Who would have thought that an old French play could have contemporary relevance? And yet, Edmund Rostand’s seminal play Cyrano de Bergerac bears directly on our use and abuse of social networking media like Facebook and Match.com, warning us of the ever-imminent peril of losing ourselves to the digital images we create and put forth. These social networks are not inherently bad, and I’m sure that there are those who use them forthrightly. For the rest of us who have ever posted a status update, a tweet, a favorite book, band, or film in the interest of making people see us in a certain light–we are in the same boat as Cyrano.
The drama of the play surrounds the cavalier Cyrano, who falls madly in love with the beautiful but elusive Roxanne. There’s just one problem: Cyrano is crippled by insecurity stemming from the appearance of his abnormally-large nose. Nevertheless, the pain of unrequited love obliges him to confess his feelings through the medium of his incredibly handsome (albeit somewhat brainless) brother-in-arms Christian. Having indirectly delivered his impassioned words to Roxanne, however, Cyrano is aghast to discover that his lady-love has fallen for the beautiful Christian. Circumstances unfold that result in Christian’s untimely death, and Roxanne grieves for her lost beloved. At the close of the play, Cyrano is mortally injured, and tells Roxanne the truth of matters before he dies as well.
Out of this despondency emerge two ideas that pounce upon the way we understand and practice social networking. First, we see that insecurity tempts us to put forth false images. Cyrano is an impressive character. He is intelligent, witty, romantic, and proficient in martial endeavors. His fixation on his one besetting imperfection, however, causes him to neglect his attractive characteristics for fear of rejection. As a result, he exercises his affections vicariously through Christian. Roxanne thinks she has found both an attractive and romantic beloved, but in reality this is a falsehood. Social networking media allow us to do the same. It is painful to dump out our mixed bag of virtues and imperfections. Our escape from this pain is to mitigate our perceived faults to put forth a modified image. What we want most of all is acceptance. Like Cyrano, though, we fail to attain real friendship or affection, and we rob our friends or beloveds of a real person to love in turn.
The second idea we find is that these false images isolate us from authentic human interactions. Cyrano’s illusion isolates him from experiencing any actual reciprocation of affection. Instead, he has to rely on vicarious experiences through Christian. Similarly, the creation of illusory images of ourselves distances us from direct experiences of relationships with others. Real interactions are vulnerable and sometimes frightening; they oblige us to reckon with the pains and insecurities of others and to be honest about our own. We are forced to mature and become more charitable. Or we can choose the path of Cyrano, creating neat and static images, and like him rob ourselves and others of the opportunity to grow in our ability to love others well.
Cyrano’s fate provides a stern warning against the easy use of false self-images. His insecurity about his imperfections overrides the original aim of loving Roxanne and being loved by her in return. As such, because Cyrano avoids the uncertain and sometimes painful process of overcoming his fear of rejection, he robs himself and Roxanne of the opportunity to experience meaningful change.
In short, Cyrano de Bergerac gives us perspective about self-image, and provokes us to live free of fear.
Photo the courtesy of Robin Taylor, photographer.