When Steve Martin adapted Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac for American audiences, he stuck fairly close to the original with a few important twists.
The premise of Cyrano is familiar and parodies and homages often find their way into comedy plots. We remember that an articulate man with a big nose secretly wrote love letters and spoke on behalf of a less articulate– but more handsome– man. He was able to find just the right words to describe Roxanne’s beauty because he was secretly in love with her himself.
What people often don’t quite remember is how the story ends. In Steve Martin’s version Roxanne, played by Darryl Hannah discovers the deception, realizes she was really in love with the poetry not the face, the boy gets the girl and they live happily ever after.
The original was not quite as happy. Roxanne marries the handsome young Christian, just before he and Cyrano go off to war. Cyrano keeps writing love letters. Christian comes to realize that if Roxanne loves him because of Cyrano’s writing, she doesn’t love him at all. He wants to tell her the truth, but he is killed in battle. Because Cyrano loves Roxanne, he wants to let her keep her image of her husband. Roxanne never learns the truth until Cyrano is on his death bed. He denies to his last breath.
This is no happy end. It is, rather, a noble end. Most narratives in our culture end with the protagonist getting what he ought to have. In Rostand’s drama, Cyrano did not get the girl but he had a different kind of victory. He maintained an ideal, even if it meant sacrificing his own happiness.
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, is similar in that it is a story of mistaken identity which ends with a character sacrificing himself for the greater good. In both cases, the characters perform their acts of nobility largely in secret. The societies around them will never celebrate them. Charles Daray is a good-natured aristocrat who bears a striking physical resemblance to a barrister named Sydney Carton whose life has not amounted to much. Carton suffers from un-requited love for Darnay’s wife Lucie. It is the time of the French revolution, and as an artistocrat Darnay is in danger. Lucie’s devoted pursuit of him puts her and her father at risk as well. In order to save Lucie, Carton visits Darnay in prison, drugs him and has an accomplice carry him out so that Carton can take his place at the guillotine. The novel’s last words, spoken by Carton as he goes to his death, are some of the most famous in literature: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
When filmmakers adapted Edith Wharton’s 1905 House of Mirth for the screen, they could not stomach the unsettling ending in which the main character Lily Bart’s self-sacrifice remains unknown to anyone but the reader. Lily Bart’s tragedy is that she is caught in an era in which the aristocratic class are still marrying for wealth and position but she is torn between that reality and a notion of romantic love. Initially she is unwilling to risk her social position by marrying the man she really loves, Lawrence Selden, but she is also unwilling to marry someone more “suitable” who she does not love. Throughout the novel, through a series of manufactured scandals that allow others to maintain social position at her expense, Bart’s position declines to utter poverty. She has an opportunity to save herself by making public some love letters that prove Selden had an affair years earlier with another character. She is not willing to destroy Selden’s reputation. She burns the letters and dies of an overdose just as Selden is coming to ask her to marry him– a final tragic example of terrible timing. The film doesn’t go so far as to give the couple a happy end, but Bart’s sacrifice is no longer secret. Selden finds the letters and realizes what she has done.
The theme of nobility conducted in secret was popular a century ago. It doesn’t sit well with us now. It seems to fly in the face of our notion of a just world. At least this is the conventional wisdom about what audiences want.
We have occasional glimpses of noble self-sacrifice. Action movies often feature a secondary character who fills that role. Michelle Rodriguez’s role in Avatar, Trudy Cachon, comes to mind, but the film does not make her crisis of conscience central and her death for a greater good is in support of the real business of allowing the heroes pummel the bad guys and save the day.
There are two counter examples of silent and noble endings in recent poplar culture that I can think of. The first is another film by James Cameron, one of the most popular films of all time– Titanic. James Dawson teaches Rose what it is to be alive and changes the direction of her life before succumbing to the sea. (He seems to sacrifice himself needlessly. Didn’t it seem like he could have fit on that floating board along side Rose if he’d tried one more time?) Because he won his ticket in a game of poker, no one even knew he was on the ship of that he existed at all. His story does not remain entirely untold though. Old Rose tells the researchers about Dawson in the framing story.
The other example of a silent tragedy is Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger’s taciturn character Ennis Del Mar never does reveal the great love of his life to anyone. Only he and the audience know what happened between him and Jack Twist and what it meant to him. A character like Ennis Del Mar is a stand in for all of the people whose struggles we will never know.
Brokeback Mountain illustrates something important about tragedies. They usually have a third main character– the society that surrounds the characters. If Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist had ridden into the sunset together, it might have made us happier as an audience. Everyone could leave the theater reassured that there may have been problems along the way but in the end, people get what they deserve in life. It would not have been a powerful story that made us ask questions about society. Sometimes only tragedy can make that point.
“The tragic right is a condition of life,” Arthur Miller wrote, “a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens-and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies.”
Lily Bart’s tragic downfall and death asks readers to think about the harm social structures and status seeking can cause. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the first installment of which was published in 1873, makes a similar critique of social posturing. It ends with Karenina’s suicide by jumping in front of a train. The lush film version released in 2012 was such a visual feast that the tragedy played like a dream sequence. If you didn’t know the story to begin with the ending would probably leave you turning to the person in the seat beside you and asking, “So, did she just kill herself or does that mean something else?” It doesn’t invite viewers to sit with the tragedy, feel the loss, and wonder how such a thing can be prevented in the future.
If we told more stories of people who were harmed by our social striving and of people who acted with character and nobility while their tales remained secret to those around them, might we view other people with more compassion? Maybe the person who appears to be life’s loser is a hero and you just don’t know it.
Telling stories is how we give meaning to our lives. We explain where we have been, how that shapes us now, and where we are going. Our personal stories are unconsciously and inevitably modeled on the stories we tell as a society, our cultural myths. The near requirement that fiction have a happy ending in order to be published or produced says that a story is not worth telling until the main character has succeeded. What does that mean for our personal stories? Do we feel we do not quite exist until we have gotten the girl, slayed the dragon, hit the home run?
Tragic stories say that the human drama, the struggles of life, have meaning even if you don’t win in the end.