Edmond Rostand was born in Marseilles, France, on 1 April 1868 to wealthy parents. He went to Paris to study law and was admitted to the bar, but became more interested in writing poetry than in the legal profession.
In 1890 he published a volume of lyric verse that received a few favorable reviews. The same year, Rostand, then twenty-two, married Rosemonde Gérard, a nineteen-year-old poet of later distinction and the granddaughter of a marshal of France under Napoleon. Such personal associations with national glory, as well as Rostand’s upbringing in southern France, perhaps accentuated a natural penchant for romance and grandiloquence. He published other poetry and soon became increasingly attracted to the theatre, to which he was to devote most of his future efforts.
His first play actually to reach the boards was The Romancers (Les Romanesques, 1894), a charming if trivial satire on romance that was to achieve enormous success in NewYork over half a century later as The Fantasticks. Though it ridicules excessive romantic attitudes, the play itself is in sharp contrast to the drab naturalism of contemporary drama, and it presages the very mixture of imaginative romanticism, declamation, wit, and wistfulness that was to characterize Rostand’s major works.
Sarah Bernhardt starred three years later in Rostand’s The Woman of Samaria (La Samaritaine, 1897). Here the triumph of ideal over physical love is dramatized in a biblical spectacle with a very human Jesus (speaking like Rostand himself) inspiring a new Magdalen to carry his message, lead the mob to Jacob’s Well where Jesus waits, and join in the Lord’s Prayer.
It was his next work, however, that elevated Rostand into the ranks of great French playwrights. Cyrano de Bergerac brought him immediate and worldwide fame. Not yet thirty, he was lionized at home. In 1900 Rostand was appointed officer of the Legion of Honor, and three years later he became the youngest member ever elected to the French Academy.
Rostand wrote his leading parts for great French actors such as Coquelin and Bernhardt. In fact, it was Bernhardt who played Napoleon’s weak-willed son in Rostand’s next work, The Eaglet (L’Aiglon, 1900). While this play did not create quite the furor of Cyrano de Bergerac, it enjoyed international success and consolidated Rostand’s reputation.
Ill health at this time caused Rostand to leave his admirers in Paris and take his family into retirement to a luxurious villa in Cambo, in the southern countryside at the foot of the Pyrenees. He spent many years working on an allegorical animal drama that eventually became Chanticleer. The play was eagerly anticipated by a public that had not had a new Rostand drama for a decade. But, though it has been praised by some critics as his most profound work, it never enjoyed the popularity of the preceding plays.
In his last years, Rostand produced a verse pantomime, worked on a never-completed Faust, and almost finished his dramatization of another legendary character in The Last Night of Don Juan (La Derniére Nuit de Don Juan, 1921), which was published posthumously. Rostand died in Paris on 2 December 1918.