CYRANO: A LIGHTNING ROD FOR ACTORS
September 16, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac first saw stage light in Paris in 1897. Based somewhat on a real-life figure, this fictionalized characterization makes wholly believable its story of a man who thinks he is unworthy of the love of a great beauty due to self-perceived ugliness with regard to an oversized nose (“‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!”). 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; one embodied not 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 at the moment of his death that it was Cyrano all along.
The role has attracted many great actors over the past 123 years. It won both the Tony (1947) and the Oscar for Jose Ferrer (1951), and it’s been back on Broadway twice in the past thirteen years alone; once with Kevin Kline in 2007 and again with Douglas Hodge in 2012. And off-Broadway saw a musical version (not the first one by a long shot) only this past November with the Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage as Cyrano, who did not don a fake nose. Lines remained intact about his nose, although without ever saying it aloud, the actor’s height of 4' 5" was the main instigator of any and all put downs.
It was in 1898, less than a year after its Parisian premiere, that Cyrano de Bergerac had its first Broadway production starring Richard Mansfield. Never heard of Richard Mansfield? I don’t blame you. He died in 1907. But back in the day, he was one of the most famous classical actors in the world. 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 (but alas, no chance to commit anything to film).
Brooklyn-born 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 production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He excelled in classical roles on stage (trading in his Brooklyn accent for a much more refined one), 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 in 2014. Weaver was enamored of Hampden’s Cyrano and modeled himself upon the actor, much as Hampden did on Richard Mansfield. “I wanted to be an actor from the moment my brother and I saw Walter Hampden as Cyrano,” Weaver told me. “Years later, when I was appearing in Boston, 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 Cyrano is modeled after Romeo and Juliet. In it, Cyrano’s substitute letter-writing is taken one step further, for 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 instead. It is a scene that has been riffed on countless times in both drama and comedy, and has also been spoofed relentlessly over the years, as this clip from Family Guy will attest:
My personal favorite Cyrano was the one portrayed in the 1990 French film by Gerard Depardieu. Perhaps because he’s a Frenchman, 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. He was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance.
I terribly regret not having seen Christopher Plummer as Cyrano, not in the play (which he has performed in more than once, in both his native Canada and on American television), but in a short-lived musical version that played Broadway 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, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.