By Robert Gibby Brand
It is a remarkable anomaly that one of the great star vehicles for English speaking actors in the last one hundred and twenty years is a French character in a French play – Cyrano de Bergerac.
From Richard Mansfield (who first attempted the role in English) through Hampden, Ferrer, Richardson, Jacobi, Klein, Sher and a host of others, the soldier with the prodigious proboscis has haunted our theatre history like few other “foreign” roles. Yet who recalls the creator?
Edmond Rostand tailored the role of “Cyrano” for Constant Coquelin (1841-1909). This son of a Burgundian baker won first prize in comedy at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1859 and debuted at the Comédie Française in Molière’s Le Dépit amoureux in 1860. He was clearly destined to follow the classic French low comedian line of characters written by Molière, Régnard and Beaumarchais. Physically he was of medium height, stocky, of brisk energy, with a cheerful round countenance surmounted by a smallish upturned nose. No producer would consider him for the great tragic roles of Corneille or Racine. This same prejudice plagued Ralph Richardson in the 1930’s.
His great contemporary, Sarah Bernhardt, quietly thought his lack of success in tragedy was less a result of his physique and more the fact that he reportedly performed his roles from “the outside,” and did not disturb his inner poise by embracing the character’s passion himself. This subjection of passion and reason was articulated in various articles on “Acting and Actors” that Coquelin wrote in the mid 1880’s. Henry Irving replied in a vigorous rebuttal favoring emotional identification. The public, however, cared not a jot for theory, and Coquelin was acclaimed both in French and non-French speaking countries.
Vive le Coq et vive Rostand!