Paris, France. December 27, 1897.
A nerve-wracked 29-year-old playwright named Edmond Rostand paces back and forth backstage. He has so little confidence in the success of the play that's about to open that he has agreed to pay for the costumes and some of the scenery out of his own pocket. Needless to say, the play is threadbare, design-wise.
Rostand is barely keeping himself from breaking into frantic sobs as he turns to his friend, Benoît-Constant Coquelin, a veteran of the French stage who had toured the world and infamously split with the National Theatre of France the Comédie-Française. Coquelin had just taken over as director of the Theatre Porte Saint-Martin when Rostand presented him with this new play, and with what seems like a fairly good leading part.
Moments before Coquelin is to stride onto the stage, Rostand, standing in a puddle of his own sweat, lower lip trembling like a scolded child, pleads: "Forgive me! Oh, forgive me my friend, for having dragged you into this catastrophic adventure!"
Coqeulin smiles softly: "There is nothing to forgive. You have given me a masterpiece." He then turns and makes his way to the wings to await his entrance.
Six hours later, when the most tumultuous first night in the history of the French theater had drawn to its conclusion, Rostand would not have changed places with God himself.
This was the opening night of Cyrano de Bergerac.
A two-hour standing ovation.
Let that sink in. After sitting through a five-act play—complete with four lengthy intermissions—in a cramped, stuffy theater, the audience remained in the theater, on its feet, applauding and cheering loudly for two more hours.
Two hours: that’s longer than most plays even are nowadays. One witness remembered clapping so hard, for so long, that he blistered the palms of his hands.
Rostand came onstage at the end of the fifth act, to the overwhelming cries for "Author! Author!" Ladies threw gloves and flowers. Men their opera hats. These items rained down around a thunderstruck Rostand.
Then Coquelin took the stage for his final solo bow. The applause continued. He came out again. In all, Coquelin took 40—yes, 40—curtain calls before the fellow hoisting the curtain up and down just left it up and walked away.
The famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, a friend of both Rostand and Coquelin, was a great supporter of the play. She had hurried her death scene in the piece she was performing in the theater next door, and snuck over to catch the last act of Cyrano. She was still in her stage make-up as she met the actor and playwright backstage to congratulate them. She nearly choked Coquelin with her embraces. She then took Rostand by the head and smothered him with so many kisses that one witness described her as nearly devouring him.
Rostand himself was still in stage make-up. He had overseen the production, doing the duties that we now associate with a director. On opening night, he traded his formal evening dress for the finery of a 17th-century Marquis and joined the extras on stage during Act One. He had not been completely happy with their movements at the dress rehearsal. Since the extras had been recruited at a local wine house, this was hardly surprising. Rostand, thus, determined that for the first night he would direct them from within. He preferred this to nervously waiting in the wings for the audiences’ reactions.
After the two-hour ovation, the audience finally spilled out into the streets, filling the Rue de la Porte Saint-Martin. The whole scene teetered on the edge of full-on riot, or no-holds-barred street party. Rostand’s play had reawakened, just as he had hoped, the fading Gallic spirit of heroism, chivalry and passion in the crowd. A tremendous feeling of national pride swept through those present. At one point the crowd spontaneously began to sing La Marseillaise. Families divided by the political scandal of the recent Dreyfus Affair were reunited then and there. Two writers who were scheduled to duel the next day embraced publicly and called the duel off. This near-riot went on until nearly dawn.
Rostand and his wife had snuck out a side door and hailed a passing carriage. They stayed at a distance for a while, observing the joyous chaos on the streets.
When a journalist later asked Rostand how he felt about the audience response to the opening night of Cyrano de Bergerac, he said: "Never again shall I experience another moment like that."
◊ Brad McEntire is a member of Audacity Theatre Lab. He presents his new monologue Cyrano A-Go-Go, running at 3 p.m. every Saturday from June 18 to July 9, at the GreenZone. Tonight, Shakespeare Dallas opens its summer season with Cyrano de Bergerac, which will run in rotating repertory with As You Like It.