Cyrano de Bergerac – Act I, scenes i–iii

Valvert: Your
nose is . . . very big.
Cyrano: Yes, very.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary — Act I, scene i
In the year 1640, the Hall of the
Hotel de Bourgogne—a large, crowded Parisian theater—buzzes with
activity in the minutes before a performance of the play La
Clorise. People mill about and converse, divided according
to their social class. A citizen guides his son through the room,
impressing upon him the intellectual magnitude of the performance.
A thief moves through the crowd, stealing handkerchiefs and purses.
A group of pages runs about firing peashooters at one another. Two
elegant marquises, with swords strapped to their waists, tread through
the crowd, aloof and condescending. The lamps are lit, and the crowd
cheers, knowing the performance will commence soon.
Summary — Act I, scene ii
The audience waits for the play to begin. The disheveled
satirist Ligniere enters, arm in arm, with the handsome young nobleman Baron
Christian de Neuvillette, who tells a group of admiring marquises
that he has been in Paris only two or three weeks and that he will
join the guards tomorrow. Ligniere has come to report to Christian
about the woman with whom Christian has fallen in love. Christian
says she is always at the plays. But she has not arrived yet, and
Ligniere prepares to leave—he says he needs to find a tavern. When
a refreshment girl passes by with wine, Ligniere agrees to stay. Ragueneau,
a baker who caters to and idolizes poets, enters, looking for Cyrano
de Bergerac. He says he expects trouble because an actor named Montfleury
is performing in the play. He knows Cyrano hates Montfleury and
has banned him from performing onstage for a month.
Christian has never heard of Cyrano de Bergerac, but
Ragueneau and Ligniere seem to be almost in awe of him. Christian
asks who Cyrano is, and his friend Le Bret says that Cyrano is the
“most delightful man under the sun.” The others describe him as
a poet, swordsman, scientist, musician, and “wild swashbuckler”
with a long sword. They also say he has an unbelievably long and
imposing nose. But he is a formidable figure, and Le Bret, who serves
with Cyrano in the guards, says he too expects trouble.
Suddenly, Christian spies the woman with whom he has
fallen in love. Ligniere tells him that she is Roxane, a brilliant,
young heiress and intellectual. She sits in a box with a somewhat
older man—the Comte de Guiche, who is also in love with her. Ligniere
says the Comte is married and hopes to marry Roxane to his lackey,
the Vicomte de Valvert. Christian is most upset to learn that Roxane
is an intellectual. Ligniere leaves to find a tavern, and there
is still no sign of Cyrano. The crowd grows anxious for the play
to begin.
Summary — Act I, scene iii
The two marquises discuss de Guiche distastefully as he
walks toward them. Christian observes their exchange. Christian
decides to challenge de Guiche’s lackey, Valvert, to a duel; as
he reaches for his glove, with which he plans to challenge Valvert
by slapping him in the face with it, he catches the hand of a pickpocket.
In exchange for his release, the thief tells Christian that Ligniere’s
latest satire has offended a powerful man, who has arranged for
Ligniere to be ambushed by a hundred men later that night on his
way home. Christian leaves to save Ligniere.
The crowd begins to chant for the play. Three raps sound
from the stage, and the crowd becomes quiet. The curtains open.
The violins play. Le Bret and Ragueneau decide that Cyrano must
not be in the audience since Montfleury, the actor whom Cyrano detests,
is about to make his entrance. Dressed as a shepherd, the pudgy
actor walks onto the stage and begins to deliver a speech. Suddenly,
a voice from the crowd cries out, “Haven’t I ordered you off the
stage for a month, you wretched scoundrel?” The speaker is hidden,
but Le Bret knows it must be Cyrano. Montfleury makes several attempts
to begin his lines, but the heckling speaker continues to interrupt
him. Cyrano finally stands upon his chair, and his appearance creates
a stir throughout the audience.
