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Courtship

cyrano catherine roxane love

An exploration of the way courtships are considered in modern drama reveals a predominance of failed relationships, usually due to a misunderstanding or lack of seriousness on the side of one (or both) of the participants. It is interesting to note that whether set in the seventeenth, nineteenth, or twentieth century, there are classic things all romantic partners do to try to attract their love, from flattery and teasing to offers of concern and protection, to sincere protestations of affection and admiration in person or by writing. All three plays considered in this chapter end without the couple getting together, but the process by which they come to this varies as much as do the individual lovers themselves.


Against a contemporary French theatrical movement toward naturalism, Edmond Rostand chose to be purposefully artificial and whimsical. His plays shunned the concept of the “well-made play,” celebrating the romantic and the sentimental. His play, Cyrano de Bergerac , written in open verse, is based on a real person who had lived in seventeenth-century France. It initially seems like a classic tale of unrequited love, but becomes more complex: Roxane loves Cyrano all along, but does not realize it until it is too late.


Cyrano has all the prerequisites of the perfect lover: he is generous, entertaining, intelligent, and courageous, yet he cannot bring himself to court the woman he loves, convinced that she would be repulsed by his enormous nose. Roxane has all the same qualities that he has, plus beauty besides, but falls for the handsome soldier, Christian. Yet it is Cyrano all along who courts her, for Christian uses Cyrano’s words, voice, and feelings to win her heart. However, because of Christian’s untimely death, Cyrano cannot reveal this ruse, and the pair only discover their mutual love as Cyrano is dying. Yet the humor in the play, predominantly resting on the larger-than-life wit and exploits of Cyrano, overrides the sadness of its characters’ lives, allowing Cyrano to die content with a life well lived.


Set in nineteenth-century New York, The Heiress , an adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz of Henry’s James’s novel, Washington Square , shows a far darker view of the way people play at relationships. What has all the markings of a romantic courtship with compliments, flowers, and poetry, followed by the promise of an elopement in the dead of night, turns ugly as we are forced to recognize the suitor’s true motives and the impact these have on an innocent young girl’s life. Catherine Sloper is psychologically abused by a father who constantly belittles her, as well as by the love of her life, who jilts her when he realizes that he cannot gain her full inheritance by marrying her without her father’s consent. She does, however, exact her revenge, which shows us the growing strength of women as the century progressed.


A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters is a more recent tale of a wealthy middle-class boy and girl who have known each other since second grade, yet somehow never quite fulfill the love they hold for one another. Both unhappily marry other people and, although they have a brief affair, it comes too late and fizzles out as Andy opts for a safer domestic life and chooses to drop Melissa, leading her to suicide. Their story is told exclusively through a series of letters and cards they have sent one another over the years, from formal responses to invitations or holiday greetings, to heartfelt missives exploring their relationship to each other, their families, and the rest of the world. The two actors sit together on stage for the entire performance, but do not physically interact. They read single lines or whole messages, and create a dialogue out of the words they have each written the other over the years.


Cyrano de Bergerac begins with Christian and Roxane falling for each other’s looks, while the title character displays his greater worth in an exhibition of intellect and brawn. He confesses that he loves Roxane but can never hope to win her because of his appearance. Invoking an old friendship, for they are cousins, Roxane asks Cyrano to protect Christian and to encourage him to woo her. Since Christian is tongue-tied in love and Roxane desires elegantly expressed sentiments, Cyrano provides the words for Christian to win her. On learning that Roxane has married Christian, the Comte de Guiche, who also desires her, immediately sends Christian and Cyrano to war in revenge, later placing them in the heart of the conflict. While they are away, Cyrano risks his life every day to write to Roxane in Christian’s name, which draws Roxane to the battle site to tell Christian that she now loves his soul more than his looks. Before Christian and Cyrano can tell her the truth so she can choose between them, Christian is killed, so Cyrano remains silent. Roxane enters a convent and fifteen years later Cyrano, mortally injured, arrives to keep his weekly visit; as he dies, Roxane recognizes her true love.


The play proposes the idealistic belief that talent and wit can compensate for unattractiveness and allow a man to triumph over a more attractive rival towin the beautiful woman. Cyrano is a poetic creation rather than a realistic figure: he displays a dashing persona, despite his physical ugliness, alongside an attractive sense of freedom and independence. Despite its surface sentimentality and the idealism of its conceit, the play is very modern in the tongue-in-cheek nature of Cyrano’s romantic extravagance. He slides easily between grandiose sentiment and utter self-deprecation, and, despite his considerable abilities, never takes himself entirely seriously.


