I HEAR that an attack is being made by some of the French critics upon ‘Chantecler’ and the Rostand reputation generally — an attack taking the form of a charge of ‘mere rhetoric’ and a protest against extravagant and even insolent puns. That some such hostile impression might exist in England I could well understand. To begin with the simplest reason, the little I have happened to see in the way of English translation of Rostand has been laughably inadequate. I even remember seeing a version of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ in which the last line of the Ballade of the Duel was translated quite literally. As everybody knows, each verse of that impromptu poem ends with the line, ‘A la fin de l’envoi je touche’ — that is, ‘I hit you at the end of the envoi’, or last verse. Obviously, it should be roughly rendered ‘I hit you when the ballad ends’ or ‘And at the ballad’s end the blow’, or anything of that kind. In this learned translation, Cyrano was made to say at the end of every stanza, ‘And at the envoy’s end I touch’. Not one person in ten in an English theatre would know that ‘touch’ is a French technical term for a hit in fencing. Not one person in twenty would know that the envoi is the ritual last verse of the old French ballade. If therefore Cyrano said ‘At the envoy’s end I touch’, it is impossible to conceive what an English crowd would think he meant.
But, of course, this verbal mistranslation is only the emblem of a much deeper sort of misunderstanding. It is no disgrace to an intelligent Englishman of a certain type that he cannot care for Rostand’s military brilliancy; just as it would be no disgrace to a classically-minded Frenchman that he could see nothing beautiful in the tangled forest of Browning. There is an English temper in which the violence of French rhetoric seems merely stiff and thin. Such a type of Englishman would be annoyed both ways by a Rostand drama. The nose of Cyrano de Bergerac seems to him as gross as the nose of Ally Sloper. The rhetoric of Cyrano de Bergerac seems to him as artificial as that of Bombastes Furioso. The two spiritual roots of difference lie in two French qualities which the English scarcely possess at all; first the power of feeling that hatred is something holy; and second the power, not merely of laughing at oneself, but of laughing unmercifully. Our English idea of a hero is built upon the sailor, the accessible and open-hearted fellow who kills everybody with the kindest feelings. Our hero is Nelson or Harry V — I mean the genial and magnanimous Henry V of Shakespeare, not the morbid and cruel Henry of history. Nelson wears his heart on his sleeve, as he wears his Orders on his coat. Shakespeare’s King Henry broods over his beloved subjects and seeks to give them (in a splendid line) ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’ But Cyrano, though he fills the stage, is by no means a universal gentlemen. Cyrano, though he lives and dies for love, is by no means, in the general sense, a loving or a lovable character. It is his vice, he says, to wish everybody to hate him. He compares love to the loose Vandyck collars that are coming into fashion, and hatred to the stiff Elizabethan ruff which he still retains; it is uncomfortable, but it holds a man’s head up: ‘La Haine est un carcan, mais c’est une auréole.’ To be a bitter and exact critic of society, to lash the age, to demand that acting, writing, fencing should reach a severe standard, to wage a lonely war on stupidity — this is a French idea; it is the idea of Rostand’s Cyrano, just as it is the idea of Molière’s Misanthrope. It is hard for an Englishman (at least, it is hard for me) heartily to like this idealistic cruelty. It is hard for us to imagine scorn as something fruitful and ever-festive; to behold that bitter tree bearing lovely blossoms and delightful fruit. It is hard for us to realize a pageant of blazing wit and romantic activity all produced by such stiff anger as has produced an anchorite or a suicide. It is as if all the gay Athenian comedies had been written by Timon of Athens. But though this sentiment of sacred hate is not easy to us, that is no reason why we should not do justice to it. And France may fairly claim that much philanthropy has been founded by the Misanthrope.
The other un-English quality is best represented in ‘Chantecler’ itself. The Englishman can laugh at himself, but the Frenchman can sneer at himself, can laugh at himself till himself gets cross. It was very French to parade the fierce satiric poet Cyrano, the very romance of unpopularity, defying human society and taunting death. It was very French to devote a whole tragedy (as in ‘L’Aiglon’) to the mere memory of Napoleon, the mere size of his shadow. It had the same heroic impossibility as that great Spanish legend in which two knights led out the corpse of the Cid on horseback and all the armies of the Moors fled before it. But it was most French of all, after exhibiting these towering heroes, suddenly to exhibit them again as clucking fowls in a farm-yard and a cock crowing on a dunghill. First, Cyrano’s ‘panache’, his high unbroken feather, brushes the stars; next, it is only the feather of a chicken waddling about a yard. First, Napoleon’s trumpet is like the trumpet of the Resurrection, calling to the quick and the dead; next, it is only cock-a-doodle-doo from the ragged hero of a hundred cock-fights.
Precisely because Rostand, a romantic and patriotic Frenchman, laughs at the omnipotence of the Gallic cock, many foreigners are enabled to laugh at it who by no means laugh at equally foolish things of their own. The phrase, for instance, that the sun never sets on the British Empire, is quite as intrinsically ludicrous as the idea that the sun cannot rise without the Gallic cock. That measureless, unthinkable furnace which flings its remoter firelight over such stardust as our earth and many like it, is not much more insulted by one idea than by the other. There is mockery in the notion that those awful ancestral fires are encouraged when they hear the cock; there is surely equal mockery in the suggestion that they are discouraged if they do not see the Union Jack. But the difference is that no patriotic English poet will write a romantic drama to point out the cosmic comicality of supposing that the distant and fiery star needs, for its comfort, a little touch of John Bull in the night. But it is French satire that always scores off French heroism; it is the same nation in the two moods; sometimes, as in Rostand’s case, it is even the same individual. France has claimed, not without reason, to be the Roman Eagle; she has claimed the eagle and earned it. But she has always gone back on herself to the admission that she is not the eagle, but the cock.