Cyrano stands on the stage, confronting Montfluery, whom he’s forbidden from appearing in the Hotel for a month. Cyrano threatens to cut off Montfluery’s ears with a sword if Montfluery doesn’t leave immediately. The audience grumbles that Cyrano is ruining the play, but Cyrano threatens to turn his sword on the spectators if they continue yelling.
Cyrano’s introduction reveals many important parts of his character, which is defined by the concept of “panache”: a flamboyant, showy kind of flair. Cyrano loves art above all else, and considers bad acting a “crime.” He also likes to perform for a crowd and show off his wit, flair, and even his swordsmanship. It’s clear that he planned this dramatic entrance beforehand.
Cyrano draws his sword and says he’ll give Montfluery until the count of three to get out of the theater. The audience finds this amusing, and begins laughing and cheering. On three, Montfluery races away, and the audience claps.
Cyrano isn’t just canceling the show—he’s putting on a new show to replace it. The audience begins to realize this, and claps and cheers for Cyrano, who apparently is a well-known figure.
A young man in the audience asks Cyrano, who climbs off the stage back into the crowd, why he hates Montfluery so much. Cyrano explains that he has two reasons. The first is that Montfluery is a terrible actor, and the second reason, he says, is his secret. An old man in the crowd says that Cyrano has deprived an audience of entertainment, but Cyrano replies that Baro’s play can hardly be called entertainment. A Hotel worker, Bellerose, calls out that Cyrano has deprived the Hotel of money, since all the theatergoers will have to be refunded their tickets. Cyrano produces a purse of gold and throws it to Bellerose. Impressed, Bellerose says that Cyrano has paid enough to interrupt the play every night.
Cyrano’s “performance” in this scene tells us a lot about his character. He’s both a nobleman and a commoner, a snob and a democrat. He’s fairly wealthy, given that he has a purse of gold on his person, but he seems to not mind sharing his wealth with a group of strangers in order to make a reckless show of generosity. In addition, Cyrano snobbishly cancels the performance because of one bad actor, and yet he also has a bawdy, slapstick sense of humor of his won. Above all, Cyrano is a performer. Even his generosity shows his actor’s instinct: he gives up his money to impress his fans.
A “Bore” of a theatergoer asks Cyrano if Cyrano has a patron (someone who supports him financially). Cyrano replies that he has no patron, other than his own sword. The Bore protests that Cyrano, who has offended the Duke of the town with his actions, will have to leave immediately. Cyrano replies that he’s more than a match for the Duke.
Cyrano is a man of contradictions. He’s clearly born into the upper class, but he has no respect for other elites in Paris. He’s in an “in-between” state, and this makes him exotic, especially in 17th century French society, where everyone’s social role is supposed to be clearly and rigidly delineated.
As Cyrano talks, the Bore can’t help but stare at his enormous nose. Cyrano asks the Bore what he’s staring at, and the Bore, eyeing Cyrano’s sword, is reluctant to answer. Cyrano asks the Bore if his nose is long like an elephant’s trunk, or if there’s a fly on it. The Bore whispers that Cyrano’s nose is tiny, and Cyrano replies that the Bore is being absurd. He says he’s proud of having a large nose, since a big nose symbolizes having a good soul. He yells to the Bore and the rest of the audience that anyone who mocks his nose will be forced to duel with him.
So far, Cyrano has been using only his reputation as a swordsman as a weapon, but here we see that he’s equally adept at using language as a weapon. Without ever drawing his sword, he “attacks” the Bore, and even more surprisingly, he attacks the Bore by insulting his own nose. Cyrano’s nose is a complicated symbol in the play—Cyrano is insecure about it, and duels anyone who insults it, but he also takes a certain pride in his nose, flaunting its ugliness and using it as a point of contention to purposefully show off his wit and fighting prowess.
Cyrano walks through the Hotel hall. The Viscount Valvert, amused by the spectacle, goes up to Cyrano and tells him he has a big nose. Cyrano asks Viscount if that’s the best insult he could think of. He lists dozens of insults the Viscount could have used—the Viscount could have compared the nose to a pipe, a chimney, a seashell, a pumpkin, etc. The crowd laughs and cheers for Cyrano as he rattles off insults, and the Viscount becomes enraged.
As in the previous scene, Cyrano wittily attacks his opponent by seemingly attacking himself. The message of his monologue is that the Bore isn’t doing his job: “If you’re going to insult me, at least insult me right.” Much of the pleasure of Rostand’s play comes from the witty wordplay and monologues in scenes like this one.
Valvert glares at Cyrano, and draws his sword. Cyrano does the same: they must duel now. The Viscount hisses that Cyrano is only a poet, not a fighter. Cyrano laughs and says that to prove that he is a poet, he will compose a ballade (a form of poem) while dueling with the Viscount. The crowd circles around the duelers in a hushed silence, eager to hear Cyrano’s rhymes.
Cyrano embodies the Romantic ideal of the 19th century: he’s both physically and mentally impressive, and thus can fight a duel while composing a poem. It’s important to keep in mind that this is all happening in front of a big crowd: Cyrano wants others to watch as he humiliates his opponent, because performing gives him genuine pleasure.
The duel begins. Valvert fights aggressively, but Cyrano parries his attacks easily. As the Viscount grows more and more frustrated, Cyrano composes a poem in which he compares his opponent to a wriggling eel. After exactly three stanzas of poetry (the length of the “ballade” form), Cyrano strikes the Viscount, winning the duel. The crowd cheers.
In this famous scene, Cyrano shows off his mastery of both words and swords. It’s as if he’s already predicted how the scene will go, right down to the number of stanzas it will take for him to defeat his opponent, as the duel ends just as he completes the “ballade.”
Cyrano sheaths his sword and goes to greet his friend Le Bret. The Marquises approach Cyrano and praise him for his bravery and intelligence. Cyrano thanks them, and then confesses something to Le Bret: he has no money. The purse of gold, he explains, was “paternal bounty.” Le Bret insists that Cyrano should have saved the money, but Cyrano claims that the gesture of giving away so much money in one second is worth being unable to eat for a month. Suddenly, a Buffet-Girl approaches Cyrano. She tells him that he may eat as much as he likes of the buffet in the Hotel. Cyrano graciously accepts, and kisses the Buffet-Girl’s hand. However, he doesn’t eat very much food—only a single grape.
The scene ends with a surprising twist: Cyrano, the dashing gentleman, is actually broke. This is an important piece of information, because it makes his act of generosity (throwing the bag of gold into the crowd) seem both more impressive and more reckless. Cyrano doesn’t always think about the material consequences of his actions—like any good actor, he “loses himself in the moment,” performing for a crowd and forgetting about what comes next. For the time being, however, Cyrano doesn’t have to suffer for his recklessness, as his charisma is its own force of currency, enabling him to eat for free. And yet Cyrano doesn’t eat much even here—he puts his pride before his health, foreshadowing the events of Act 5.