Although the name conjures up the image of a swashbuckling poet with an enormous nose, little is known about the life of the maverick 17th-century writer and philosopher Cyrano de Bergerac. Born four centuries ago, he left behind a play, love letters and a handful of strange travelogues that imagine a journey to the moon.
The sketchy details of his past were a blank canvas for the late 19th-century French playwright Edmond Rostand, who mythologised aspects of Cyrano’s life for his own ends. Immortalising Cyrano on stage, Rostand created a character whose heroism and generosity have resonated with audiences since the play’s premiere in 1897. Cyrano believes himself to be ugly and ridiculous on account of his large nose, and fears that in spite of his talent for romantic poetry he will never be able to win the heart of the woman he loves. Enter the good-looking but inarticulate Christian de Neuvillette, and together they devise the perfect hero whose identity is only revealed at the end of the play.
Bridget Kendall explores the intersection between the real Cyrano and his fictional counterpart with Dr Clémence Caritté, who’s written extensively on Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac; Professor Isabelle Moreau from the University of Lyon, co-editor of Seventeenth Century Fiction: Text and Transmission; and Professor John Rodden who lectures in European history at the University of Texas at Austin, USA.
(Main Image: Cyrano de Bergerac by the Comédie-Française, featuring Michel Vuillermoz as Cyrano, Paris, May, 2006. Photo credit: Raphael Gaillarde / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
The Scythians: Masters of the steppe
They were the ancient horse lords of the Eurasian steppe, nomadic warriors whose influence extended over thousands of kilometres from Mongolia to the Ukraine. The spectacular gold jewellery and mummified remains preserved in their ancient burial mounds, some the size of a football pitch, tell us they loved colour and precious metal. But what else do we know about the enigmatic Scythians? They left us no written records so we have to rely on testimonies of their neighbours and new archaeological and genetic techniques. One thing seems sure, they knew how to party. Not only do Greek sources repeatedly mention ‘drunken Scythians’ but archaeological evidence confirms feast remnants with hundreds of wine amphorae and ‘purification tents’ filled with hemp smoke.
Bridget Kendall is joined by leading experts on the Scythians: Professor Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Dr Margarita Gleba from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Sir Barry Cunliffe emeritus professor from Oxford University.
(Photo: A traditional animal-like piece of ornament on display at an exhibition of the treasures of the ancient Scythian burial mounds in the Siberian Valley of the Kings, held at the Tuva Republic National Museum in Kyzyl (Credit: Artyom Geodakyan/TASS/Getty Images)
The Russian civil war: How the Soviets rose to power
The Russian Civil war was a struggle for power at every level – from the villages to the imperial centre, with more than 11 foreign powers involved as well as nationalists, from Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states, fighting for independence. This conflict, which took place a hundred years ago, between a small group of revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks and their enemies was one of the most brutal and tragic periods in Russian history, but it was also to shape the new Soviet state that was founded in 1922, and still characterises Russia today.
But why did events of the Russian Civil war end up crushing hopes for democracy after the idealism of the October revolution? And how did a small extremist group like the Bolsheviks manage to take control, despite resistance - not just from the upper and middle classes- but also from peasants and workers? Joining Bridget Kendall to explore these themes further is Laura Engelstein, Professor Emerita of Russian history and author of “Russia in Flames”; Steve Smith, Professor of History at Oxford University who wrote “Russia in Revolution”, and Dr Katya Rogatchevskaia, lead curator of the Russian and East European collections at the British Library in London.
Image: Cossack Throws General Wrangel in the Black Sea (Poster). Private Collection. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Fridtjof Nansen: Norway's great explorer
Mention famous polar explorers to most people and they will probably come up with the names Scott and Amundsen. But really there should be another name before these, Fridtjof Nansen, a man who can be viewed as a true pioneer of intrepid, indeed death-defying expeditions to the freezing, bleak extremities of the world. He ventured closer than anyone else before him towards the North Pole but this Norwegian national hero was so much more than a character from a boys-own adventure annual. He was a scientist, an early oceanographer, a top class skier, a bestselling author, a diplomat, a humanitarian who spearheaded the repatriation of nearly half a million starving First World War prisoners, a tireless fundraiser for famine relief, the man who gave thousands of stateless people passports and a Nobel Peace prize winner.
Rajan Datar recounts Nansen's remarkable life with the help of historians Robert Marc Friedman and Carl Emil Vogt, writer Marit Fosse and polar explorer Paul Rose.
Picture: Explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images
Rudolf Nureyev: Superstar Russian dancer
From the moment the seven-year-old Rudolf Nureyev saw a ballet on stage in his local theatre, he lived and breathed dance. That overwhelming desire to be on stage carried him throughout his life – from his student days in Leningrad to his defection to the West in a blaze of publicity, from theatres around the world to his final curtain in 1992 when his gaunt body was ravaged by Aids. He made good on his promise: “the main thing is dancing, and before it withers away from my body, I will keep dancing till the last moment, the last drop.”
In a career spanning more than three decades, he brought new audiences to ballet, and gave new meaning to the role of male dancers. He was a pin-up, a performer whose stage presence and artistry was so mesmerising that those who saw him perform in the 1960s have never forgotten the experience. His leaps defied gravity; he gave the impression of floating through the air. But his demands for perfection could make him a difficult person to be with. His temper was as legendary as his dancing.
Bridget Kendall explores how Nureyev’s commitment to transcend his childhood in grinding poverty made him one of the world’s most celebrated dancers, with writer Julie Kavanagh, author of Rudolf Nureyev: The Life; writer and translator, Irina Klyagin, who looks after Harvard University’s extensive theatre collection and specialises in Russian ballet; and Thierry Fouquet, vice chair of the board of trustees of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation who worked with Nureyev during his time at the Paris opera, the home of France’s leading ballet company.
(Photo: Rudolf Nureyev In 'Aureole'. Credit: Linda Vartoogian/Getty Images)