Like any well-born woman of her time, Roxane has led a sheltered life. Yet, she has sufficient intellect and spirit to want to choose a husband for herself rather than settle for an arranged marriage with someone like Valvert, and the boldness to instigate her relationship of choice as she enlists Cyrano’s aid. In her innocence she chooses the handsome Christian, despite his unfashionable dress, over the more worthy Cyrano. She admires her cousin, but overlooks him as a suitor. We see the shallowness of her choice early on: she swiftly dismisses Christian when he attempts to speak to her without the aid of Cyrano, and then equally swiftly agrees to marriage as soon as Cyrano gives him prettier words to speak. But she has been manipulated by both men to this end and, from her point of view, has responded to an earnest and heartfelt courtship.


Yet Roxane grows in stature and understanding. She courageously comes through enemy lines to bring food and inspiration to the man who wrote her the letters, who has now won her soul. She asks Christian’s pardon, “For being young and vain and superficial,/And loving you for merely being handsome” (159), and displays a new maturity. When she finally discovers who had actually written those letters, she rebukes Cyrano for his years of silence, earnestly sad that they have lost their opportunity to be husband and wife. But Cyrano assures her that he has been content enough with their years of friendship, which if anything have been purer than any sexual relationship.


Despite his inarticulate awkwardness and his desire to take advantage of Roxane’s willingness to kiss, Christian is no villain. Indeed, as Cyrano insists with his dying breath, Christian also truly loved Roxane. Christian’s love for Roxane is initially as shallow as hers for him, based on looks alone, but it is not diminished by his discovery of her intellect and spirit. His decency is indicated by his attempt to speak directly and his decision at the battleground to tell her the truth and release her for Cyrano if she would prefer to be his wife. His personal courage is no less than Cyrano’s, as he too defends Ligniere and challenges Cyrano to win the respect of his regiment. He is as loath to have Roxane marry him for his looks alone as Roxane is to marry someone without wit and charm: “I want her to love me as I am!—/Crude, unpolished, unpoetic me!/As I am or not at all!” (163). But his unfashionable dress and pedantic speech, juxtaposed against the elegance and wit of Cyrano, indicate his unsuitability for Roxane, which is reinforced by his incredulous reaction upon learning that Cyrano has repeatedly risked his life to send Roxane letters from the front. Christian may love Roxane, but Cyrano loves her more.


Even the villain of the play, de Guiche, is not without redemption. His desire for Roxane is as genuine as that of Cyrano and Christian, and although seemingly foppish, he shows courage, too, and wins the grudging respect of his men when he stays to defend Roxane. But he is vindictive, offering a good foil to the generosity of Cyrano, who would rather allow Roxane to go to Christian and be happy than try to win her for himself. Cyrano’s generosity comes through repeatedly; for instance, before Christian dies, Cyrano tells him that Roxane had chosen Christian rather than Cyrano when asked whom she truly loved, while in reality the question had never been posed.


Cyrano’s behavior is often outlandish and extravagant, as in his refusal to let Montfleury take the stage and handing over to the theater all of his money in recompense, or in his composition of an extempore ballad while dueling with Valvert. But Cyrano can also be timid and insecure, as when he doubts his own ability to ever be loved. In public he poetically celebrates the largeness of his nose, but in private he berates his “monstrous countenance” (39). “There’s nothing Sir, I wouldn’t dare” (26), he exclaims, but it is not entirely true. He would prefer to face one hundred men alone than to speak his heart to a single woman. These extremes make him lovable rather than insufferable, allowing us to admire the skilled poet as we sympathize with the frustrated lover. It is the depth of his love that initially wins over Roxane, who hears it in his speech, but has been misguided as to the speaker. It is his complexity and depth as a lover that wins her soul: she reads it in his letters and it binds her to him for life.


