October 3, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, first graced the stage in 1897 in Paris, France. Based somewhat on a real-life figure, the characterization is fictionalized, yet still makes believable its story of a man who thinks he is unworthy of the love of a great beauty due to his oversized nose. As drama, the play has never lost its contemporariness, for who among us hasn’t been convinced at one time or another that some physical defect marked us as undesirable? The plot involves Cyrano selflessly becoming the conduit who enables his friend Christian to win the heart of his own beloved Roxanne. It is Cyrano who pens the love letters for Christian, with Roxanne having no idea she has fallen for the soul of her dear friend, and not one embodied in a supposed perfect specimen of beauty. It is a classic love story, with a finish that never fails to draw tears when (spoiler alert), Roxanne discovers it was Cyrano all along just at the moment of his death. I mean, come on! It’s killer.
The role has attracted many great actors over the past 120 years. It won both the Tony and the Oscar for Jose Ferrer between 1947 and 1950, and it’s been back on Broadway twice in the past ten years alone; once with Kevin Kline in 2007 and again with Douglas Hodge in 2012. But on this date in 1898, less than a year after its Parisian premiere, it had its first Broadway production starring none other than Richard Mansfield.
Who was Richard Mansfield? Well, only the most famous classical actor of his day. Born in Germany, but of British stock, he climbed quickly to the top of his profession. Renowned for his portrayal of a stage version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he also excelled as Richard III, and was the first to play Bluntschli in Arms and the Man and Dick Dudgeon in The Devil’s Disciple, in the American premieres of both George Bernard Shaw plays. It was unforeseen that when Mansfield played Cyrano at age forty-one, he would be dead by age fifty, succumbing to liver cancer. Although in those nine interceding years, he squeezed in no less than a dozen additional Broadway appearances.
Walter Hampden was the next great Cyrano, who revived the role many times in the course of his career (he played three separate engagements on Broadway alone). Molded in the same actor-manager style as Mansfield, he was a Broadway mainstay for more than forty years, culminating in 1955 with his final role, as Danforth in the original cast of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Born in Brooklyn, he excelled in classical roles on stage, and though he did a number of films and TV roles, he is probably best known for what is no more than a cameo in All About Eve, in which he is credited as “Aged Actor,” who is hosting the Sarah Siddons Awards that bookend the film.
My favorite story about Walter Hampden was told to me by the late Fritz Weaver when I interviewed him for my book Up in the Cheap Seats. He was enamored of Hampden’s Cyrano and modeled himself upon the actor.“I wanted to be an actor from the moment my brother and I saw Walter Hampden as Cyrano. Years later, I was appearing in Boston and Elliot Norton singled me out in a review saying, ‘He gives a very impressive performance in the old Walter Hampden style of acting.’ And that made my day! My brother went on to become a very famous artist and painted Hampden as Cyrano. It hangs in my living room.”
The famous balcony scene in the play, modeled after Romeo and Juliet, takes Cyrano’s substitute letter writing one step further. When the tongue-tied Christian can’t find the words to serenade Roxanne under her balcony window, Cyrano is forced to step in and verbally woo her for the first time. It has been spoofed relentlessly over the years, as this clip from Family Guy will attest:
And as a kid I used to enjoy watching The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, a 1964 TV series that placed the myopic cartoon character in the settings of great fictional heroes as Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes and (of course) Cyrano.
I told you great actors have always craved the part.
My favorite Cyrano was the one portrayed in the 1990 French film by Gerard Depardieu. Perhaps that is because he’s a Frenchman, as he gets to the heart of the character in a way both sensitive and over-the-top at the same time; his “panache” the real thing.
I regret terribly not having seen Christopher Plummer as Cyrano, though not in the play, but in a short-lived musical version that played the Palace Theatre in 1973. Even though it ran only forty-nine performances, Plummer won the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical. There is a two-record set of the show recorded in its entirety, that gives some indication of what high wire act of derring-do he performed, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.
In fact, I have only seen Cyrano on stage but once, back in 1984 when Derek Jacobi and the Royal Shakespeare Company came to Broadway and performed it in rep with Much Ado About Nothing. Both productions received rave reviews and did strong business, even in the enormous Gershwin Theatre. I was not alone in thinking Jacobi’s Cyrano one of the most thrilling events of my theatregoing lifetime. Lee Hall, the Tony Award winning playwright (Billy Elliott) wrote about his experience seeing it:
“A small group of us were on a school trip and our teacher managed to get us possibly the worst seats in the house for Cyrano de Bergerac… Everything about Derek Jacobi’s performance was larger than life. It was the first time that I had seen a great actor command an audience in that way… As a 16-year-old you’re really not expecting much of a night out at the RSC, but it was amazing. I think I fell in love with theatre that evening.”
Yeah. I related.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.