Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Cyrano on the Scaffold |
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Cyrano on the Scaffold

His nose preceding him by a quarter of an hour, the hero of Cyrano de Bergerac is a reminder that there were once things plastic surgery couldn’t do. Today it can turn Michael Jackson into his own sister. But the original Cyrano, furiously active as poet, swordsman and celestial fantasist in seventeenth-century France, was stuck with his deformity. If he had been born in the late 1890s, when the play that bears his name was written, he still would have been stuck with it. The playwright, Edmond Rostand, could count on that fact, and use it to bring the sophisticated theatre-goers of Paris to their feet after reducing them to helpless weeping. Appearance was destiny. If a man’s appearance ruled him out in the eyes of the woman he loved, there was nothing he could do about it. Except, perhaps, one thing. What if he could rule himself back in through her ears?

Armed with a tragically inflexible law and a comically rich possibility for how it might be broken, Rostand was inspired to a poetic narrative that conquered the world. The eloquent but very ugly man, Cyrano, loves the beautiful young woman, Roxane. She favours the beautiful young man, Christian. He lacks the words to thrill her. The heartbroken Cyrano, wanting her to be happy, lends him some. Thus supplied, Christian wins her hand, but he is killed in battle. In the end, with the mortally wounded Cyrano dying in her arms among the fallen autumn leaves of the convent courtyard, Roxane finally realizes that it was his words, and therefore him, that she had loved all along. Alas, it is too late. And yet hooray, for true love has won through. Sacre bleu, quelle histoire!

There are reasons, which we will get to, for thinking that this seemingly unbreakable dramatic arc works best in the original French, but it would still provide a good night out in Esperanto, and at the great classical theatre on the Ginza a kabuki version would not be inconceivable. In his own country alone, there were more than a thousand performances of the play while Rostand was still alive. Many of the productions he supervised personally. Their accumulated box office receipts ensured that he would die rich. His magnificent house at the foot of the Pyrenees is still there to inform visiting writers that if they envy the domestic arrangements of Pinter, Frayn and Stoppard then they haven’t seen anything yet. Rostand’s chuckling ghost lives well. There may be plastic surgeons in California who live better, but not even they have yet managed to take the sweet sting out of an immortal story.

A brilliantly successful bullion raid from the start, the plot-line of Cyrano de Bergerac will probably never cease to make money until every male baby born on Earth is a clone of Orlando Bloom. Men who can’t wow a woman with the fearful symmetry of their faces will always have to talk for victory. Cyrano will go on showing them how, in a coruscating tragicomical pastiche that almost no amount of miscalculation can make dull. It must be said, however, that the new production at the National Theatre might have been designed to prove otherwise. A critic, in my view, should always report the reaction of the audience before he delivers his own opinion. Well, the first-night audience clapped dutifully at the end, and there were cheers for Cyrano himself, as incarnated by the film star Stephen Rea. But the Germans have a phrase that fits: der Beifall war endenwollend. The applause wanted to be over.

Things never looked promising to begin with. In the Olivier Theatre there is no curtain to go up, so the audience, as it came in, was already faced with the huge and deadly suggestion that the sets would consist mainly of scaffolding. This turned out to be true, although the space-station centrifugal stage machinery was occasionally put into operation so that the scaffolding could be seen from a different angle. On its first appearance, the vast metallic structure was dotted with supernumeraries whose weary attitudes suggested that they might have expired from boredom while bolting it together. Ever since the first post-war translations of Brecht spread their pervasive influence, student productions of any play at all have characteristically established their dedication to the alienation effect with precisely those two elements: scaffolding, and an opening tableau of underemployed walk-ons. This was going to be a student production. The premonition did not necessarily spell disaster: last month in Wellington I saw a student production — admittedly buttressed by the participation of a few semi-pro actors — which cleverly adapted Gogol’s The Government Inspector to local New Zealand small-town politics. Seated on each side of a tin shed, the audience had a wonderful time. Gogol had a big nose: so big that he made it the disembodied hero of its own story. These were desperate things to be thinking of in the million-dollar arena of the Olivier while waiting for the main actors to join the scaffolding, but without trust there is no life.