In The Heiress , Dr. Austin Sloper cannot forgive his daughter Catherine for the fact that her birth caused the death of his beloved wife. Since she is painfully shy and rather plain, Sloper despairs of finding her a suitable husband. Catherine tries to please her father, but he constantly finds fault, which only accentuates her awkwardness. Her cousin Maria is engaged to Arthur Townsend, to everyone’s approval, for although Arthur is boring, he has good prospects. His cousin, Morris Townsend, is far more personable and, to her surprise and delight, sets his cap at Catherine. Her father is convinced that Morris is only after her money and forbids her to marry him. The couple agree to a six-month separation, and Sloper takes Catherine to Europe. On her return, Catherine determines to elope with Morris, but on learning that she has partly disinherited herself, he fails to come at the appointed time, leaving town instead. Devastated by this betrayal, Catherine becomes as cold and ruthless as Morris and her father. She calmly accepts her father’s news of terminal illness and teases him about the possibility that she may marry Morris after his death. Two years later, after Sloper has died, Morris returns and hopes for a second chance. Catherine leads him on, but when he joyfully comes to the house to collect her, she refuses to answer the door.


Sloper expects his daughter to marry, and invites his widowed sister, Mrs. Penniman, to live with them to help make Catherine more marriageable. Catherine is kind and intelligent, even capable of wit, but her father’s continual slights and blatant disapproval make her tongue-tied, clumsy, and even more shy. He sees her as “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise” (19), and insists that her large inheritance is the only reason a man would be enticed to marry her. Yet when someone is attracted by that inheritance alone, Sloper does all he can to prevent the marriage—not because he wants Catherine’s husband to love her, but rather because he insists that his son-in-law be more respectable than Morris. Mrs. Penniman is noticeably less choosy, encouraging the match even when it becomes clear that she knows what kind of character Morris is. She leaves them alone together and pushes each to pursue the relationship.


Catherine wants to marry, but to someone she can love and who will love her. Morris is initially so attentive and pleasant to Catherine that the audience may be fooled along with Catherine that he truly has personal regard for her beyond her thirty thousand dollars a year. Set beside the pedantic banker, Arthur, the cousin seems a far more interesting match. From the start, Morris gently flirts with Catherine, complimenting her looks and anticipating her needs; he buys her flowers, pays frequent visits, and behaves as if he is passionately in love with her. Like any good nineteenth-century suitor, he writes her poetry, tells her he cannot sleep because of her, and thinks of her constantly. He even pretends that he sometimes feels awkward and shy to make Catherine feel less self-conscious, and defends her against her father’s criticisms.


But Morris’s self-assurance and tendency to show off should rouse our suspicions—he is too slick. In addition, we learn that he has no money and lives off his widowed sister, which makes him a profligate in the eyes of his contemporary society. We could interpret Morris’s reticence to push for marriage against Sloper’s consent as concern for his future wife’s relationship with her father, but by the second act he makes his true motives clear. We witness him appreciatively looking over the house and its furnishings as Mrs. Penniman invites him to sample the doctor’s food, drink, and cigars while Sloper and Catherine are away in Europe. He confesses to Mrs. Penniman that the mere ten thousand dollars a year that Catherine has all her own, without her father’s portion, is simply not enough to keep him as he would like.


Sloper is antagonistic to Morris throughout, trying to embarrass him in front of Catherine; but Catherine does not care. She is only concerned that he love her, and she has convinced herself that this is true. Though a little bemused by Morris’s passion, she cannot help but respond to it, unaccustomed as she is to being loved. She candidly tells Morris that she loves him, and agrees to marry him, even if it means going against her father’s wishes. Her innocence is emphasized by her belief that her father will be fair with Morris when he comes to ask for her hand in marriage. But Sloper does all he can to discredit her suitor. He tries to coerce Mrs. Montgomery, Morris’s sister, to inform against him. She valiantly resists, defending her brother: “I can only suppose that Morris is more mature in his feelings than I had thought. This time he has not sought out superficial charms, but has considered the gentle character beneath” (40). And we wish that she were right, but it is evident that even she knows her brother is fortune-hunting. She compassionately warns Sloper not to reveal Morris’s true motive to Catherine for “it would break her heart!” (41). The fact that Morris decides not to elope with Catherine immediately, even when she is willing, further proves that his interest is in the inheritance alone. He sees the plan to take Catherine to Europe as an opportunity for Sloper to become accustomed to the match, rather than offering any fear that Catherine might forget him or fall out of love.


