Act 1, scene 1
The play opens in the year 1640 in the theater at the Hotel de Bourgogne in Paris, France. Preparations are under way for a performance of the play La Clorise. Members of the audience from all social classes, pickpockets, and an orange-girl arrive. Two gentlemen practice fencing. A middle-class man (the Bourgeois) looks disapprovingly at the drinking, fighting, and gambling taking place among the audience and reflects that the place has sunk into disrepute since the great tragedies were performed there. As the chandeliers are lit in readiness for the performance, the audience gathers around in anticipation. The handsome young Baron Christian de Neuvillette enters with the satirist Lignière, who is drunk.
Act 1, scene 2
Lignière introduces Christian to some Marquises. Christian has just arrived in Paris to join the Guards. The Marquises think that Christian is not very fashionably dressed; they are more interested in the aristocratic and literary ladies who are taking their places in the boxes. Lignière has come to help Christian identify a lady with whom he (Christian) is in love. The pastry-cook Ragueneau arrives. Lignière introduces him to Christian, explaining that Ragueneau is a lover of poetry who accepts poems as payment for his pastries. Ragueneau is excited to know if Cyrano, another member of the Guards, is here. The actor Montfleury is performing tonight and Cyrano has forbidden him to appear on the stage for the rest of the month. Cyrano’s friends talk of him as a brilliant poet, swordsman, philosopher, and musician. They seem in awe of him. Ragueneau mentions that Cyrano has an enormous nose, and Le Bret warns that Cyrano will fight anyone who comments on it.
Roxane, a beautiful young woman and the object of Christian’s affections, arrives and sits in a box. Lignière tells Christian that she is Cyrano’s cousin. He adds that she is an intellectual. Christian is despondent at this news. Roxane is accompanied by the Comte de Guiche, a nobleman who is in love with her. He is already married, so he plans to marry her off to one of his protégés, the Vicomte de Valvert, who would turn a blind eye to any affair that de Guiche began with Roxane. Roxane and Christian exchange gazes. Lignière leaves to find a tavern. There is still no sign of Cyrano. The crowd impatiently calls for the play to begin.
Act 1, scene 3
As de Guiche and Valvert walk towards the stage, Christian decides to challenge Valvert to a duel over Roxane. As he reaches into his pocket for his glove to slap Valvert across the face by way of challenge, he encounters the hand of a pickpocket. In exchange for his release, the pickpocket tells Christian that Lignière is in trouble. Lignière has offended an important nobleman by writing a satirical song about him, and the nobleman has arranged for Lignière to be ambushed by a hundred men at the Porte de Nesle on his way home. Christian runs off to rescue Lignière.
De Guiche, Valvert, and the Marquises take their seats on the stage. The crowd chants for the play to begin. Montfleury, a fat and untalented actor, comes on stage dressed as a shepherd and begins his speech. A voice from the pit is heard crying out, “Fool, have I not forbidden you the stage?” Though the speaker is hidden, Le Bret and Cuigy are certain that it is Cyrano. Each time Montfleury tries to continue his speech, the speaker interrupts and threatens him. Montfleury’s voice grows fainter and fainter. Finally, Cyrano stands up on his chair, creating a stir among the audience.
Analysis of Act 1, scenes 1–3
These scenes introduce the social and cultural background, the characters, and the first seeds of the plot. The theater is presented as a microcosm (miniature version) of Parisian society, bringing together people from all social backgrounds and walks of life. Poetry and literature are unifying influences: the marquises idolize the literary ladies, while the pastry-cook Ragueneau sells his wares in exchange for poems. In fact, poetry is so important in this culture that it is a matter of life and death: Lignière’s life is threatened because he wrote a satirical song about a nobleman.
One of Rostand’s themes in Cyrano de Bergerac is what he saw as the decline of French society and culture. This is already evident in the Bourgeois’s disapproving comments on the low-life activities taking place among the theater audience, compared with the great tragedies that used to be performed there, such as those of the seventeenth-century French playwrights Jean Rotrou and Pierre Corneille. The nobility have become decadent and foolish, as is shown in the petty snobberies of the Marquises, who disdain Christian because he is not dressed in the latest fashion, and fawn upon de Guiche because he is successful.
Against such foolish and inconsequential characters is set the play’s hero, Cyrano. Though Cyrano is spoken of at length, he is not seen until the end of scene 3. He is described by his friends as an excellent poet, swordsman, philosopher, and musician: in short, the epitome of the seventeenth-century cavalier ideal of the courtier-soldier-poet.
Cyrano’s reputation precedes him. A section of the audience waits with bated breath to see whether he will appear at the play, as Montfleury is playing the lead and Cyrano has forbidden him the stage. If Montfleury appears, the audience knows there will be trouble. He is spoken of as an extraordinary, larger-than-life character, and thus suspense builds around him. In fact, there are three layers of suspense in this part of the play: the play audience’s expectation of the actor Montfleury appearing in the play, La Clorise; Cyrano’s friends’ expectation of Cyrano, whose arrival promises far more momentous entertainment than Montfleury; and finally, the expectation of the reader (or audience) of the play Cyrano de Bergerac as they await the appearance of this extraordinary character Cyrano.
As well as his exceptional abilities, Cyrano’s great flaw, his enormous nose, is mentioned. Ragueneau’s comment that Cyrano will fight anyone who remarks on it both conveys Cyrano’s sensitivity over this trait and foreshadows the conflicts that are sure to spring up around the subject. The fact that Cyrano’s friends only mention his nose after they have listed his other great qualities puts his flaw into perspective. To them, it seems relatively unimportant, or just another way in which Cyrano is extraordinary, but Cyrano does not share their view. His insecurity over his nose rules his life.
Christian is a foil to Cyrano and his opposite. While Cyrano is extraordinary on the inside but physically unattractive on the outside, Christian is a very ordinary young man blessed with unusual good looks. Christian’s love for Roxane sets up the main conflict that drives the plot. The glance they exchange in the theater establishes the immediate physical attraction between them, but Christian’s concern over Lignière’s description of her as an intellectual shows his weak point. Unlike the brilliant Cyrano, Christian is dull of mind. While Cyrano represents inward beauty, Christian represents outward beauty.
Cyrano de Bergerac: Summary
Act 1, scene 1