The balcony scene in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is perhaps the most familiar in all of theater: Eloquent but uncomely Cyrano whispers words to comely but ineloquent Christian, who, in turn, recites them to their love, Roxane, as though they were his own. Like the patriarch of a once-noble family, Cyrano’s DNA survives in a slew of lesser heirs. It is the inspiration for films like Roxanne, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and Hitch. It has hit the television trifecta of The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and South Park, not to mention Star Trek, Friends, and Futurama. And, on Friday, Cyrano surfaces in movie theaters once again, as the premise of Katherine Heigl's new romantic comedy, The Ugly Truth.
In The Ugly Truth, Heigl plays Abby, an uptight television producer. Unlucky at love, she enlists her program's bawdy relationship specialist, Mike (Gerard Butler), to help her woo the boy next door. From Abby’s initial sighting of her neighbor on his balcony, Cyrano's thumbprint is easily identifiable. Mike guides her on her conquest throughout the film, which includes the earpiece-on-a-date gag that has become Cyrano's most common adaptation.
In a spate of recent movies and TV shows, Cyrano de Bergerac has devolved into Neil Strauss, showing off his serrated bedpost so that his pupils can finally notch their own.
But the 21st-century Cyrano isn’t the smooth talker we remember from literature. Consider the advice that Mike gives to Abby: Men like "women in slutty clothes who suck lots of cock,” he says. They "fall in love with your tits and ass." Mike’s advice certainly lacks the polish of the original Cyrano’s words: "Your name, Roxane, swings like a brazen / Bell, telling itself—Roxane, Roxane—/ In my heart's belfry, and I tremble—Roxane, Roxane—with each bronze, gold, / Silver reverberation." When placed beside its inspiration, The Ugly Truth reveals an ugly truth of its own: Cyrano has devolved into Neil Strauss, showing off his serrated bedpost so that his pupils can finally notch their own. In our new Cyrano stories, the voice of sexual experience has replaced the voice of love.
The Ugly Truth is not the only film to pervert Cyrano in this manner. In fact, it is probably more common nowadays for the handsome Christian character to be the ventriloquist and the earnest Cyrano character to be the dummy. In 2005’s Hitch, Will Smith plays a "date doctor" who trains shlubs like Kevin James to win over women who are, physically speaking, out of their leagues. The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) casts Janeane Garofalo as the ventriloquist and Uma Thurman as the dummy; but, Thurman still acts as Garofalo’s coach, encouraging her to claim the man she loves. Sometimes, the advice we expect from modern-day Cyranos is so clichéd that practically anyone can dispense it: Even Homer Simpson can play the part, feeding words to Principal Skinner from the bushes while he takes a leak.
This is a long way from the symbiotic relationship with Christian that Cyrano describes in the play as "pure art." "The finest lines of the dramatist are dead," Cyrano says, "Without the actor's partnership." Instead, the new Cyranos practice pure science: A teacher imparts to a pupil a series of general principles about love, which have been tested and verified in the boudoir. Wesley Yang suggested something similar in a recent review of Neil Strauss' pick-up manual, The Game, for n+1: "[ The Game] told us that through the dogged effort and application of science, anyone could transform himself from a pauper to a prince." When the ventriloquist is a voice of experience and not of love, words are no longer material for heartfelt expression. They are instruments in a seductive experiment.
Nowhere is this scientific approach to Cyrano more apparent than the MTV reality show, Wanna Come In?, which aired from 2004 to 2006. The show takes its premise from Cyrano—one man assists another on a date, via an earpiece—but, once again, the irony is reversed: The ventriloquist is a "stud"; the dummy is a "dud." A participant "wins" if his date invites him to spend the night. Whereas Cyrano and Christian were complementary figures, combining into Roxane's ideal man (at the play's end, she cries, "I never loved but one man in my life. / Now I must lose him twice"), the "stud" has monopolized seduction. The handsome man is no longer a vessel for the ugly man's emotion. The handsome man possesses the right words to begin with, and the ugly man is there only to prove how effective they can be.
South Park recently took this premise to its reductio ad absurdum when Cartman equips his friend Jimmy with a headset and then navigates him into the bedroom of his date—a prostitute named Nut Gobbler—by telling him to say things like "Wow, that is very interesting" and "Wow, how insightful." The language is purely utilitaritarian—a long way from Cyrano's romantic rhymes—but we should not let this fact obscure one thing: Though they set their sights on different goals, both Cyrano and his progeny (even fourth-grade Jimmy) succeed with language. Cyrano ultimately wins Roxane's love with his poetry, even if he dies before he can enjoy it. Similarly, in pop culture, the man who was originally deemed inadequate is lifted to her level through tactful speech.
So how do the new and old Cyranos, with their radically different views of romance, ultimately arrive at similar conclusions about the effectiveness of language? It has less to do with the Cyranos, and more to do with their Roxanes. The new Cyranos all tend to assume that the listener is shallow. And indeed, Cyrano de Bergerac's biggest flaw is that Cyrano's passion for Roxane is never quite justified because she never appears as an object worthy of his devotion. She is supremely fickle. When Christian tries to speak for himself and says "I love you," Roxane instructs him to "Embroider it." When he fails, she demands that he "retrieve / Your scattered eloquence. Otherwise—leave."
Ultimately, a show like Wanna Come In? has not deviated as far from its inspiration as it may at first seem. Cyrano's lasting contribution is not its attitude toward romance, but its attitude toward women. ( Wanna Come In? never featured a female pair seducing a male date.) You win over a woman by telling her what she wants to hear. It doesn't really matter if you're cynical or sincere, aiming for her heart or her underwear: Whether you mean it or not is almost beside the point. At one point in Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano tells Christian that the words he writes are "airy nothings ... The more eloquent for being insincere." He is lying, but today the lines ring true. Lovelorn Cyrano may not have exactly been a player, but Rostand certainly understood the game.
Ben Crair is an associate editor at The Daily Beast.