by Isabella Sharipova-Williams, published 14th May 2024

Dearest reader,

You may (or may not) have heard of Edmond, the play that has taken the Parisian theatre scene by storm, and since 2019 is also available on Netflix.

Reader, it is a sublime Shakespeare in Love spin-off, in more ways than one.

When I watched it, being a great fan of Stoppard’s stellar salvage of Norman’s pitch, I thought the play fantastic, but, reader, it is a great work of great fiction, and expose the reasons I shall in this commentary.

The tradition of inspiration, and the market for, “making of” and “becoming” works of literature and film aren’t that new. So, as I found out (to my surprise), Alexandre Duval, a French dramatist, wrote a quasi-prototype to Shakespeare in Love in the 18th Century (except there the Bard falls for an actress playing Richard III – a plot twist I would definitely pay good money to see, and to see done well). 2007 saw Molière and Becoming Jane hit the silver screen, both pictures proposing a disentangling of the threads that led to weaving these writers’ greatest works, some 9 years after Shakespeare in Love. And in 2016, Alexis Michalik signed off his addition to this magnificent collection of “what ifs”, sometimes based in historical fact, others being historical fantasy.

And this one, about Edmond Rostand’s creation of the iconic tragicomedy of Cyrano de Bergerac, seemed almost entirely plausible. Inspiring, even. Achievable.

But, dearest reader, the historical fact is almost more interesting.

Michalik presents a tale of a struggling writer – an underdog – in a boring marriage with a woman blindly devoted to him and their children (but mostly their children), who can barely afford to pay the rent in their Parisian garret, a stuttering, spluttering, socially-awkward, sore-thumb of a man, who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t look at other women. Until he does, and she becomes his “platonic muse”, the prototype for Cyrano’s divine love, Roxane.

Michalik’s Rostand is a cartoon-strip stock character, but you root for him. The imperious starlet Sarah Bernhardt sweeps into the family garret one day, and says that Constant Coquelin (the Laurence Olivier of the Belle Epoque) has commissioned him to write a play. And Rostand loses it. We find him in a café, fidgeting with his cup of herbal infusion (verbena), stumbling upon the inspiration to write Cyrano’s famous nose insult rebuttal from the café owner’s capital roasting of a racist client – he lifts the format and style entirely. Shakespeare in Love calque strike 1.

He searches vainly for a bold and interesting character – a musketeer, he decides, a writer, a poet – Savignien de Cyrano de Bergerac! He proposes the plan to Coquelin, who is seduced by the prospect of swashbuckling, panache, and theatrical bravado, but has barely a monologue to give him. Shakespeare in Love calque strike 2 – “It is all locked safe in here,” says the handsome figure of Joseph Fiennes, tapping his temple, beating off another anxious stakeholder in the project, temporarily abating (if that) their concerns (oh these artists…). And he presents, drip-feeds, the snippets of future masterpiece as they come, as the play progresses, after key moments.

The number of parallels I could draw with the Academy award-winning film…! Rostand pastiches all the characters and situations surrounding him, including the ridiculous love story between his womanising thespian best friend, and Méliès’ future leading lady (and second wife) Jehanne d’Alcy (a beautiful girl with big dreams and a passion for poetry, wishing to settle only for a great love, who ends up acting the heroine when the thespian playing the leading lady is “indisposed” (more like disposed of) at the last minute – remind you of anything?). Léo/Maurice Volny, who never, in fact, pursued so ardently Méliès’ muse, becomes Christian, a beautiful façade, to Rostand’s mouthpiece. Rostand, the gibbering, the teetotalling, the prude, completely unlike fictional or historic libertine Savignien, presumes himself to be Cyrano. He finds a voice in the darkness, and creates reality of fantasy, and conquers the soubrette ingénue through words and words alone, but Volny’s lips receive the kiss…. Or do they?

Michalik attempts to make his main man relatable, the story of a promising youngster’s fight to bring his work into the world. He got the last bit right – huge bets were hedged with Rostand’s work, and Rostand apologised to Coquelin during the dress rehearsal for having “lead him into this disastrous adventure”. His wife invested 2OO gold francs of her marriage portion into the 5-Act, all-in-verse, character-populous piece, where the main hero was a relatively unknown 17th century enfant terrible. But that’s not written in – in the play, “the money” takes the form entirely of two unscrupulous Corsican producers, who do some procuring on the side. Sarah Bernhardt did attend the 5th Act of the play, and her son kept her updated with regards to the remainder.

Great injustice was done in the depiction of Rosemonde Rostand (née Gérard), as perhaps with so many wives of so many great men (Mileva Marić-Einstein and Sonya Tolstoy, requiescant in pace). Jehanne d’Alcy is also such an interesting person in her own right, without having to resort to the Stage Beauty stitching device of rendering her a rags-to-riches wardrobe lady. But back to Rosemonde, the poetess, the actress who actually stood in for Maria Legault during the dress rehearsal, the rich, the beautiful, the cultured, the goddaughter of Leconte de Lisle, the ward of Alexandre Dumas fils, who eventually left the ungrateful Rostand in 1915 after the playwright abandoned her for an actress 27 years his junior: She took up with “her Beethoven”, Tiarko Richepin, himself 18 years younger than his paramour.

Rosemonde reported that Rostand already had a great fascination with Cyrano, keeping a collection of books on the man, long before he began writing about him. They lived, to all intents and purposes, in a very nice house indeed, an hôtel particulier, in the Boulevard Malesherbes (not far from our Parc Monceau properties). Michalik cuts Madame Rostand down to a servile stay-at-home mum, sapping of her youth and charm, who, voraciously jealous for most of the play (and not without good cause, neither), eventually happily gives up Rostand to his “mistress”, content merely to be able to call herself the wife of this man, to have him come home to her after his fêting his success.

This is the woman who won the Académie Française’s Archon-Despérouse prize, twice, was a dame of the Order of the Legion of Honour in her own right, belonged to the panel for the Prix Femina (a feminist foil to the then discriminatory Prix Goncourt), and also raised two intellectually brilliant sons. Roxane had to have been inspired by Rostand’s wife – bringing in an external party who would have had nothing to do with the play makes no sense in my mind (although neither does the real Rostand’s eventually casting his wife aside for Mary Marquet). Rostand, himself, need not be further from his true character than he is in the play. By accounts he was a suave, astute, thoroughly-involved man, not at all shy of the spotlight, as he appeared on stage as a musketeer during the first show. Breaking down and reassembling the creation of this syntactically gorgeous stained-glass window to man’s insecurity and struggle for authenticity, when you have studied and considered Rostand’s work in all its facets, into a fantastical vaudeville of a stop-and-start creative process of one of the world’s greatest plays suddenly seems incongruous.

Challenge me – I might write a “Becoming Rostand” story somewhere closer to the truth, because the truth certainly is not less, if not more, interesting.

However, I shall say this – in broader historic context, the stage is well set, and the story, as a story, is entertaining, beautiful, and the drama and comedy keep you on the edge of your seat as does Cyrano de Bergerac itself. The spirit is amazing, the innovation in terms of set is brilliant, the pace and movement holds you. It is well-structured, well-devised, and you can see that the current cast have a fantastic camaraderie and chemistry – they have great fun working together and performing on stage. I really enjoyed it: For all my criticism of Edmond, I think it does deserve its 5 Molière awards, I do consider it a chef-d’œuvre, my heart does hold a special place for this play, I did see it twice. That is an aspect of art – fun, enjoyment, and if you get that, you can fairly, justifiably consider your mission accomplished.

Edmond is running at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal until further notice, and is just a short walk away from our Rue Saint-Honoré apartment.