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Chantecler

The chef-d'oeuvre of Rostand's mature years, now deservedly being rediscovered in France. This new edition, with text in French but comprehensive notes in English, will introduce readers to what many consider to be his best play.

Chantecler, by Edmond Rostand. Original French text with English end-notes to each Act, Introduction and Brief Chronology by Sue Lloyd, M. Phil. (Genge Press, February 2010)

ISBN 978-0-9549043-4-0 Pages: i-xviii, 1-292. £10.50; 12 Euros; US$ 18

 

Written in typically lively verse, Chantecler contains some of Edmond Rostand's best lyrical writing, including the famous 'Hymn to the Sun'. It also explores some of his favourite themes. This Genge Press edition of the French text, published to mark Chantecler's centenary in February 2010, aims to make the play more accessible, by giving it an introduction in English and comprehensive notes, also in English. It is our hope that this will enable many more readers to understand and enjoy this major play, which deserves to become as well-known as Cyrano de Bergerac.

If Cyrano de Bergerac was the play of Rostand's youth, then Chantecler is the play of his maturity. It deals with the loss of illusions and the renewal of faith in one's vocation; the difficulties of creativity, and the role of the poet in society. In this most personal of all his plays, Rostand reveals his innermost being although he knew this would attract ridicule and scorn. Written when the poet, ill at ease with the fashionable life of Paris during the Belle Époque, had made his home in the Pyrenean countryside near Cambo, Chantecler is suffused with Rostand's love of his native soil. The simplicity and honesty of traditional provincial life are contrasted with the snobbish and cynical ways of the capital.

Like all Rostand's plays, Chantecler embodies a 'leçon d'âme', a lesson for the soul. Its central theme is the importance of fulfilling one's vocation to the best of one's ability. And, like the earlier La Princesse Lointaine and La Samaritaine, Chantecler is also about the power of love to transform and transcend human nature. As Rostand himself made clear in his reception speech to the Académie française, he believed his 'lessons for the soul' should be absorbed almost unconsciously by the audience. So Chantecler also tells a story, expressed in witty or lyrical language, amusing characters, and humorous or poignant situations.

Unusually for the time, all the characters are animals or birds. The hero Chantecler is a cockerel who sings hymns to the sun and whose cockcrow is famous far and wide. Its excellence is due to Chantecler's secret belief that it is he who causes the sun to rise every morning overhis valley. The cock worships the sun because it gives light and warmth so that daily life can continue: in contrast the darkness it dispels is symbolic of ignorance, prejudice, faithlessness and malice. The creatures of the night plot against the cock and almost cause his death. Chantecler, traumatised, goes to live in the forest with the wild golden pheasant whom he adores. But jealous of his adoration of the sun and his commitment to what he sees as his duty to make the sun rise, she tricks him into realising that the sun can rise without his crowing, by concealing from him that the dawn is approaching while he is consumed by grief for a shot nightingale. Disillusioned but still believing he has a duty to crow in the morning to awaken his valley, if not the sun, Chantecler returns to his farmyard. The pheasant, repentant, allows herself to be caught and brought back to the cock's farmyard to live there with him.

The play is set in countryside like that surrounding Rostand's Pyrenean home, the villa Arnaga, near Cambo-les-bains, now a Rostand museum. The poet's delight in the natural world is vividly expressed, especially in Chantecler's lyrical speeches where his song brings about, as he believes, the rising of the sun. The light of the sun, which symbolises an inspiring ideal, and the sacredness of work and duty, are themes running through the play, linked by the figure of Chantecler himself. Chantecler's idealistic attitude to life is contrasted with the worldly ways of those around him.

At its première, Chantecler was not as great a success as Cyrano de Bergerac or L'Aiglon. The long delays (the play had been awaited since 1905); an unsympathetic lead actor (Chantecler was written for Constant Coquelin, the first Cyrano de Bergerac, but he died in 1909); the use of a commercial theatre rather than the Comédie-Française (because the play had been promised to Coquelin); the play's criticism of Parisian society, and the novelty of animal characters, all these acted against a proper appreciation of Rostand's play in February 1910. However, Chantecler played to full houses for over three hundred consecutive performances, while three troupes set off to perform it in the provinces and even abroad. The final performance at the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre took place on the first of November 1910. Copies of the play, published by Fasquelle, also sold well.