The trust paid off, but only in small change. The big notes had already been thrown on the fire long before a misconceived production reached its opening night. The scaffolding had already told us that we would not be seeing seventeenth-century Paris. The attire of the actors soon told us that we would not be seeing many seventeenth-century costumes either. There were a few of them dotted about, but only because they had been preserved in the same skip as all the other clobber, which dated variously from any time up to the day before yesterday. Rostand gives some warrant for this, because he himself, writing more than two centuries after his reported events, didn’t care very much about strict adherence to temporality. But he cared like mad about theatricality. He wanted the full romantic tackle, and he wanted it to swash until it buckled. Cloak, plumed hat and proper sword: he specified them all for his dynamic hero. It was thus three times a bad sign when Cyrano made his entrance minus any of them. The plume sprouting from Cyrano’s hat is meant to be the mark of his panache. In French it is actually called a panache, and provides the once inexhaustibly prolix Cyrano with his dying word, the last word of the play. The plume on Stephen Rea’s hat was a mere shy puff instead of a proudly flying banner. The sword was a sword-stick: a different thing, and not appropriate for holding Cyrano’s cloak extended at the back, as one of his friends describes.

But he had no cloak. Instead, he had an overcoat, of a type worn by students all over the world to indicate that they are in rebellion against bourgeois values. No sooner had I seen this overcoat than I was thinking once again of Gogol, who wrote a play called The Overcoat, and had a big nose. I would have been thinking of catching the next plane back to New Zealand if Cyrano, along with everything else he had been deprived of, had been deprived of a big nose. Mercifully he had one, and the quality of its putty looked sufficiently durable to last the night. Perhaps it had been provided by the same construction firm that won the contract for the scaffolding, which clearly would last forever.

Except for the nose, Mr Rea had been comprehensively sabotaged before he left the dressing room, but he generously agreed to remain on stage even when the choreography was taking place. The choreography — the supposed necessity for which would have been news to Rostand — was fit to drive the audience out of the theatre and into the Thames, but it wasn’t going to do that to Mr Rea, who staunchly defied several kinds of doom simultaneously, like a boy on a burning deck with his finger in a dyke. His close-ups on screen prove him to possess a winning charm of facial expression, and his voice on the soundtrack is blessed with a melodious Irish burr fit to render any Roxane breathless. On stage, to which he is no stranger, both these attributes were still in evidence, but the large nose necessarily worked against the first, and the larger distances it had to cross unnecessarily worked against the second. The Olivier only looks as if it could swallow the sound of a Boeing 747 revving at full throttle against the brakes. In actuality, a quite small mortar bomb could go off on stage and most of the audience would still notice. Even in those cavernous expanses, an actor’s voice can ring if it has power. Mr Rea’s voice hadn’t. Unfortunately Cyrano is lost if he can’t shout the place down. It is not enough for him to be audible. He must be able to dominate the stage and everyone on it with a single bark of anger, and send a sigh of regret winging to the gallery. For Cyrano, vocal confidence is a handy attribute even in the movies. Steve Martin, playing Cyrano as a small-town fireman in the excellent Roxanne, talks with a fluency that makes his mouth, and not his nose, the centre of all eyes. In Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s movie of 1990, Gerard Depardieu commands silence from everyone else each time he speaks. Most memorably of all, in the Stanley Kramer movie of 1950, José Ferrer raged with the effortless verbal authority that makes Cyrano’s tenderness mean so much when he succumbs to it.

For a stage Cyrano, verbal authority is not just a nice plus, it’s the whole game. For all I know, Stephen Rea in real life has the verbal authority to hail a taxi in a whisper. But as Cyrano he showed little confidence in what he had to say. He should be excused for that, because what he had to say was a brand-new English translation that achieved the difficult feat of making Cyrano no more thrilling as a speaker than a police commissioner at a press conference. Derek Mahon, who claims responsibility, is an accomplished poet in normal circumstances. His poem about mushrooms in a garden shed is a justly celebrated anthology piece. He is even an accomplished poet when translating from the French: his version of Valery’s Le cimetière marin miraculously conveys almost all the pastel nuances of the original. But Rostand, although he has pastel nuances of his own, employs them only as grace-notes to his vaulting exuberance of invention, which depends for much of its effect on being compressed and energized within strictly rhyming couplets. Disastrously, Derek Mahon was persuaded to keep the couplets but throw away the compression, by making the rhymes so approximate that they were usually undetectable, and piffling when they were not.

