Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reader's Diary #441- Edmond Rostand (playwright) and Lowell Bair (translation): Cyrano de Bergerac

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that his favourite movie was the 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gerard Depardieu. Without having seen it, I thought it was an odd choice, but a good odd, not Sister Act 2 odd.

I was somewhat familiar with Cyrano's story. It's been parodied about a million times. But I still wanted to see it for myself. So, I Ziplisted the DVD, and while I waited for it to arrive figured that I might as well read the play, too, since it'd been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time and since it was a sort of a New Year's reader resolution of mine to read more plays.

I really enjoyed the story. It begins as if it's going to be a simple tale of inner versus outer beauty. The reader anticipates that Roxane will eventually have to choose between the handsome, but somewhat tongue-tied Christian and the eloquent and romantic, but grotesquely big nosed Cyrano. Surely this is just another fairy tale with a pretty obvious moral. But towards the middle it's as if Rostand begins to lose control over the simplicity or else it's all been a ploy, and this slowly unveiling treatise has been his intention all along. Christian, it turns out, is not the buffoon the fairy tale requires. He may not be a man of words, but he is honourable and his love for Roxane is genuine. For the whole "inner versus outer beauty" theme to transpire we need him to be a brute, yet he is not. As for Cyrano, he himself points out that love poems do not always imply sincerity:
If the expression of feeling is refined too much, the feeling itself is lost. The soul is emptied by such vain pastimes, and love dies, smothered under a mass of flowery words that were meant to embellish it.
Make no mistake, Cyrano truly loves Roxane, but she is duly warned that romantic and pleasing words can't always be a measure of true love. Good-bye fairy tale.

It's for the pacing of the book that I preferred it to the movie. The book felt like a slow walk into the deep end, the movie felt like plunging right into the deep but occasionally coming up for gasps of air. I enjoyed the movie, it just wasn't the same interpretation I had.

It was interesting to compare the translations. Bair translated my version and he didn't attempt the rhyming of the French original. Instead, he tried to match the rhythm and meaning. The subtitles in this movie were taken from a rhyming translation by Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange author) though some of the meaning seemed lost or altered. Henry Hewes writes an afterword in my book that speaks of various translations and there's also a great discussion of more here. For me, the translations became Cyrano and Christian: two desired traits, unfortunately not in the same work. The French translation is as elusive to me as the handsome and articulate man was to Roxane.


Anonymous said...

Cyrano has long been my favourite play. Perhaps it was because it was the first professional stage play I saw (Starring Len Cariou at MTC). My copy of the play is old and dog-eared from many re-reads. Perhaps it is time again.

John Mutford said...

Kiggavik: I'd love to see it live. Who wrote your translation, or are you able to read it in French?

Anonymous said...

Well, I would be able to read it in French but not with enough of a command of the language to come anywhere near appreciating it.

My copy is translated by Brian Hooker. There is no forward but a page before the title page says it was "made especially for the great actor Walter Hampden."

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in this article on Hooker's translation...

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, John! I've never read the play nor thought about the various translations but it sounds like an excellent exercise to add to my list. It's truly eye opening how differently language can be translated.