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Find out more about Cyrano de Bergerac, and why James McAvoy and Peter Dinklage want to play the iconic character

3 February 2022 by Gillian Russo
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Cyrano de Bergerac

If shows like Hamilton and Six have shown anything, it’s that centuries-old historical figures aren’t just boring old subjects of history books. Their lives have intrigue, romance, and thrills that make for some truly exciting theatre — with a bit of dramatic embellishment, of course. The latest classical story to take the world by storm is Cyrano de Bergerac, a story of unrequited love and mistaken identities, which comes to both the stage and screen worldwide this year. The character of Cyrano believes his one true love won’t fall for him, so he uses his writing talent to help another man woo her instead.

Many Cyrano de Bergerac adaptations have taken place since Edmund Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac, premiered over a century ago. Most recently, a film adaptation of Erica Schmidt’s 2018 musical adaptation, Cyrano, is coming to theatres on February 25, with Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage in the title role of his first-ever movie musical. The film has gotten worldwide acclaim even before its release, earning two Golden Globe nominations (including Best Picture and a nod for Dinklage) and four British Academy Film Awards, including Outstanding British Film.

And on stage, the Jamie Lloyd Company’s contemporary adaptation returns from 3 February to 12 March at the Harold Pinter Theatre with its Olivier-nominated Cyrano, X-Men star James McAvoy, in tow. The production, which won the 2020 Olivier Award for Best Revival after its run at the Playhouse Theatre, will then travel to Scotland and the U.S. throughout spring 2022. Martin Crimp freely adapted the play for this version, in which poetry, beatboxing, and spoken word abound, but the story remains the same.

Before you go, read on to learn more about Cyrano de Bergerac, the near-mythic man at the center of the tale.

Book Cyrano de Bergerac tickets in London on TodayTix.

Who was Cyrano de Bergerac?

Cyrano de Bergerac was a French writer and duelist that lived during the 17th century. His life was brief — he lived to age 36, from about 6 March 1619 to 25 July 1655. So no one actually knows many details about him; we only even know basic biographical information because it’s in a preface to one of Cyrano’s posthumously published books.

But what we do know is that Cyrano was skilled with both the pen and the sword, and those traits alone inspired numerous writers like Rostand. The lack of information about Cyrano gave writers plenty of room to create their own interpretations. Here’s what we do know, and how Cyrano’s life came together for the stage.

Cyrano the duelist

Cyrano’s adventures as a swordsman were short-lived and poorly documented, but we can’t not include the fact that he knew how to swordfight. It’s cool, and it’s included plenty in Cyrano on stage and screen because it makes for mesmerizing theatre. In real life, Cyrano fought a battle in the Thirty Years’ War (which he also does in the play), got injured, and left the military to study literature and become…

Cyrano the writer, “scientist,” and… prophet?

If Cyrano were alive today, he’d probably be a columnist at The Onion, a sci-fi author, or both. He’s known for being a political satire and science-fantasy writer with a scathing wit. His books Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune and Histoire comique des états et empires du soleilComical History of the Moon and Sun, respectively — are often considered some of the first science fiction books ever written!

In the books, Cyrano wrote about fictional journeys through space, and made fun of the idea that all of creation revolved around humans and Earth, a belief that was still fairly popular even though it was scientifically so last century, thanks to Copernicus. He even “predicted” later advancements, such as the phonograph and the atomic structure of matter, in his writing, but not scientifically — they were just fantastical ideas of his that were realized later. It’s like if the Back to the Future time machine ever gets invented.

Besides being the main character of Rostand’s play, the real Cyrano was also a playwright himself! He wrote a tragedy and a comedy, and the latter inspired another French playwright — the very famous Molière — to base some scenes of one of his own plays on it. In between writing all that literature, Cyrano was also a prolific letter-writer, which is what the Cyrano de Bergerac play focuses on. During the Cyrano show, Cyrano’s letters get him into a tricky romantic mix-up — more on that later.

Speaking of which, Cyrano’s writing ability gives the play’s various adapters plenty of fodder — between writing, speaking, singing, and even rapping, there’s tons of ways to show skill with words on stage. Schmidt’s period film adaptation keeps Cyrano as an old-fashioned letter-writer, but Lloyd’s period-ambiguous adaptation sees Cyrano perform spoken-word poetry that even borders on rap, complete with modern slang. And it works: “It’s radical in lots of ways but it’s quite classical as well,” McAvoy said in an interview with The Guardian. “Martin [Crimp] really sticks to the couplets and rhyme of Rostand’s original, more than a lot of versions.”

Cyrano the romantic

Okay, that’s a bit of a misleading title, as Cyrano never actually married or fell for anyone, at least not in historical record. But love makes for interesting theatre, so the Cyrano de Bergerac play has Cyrano pine for the fair Roxane, whose character is based on Cyrano’s actual cousin. The two weren’t in a relationship in real life — the real Roxane married one of Cyrano’s fellow soldiers, the Baron Christian of Neuvillette, which inspired the love triangle in Rostand’s play (where none of them are related). Ah, love triangles and the unrequited love trope; after four centuries, they never get old.

In the play, Cyrano believes Roxane won’t love him on account of his appearance, so he helps Christian woo her instead. But although Cyrano’s pride and insecurity keeps him from loving, Cyrano is still a love story. In fact, Schmidt hopes audiences are inspired by the film adaptation to carve their own love stories: “I hope that they want to tell the person that they love how they feel.”

