James DeVita is appearing in only one production this season at American Players Theatre—as Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. But he’s been plenty busy behind the scenes, spending 18 months creating a new adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and then directing the play up the hill. At a recent pre-show discussion, DeVita shared his personal connection to the play, his process for creating a new adaptation of the French classic, and why he feels the story continues to captivate audiences.
For the Love of Veronica
DeVita’s first contact with the epic soldier, lover, swordfighter and idealist Cyrano de Bergerac was through the comic books he purchased at a local dime store as a nine year-old kid. “Do you remember Archie and Veronica?” he asked the crowd with a smile. “Well I was quite taken with Veronica in my early years, so I was always scanning the covers on the comics rack, looking for the latest issue.” As luck would have it, right next to the Archie comics was a series called Classics Illustrated, which condensed some of the great stories of literature and put them into comic book form. Frequently the cover art was enough to intrigue him — that’s how DeVita first learned about Cyrano and Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe and the Three Musketeers.
When Cyrano debuted in France in 1897, it was an anomaly, but also huge success. At a time when the stage was dominated with dark stories in a naturalistic style (think Ibsen) Rostand had written an unapologetically romantic story set 250 years in the past, that includes not only swashbuckling and a tragic love story, but also a character who unabashedly aspires to be a Great Man — one of honor, loyalty, faith, idealism, and integrity, who is uncompromising to a fault.
“I mean, who doesn’t want to be Cyrano?” DeVita rhetorically asked his listeners. “When it opened it was a huge success, maybe because it represented the best of what France and the French people could be.” He paused. “You know our country is tough today. Maybe we need Cyrano. Or a young poet could come along and create something like Hamilton,” he smirked. “They’re not so different.”
Translating a Classic
When American Players Theatre decided that Cyrano would be part of their 2017 season, the question came up of which translation to use. The last time the theater mounted the show, directed by David Frank in 1997, they relied on a script by Anthony Burgess, which is as a grittier version of the story. Brian Hooker’s romantic version is also popular, but DeVita accepted the challenge of looking at them side by side, along with a Google Translate version of the original French, and two more existing translations, to truly create a hybrid script that would serve the APT company the best. He even went back to the comic book that had originally captured his imagination.
In doing his research, DeVita discovered that Cyrano uncut is actually longer than Hamlet uncut. It clocks in at about 4 hours, 15 minutes. The original script also has around 60 characters. Eventually he not only whittled the story down by an hour, he also cut the cast of characters in half. By studying the play line by line, picking and choosing the best pieces from each source, he assembled them like a literary jigsaw puzzle. When an existing line or word didn’t serve, he created his own. To find the right rhythm and see how each sentence would work in the actors’ mouths, he recited the play out loud as he wrote. “There was a lot of yelling in my office,’ he admitted. “But if I stumbled on a word, I could be pretty sure that an actor was going to stumble on it too. The process was laborious, but interesting if you’re a geek for language like I am,” DeVita said with a smile.
Rostand's original French verse was alexandrine (lines composed of twelve syllables) and also incorporated prose, and iambic pentameter (lines composed of ten syllables). But some translations are written in rhymed couplets, while some are in prose. What’s an adapter to do?
“I wanted to use all iambic verse at first,” said DeVita, who must dream in the rhythm of Shakespeare plays. “Then I got braver. I decided to write what I wanted to,” he said. The result is — similar to the source material — a combination of styles with rhyme used very specifically, “when a character wants to show off how smart he is.”
Creating a Play for the Players
DeVita collaborated extensively with Jim Ridge, the actor who plays Cyrano this summer, and crafted many characters to highlight to the strengths of specific APT company members. But he added several original speeches for just one character—Roxane, played by Laura Rook. “Roxane is a very strong woman of great agency,” he said. “She’s not shallow. She’s not just in love with a pretty face. So I added some text that illuminated that side of her.” He continued, “At a time when women had very little power, she educated herself, she bought her own books. She’s very aware that’s she’s sought after just for her beauty, but with Laura’s help in the rehearsal hall we created a woman who wants more.”
Cyrano de Bergerac continues at American Players Theatre through October 6. For tickets and more information please visit americanplayers.org.