Virginia Gay’s Cyrano

by Jennifer Bryce

There have been many adaptations of the late 19th century play, Cyrano de Bergerac, including opera and many film versions But Virginia Gay has done something special.

In case, like me, you haven’t read the original play, here is a summary adapted from Wikipedia:

This is a very cut-down account of Cyrano de Bergerac, the original play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand. There was a real Cyrano de Bergerac, and the play is a fictionalisation following the broad outlines of his life. The play has been translated and performed many times, and it is responsible for introducing the word “panache” into the English language. Cyrano (the character) is in fact famed for his panache, and he himself makes reference to “my panache” in the play. Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a cadet (nobleman serving as a soldier) in the French Army, is a brash, strong-willed man of many talents. In addition to being a remarkable duelist, he is a gifted, joyful poet and is also a musical artist. However, he has an obnoxiously large nose, which causes him to doubt himself. This doubt prevents him from expressing his love for his distant cousin, the beautiful and intellectual Roxane, as he believes that his ugliness would prevent him the “dream of being loved by even an ugly woman.”

One day Roxane and Cyrano have the opportunity to talk privately as she bandages his hand (injured from a fracas at the Port de Nesle); she talks about a man with whom she has fallen in love. Cyrano thinks that she is talking about him at first, and is ecstatic, but Roxane describes her beloved as “handsome,” and tells him that she is in love with Christian de Neuvillette. Roxane fears for Christian’s safety so she asks Cyrano to befriend and protect him. This he agrees to do, which gives Christian the opportunity to confess to Cyrano his love for Roxane but his inability to woo because of his lack of intellect and wit. When Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane expects a letter from him, Christian is despondent, having no eloquence in such matters. Cyrano then offers his services, including his own unsigned letter to Roxane. Later, when Roxane and Cyrano meet up again, Roxane says that Christian’s letters have been breathtaking—he is more intellectual than even Cyrano, she declares. She also says that she loves Christian.

Later, during a meeting with Roxane, Christian makes a fool of himself trying to speak seductively to her. Roxane storms into her house, confused and angry. Thinking quickly, Cyrano makes Christian stand in front of Roxane’s balcony and speak to her while Cyrano stands under the balcony whispering to Christian what to say. Eventually, Cyrano shoves Christian aside and, under cover of darkness, pretends to be Christian, wooing Roxane himself. In the process, he wins a kiss for Christian.

Roxane tells Christian that, because of the letters, she has grown to love him for his soul alone, and would still love him even if he were ugly. Christian tells this to Cyrano, and then persuades Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth about the letters, saying he has to be loved for “the fool that he is” to be truly loved at all. But, before Cyrano can tell Roxane the truth, Christian is brought back to the camp, having been fatally shot.

Fifteen years later Roxane resides at a convent outside Paris, eternally mourning her beloved Christian. Roxane expects Cyrano to come by as he always has with news of the outside world. On this day, however, Cyrano has been mortally wounded by someone who dropped a huge log on his head from a tall building. Upon arriving to deliver his “gazette” to Roxane, knowing it will be his last, he asks Roxane if he can read “Christian’s” farewell letter. She gives it to him, and he reads it aloud as it grows dark. Listening to his voice, she realizes that it is Cyrano who was the author of all the letters, but Cyrano denies this to his death. While Cyrano grows delirious, his friends weep and Roxane tells him that she loves him. He combats various foes, half imaginary and half symbolic, conceding that he has lost all but one important thing – his panache – as he dies in his friends’ arms.

Gay wrote her Cyrano while suffering from COVID-19. She says, ‘It felt like somebody was trying to press my brain and eyes out of the front of my skull’.

I saw one of the few performances at the Melbourne Theatre Company before Melbourne went into the current lockdown. Because of the previous lockdown, rehearsals had been mainly by Zoom. There had been one dress rehearsal held the afternoon before we saw it and Gay, who, as well as having written the piece plays the role of Cyrano, warned us that things might go wrong. So far as I could tell, they didn’t.

Virginia Gay

The big difference in Gay’s adaptation of Cyrano is that in her piece, Cyrano is a woman. And the outstanding quality is that, as in the original, Cyrano is a wordsmith. In fact, although this was an acted, almost cabaret-like play, it was the words I wanted to see: the deft use of late Victorian poetry, reference to the near impossibility of trying to resolve the politics of the Middle East — I know that I missed a lot. In the original play there is mention of Roxane’s balcony. (I am spelling her name ‘Roxane’, as in the original play, although I think Gay may use ‘Roxanne’ — there was no program, so I couldn’t confirm.) I was drawn to thinking of Romeo and Juliet as the balcony was central to much of Gay’s Cyrano. The main reason I’d like to read the script is that I think I probably missed a lot of good things.

I guess that when you change the gender of a major character in a play there is a risk of being a bit precious about it. This was not the case. Changing the gender and also not having a false ugly nose (although reference is made to Cyrano’s large nose) meant that there could be more emphasis on Cyrano’s not feeling worthy of love. This came out clearly as what the play is about — not feeling worthy of being loved by anyone, which is apparently how a young gay person can feel growing up in a heterosexual world. Another important difference from the original Cyrano is that Roxane is much stronger and far more independent than her 19th century version — Gay’s Roxane is a woman of colour (Tuuli Narkle who plays Roxane is of Aboriginal descent) and university educated — she is an intellectual match to Cyrano.

Gay gives her play a happy ending — a ‘joy bomb’ — Cyrano and Roxane make love in a (quickly dragged onto the stage and unfolded) leafy bower. While Cyrano’s panache may have faltered while Roxane was in the arms of Yan (the equivalent of Christian), it has certainly returned by the end of the play.

I want to see this play again, but I realise that with lockdowns, I’m privileged to have seen it at all!