Among the proverbs of Spanish folk-lore there is a saying that good wine retains its flavor in spite of rude bottles and cracked cups. The success of M. Rostand’s brilliant drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, in its English dress proves once more the truth of this adage. The fun and pathos, the wit and satire, of the original pierce through the halting, feeble translation like light through a ragged curtain, dazzling the spectators and setting their enthusiasm ablaze.
Those who love the theatre at its best, when it appeals to our finer instincts and moves us to healthy laughter and tears, owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Mansfield for his courage in giving us, as far as the difference of language and rhythm would allow, this chef d’œuvre unchanged, free from the mutilations of the adapter, with the author’s wishes and the stage decorations followed into the smallest detail. In this way we profit by the vast labor and study which Rostand and Coquelin gave to the original production.
Rumors of the success attained by this play in Paris soon floated across to us. The two or three French booksellers here could not import the piece fast enough to meet the ever increasing demand of our reading public. By the time spring came, there were few cultivated people who had not read the new work and discussed its original language and daring treatment.
On arriving in Paris, my first evening was passed at the Porte St. Martin. After the piece was over, I dropped into Coquelin’s dressing-room to shake this old acquaintance by the hand and give him news of his many friends in America.
Coquelin in his dressing-room is one of the most delightful of mortals. The effort of playing sets his blood in motion and his wit sparkling. He seemed as fresh and gay that evening as though there were not five killing acts behind him and the fatigue of a two-hundred-night run, uninterrupted even by Sundays, added to his “record.”
After the operation of removing his historic nose had been performed and the actor had resumed his own clothes and features, we got into his carriage and were driven to his apartment in the Place de l’Etoile, a cosy museum full of comfortable chairs and priceless bric-à-brac. The conversation naturally turned during supper on the piece and this new author who had sprung in a night from obscurity to a globe-embracing fame. How, I asked, did you come across the play, and what decided you to produce it?
Coquelin’s reply was so interesting that it will be better to repeat the actor’s own words as he told his tale over the dismantled table in the tranquil midnight hours.
“I had, like most Parisians, known Rostand for some time as the author of a few graceful verses and a play (Les Romanesques) which passed almost unnoticed at the Fran�ais.
“About four years ago Sarah Bernhardt asked me to her ‘hôtel’ to hear M. Rostand read a play he had just completed for her. I accepted reluctantly, as at that moment we were busy at the theatre. I also doubted if there could be much in the new play to interest me. It was La Princesse Lointaine. I shall remember that afternoon as long as I live! From the first line my attention was riveted and my senses were charmed. What struck me as even more remarkable than the piece was the masterly power and finish with which the boyish author delivered his lines. Where, I asked myself, had he learned that difficult art? The great actress, always quick to respond to the voice of art, accepted the play then and there.
“After the reading was over I walked home with M. Rostand, and had a long talk with him about his work and ambitions. When we parted at his door, I said: ‘In my opinion, you are destined to become the greatest dramatic poet of the age; I bind myself here and now to take any play you write (in which there is a part for me) without reading it, to cancel any engagements I may have on hand, and produce your piece with the least possible delay.’ An offer I don’t imagine many young poets have ever received, and which I certainly never before made to any author.