Cyrano de Bergerac was the last play on the Folger Theatre’s roster for the season, following excellent productions of (I take it, the rarely performed) Henry VIII and A Comedy of Errors. Cyrano went oddly awry, however, and I’ve been trying to pinpoint why exactly. This is a play I’ve known and loved pretty much my whole life, but it is also one of the first plays my daughter listened to on audiotape with me when she was very young, the Royal Shakespeare production from the 1950s, if I recall correctly. There is always a tendency to want to have it the way you remember it when you first fall in love with it, but if that were it, I’d be resisting the urge to criticize the production. The problems run deeper, and in no particular order:
The Folger production eclipsed the play into a much smaller number of characters/actors and edited it down to a little less than two hours. I wasn’t thrilled about reducing the cast/characters, but I certainly understood why it wanted/needed to do it. This involved a fair amount of rewriting, however, including an odd and unnecessary introduction explaining directly to the audience what was going on. Much more problematically, however, it more or less made the production seem like one of those edited versions of Shakespeare productions you see at Renaissance Fairs – Shakespeare Scum, for example. They can be quite good, so long as they stick to the broad comedies, but it doesn’t work with Cyrano.
The Folger company is built around Shakespeare productions, and it did not appear to understand that Cyrano is not a Shakespearean comedy with a lot of farce. Cyrano is a romance, not a comedy. It aims for the sublime – in the formal sense in which Edmund Burke wrote of the sublime, as a category of affect. That’s so even though Rostand’s play flogs the melodrama to death and then some. In Shakespeare, much of the comedy involves the knowing turn to the audience – and this production of Cyrano did this relentlessly. In doing so, it turned the romance into farce. The knowing turn to the audience kills romance, however, because romance above all has to believe in itself, even when it is funny. It has to maintain the integrity of the fourth wall.
The Cyrano of this production was a skilled actor in the Shakespearean tradition – but he played Cyrano as though he were a world weary cynic. Cyrano is not a cynic, however – he’s a romantic who believes in himself and the value of his dreams and imagination, and when he says he could not imagine altering a comma of his own plays, we have to believe him. The Roxanne of this production was a disaster – she played her role purely as farce, a character straight out of Comedy of Errors, straight to the audience, and one could no more imagine Cyrano being entranced with her than with a brioche. She giggled, with winks and nods to the audience, until on cue, she started sobbing in the final scene. Worse, in cutting and reworking the play, the director decided that her appearance at the siege of Arras should have her not as the lady come to her true love – but instead to fight alongside him. Roxanne can be many things, I suppose, but Warrior Princess Xena is not one of them.
Finally, any production of Cyrano these days has a burden called … Steve Martin and Roxanne. This production made one appreciate just what a work of comic genius Roxanne is. But this turns out to be an argument for a return to the more formalistic language of earlier translations; this new translation was modernized and vernacularized so that it sounded like … a bad imitation of Roxanne-the-screenplay. The old translation puts more distance between the movie and the play. Finally, however, the movie and the play differ in that the movie really is a comedy, a romantic comedy with a lovely ending. The play, however, features war, siege, death, and widowhood. It really is a romance, not a comedy and not a tragedy. But that gives Cyrano and Roxanne a gravitas by the end that a romantic comedy cannot reach.
So okay, I feel better having got that behind me. The Folger production doesn’t work, mostly because it isn’t a Shakespeare farce. But at least it fails for striking reasons.