Rostand himself was convinced of the merit of his play, and a posthumous production at the Porte-Saint-Martin in 1928 was a resounding success. Perhaps because of the complications of staging, Chantecler has not been revived in France as often as Cyrano de Bergerac or L'Aiglon. However interest has been growing more recently. After an acclaimed version for French television in 1976 starring Jean Piat, the next major French production was Jean-Claude Martin's dashing revival, the highlight of the Avignon Summer Festival in 1984. Audiences found the play so modern, they could hardly believe it was authentic Rostand. Chantecler was again acclaimed as a masterpiece. Ten years later, Jérome Savary's production at the Théâtre National de Chaillot again enjoyed success. There were also revivals at Nantes in 1987, Lyons in June 1992 and Bordeaux in 1999, while Chantecler was given a millenium festival performance in August 2000 at Rostand's home, Arnaga.

The text of the play has also become available more easily in France. Both the 1985 and 1994 productions led to printed versions, in Théâtre Magazine and L'Avant-Scène respectively. Harmattan brought out a new edition in 1996, and in 2006 Garnier-Flammarion published a fully annotated edition, with excellent notes and introduction by the French Rostand scholar Philippe Bulinge. Performances abroad have been few, due to the difficulties of translation. In the USA, Maude Adams performed in Louis N. Parker's version as early as 1911. Then silence, until Cory Einbinder's version using puppets as well as actors in Philadelphia in 1995 and in New York 2005. He used Kaye Nolte Smith's translation. In Britain, Terence Gray chose Chantecler in June 1933 for his last production before the closure of his avant-garde experiment at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge. There have been various attempts to translate Chantecler into English (see the Rostand Bibliography page) but none since 1961. Until a new translation becomes available, it is the editor's hope that this annotated edition will encourage new readers to appreciate and enjoy Rostand's masterpiece, and perhaps even inspire a theatre director to take on the challenge of performing Chantecler in English on a British or American stage.

STOP PRESS

To celebrate the centenary of Chantecler, Les Amis d'Arnaga et d'Edmond Rostand organised a most successful conference at Arnaga on June 25-26th 2010. Participants included M. Patrick Besnier, who edited Cyrano de Bergerac and L'Aiglon for Folio; M. Philippe Bulinge, who edited La Samaritaine and Chantecler, and has recently brought out an edition of a newly discovered translation of Goethe's Faust by Rostand, and M. Olivier Goetz, who has, with another participant, M. Michel Forrier, just published an early work by Rostand, Le Gant Rouge, and Sue Lloyd, of the Genge Press. Besides speeches covering many aspects of Chantecler (which will be made available on the web-site of the Amis d'Arnaga), we were able to see film clips including the whole of Émile Cohl's 1910 cartoon, which used scenery modelled on the stage version. The conference took place in the idyllic setting of Arnaga, with its gardens and fountains, and the house was also open after hours for participants to explore and to see the special exhibition concerning Chantecler and its staging. This opportunity to celebrate and discuss Edmond Rostand and his plays, especially Chantecler, was much appreciated by all who took part. See www.rostand-arnaga.com for more information.

REVIEWS OF THE GENGE PRESS EDITION

Professor Derek Connon, of Swansea University, writing for Modern Languages Review, Janaurary 2011 (Vol.106, i), has pointed out that 'the main thrust of the drama is serious and poetic... maintaining this when one's central character is effectively dressed in a chicken outfit proves difficult even for the playwright who made a romantic hero of the man with a huge nose'. Modern performances have dealt with this by dressing the characters like the humans they represent, such as giving the woodpecker the uniform of a French academician. Readers of course do not have this difficulty. Professor Connon concludes that 'anglophone readers will find Lloyd's assistance invaluable in finding their way through Rostand's densely poetic and playful language'.

SONG IN ENGLISH RETELLING THE STORY

Sue Lloyd's friend Eileen Ann Moore, a folk singer and composer, was so inspired by the story of Chantecler that she wrote and composed a song about him. Link to be added.


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