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Bill Bucko


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WARNING! Contains "spoilers"!

Forgotten Masterpieces:


retold By Bill Bucko

If Edmond Rostand had written nothing except Cyrano de Bergerac, that would have been enough to establish his fame, for all the centuries to come. But few people know of his other plays—all of which are noteworthy and one of which, in my opinion, is almost as great as Cyrano de Bergerac.

Rostand (1868-1918) started as a young poet following in the footsteps of his literary hero, Victor Hugo. His first play was the light comedy The Romantics (which later furnished the plot for the show “The Fantastiks”). Next he wrote The Princess Far Away, about the wistful, hopeless love of a 12th-century troubadour for a woman he has never seen. Then came The Woman Of Samaria, Rostand’s poetic retelling of a Biblical tale ... and I hope you know what came next, as the summit of his career. The famous actor Coquelin, impressed with the unknown young poet’s talent, promised him he would produce and appear in any new play of Rostand’s in which there might be a part for him. By chance Rostand found an old edition of Cyrano de Bergerac’s imaginary voyage to the moon—and was inspired to write. The rest is history. On December 28, 1897, a jaded French public that for decades had been told that Romanticism was dead and Naturalism was here to stay, witnessed the greatest literary sensation of the century. Every act of Cyrano de Bergerac was given a ten-minute standing ovation, and news of the play swept the world almost overnight.

Rostand’s next play, and the principal subject of this article, was The Eaglet (L’Aiglon), appearing in 1900. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, it is a stirring, passionate work, almost unbearably intense, and almost as brilliantly written. It is an historical play, based on the short, tragic life of Napoleon’s son, the duke of Reichstadt. And its theme—done perhaps as well as it has ever been written—is the clash between sense of life and reality. (At least, there’s a clash for those who aren’t full-fledged romantic realists—if I may adapt a literary term to the realm of ethics.) Here is the story:

Act I — “Fledgling Wings”

It is 1830, at the Austrian court of the Princess Marie Louise, Napoleon’s widow. Years ago the royal family had grudgingly given her in marriage to “the usurper,” when the Frenchman’s armies were sweeping over most of Europe, toppling and scattering thrones in their way. Marie Louise is now aging, frivolous, and empty-headed. Napoleon, the “Eagle,” is dead—and hated, not for the enormous slaughter he perpetrated, but for the fact that he was a commoner who dared to rise and over-awe the so-called “nobility.” In an atmosphere of stifling envy, Napoleon’s 20-year-old son, the duke of Reichstadt, is being raised as a prince—dressed in the white uniform of an Austrian officer—and kept isolated from anyone who might still revere or even mention his father. The French tricolor flag is banned. The duke is told almost nothing of history from 1789 to 1815. Metternich, the Austrian prime minister, hopes to keep him weak and ignorant of his heritage. Metternich stands guard over Europe in the name of “the divine right of kings,” ready to crush any outbreak of popular government that might arise—and willing to suffocate and destroy the young man’s soul, as a means to that end. He believes that he will soon have nothing to fear from the duke, who is becoming a pampered, weak-willed “royal” ... Evening falls. Everyone leaves the duke alone, so he can enjoy a little dissipation with his supposed mistress, the actress Fanny Elssler. She arrives from the theater, dances across the stage, and falls into his arms. The last of the smirking, hate-ridden courtiers leave. Instantly the actress jumps off the duke’s lap and bows in deep respect. She sits down, concentrates, and begins to recite, continuing the history lesson from the previous evening: “Then, while Marshall Ney marched all night, Generals Gazan and Suchet replied with their cannon, and the imperial guard moved up ...” The curtain falls as the duke, thirsting for greatness, repeats and memorizes the tale of his father’s glory, the precious, smuggled knowledge he can only be told in secret.

Act II — “Fluttering Wings”

It is a year later. The duke is spied upon on all sides, his room searched, his papers seized. Yet something strange has happened. Someone has taken the duke’s trivial little set of toy wooden soldiers and repainted them ... with blue French uniforms. One of the duke’s guards, Flambeau, reveals himself to be, in reality, a former soldier of Napoleon’s who has come here to aid the emperor’s son. France is currently ruled by a reactionary king installed by Metternich; but Flambeau tells the duke there are many people who would rather see him reign ... as Napoleon II. They make plans for the duke’s escape to France.

Act III — “Spreading Wings”

The duke goes to his doting grandfather, the Austrian emperor Franz. The emperor agrees to let the duke rule France. Of course, he’ll have to follow Metternich’s wishes and suppress all those newfangled ideas about freedom ... The duke refuses. That night the duke gives Flambeau a signal: set out on a table is one of Napoleon’s tri-cornered hats. Flambeau stands guard, not in his white Austrian uniform but in his old French one ... It is dark. Metternich comes in, sees the hat, and recalls with a shudder that this is the very room Napoleon once occupied, in the time of his triumph. He voices his long-pent-up hatred and fear of Napoleon. Then he rubs his eyes, seeing Flambeau. A French soldier, here—were the last twenty years only a dream? ... When he realizes Flambeau is real he has him pursued. Then he confronts the duke, telling him brutally that his dream of ruling can never succeed: “You have your father’s hat, but not his head.” The duke protests, but “Look in the mirror!” Metternich snarls in hatred. “Those aren’t Napoleon’s features! You resemble no one more than ... the Austrians, the Hapsburgs!” The duke falls, prostrated by self-doubt.

