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CYRANO: A LIGHTNING ROD FOR ACTORS

September 16, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac first saw stage light in Paris in 1897. Based somewhat on a real-life figure, this fictionalized characterization makes wholly believable its story of a man who thinks he is unworthy of the love of a great beauty due to self-perceived ugliness with regard to an oversized nose (“‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!”). As drama, the play has never lost its contemporariness, for who among us hasn’t been convinced at one time or another that some physical defect marked us as undesirable? The plot involves Cyrano selflessly becoming the conduit who enables his friend Christian to win the heart of his own beloved Roxanne. It is Cyrano who pens the love letters for Christian, with Roxanne having no idea she has fallen for the soul of her dear friend; one embodied not in a supposed perfect specimen of beauty. It is a classic love story, with a finish that never fails to draw tears when (spoiler alert), Roxanne discovers at the moment of his death that it was Cyrano all along.

The role has attracted many great actors over the past 123 years. It won both the Tony (1947) and the Oscar for Jose Ferrer (1951), and it’s been back on Broadway twice in the past thirteen years alone; once with Kevin Kline in 2007 and again with Douglas Hodge in 2012. And off-Broadway saw a musical version (not the first one by a long shot) only this past November with the Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage as Cyrano, who did not don a fake nose. Lines remained intact about his nose, although without ever saying it aloud, the actor’s height of 4' 5" was the main instigator of any and all put downs.

Peter Dinklage in the 2019 musical adaptation of Cyrano (photo by Jeenah Moon for the NY Times).

It was in 1898, less than a year after its Parisian premiere, that Cyrano de Bergerac had its first Broadway production starring Richard Mansfield. Never heard of Richard Mansfield? I don’t blame you. He died in 1907. But back in the day, he was one of the most famous classical actors in the world. Born in Germany, but of British stock, he climbed quickly to the top of his profession. Renowned for his portrayal of a stage version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he also excelled as Richard III, and was the first to play Bluntschli in Arms and the Man and Dick Dudgeon in The Devil’s Disciple, in the American premieres of both George Bernard Shaw plays. It was unforeseen that when Mansfield played Cyrano at age forty-one, he would be dead by age fifty, succumbing to liver cancer. Although in those nine interceding years, he squeezed in no less than a dozen additional Broadway appearances (but alas, no chance to commit anything to film).

Richard Mansfield as Cyrano de Bergerac.

Brooklyn-born Walter Hampden was the next great Cyrano (who revived the role many times in the course of his career (he played three separate engagements on Broadway alone). Molded in the same actor-manager style as Mansfield, he was a Broadway mainstay for more than forty years, culminating in 1955 with his final role, as Danforth in the original production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. He excelled in classical roles on stage (trading in his Brooklyn accent for a much more refined one), and though he did a number of films and TV roles, he is probably best known for what is no more than a cameo in All About Eve, in which he is credited as “Aged Actor,” who is hosting the Sarah Siddons Awards that bookend the film.

My favorite story about Walter Hampden was told to me by the late Fritz Weaver when I interviewed him in 2014. Weaver was enamored of Hampden’s Cyrano and modeled himself upon the actor, much as Hampden did on Richard Mansfield. “I wanted to be an actor from the moment my brother and I saw Walter Hampden as Cyrano,” Weaver told me. “Years later, when I was appearing in Boston, Elliot Norton singled me out in a review saying, ‘He gives a very impressive performance in the old Walter Hampden style of acting.’ And that made my day! My brother went on to become a very famous artist and painted Hampden as Cyrano. It hangs in my living room.”

Walter Hampden as Cyrano de Bergerac.