I prefer not to believe that the persuasion was done by himself. The fee should pay his bills while he hides out in a foreign country until all this blows over, but when he gets back he will probably be too polite to point the finger. Those less bashful will be inclined to detect the same genius for miscalculation that placed the order for a thousand tons of scaffolding. Here again, the director, Howard Davies, might not have been solely responsible. There is a school of thought, to which I subscribe, which holds that some kind of interstellar virus has taken over the separate brains of prominent theatrical people and united them into a single autistic personality dedicated to the unremitting gestation of bad ideas. The virus was already active when Tyrone Guthrie invented the thrust stage, the awful precursor of theatre in the round. In his memoirs, Sir Alec Guinness said all that needed to be said about the thrust stage: in the absence of a proscenium, the actor could never make a clean entrance or exit, and most of his moves would be dictated by the requirement of giving every sector of the audience a fair share of looking at his back. But Guinness was only an actor, and the directors were already in control, with every dullard dreaming that he was the new Meyerhold or Piscator. The virus struck again with an even more debilitating notion, the raked stage, down which no broken king can stumble without the audience fearing that he will join them in the stalls. The virus decreed that a raked stage could be dispensed with only on the understanding that a flat floor would provide the base for a sufficiency of scaffolding, which would be mandatory if the text made reference to trees and balconies.

In the last scene of this triumphantly viral production, the dying Cyrano asked that his chair be placed against ‘this tree’. This tree was a tower of metal tubes. But by then we were used to the anomaly. Towers of metal tubes had been pretending to be trees all night. The tops of the towers had been pretending to be balconies. High on her tubular balcony, Roxane, persuaded by Cyrano’s ventriloqual ardour, gave Christian her permission to climb the jasmine tree. The climb up the jasmine tree took him long enough for me to concoct a brace of appropriate couplets to which he is welcome, if the production can do a deal with my agent.

Bless me, Roxane, and let your heart take wing
To lift me as I climb this scaffolding:
Send down a kiss from your lips red and ripe
As my hands, bloody from these lengths of pipe.

As played by Claire Price, Roxane was worth climbing the Chrysler Building to reach. If she looked a bit less like Kate Winslet, Miss Price would probably be a film star by now. As things are, she is well on the way to being a first-choice theatrical leading lady for any company still harbouring the politically unreconstructed belief that a female object of love should actually be beautiful. Her performance in the National’s The Relapse established her as a house favourite, and during her excursion to Sheffield it was noticed that Kenneth Branagh’s Richard III — another and more swinish swain with a deformity problem — had believable reasons for throwing himself upon Lady Anne. She managed to look equally fetching in Cyrano de Bergerac, even if the Olivier’s lack of footlights — another viral breakthrough — ensured that the full glory of her face was only intermittently visible. But she had very little that was fetching to say. When Christian made the mistake of trying to woo her in his own words instead of Cyrano’s, she reproved him thus.

You’d better smarten up and quickly, brother:
go home and get your stupid head together
or we can drop the idea of real relations.

As dialogue, this was worse than updated, it was dysfunctional. Updatings disfigured almost every page of the text, but most of them were merely dreary. The phrase ‘chatting up the chicks’ rang out. ‘Space cadets’ were referred to. ‘Stereo’ was rhymed with ‘brio’, even though the two words do not rhyme anyway. Most of this could be ignored, and Mr Rea even had the sense to ignore one of his own lines. To chime with Cyrano’s interest in outer space, he had been given an echo of Captain Kirk: ‘to boldly go . . .’ In the printed text Cyrano continues the line, but on stage the three dots were as far as Mr Rea took it, having sensibly decided that he had enough to deal with. Contemporary references, as a means of jazzing a period text, made their first appearance in the opera house, where it has long been supposed that the libretto of a piece by Offenbach or Lehar can be brought back from the dead if given a sprinkling of commentary based on current affairs. Since audiences for music will laugh at anything labelled as a joke, the case seemed proved, and the virus ensured that the same assumption was transferred to the spoken theatre, where we are now regularly assailed with crassly updated scripts whose directors, unburdened with any sense of humour of their own, are under the illusion that they can call in any catchpenny comic writer and get results that would have amazed Nestroy. They are right about that, but not in the way they think. Derek Mahon is not among the gag-writing journeymen. He knows even less than they do about comedy, as his jokes prove, but he knows much more about the texture of language. He should have known enough not to make Roxane sexually aware. ‘Real relations’ means sex, and Roxane is supposed to be thinking about love.

In the long run there might not be a lot of difference, but Rostand was writing about the short run, in which Roxane wants to be loved before she is touched, and Cyrano wants her to love him, even though unromanticized sex is something he knows all about. The original Cyrano certainly did: syphilis was probably what he died of. Rostand himself was one of the great boudoir operators of his time: among the actresses he conquered was Sarah Bernhardt, and among the illustrious women of the beau monde was the legendary Anna de Noailles. There is thus some warrant for supposing that the thing sticking out of Cyrano’s face might be a phallic symbol, and one of Derek Mahon’s inspired updates — Cyrano’s claim that his nose is a popular addition to his powers of cunnilingus — might not be without merit, although the way of putting it was sadly without grace. If Cyrano had rolled a condom onto his nose as a gesture towards safe sex, it would have been no more anachronistic than a jasmine tree assembled with a spanner, and might even have made a point; but only if modern points are the kind you want to make; and there is not much point in making those if they ruin the ones that are already there, and are essential to the plot.

