I have been with folk tales and myths for too long, and you will start to think that is the only thing I read. I assure you that is not the case, and for proof I present one of my favourite plays in any language, Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand.
Written two years before the turn of the century (from 19th to 20th, that is), Cyrano is presented as a homage to a past age, even for his time the epitome of a dying breed of chevaliers. The historical Cyrano, on which this character is loosely based, lived in early 1600s, just around the time that Miyamoto Musashi made his transition from samurai to sage and wrote The Book of Five Rings.
The fictional Cyrano is a samurai type of hero. At one time he literally quotes poetry while he dispatching an opponent with his rapier, like a man wielding a haiku and a katana with simultaneous ease. He cares nothing for money, everything for honour. You have to admire a man who responds to a nobleman’s sneer about his lack of gloves by remarking that in truth he only has one left from a very old pair, having left the other glove in someone’s face (for those who don’t know, or have forgotten, the way to challenge someone to a duel in those simpler times was to smack them in the face with a glove). And yet, though he possesses such courage, such conviction, such panache, he is unable to tell the woman he loves how he feels about her. Instead, he helps her get the man that she does love by giving Christian, a handsome but thick-headed young cadet, the right words to woo her by.
The central theme of the play and all subsequent plays and movies derived from it (for example, Roxanne and The Truth about Cats and Dogs) is that external beauty and internal worth will always be in competition, and that the former is more likely to win though we may root for the latter. However, there is a line in the play that belies this simplistic analysis. There is no doubt that Christian is a good sort, courageous, dependable and honourable. However, he is severely deficient when it comes to eloquence. When he at last discovers that Roxane no longer loves him merely because he is handsome but because of the beautiful words that he writes, and that Cyrano loves Roxane, he is indignant and insists that Roxane should be told, that it is unfair for him to stand in the way of Cyrano’s happiness just because he has the good looks and Cyrano doesn’t. Then Cyrano returns that it would be just as unfair for him to stand in the way of Christian’s happiness simply because he has the gift of expressing what Christian perhaps feels but is incapable of saying. Suddenly, Christian no longer looks like the more fortunate man. If he has an advantage in his physical beauty, he certainly has a disadvantage in his intellectual deficiencies, and while both beauty and intelligence in one person would be perfect, Roxane is more likely to desire the soul than the shell. Sometimes the superficially beautiful are not to be envied, but pitied, for they too can say with Christian, ‘I want to be loved for myself, or not at all’ (… je veux être aimé moi-même, ou pas de tout!).
Cyrano de Bergerac is not only about love, but about friendship, and the code of honour between two men who love the same woman. In fact, it is more about honour than it is about love, for honour requires sacrifice of the self’s desires to the greater benefit of the beloved friend, country, or sweetheart. It says something that Cyrano is able to carry the cross of sacrifice not like a burden of victimhood unchosen, but as a soldier who chooses battle with honour and pride. There is no happy ending, at least not in the Hollywood sense, but the dénouement is somehow bittersweet, as if there could have been no other way for it to unfold without fully celebrating the beautiful soul that was Cyrano’s.
It’s all about the panache.