xxxxxThe French verse dramatist Edmond Rostand is best remembered today for his highly successful play Cyrano de Bergerac. First performed in 1897, it was loosely based on the life of the seventeenth century dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac (1656 CW). It tells the tale of an heroic, talented young man who is convinced that he could never gain the affection of the lovely Roxanne because of his embarrassingly long nose. With a lively plot and a subtle blend of comedy and pathos, it became popular worldwide. His other plays included The Romantics, a love story staged in 1894, and The Eaglet of 1900, a sentimental account of the life of the Duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon’s son.

EDMOND ROSTAND  1868 - 1918  (Vb, Vc, E7, G5)


Cyrano: contained in Les Erreurs de Documentation de Cyrano Bergerac by the French writer and critic Émile Magne (1877-1953), Revue de France, Paris 1898, artist unknown. Rostand: detail, date and artist unknown – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington. Loti: 1892, artist unknown. Isfahan: date and artist unknown. Golden Horn: watercolour by the English artist James Ellis (1844-1922) late 19th century – Pera Museum, Istanbul. Loti: portrait by the French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), 1891 – Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland.

xxxxxThe French verse dramatist Edmond Rostand is remembered especially for his heroic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac. First performed in Paris in December 1897, it became an instant success all over Europe and the United States, and has enjoyed a worldwide popularity ever since. Loosely based on the real-life adventures of the seventeenth century dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac (1656 CW), it tells of a man who, whilst possessing many manly and refined talents, is convinced that he will never win over the affection of the beautiful Roxane, the woman he loves, because of his embarrassingly long nose. The play is outstanding for its lively, fast moving plot, its subtle blend of comedy and pathos, and its scintillating verse. It was particularly well received in France, where the gallantry displayed by the unfortunate Cyrano made him a symbol of the Gallic spirit, and Rostand a national hero. (Cyrano de Bererac is illustrated on the right, and his fictional character on the left!)


xxxxxTwo of his other plays have survived the years. His first successful drama, The Romantics, a tale of innocent young love based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, was staged in Paris in 1894. It was adapted as an American musical comedy with the title The Fantasticks in 1960. The Eaglet, produced in 1900, was a sentimental account of the life of the Duke of Reichstadt Napoleon Bonaparte’s son. Axpatriotic tragedy in six acts, it provided Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), the greatest actress of the day, with one of her finest roles.

xxxxxRostand was born into a wealthy family in Marseilles in 1868, and was educated at the Collège Stanislas in Paris. He produced his first book of poems, Les Musardises, in 1890, the same year that his play The Eaglet was staged. In 1901, following his enormous success with Cyrano de Bergerac, he became the youngest writer to be elected to the Académie française, but by then his health was failing. He retired to his country estate at Cambon in the French Basque country suffering from pleurisy. He continued to write, but with diminishing success. One of his last plays Chantecler, premiered in February 1910, was a study of the animal world, based on the stories of the French fabulist La Fontaine. All the characters were farmyard animals, and the story was centred around a rooster named Chantecler, who believed that his song made the sun rise. Rostand died in December 1918 during a visit to Paris, a victim of the widespread influenza epidemic of that year. He was buried in Marseilles Cemetery.

xxxxxIncidentally, as one would expect, the story of Cyrano de Bergerac has been the subject of many films and television programmes, and has also featured as a musical and an opera.



Pierre Loti

xxxxxAnother outstanding French author at this time was Pierre Loti, born Julien Viaud (1850-1923). He wrote a large number of novels and travelogues, most of them set in the exotic places he visited in the Middle and Far East during his career in the navy. He won the acclaim of both the critics and the public for his personal reminiscences, and his romances of love and adventure in works such as Aziyadé, set in Istanbul, Rarahu or The Marriage of Loti, set on the tropical island of Tahiti, and Madame Chrysanthème, based on his stay in Japan. The best of his travel books were Au Moroc, recording his journey to Fez and Meknes, a three volume work on The Holy Land, Towards Isfahan, visited during his travels in Persia, and The Death of Philae, inspired by his journey up the Nile. Many consider his best novels to be An Iceland Fisherman, a story of Breton fishermen and their struggle to make a living in the stormy seas of the North Atlantic, and Ramuntcho, a tale of peasant life in the Basque province of France. Many of his works were semi-biographical, and he wrote of his childhood in The Story of a Child, published in 1900. He possessed outstanding powers of description, bringing to life the scenes and atmosphere recalled in his travels, but a nostalgic, sometimes melancholic strain runs through a number of his works, and he gives vent to his inner feelings in his The Book of Pity and Death, produced in 1890.

xxxxxAnother French writer at this time who proved extremely popular was Pierre Loti, born Julien Viaud (1850-1923). He came from a middle-class family at Rochefort, a port on the Atlantic Ocean. Determined from an early age to see the world, he chose a life at sea and was trained at the naval school at Brest. Starting as a midshipman and rising through the ranks, he was promoted ship's lieutenant in 1881, received his first command in 1898, and retired from the navy in 1910, four years after his appointment as a captain. In the 1870s he turned to writing, and his extensive travelling, particularly in the Middle and Far East, provided him with a wealth of exotic material for stories and travelogues. He wrote a vast number of works, many of them semi-biographical, and they found favour at a time when the general public was particularly keen to learn more about faraway, colonial places.

