The art of writing a review that is simultaneously scathing, honest, discursive and informative on broader subjects apparently lives on in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, in which Clive James reviews a dubious new production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.
The essay is rich in incident and insight, and it is all I can do to remind myself of copyright laws and to resist simply reprinting the entire thing here. Lengthy highlights follow, beginning with Mr. James entering the theatre only to encounter the Last Refuge of the Scoundrelly Designer:
Things never looked promising to begin with. In the Olivier Theatre there is no curtain to go up, so the audience, as it came in, was already faced with the huge and deadly suggestion that the sets would consist mainly of scaffolding. This turned out to be true, although the space-station centrifugal stage machinery was occasionally put into operation so that the scaffolding could be seen from a different angle. On its first appearance, the vast metallic structure was dotted with supernumeraries whose weary attitudes suggested that they might have expired from boredom while bolting it together. Ever since the first post-War translations of Brecht spread their pervasive influence, student productions of any play at all have characteristically established their dedication to the alienation effect with precisely those two elements: scaffolding, and an opening tableau of underemployed walk-ons.
With scaffolding supplanting Paris, the production also downsizes Cyrano's traditional accoutrements:
[Rostand] cared like mad about theatricality. He wanted the full romantic tackle, and he wanted it to swash until it buckled. Cloak, plumed hat and proper sword: he specified them all for his dynamic hero. It was thus three times a bad sign when Cyrano made his entrance minus any of them. The plume sprouting from Cyrano’s hat is meant to be the mark of his panache. In French it is actually called a panache, and provides the once inexhaustibly prolix Cyrano with his dying word, the last word of the play. The plume on Stephen Rea’s hat was a shy puff instead of a proudly flying banner. The sword was a sword-stick: a different thing, and not appropriate for holding Cyrano’s cloak extended at the back, as one of his friends describes.
But he had no cloak. Instead, he had an overcoat, of a type worn by students all over the world to indicate that they are in rebellion against bourgeois values.... I would have been thinking of catching the next plane back to New Zealand if Cyrano, along with everything else he had been deprived of, had been deprived of a big nose. Mercifully he had one, and the quality of its putty looked sufficiently durable to last the night. Perhaps it had been provided by the same construction firm that won the contract for the scaffolding, which clearly would last for ever.
Many diversions and musings follow. The handsome Christian de Neuvillette marches off to the front in the Thirty Years' War, only to be cut down as the Gascon fortifications are raked by machine gun fire. ["Those of us who had been hoping that it would be attacked with a Tomahawk cruise missile might have been disappointed, but for Christian, weak with hunger, it was time to climb the pipes, as men weak with hunger so often do."] Nikolai Gogol is invoked. Alec Guiness is quoted on the evils of the thrust stage. And more.
As play and protagonist expire, Mr. James takes the occasion to offer some insights on the art of translation (the new one by Derek Mahon used in this production comes off at least as badly as the sets), how the French differ in their theatrical expectations and why English stage verse generally does not rhyme:
Lying there in the arms of Claire Price – not normally the worst fate a man can imagine – Mr Rea must have felt his false nose weighing like a lead balloon. He is all too aware that in the 1983 Anthony Burgess version Derek Jacobi finished the evening with the audience pulling the walls in: men signed up for fencing class while women sobbed in each other’s arms.... The Burgess version had enough zing to set the actors and the audience on fire. Burgess kept the exactness of the couplets even when he opened the rhyme scheme into quatrains. Before him, Christopher Fry had deftly done the whole thing in couplets. But for some reason we still think that strict rhymes mean restriction, and that to throw them away means freedom. Why?
Because it is true. In the English theatre, the norm of fluent speech was set by Shakespeare, who had all the technical skill to turn Chaucer’s narrative couplets into a viable dramatic form, but chose to do otherwise. He went for blank verse instead, thus establishing an expectation beside which a latticework of spoken rhymes will always sound artificial. Not even Dryden was powerful enough to put the expectation into reverse. For the French, the normal expectation has always been rhyming couplets. Corneille, Racine and Molière set a rhythm which rebellion could never break, but only work within. The first riot on the opening night of Victor Hugo’s Hernani took place when he broke the rule of always putting the adjective and noun inside the same hemistitch. The audience knew exactly what he was up to because they had been hearing classical couplets all their lives. Rostand could count on that universal expectation when he gave Cyrano the energy of a wild animal. The wild animal is in a cage, and what a French audience hears is its repeated assault on the bars. (You could even call them scaffolding if you like, but in French you would have to say échafaudage.)
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