jill_rg (jill_rg) wrote,

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Why I Hate Anthony Burgess' Adaptation of Cyrano

Being jobless so far this summer is terrible. The only thing that has been able to console me is reading. I've met my new favorite Jane Austen villain Lady Susan Vernon, become acquainted with the youngest Bronte sister via the rather Austen-esque Agnes Grey, found that Twilight really does not live up to its hype, found that Jane Eyre not only lives up to its hype but is possibly the definitively best romance novel, and found my new favorite play in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

Being even less fluent in French now than when I was in high school, when I set out to read this play, I wanted to be sure I found a good translation that didn't change a word of Rostand's original script. I've seen the plot parodied a million times already; I wanted to know as closely as possible how the original version of the story played out. Fortunately, my library had a translation by Brian Hooker, which I now know is considered one of the best English translations of the play. The introduction explained how Hooker was commissioned by a friend and fellow Rostand fan to write a faithful but captivating and performable English translation, NOT an "adaptation." Hooker didn't simply translate the play ver batim to be used as a cheat sheet beside the French original, but remaining true to Rostand's original script mattered to him. No scenes were re-written, added, or left out, no characters were altered, not a line was changed (other than obscure literary references replaced with more familiar references), and most importantly, the script wasn't written in rhyme (other than some poetry within the plot itself) but in blank verse. It's always been my personal opinion that when translating poetry into English, forget about the rhyme, and focus first on the content. My point is, after reading Hooker's translation of the play and enjoying every word of it, from the funny antics at the theater in Act I to the heartbreaking Act V (I cried and sobbed so hard! I was not expecting that!), I'm satisfied that I now the original story of Cyrano de Bergerac.

I don't know how to explain how much I now love this play! I'm reading it for the fourth time in a week, I went online looking for fan fiction and LiveJournal fan communities (but found nothing but comms for nose fetishists -- typical Internet safari results), checked out and ripped a cd soundtrack for a musical version (which was so old and scratched, I was forced to discover that polishing a scratched cd with toothpaste really does work), and created a Characters Sheet on TV Tropes. I even checked out the Anthony Burgess translation that I originally passed up because the inside-cover blurb announced that Burgess "rearranged a scene here and there, cut a little, and even interpolated a moment or two of pure Burgess into the play," which was exactly what I didn't want before, but now I was idly curious about what those changes were.

Anthony Burgess is an incredible novelist, but I can't appreciate his work in this case. Not all of his changes are bad, but none of them improve the play, and the biggest ones ruin some of my favorite parts. Unlike Hooker's script, Burgess' script mostly rhymes. Ugh! I maintain my position that few things sound more awkward or forced then rhyming poetry translated to rhyme in English. It requires lines to soemtimes stop at the msot awkward points mid-sentence or the most ridiculous synonyms or sentence structures to be used just to get in that rhyme. The rhyme doesn't matter! Burgess claims in the Preface that rhyme is better for humor, and that "Rostand is funny, as well as moving and pathetic, but Hooker rarely raises a laugh" because he wrote his translation in blank verse. Untrue. Hooker's version raised plenty of laughs for me, and if the lines were more pleasant to read for not stopping abruptly on rhyming words, they would sound that much more pleasant on-stage.

Besides, Burgess' theory about Hooker's version losing some of Rostand's humor makes no sense when Burgess completely rewrote Act IV specifically to remove anything farcical and light-hearted from it! Him removing Roxane's appearance from this scene really bugs me. This is pretty much her Crowning Moment of Awesome, where she shows herself (to Cyrano's suprise as much as the audience's) to have a little spunk. Unlike most love interests, she's more than a pretty face. She's an adventuress whose unafraid of war... meaning she actually has a lot in common with Cyrano! ("Monsieur de Bergerac, I am your cousin.") No wonder he's in love with her! True, like Burgess complains, it's not played very seriously. We're not supposed to admire Roxane as much as laugh at her, but so what? It's not like she complains about how messy the ruined countryside is (like she does in one of the musical versions). She's more Genre Savvy than anything.