xxxxxAziyadé, his first major novel - and the one that set him on a literary career which was to run parallel with his service in the navy - was published in 1879. It tells of his love affair with a young harem girl, Aziyadé, and his friendship with a Spanish man servant named Solomon during his first tour of duty in Greece and Istanbul. This love triangle (as it would seem) was followed in 1880 by Rarahu - later known as The Marriage of Loti. Set in Tahiti, where he had seen service, it conjured up in lyrical prose a tropical paradise. Though written as fiction, it was clearly an account of his romantic liaison with Rarahu, a dusty maiden who, according to his diaries, served to describe a number of intimate relationships. The novel, seen as charming and original in style, was acclaimed by critic and public alike.

xxxxxOver the next ten years Loti wrote a series of novels, all of which maintained his following. In 1881 came The Romance of a Spahi, a tale set in Senegal and centred around the love of a French colonial soldier for a black woman, and a year later My Brother Yves, a moving story about his friendship with a simple, hard-drinking Breton sailor named Yves Kermadec. In 1886 saw the publication of An Iceland Fisherman (Pêcheur d’Islande), considered by many to be his masterpiece. In simple but telling words he paints with stark intensity the hard life endured by the Breton fishermen as they go each summer to work and struggle amid the stormy seas of the North Atlantic. In this work, a classic of French prose, human hardship and family love play a prominent part, but the relentless forces of nature take centre stage.

xxxxxHis next three books, produced in the latter part of the 1880s, marked a return to his travels in faraway, fascinating places. Madame Chrysanthème, did much to increase further the public’s fascination with all things Japanese, and his volume entitled Propos d’exil was a colourful collection of short pieces about exotic places, laced with some fiction and semi-biographical material. In 1890 saw the publication of In Morocco, an account of his journey to Fez and Meknes in the depths of Morocco. A romantic at heart, Loti was clearly fascinated by this country, an unspoilt land that was “silent, wild and undulated with light”. It was brilliantly written and made interesting reading, but it focused on the charms of the country, and touched not on the conditions under which the masses lived.

xxxxxLoti was elected to the Académie française in 1891, and after producing a three volume work on his travels to The Holy Land, he was posted to Chinese Waters in 1895. It was while out there that he took part in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and obtained material for his account of The Last Days of Peking. And it was in 1900 that he published The Story of a Child, a somewhat embellished recollection of his childhood. Later works included Ramuntcho, a highly successful adventure story centred around contraband running in the Basque province of France, India without the English, Towards Isfahan (illustrated below), visited during his travels in Persia, and The Death of Philae, (the flooding of an island to make way for a dam), written soon after his journey on the Nile from Cairo to Aswan. After the First World War he wrote a book about the conflict, and two articles lamenting the collapse of the Turkish Empire.

xxxxxLoti was the finest descriptive writer of his day. He possessed not only an exceptional gift of observation, but also the ability to transfer his images to paper, capturing with a few apt words the atmosphere, colour and sounds of a scene or event. The accounts of his travels - often exotic and with a touch of eroticism - were particularly well written, and his novels and short stories explored captivating plots, but there ran through many of his works a nostalgia for the past which, at times, bordered on the melancholia. He was a sensitive man at heart, prone at times to despair, and some of his writings - and particularly his The Book of Pity and Death of 1890 - give vent to his inner feelings.

xxxxxLoti died at Hendaye, a town on the Spanish border, after a long illness. He was given a state funeral at his burial on the Ile d’Oléron, in the Atlantic, due west of his home town of Rochefort. It is said that on that day flags were flown at half-mast in Istanbul.

xxxxxIncidentally, there are a number of explanations as to how Loti acquired his name. Perhaps the most likely one is that when serving in Tahiti in 1872 the natives had difficulty in pronouncing his name, Viaud, and named him after the island’s flower, the lotus. Whatever the reason, the name certainly stuck. ……

xxxxx…… Loti’s home at Rochefort, together with the adjoining premises, is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. It is full of Islamic architecture and works of art. One room is elaborately tiled as a mosque and another as a Turkish Salon. This is not surprising. He had a great love of the Middle East and regarded himself as “half Arab”. He was particularly well known in Istanbul where, to this day, there is a café named after him on a site overlooking the Golden Horn estuary (illustrated). ……

xxxxx…… It was after reading The Marriage of Loti, a very popular work in the 1880s, that the French artist Paul Gauguin decided to go to live in Tahiti, ostensibly to provide illustrations for a book. And a number of Loti’s works, particularly The Story of a Child, influenced the writing of the French novelist Marcel Proust. ……

xxxxx…… Throughout his travels he opposed change, wanting the countries he visited to remain sealed off from the outside world, free from Western commercialism. It was for this reason that he deplored the invasion of what he called “the Cookis and Cookesses”, tourists escorted abroad by the travel agent Thomas Cook and Son! ……

xxxxx…… While serving in the Far East in 1883, the year before the outbreak of the Sino-French War, Loti took part in the Battle of Thuan An, an attack upon Vietnamese coastal defences. Afterwards he wrote three articles to the Paris newspaper Le Figaro detailing atrocities committed by French troops during the encounter. For this indiscretion he was severely censored, but it brought him to the notice of the public. ……

xxxxx…… The portrait of Pierre Loti illustrated here was by the French post-impressionist artist Henri Rousseau, known mainly for his imaginative jungle landscapes.