Analysis — Act I, scenes i–iii
This long scene introduces a host of important
characters, the main facts of the story, and a suspenseful, miniature
story line designed to demonstrate the overwhelming character of
Cyrano de Bergerac. The exchanges between the characters in the
first two scenes provide the ground for the subsequent action of
the play, heightening the suspense surrounding Cyrano’s character
by keeping him physically absent until just after the performance
begins. Cyrano stands apart from the rest of the characters, who
appear to be somewhat dull and predictable.
Rostand’s play romanticizes an era that was looked upon
nostalgically by some nineteenth-century writers. Written around 1897, Cyrano
de Bergerac is set in 1640. The
play is not a realistic interpretation of the time it describes,
but rather a historical romance, designed to evoke the glory of
France during the age of Louis XIII and to provide an entertaining
escape for its audience. The play takes many of its stereotypical
representations from Dumas’s popular novel The Three Musketeers. Several
references to Dumas’s work appear in the play. In Act I, scene iv,
after Cyrano fights in a dramatic duel, his friend Cuigy wittily
claims that Cyrano’s name is Dartagnan. (D’Artagnan is the hero
of Dumas’s novel, written 200 years after
the time in which Cyrano de Bergerac is set.) Later,
Le Bret admonishes Cyrano to “stop trying to be Three Musketeers
in one!”
The opening scenes emphasize the importance of the theater
in seventeenth-century France. The theater patrons include thieves, lackeys,
pages, and cavaliers—a veritable cross section of French society
at the time. Several patrons come to the theater to do everything
but watch the play. Some pick pockets, others play cards, others want
to be seen and improve their social status. Rostand parodies inattentive
audiences and supposedly bad actors like Montfleury to provide a
critique of the theater of his era. By opening
the play with such a critical portrayal, Rostand captures the audience’s
attention and subtly encourages them to listen up and behave appropriately.
Summary — Act I, scene iv
Montfleury cries out to the group of marquises for help,
and several respond. They try to quiet Cyrano, who invokes several
poetic metaphors as he threatens to kill them all: “Please
have pity on my sword: if you don’t stop shouting you’ll frighten
it out of its scabbard.” As the crowd gasps and strains to see,
Cyrano offers a universal challenge to the marquises, saying he
will take their names and fight them each in turn. None of the marquises
take his challenge. He gives Montfleury to the count of three to
leave the stage, and the actor flees.
The crowd is in a tumult. Cyrano proclaims that Montfleury
is a horrible actor and that the play is wretched. Moreover, Cyrano
says he has personal reasons for forbidding Montfleury to perform.
The manager of the stage indignantly asks about the money he will
lose from the performance, and Cyrano dramatically tosses him a
purse full of gold. A meddler storms up to Cyrano and declares that
Montfleury has a powerful patron. Cyrano exclaims that he himself
has no patron or any need for one because he can protect himself
with his sword. He accuses the meddler of staring at his nose, and
he bullies him about the room. Cowed, the meddler insists that he
was not staring and suggests that Cyrano’s nose is small. Cyrano
angrily exclaims that his nose is magnificent.

De Guiche declares to Valvert that Cyrano is tiresome.
Valvert agrees to put him in his place and, approaching Cyrano,
tries to goad him by saying that Cyrano has a “very big” nose. Affecting astonishment
at the man’s lack of wit, Cyrano offers a long list of better insults
that he himself might have used in Valvert’s situation. He continues
to mock Valvert, who challenges him to a duel. Cyrano declares that
as he fights Valvert, he will speak an extemporaneous poem and kill
Valvert on the last line.
Enthralled, the crowd forms a ring around the combatants.
Cyrano and Valvert draw their swords and begin to fight. As they
fight, Cyrano invents a poem that matches exactly the action of
the duel. As promised, on the last line of the refrain, he thrusts,
and Valvert falls backward, beaten and badly wounded. The crowd
cheers ecstatically. Gradually, the crowd disperses for dinner.
Le Bret asks Cyrano why he does not go to eat and Cyrano replies
that he has no money. Le Bret asks about the purse of gold Cyrano
threw to the stage manager, Bellerose, and Cyrano reveals that it
was all the money he had and that it should have lasted him for
a month. The refreshment girl offers him food. Eager not to injure
his pride or betray a lack of respect for the girl’s offer, he accepts
only one grape, a half of a macaroon, and a glass of water.