But she doesn't get to be proactive, fearless, and a source of comfort to the despairing, starving Gascons in Burgess' version. He claims in the Preface that Roxane suddenly appearing on the battlefield and distributing food to the starving soldiers "relieves the tension of the scene when it should remain taut to the very end" and turns a dark and despairing scene into something "absurd" and "foppish." Well, which do you want? First the script doesn't have enough laughs, then it's not serious enough. Make up your mind! Yes, a woman driving a carriage through enemy lines completely unscathed because she has a pretty smile and a romantic mission has to be funny rather than serious to work, but this isn't Les Miserables! The play is called "A Heroic Comedy in 5 Acts." Besides, the atmosphere is (originally) actually no less absurd before Roxane arrives. When de Guiche announces the Spanish will attack their very spot, at first the troops all panic and rush to prepare for battle. Then de Guiche adds that they have an hour, and everyone essentially goes "Oh! Well, why didn't you say so?" and goes immediately back to their dice, cards, and cigars. Farce, absurdity, and no Roxane in sight. And what about Le Bret and Cyrano bickering over Cyrano's foolish risk just to send a letter? Everyone takes things just as seriously before Roxane arrives as after.

Besides, like Cyrano says in Burgess' version, Christian's debate with Cyrano over how they have to tell Roxane the truth is pointless ("This whole discussion is academic.") when Roxane isn't even there! Her presence "relieves the tension"? All the beautifully-written romantic tension between the three in the secret love triangle is gone without her there telling Christian she loves him for his soul. Her letter gets that message across, but that's it. The conspirators don't have the opportunity to tell her the truth. There's no sense of urgency for Cyrano to make his decision and find the courage to confess his love. Worst of all, when Christian dies, Cyrano has no opportunity to lie to him that Roxane still loves Christian even though she knows the truth, letting his friend die peacefully. Some of the most beautiful bittersweet romantic interaction and the sweetest friendship-interaction between the three is erased along with Roxane's physical presence in the scene. It doesn't work! Rostand actually created an interesting female love interest who gets more involved with the plot than sitting on the sidelines providing a pretty face for men to lose their tranquillity over, and Burgess ruins that!

Even the extra lines Burgess gives Roxane bug me (has TV Tropes ruined my vocabulary, or what?). Her extra speech in Act III is there because Burgess felt the need to justify her tastes... and because, it seems to me, he disagrees with them: "She loves Christian, and yet she rebuffs him because he cannot woo her in witty and poetic language. This must seem very improbable in an age that finds a virtue in sincere inarticulacy, and I have to find an excuse for this near-pathological dismissal of a good wordless soldier whose beauty, on her own admission, fills Roxane's heart with ravishment." Well, first of all, Roxane and Christian falling in love at first sight with each other's ravishing outer beauty is at the root of all the conflict of the play and treated in-universe as absurd and foolish. Cyrano tries to make his cousin see how ridiculous it is to fall madly in love with a man she doesn't even know and hasn't had a single conversation with. Roxane herself learns to regret this. As she explains in Act IV, she's ashamed of how she let someone's "beauty" alone "fill her heart with ravishment;" more dear to her is the sense of love she feels for his soul.

Why does Burgess feel the need to explain why Roxane is attracted to witty, articulate, poetic men? True, deeper exploration of characters is only natural for fans; it sounds like popular territory for Cyrano fan fiction, but Burgess didn't add his explanation for fun but because he thought it was essential for the audience to accept Roxane. The girl likes men who can say something more creative than "I love you." Poetry turns her on... why do you have to justify that?

It sounds to me like Burgess thinks Roxane is being unfair. This is discussed in Hooker's version, though, when Cyrano assures Christian in Act II that using Cyrano's words to express what he already feels won't be lying, and when he laments in Act IV "And am I to ruin [your happiness] because I happen to be born with power to say what you-perhaps-feel?" It's not like the question of judging someone for their ability with words is ignored in the original, but I fail to see why Roxane is "the least satisfactory character" because of her taste in witty, creative men unless you justify her tastes.

True, there is a virtue in simple, unembellished honesty, but love isn't phony just because it's expressed in lyrical, enchanting poetry. Shakespeare's own answer to insincere, overly-flattering romantic sonnets was writing the equal-but-opposite "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun..." , after all - sincere but witty and lyrical as well. Roxane doesn't ask Christian for insincere flattery but for more interesting conversation than "I love you;" the balcony scene show this, since she doesn't passively sit and listen to him (and later Cyrano) like an audience but converses with him/them, pursuing each metaphor like the love-is-like-an-unruly-child from the beginning and contributing to the metaphor herself. I don't think I'm overreaching by interpreting Roxane as an intellectual who needs more than a pretty face. That's how Christian interprets her, after all.

In short, I hate Burgess' treatment of Roxane, from his disapproval of her tastes to cutting some of her best screentime, I hate his insistence on rhyming, I hate his alterations to the plot in Act IV, and I don't understand his melding Le Bret and Captain Carbon de Castel-Jaloux. Brian Hooker's more faithful translation of Cyrano is by far the more superior of the two most popular English versions. I hope his and Rostand's version of the story is what people think of when they think of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Tags: cyrano


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