One of the essential plot points is that Roxane, a woman young enough to be still thinking the way men think always, attributes all the virtues to Christian just because he is beautiful, even though he is as dumb as they come. Some of the most beautiful actors in the world are of exotic origin, but Zubin Varla is not among them. He is more beautiful than I am, but at the rate his temples are retreating he will soon have my hairstyle, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a knockout like Roxane would not fall for him at first meeting unless he spoke like Cyrano, whereas the whole point is that she falls for him before he starts speaking like Cyrano. I am sorry to labour the obvious, but the virus has driven me to it. One thing you should be able to count on with any theatre company, no matter how dedicated it might be to social engineering, is that if it wants to cast the role of a handsome, not very bright young man, there are plenty of candidates available. Worse than not looking especially gorgeous, Mr Varla looked as smart as a whip. Miscasting is never an actor’s fault, so we should confine ourselves to observing that here was a Christian with all the disqualifications, plus one more that Rostand would never have dreamed possible.

Christian turned out to be deaf. In the published text, wooing Roxane from below her scaffolding, he is merely hesitant when the hidden Cyrano prompts him. But during rehearsals somebody had a better idea, and so we were forced to listen when Christian turned Cyrano’s every suggested line into a string of off-colour puns. The audience did not laugh much, but kindly decided not to lynch him. Remarkably, Roxane decided not to either, and carried on listening as per the unjollified text, instead of parachuting off the back of the scaffolding and booking into the convent early. Luckily that was the low point for Christian. Later on, at the Thirty Years War, he got the chance to die an heroic death in defence of the scaffolding, which the enemy was attacking with machine guns. Those of us who had been hoping that it would be attacked with a Tomahawk cruise missile might have been disappointed, but for Christian, weak with hunger, it was time to climb the pipes, as men weak with hunger so often do. Thus elevated, he was shot in the chest and dived to an early death. The less fortunate Cyrano was obliged to keep breathing until his belated demise among the falling leaves. Luckily these were not represented by falling clamps and bolts. They were just words. In theory, words were all he had ever needed. Unfortunately he was never given the right ones.

Lying there in the arms of Claire Price — not normally the worst fate a man can imagine — Mr Rea must have felt his false nose weighing like a lead balloon. He is all too aware that in the 1983 Anthony Burgess version Derek Jacobi finished the evening with the audience pulling the walls in: men signed up for fencing class while women sobbed into each other’s handkerchiefs. As Antony Sher reveals in his memoir Beside Myself, Jacobi’s performance convinced him that he had no chance to play it handsome plus false nose, but should follow the lead set by his own looks, which he had never liked. He would observe the difference Burgess had drawn between ‘the visible soul’ and ‘the casual dress of flesh’. The Burgess version had enough zing to set the actors and the audience on fire. Burgess kept the exactness of the couplets even when he opened the rhyme scheme into quatrains. Before him, Christopher Fry had deftly done the whole thing in couplets. But for some reason we still think that strict rhymes mean restriction, and that to throw them away means freedom. Why?

Because it is true. In the English theatre, the norm of fluent speech was set by Shakespeare, who had all the technical skill to turn Chaucer’s narrative couplets into a viable dramatic form, but chose to do otherwise. He went for blank verse instead, thus establishing an expectation beside which a latticework of spoken rhymes will always sound artificial. Not even Dryden was powerful enough to put the expectation into reverse. For the French, the normal expectation has always been rhyming couplets. Corneille, Racine and Molière set a rhythm which rebellion could never break, but only work within. The first riot on the opening night of Victor Hugo’s Hernani took place when he broke the rule of always putting the adjective and noun inside the same hemistitch. The audience knew exactly what he was up to because they had been hearing classical couplets all their lives. Rostand could count on that universal expectation when he gave Cyrano the energy of a wild animal. The wild animal is in a cage, and what a French audience hears is its repeated assault on the bars. (You could even call them scaffolding if you like, but in French you would have to say échafaudage.) For Cyrano, however, his confinement does not mean prison. Without the fierce requirements of rhyme, his wit would never have been driven to its dizzy height, just as, without the burden of his nose, he would never have been compelled to the nobility of his sacrifice. The great truth at the heart of the play emerges even from this production: if we love someone we can’t have, but love them so much that we want them to be happy with someone else, it might not be as good as we’ll ever feel, but it’s probably as good as we’ll ever be.

TLS, 30 April 2004