Act IV — “Bruised Wings”

The duke, his confidence destroyed, appears at a costume ball in the park. He wonders if he is going mad. But his shattered spirits revive when he sees a courtier flirt with his mother. He throws the presumptuous man to the ground. He realizes he has found himself again ... Metternich comes in, expecting to see the duke crushed, and is startled to see him standing proudly—in his ordinary white officer’s uniform, while everyone around them is in costume:

Metternich: “In uniform? Were you not advised?”

Duke: “I thought that everybody came disguised!”

The duke’s escape is planned for that night. The Countess Camerata, a sympathizer, will be impersonating him, ready to lead off the pursuit in the wrong direction ... But the French ambassador accidentally learns of their plans. The moment is critical. But the ambassador, resenting the insulting behavior of the Austrians, decides not to betray the duke. The two men shake hands as honorable opponents:

“Is there anything I can do for you in Paris?” asks the ambassador.

“I plan on reaching the ... empire, ahead of you,” the duke replies.

“If to the ... kingdom ... I am first to come?”

“Salute for me the Column of Vendome.” [a famous monument to Napoleon’s victories]

Act V — “Broken Wings”

The duke has fled toward France, and finds himself on a vast open field, in the dead of night. But lacking his father’s utter callousness, he delays because he believes the countess is in danger. And because of that delay he is overtaken and surrounded ... Rather than be captured, Flambeau stabs himself. The duke, shaken, asks to be left alone for a while with his dead friend. The field becomes covered with mist. It is the battlefield of Wagram, he realizes, scene of one of Napoleon’s greatest victories. The duke pauses, dreaming. It seems almost as though the battle were yesterday. Voices of soldiers emerge from the fog ... But now the duke must face reality squarely. Napoleon was a symbol of glory, true—but the vain, misguided, far-too-costly kind of glory that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. “Something to drink!” call the voices; “I’m dying.” “My leg is gone.” “My arm is hanging.” Groans and curses fill the darkness. “Don’t let me die here.” “Give me your hand.” “I haven’t any.” “Have pity! Kill me!” ... The vision of the full, actual meaning of his father’s career is too much for the duke to bear. He is weaker than his father (if weakness is the right word), he lacks the stomach and cannot stand to relive his father’s errors.

Real voices replace the imaginary ones. White-uniformed Austrian troops now surround the duke—his own regiment. He looks around in a daze. Crushed, realizing he can never follow in his father’s footsteps, he joins them.

Act VI — “Folded Wings”

The duke lies seriously ill. He has not recovered from the gruesome revelation on the battleground. His mother Marie Louise, softening toward him and willing at last to look at the past she has tried to forget, sits at his side. Metternich and the courtiers gather quietly around the deathbed ... As a last request, the duke has someone read to him out of a history book—for once, an uncensored history book. It is the story of his own christening, twenty-two years ago, celebrated by all of Paris, surrounded by vast crowds and by visiting princes and kings from all over Europe. “Skip the kings,” the duke whispers, knowing his time is short. Finally, according to the narrative, the infant was placed into the arms of ... the man reading the book cannot bring himself to say the forbidden word. The duke looks at his mother kneeling at the bedside and says it for him: “The empress.” The reader continues:

Te Deum laudamus filled that vast place.

That evening very France seemed all ablaze

With the great splendor and the great delight ...”

Doctor: “Dead.” [The reader closes the book.]

Metternich: “Put on his uniform. Of course, the white.”

In a brief poem after the final curtain falls, Rostand visits the crypt in Vienna where the duke still lies entombed within “the double prison—his coffin of bronze, and the uniform.”

* * *

I think you can see why I rate this violently intense play as Rostand’s other masterpiece, second only to Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand did live to complete one more play, Chantecler, in which all the characters are barnyard animals. Miss Rand reportedly admired it; but in spite of a few good pages I have never been able to love it. In the play Chantecler the rooster believes it is his crowing that makes the sun rise. The owls and other cocks hate and envy him. His self-confidence is shattered when one morning he forgets to crow, and the sun rises without him. But he finally realizes that, even if he does not do it alone, his work still contributes to the light. And nothing is more important than his work.

If you love Cyrano de Bergerac, you might want to go to a large library and look for Rostand’s other plays. I recommend the 2-volume Plays of Edmond Rostand translated by Henderson Daingerfield Norman (MacMillan, 1921), if you can find it. Norman’s translation of The Eaglet is far superior to the badly mangled 1900 “adaptation” by Louis N. Parker. The Eaglet is currently out of print in English.

At present I can think of only one other work I plan to include in this series on “Forgotten Masterpieces.” But, like The Eaglet, it’s a towering landmark: the first major work of the Romantic school, the “bombshell” that ignited it all: Friedrich Schiller’s fiery 1782 melodrama, The Robbers.

Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bucko

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