Summary — Act I, scene v
Le Bret reminds Cyrano that his extravagant behavior is
making him enemies. Cyrano says that the thought of having so many
enemies makes him happy. Cyrano confides in Le Bret that he has
insecurities concerning his nose and his romantic failures. He also reveals
to Le Bret that he hates Montfleury because one day Montfleury glanced
flirtatiously at the woman whom Cyrano loves. Le Bret asks about
the woman but quickly realizes that the only woman beautiful and
brilliant enough for Cyrano to love must be Roxane. Cyrano says
that given his appearance, he can never reveal his love.
Summary — Act I, scene vi
Roxane’s duenna appears and interrupts their conversation.
She has a message for Cyrano: Roxane wants to see him. Tremendously excited,
and perhaps a bit nervous, he agrees to meet her at Ragueneau’s
shop at seven o’clock the next morning.
Summary — Act I, scene vii
Ligniere rushes in. He tells Cyrano about the hundred
men waiting at the Porte de Nesle to kill him and announces that
he is too afraid to go home. He asks if Cyrano can host him for
the evening, but Cyrano scoffs: “A hundred men, you say?—You’ll
sleep at home tonight!” He declares that he will fight all hundred
men and escort Ligniere safely home. Le Bret asks why Cyrano would
want to help a drunkard, and Cyrano says that he once saw Ligniere
drink a whole font of holy water dry after a beautiful woman had
blessed herself with it. For a gesture like that, he says, he will
-protect Ligniere.
The actors and musicians rehearsing in the theater buzz
about Cyrano’s behavior. He tells them that he wants an audience
and that they can follow him. But he warns them that he wants no
protection. As he strides boldly out of the theater, the crowd forms
a procession to follow him to the Porte de Nestle.
Analysis — Act I, scenes iv–vii
In these scenes, Cyrano appears almost superhuman in his
grace, agility, and wit. He demonstrates his uncanny sense of humor
and his willingness to laugh at himself and his nose. In standing
up to Valvert, he shows off his unparalleled wit, as well as his
courage and strength. His ability to compose a ballad while simultaneously
displaying his talent for swordfighting is remarkable. His display
of modesty and humility toward the theater patrons and the refreshment
girl shows his gentlemanly nature. Cyrano’s unsightly nose becomes
only one of many characteristics that distinguish him from everyone
else in the play. This first act establishes Cyrano as uniquely
gifted and heroic. More than merely a central character, he is a
living legend.
Cyrano also shows his humble side in these scenes. He
presents his heroism and eclectic skills to the public, and shows
his emotional turmoil and self-doubt to his closest friends. He
explains to Le Bret that he sometimes becomes depressed because
of his nose and because he is not like the other lovers he sees.
In some ways, his sense of alienation seems to prompt Cyrano to
search for love even more ardently. But he is also unreasonably
tough on himself, focusing only on his failures, imperfections,
and weaknesses.
Rostand subtitles Cyrano de Bergerac a
“heroic comedy,” a description that applies perfectly to the first
act. Cyrano’s brash, arrogant behavior is so astonishing that his
ridiculously long nose, which might otherwise be the defining feature
of his character, is humorous only for a moment. The nose becomes
another extraordinary feature of this extraordinary character, and
we are moved to laugh with Cyrano rather than at him. Rostand successfully
diverts the tendency to fixate on Cyrano’s odd appearance by emphasizing his
extraordinary character instead. Cyrano’s countless displays of wit,
valor, and heroism—most notably his resolve to defend Ligniere from
a hundred men—make him into an exaggerated stereotype of the swashbuckling,
seventeenth-century poet-cavalier.
There is an inherent parallel between the audience in
the Hotel de Bourgogne and the audience watching (or reading) Rostand’s
play. The reactions of the crowd enable us to sense the scope and
magnitude of Cyrano’s feats. They shout platitudes and celebratory
adjectives that help put Cyrano’s feats into perspective, evoking
a sense of immediacy and presence.