to tweak the picture for us just a little. Take Bergerac, for instance, that place from whose jerry-built cowshed of an airport modern Brits hotfoot it into the Dordogne and the Lot with their Typhoo teabags and Oxford marmalade. Despite the presence of two statues to the paladin, the town has absolutely no claim to him. Descended from a Sardinian fishmonger, Savinien Cyrano was born in Sens, south-east of Paris, in 1619. The 'de Bergerac' derives from the name of some meadows attached to one of his family's estates near Chartres. Young Savinien, a rebel in school and at home, left Sens as soon as he could for Paris, successfully reinventing himself as an aristocrat and following his friend Henri Le Bret into the army. Joining Castel-Jaloux's Gascon cadets, he could easily pass for one of them by dropping 'Savinien' and becoming Cyrano de Bergerac, with a reputation to sustain as a duellist (over a hundred 'affairs of honour', according to the admiring Le Bret).
Meanwhile he gained celebrity by his pen. A tragedy appeared, La Mort d'Agrippine, followed by a melange of letters satirical and amorous, and two remarkable works of science fiction, describing voyages to the sun and moon. The Church, not a little bruised from its recent attempts, however successful, at muzzling Galileo, fingered Cyrano as a dangerous free-thinker who derided belief in witches, questioned the doctrine of Real Presence and mocked the Jesuits for their hypocrisy.
As a libertine in the seventeenth-century sense, that is one who scorns conformity for its own sake, Cyrano was hardly orthodox in his private life. Though he may have dallied with his cousin Madeleine, she was emphatically not a Roxane, irradiating his tragically brief life with incandescent passion. Instead Addyman convincingly demonstrates that he was homosexual, mingling with figures such as Théophile de Viau, the finest French poet of his generation and a suspected sodomite, or the altogether more dubious Charles Coypeau Dassoucy, self-styled 'emperor of the burlesque', who travelled with an entourage of winsome choirboys.
What is more, Cyrano's 'secret illness', referred to in an IOU for medication from a Parisian barber surgeon, may well have been syphilis. In its tertiary stage the disease often attacks the brain, and Addyman suggests this as a possible reason for the various contemporary references to him as a madman. His death in 1655, however, is more likely to have been the result of a street mugging instigated by the Jesuits and subsequent harsh treatment at the hands of his brother Abel, who had him confined in a lunatic asylum out of pretended concern for his wellbeing.
Cyrano as a gay anti-Catholic sci-fi writer with the pox is perhaps not quite what Rostand and his audience at the Théâtre de la Porte St-Martin had in mind as a representative of la gloire de la belle France. Ishbel Addyman, however, presents a convincing case for him in this, her first book, as one of the more fascinatingly enigmatic characters of the seventeenth century, original, iconoclastic, risk-taking and not without a certain doomed glamour.
She is expert at filling in the various period backgrounds, historical and cultural, and, not unlike her hero, is a fearless skirmisher with several of her more pompous or dishonest literary sources. There is enough material here for another kind of Cyrano drama altogether. Let's hope a modern playwright is enterprising enough to try it.
Jonothan Keates's most recent book, 'The Siege of Venice', is published by Chatto & Windus.