In desperation, as he knows no other way of preventing the match after the European trip evidently fails, Sloper tells Catherine that Morris must be after her money because she is neither beautiful nor clever. Crushed by her father’s cruel candor, Catherine jumps at the opportunity to elope with Morris. Yet Morris cannot agree without the chance that Sloper can be placated, and since Catherine makes it clear they will never receive anything from her father, it is little surprise to the audience that Morris never keeps their appointment. Her revenge in the final scene perfectly mirrors this earlier betrayal. In the two-year interim, she has become dignified and attractive, to such a degree that Morris finds her personally admirable beyond her wealth. Just as he had avoided an embrace when leaving Catherine, she now does the same to him, though he, as she had been, is too excited at the prospect of their marriage to notice. “Yes, I can be cruel,” Catherine tells her aunt, as she turns the tables on Morris. “I have been taught by masters!” (89). It is clear that Catherine’s innocent heart has been so hardened by her experiences that she will never allow herself to love anyone again.


Love Letters gives us extracts from notes and letters that the fictitious Andrew Ladd III and Melissa Gardner have written to each other since they were children. As children they tease, cajole, and begin to share their dreams and desires. She will only be his Valentine as long as she does not have to kiss him. As they mature, they begin to consider a sexual relationship, but since they are sent to different private schools and summer camps, and are rarely home at the same time, they never get the chance. When Andy invites Melissa to attend his school dance, she goes off with someone else, telling him that he felt too much like a brother, yet his resulting fling with Gretchen upsets her. They try again at college, but he feels too pressured to perform. And so it goes, through his Navy service and relationship with a Japanese woman, his marriage, children, and election to political office, and her two marriages, children, artistic highs and lows, and several breakdowns. They have a brief affair but, fearful of his political standing, and unsure of the wisdom of a relationship with such a volatile woman, Andy ends it, and a few months later Melissa kills herself. The final letter is one Andy wrote to Mrs. Gardner after the funeral, assessing his relationship with Melissa.


The two are very different characters. Andy is the more staid of the two. Coming from a stable family background may be part of this, but he is the type who likes to do what is expected of him, never shake the boat, and keep things orderly. Melissa, on the other hand, is free-spirited and rebellious, making Andy seem like a prude by comparison, but she is also far less secure. She has a disastrous family background, with a mother who drinks and repeatedly divorces and remarries, a father whom she has written out of her life, and a stepfather who tries to molest her. It is unsurprising that she turns out emotionally unstable with bouts of alcoholism and depression. To underscore their characters, she becomes an artist, and he, first a lawyer, then a successful politician.


People often write in letters things they can never say out loud and use their writing to extend their world by forging a connection with another person. Andy offers this as a reason why he enjoyed exchanging letters with Melissa: he was able to live vicariously through her, and have a more exciting life. Yet writing is also problematic because of the slippery nature of words, which in letter form can be as concealing as they are revealing, and the letter can become a way of avoiding connection. As Gurney points out, “Writing is what brings Andy and Melissa together, but it is also what keeps them apart” (viii). Andy is the one who prefers that they write rather than talk on the phone, and it is he who puts an end to the possibility of their physical relationship, choosing to end their affair and stay with his wife. He insists that they keep writing, since he needs his connection to Melissa, but he uses the letters to control her and keep her at a safe distance. Understanding this, she feels she has nothing left for which to live, and her suicide comes as little surprise.


What may be more surprising is Andy’s final declaration of love in the letter he writes to her mother after the funeral. It seems like his only moment of real honesty, something he has only just discovered and admitted to himself. Prior to this, his letters have mostly been evasions designed to keep Melissa attached but not too close. At one point, after their failed attempt to get together at college, Melissa exclaims, “I know you more from your LETTERS than I do in person” (28), and suggests that they stop writing if they really want to get closer. But he insists that they continue to write because, “I love writing to you … I feel like a true lover when I’m writing to you” (29). But what he gives her is mostly fake, his own creation, and not the real Andy Ladd. Andy rarely commits to paper his deepest feelings, or anything personally honest; hence his silence when he’s in Japan, and his refusal to write about what happened there.


While Andy’s declaration that he thought he gave Melissa a sense of balance is met by a mocking look, she thanks him for admitting, “I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone the way I loved her, and I know I never will again. She was at the heart of my life, and already I miss her desperately” (55). After all his evasions and compromises, he finally speaks from the heart and acknowledges what he has lost though his own timidity. The way Gurney has their sentences   blur together during the brief period of their earlier affair conveys the excitement of that time, and the suggestion that these two, at that moment, were able to speak with one voice, contrary to the numerous disagreements and criticisms that had gone before. However, Andy selfishly chooses career and comfort over this excitement, and only discovers now, after her death, how much poorer his future life will be as a result of this sacrifice.




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