However, even though there’s no proven or agreed-upon record of a Cyrano relationship, there are some biographers that claim he had a homosexual relationship with poet/musician Charles Coypeau d’Assoucy — before they became bitter rivals and wrote letters attacking each other. Bad breakup? Lovers-to-enemies? Maybe that’ll be the subject of the next Cyrano adaptation.

James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac
James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac. (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Separating fact and fiction in the Cyrano de Bergerac play

So how do all these bits and pieces of Cyrano’s life come together on stage? In the original play, Cyrano is a noble, witty writer and soldier. But for all his talents, he believes he is too ugly to be loved, especially by his beautiful longtime friend Roxane, because he has a very large nose. (Based on the main surviving drawing of him, at the top of this article, the size of his nose is also a fact.)

Along comes his fellow soldier, the Baron Christian of Neuvillette, who falls for Roxane in the meantime. Christian is the opposite of Cyrano: he’s handsome, but hasn’t an ounce of wit or writing talent in his body. So he asks Cyrano to write love letters to Roxane in his place. Cyrano’s happy to do it and express all his bottled-up feelings with no risk, but you can imagine how things get complicated when Roxane wants to meet the man with the beautiful way with words.

Even though the characters’ names, looks, and talents are mostly based in fact, Cyrano de Bergerac‘s whole mistaken-identity plot and love triangle are pure fiction. There are also some less-important elements that are changed, like the fact that Cyrano is still an active soldier during the play even though he left the military long before becoming a career writer. In the Jamie Lloyd Company production, adapter Martin Crimp takes even more liberties still from Rostand’s script to make it more contemporary.

The basic story, full of mystery, comedy, and action, remains unchanged. Even though Cyrano lived hundreds of years ago, his legend is timeless.

Cyrano de Bergerac adaptations

Now that you know all about Cyrano, you’re well-prepared to catch his story on stage and screen — and you’ll see some major stars when you do. Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage is playing the title character on screen, and X-Men actor James McAvoy is traveling Europe and the U.S., reprising the role of Cyrano on stage after first playing him in 2019. What drew them to the tale of Cyrano? Read on to find out.

Cyrano film, starring Peter Dinklage

If you’ve ever seen the Pride and Prejudice film starring Keira Knightley, you have an idea of what to expect from Cyrano: tender romance (hindered by pride) and beautiful period sets and costumes, the specialty of their common director, Joe Wright. He’s actually the one who approached Erica Schmidt, who premiered her musical version of Cyrano in Connecticut in 2018, about turning it into a film.

Wright knew from the start that he wanted Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett (of films like The Equalizer and Hillbilly Elegy, and who now plays Roxane) in his film, as they first played the roles in the Connecticut production. “There was never a moment when it wasn’t going to be Haley,” Schmidt said of the Roxane casting, in part because Wright and Bennett are a couple. You might think that Schmidt, as Dinklage’s wife, wrote the adaptation with him in mind, but it was actually the opposite!

Dinklage offered to read the part for the composers (Matt Berninger and Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National), who were meeting with Schmidt to decide whether to work on the show. “I, frankly, was a little bit worried, because he’s brilliant, but he’s super famous and everything becomes about him,” Schmidt said with a laugh. “And the minute he read it, I was like, I must have written it for you. It’s perfect. It’s incredible. He was so good.”

It was a stroke of luck, Schmidt continued. “He didn’t do all of the readings that we did, but when he didn’t, it felt like it was missing him. And then he wanted to do the play in Connecticut, so then we started working on it together … I was lucky he was in the house where I live!”

Schmidt’s adaptation also gets rid of Cyrano’s oversized nose, which he thinks makes him unlovable. Some have assumed that, as Dinklage has a form of dwarfism, his size is a substitute for the nose in the Cyrano film. But this isn’t true — according to Schmidt, there isn’t supposed to be one visible “thing” that makes Cyrano think he’s dislikeable. His insecurity stands in for whatever any person doesn’t like in themselves or someone else, and makes Cyrano a universal story of not letting oneself stand in the way of love.

Cyrano de Bergerac play, starring James McAvoy

Jamie Lloyd’s Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation also gets rid of Cyrano’s big nose from the Rostand play — and a lot more than that, too. Martin Crimp took plenty of liberties with the original script, and you’ll notice that from the moment you see James McAvoy standing in front of a mic, clad in edgy black leather.

Lloyd discarded the nose because to him, the show is about “objectification,” according to McAvoy in The Guardian — glorifying Roxane as an ideal that neither she nor Cyrano can live up to. He discarded all the other period elements because, well, this wasn’t a period piece. According to McAvoy, actors are performing heightened versions of themselves, in slightly more theatrical versions of what they wear in real life, rather than “characters in costumes,” as it were.

See Cyrano de Bergerac on stage and you’ll see real-life rappers and beatboxers bringing that work to the stage, and McAvoy as Cyrano, but also himself, leading us through the action as though it were an acted-out retelling at a poetry slam. You’ll see plenty of daring sword-fighting and quick-witted wordplay, too, just like in any other Cyrano adaptation. These battles just now include rap battles.

Book Cyrano de Bergerac tickets in London on TodayTix.