Books blog: The French playwright who teaches us lessons for the soul

GĂ©rard Depardieu playing Cyrano de Bergerac in film from 1990

Mgr Charles Pope of the Washington archdiocese has posted up on the archdiocesan website, Community in Mission, his homily for the third Sunday in Lent. Referring to to the Johnny Cash song, God’s Gonna Cut You Down, he reminds us that at the end of our lives we all face judgement. Generally, we would all rather forget this: it seems so remote, if not far-fetched and we are good people, after all. Nonetheless, it is the unchanging belief of the Christian faith, often raised by Christ himself in the Gospels.

Poets, dramatists and other artists do not forget this salutary reminder of our mortality and how much is at stake. For them it has been a grand theme, full of potential for the fear and terror that the ancient Greeks believed was the stuff of drama. I have just read two plays by the famous French dramatist Edmond Rostand which address the question: titled The Woman of Samaria and The Last Night of Don Juan, they are published under the title Sacred and Profane Love by the Genge Press for £12.

Rostand, as readers probably know, is the author of the celebrated play, Cyrano de Bergerac (which I last saw in the film version, with Gerard Depardieu playing the cavalier of magnanimous heart and ugly physiognomy with his customary panache). Sue Lloyd, the publisher and translator of these two less well-known plays, set up the Genge Press in 2007 for the purpose of making Rostand’s work better known.

She is enthusiastic about introducing Rostand’s work to a wider audience and readership, telling me that they are “dramatic, witty, moving and idealistic. They work brilliantly on stage but are also a great read. Nor have they dated, as the language is so fresh and the themes eternal.”

Having discovered Rostand at school, Sue Lloyd later chose to do an M.Phil in French Literature, in which he was “an obvious choice” for study.

What does Rostand have to offer to our country’s worldly and sophisticated theatregoers today, I want to know? Lloyd tells me that although our society might be largely post-Christian, “people still need to be inspired by passion and idealism. Rostand’s stated intention was to provide audiences with “lessons for the soul” without them being aware of it, while he entertained them with his plays.” She adds that “he had great faith in the power of the theatre to influence people’s attitudes.”

Great artists tell us profound truths under the guise of entertainment. Where a homily on judgement can provide a doctrinal reminder of a central tenet of our faith, a play like The Last Night of Don Juan, grips the imagination with its mixture of truth-telling and burlesque, as it dramatises the final hours before the notorious womaniser reluctantly pays the ultimate price for his wasted life.

Rostand examines the meaning of sacred love in The Woman of Samaria, while the profane nature of Don Juan’s empty search for sensual pleasure is thrown into appalling contrast to it. As the dramatist shows, romantic love, to be true and lasting, will have a redemptive quality: it must transform those who experience it into something greater than themselves; otherwise it is a form of mutual egotism.

In The Last Night of Don Juan, the eponymous hero is offered a last chance to be saved by the pure love of a woman among the thousands whom he has seduced. An audience will thrill to the tension displayed here: will Don Juan escape the clutches of the Devil, played as a sinister puppet master and emerging from the booth of a Venetian Punchinello who has comes from the Quay of Slaves – or not? Alas, a lifetime of absorption in his own reflection makes the Don reject the woman’s appeal. He experiences the anguish of realising that he will die without ever having created anything and without have ever known a single other human being, as well as the hollow bombast of someone who would like to think of himself as “a monster with a soul, a savage archangel…” Even this hellishly grand role is denied him; the Devil, once more in the guise of Punchinello, informs him that “You will be a puppet and you will play the adulterer over and over again on that tiny stage, for all eternity.”

It makes for wonderful theatre and even in translation the language is eloquent and memorable. Rostand knew that before God “cuts you down”, as in the Johnny Cash song referred to by Mgr Pope, a human being will have rejected, like Don Juan, every offering of grace that might have redeemed him.

I would love to see this play more widely known, either staged or read aloud by a drama group. Sue Lloyd is to be commended for her endeavours to introduce Rostand to a modern audience. As long as human beings think they can play with their destiny, his is a subject that will never become dated.