What did Brookfield’s founder Samuel Eberly Gross have in common with Edmond Rostand, one of the most renowned playwrights in French literature and author of Cyrano de Bergerac, the upcoming Festival Theatre production in Austin Gardens (July 17-Aug. 15)? At the very least, they have a suspiciously similar balcony scene in common, according to a district court judge in Chicago in 1902.
Gross accused Rostand of plagiarizing from his own play, The Merchant Prince of Cornville. As unlikely as that might sound – especially to Rostand, no doubt – Gross won his day in court, and collected the grand sum of $1 in compensation.
But perhaps we should back up a bit. First, the players:
Everyone in Brookfield knows Samuel Eberly (some spell it Eberle) Gross. He is the namesake for S.E. Gross School in Brookfield, and his obituary in October of 1913 described him as “inventor, writer, civil war veteran, capitalist, and at one time reputed to be the largest individual real estate owner in the entire world.” Maybe he also drank Dos Equis beer.
He is said to have pioneered the concept of suburban subdivisions, and more than 20 tiny communities he developed were eventually incorporated as neighborhoods of Chicago. In 1889 he developed Grossdale, which even he couldn’t sell to people. The name was changed to Brookfield by popular demand following the election of 1905.
But Samuel Gross didn’t need a town named after him to preserve his memory. He was the youngest captain (19) to serve in the Civil War, after which he became a successful lawyer and developer. He invented several mathematical instruments and street-paving methods. And in 1875, at the age of 32, he started writing a play, called “The Merchant Prince of Cornville,” which put him on a collision course with French literary giant Edmond Rostand.
Rostand’s best known play, of course – at least to American audiences – is Cyrano. You remember, guy with the long nose, rapier wit, not to mention a sharp rapier. He let some inarticulate stud front for him as he wooed his beloved Roxane with honey-tongued poetic sentiment. Tragic story. The only man she ever loved, she lost twice. Jose Ferrer starred in the 1951 film version. Steve Martin modernized it in the 1980s.
When Martin released his film, it sparked an old memory in Paul Stack, the former president of Riverside. He recalled reading something in a Brookfield paper back in 1951, when the film version of Cyrano premiered in Chicago. His father resurrected a column by Archie Schonemann from the old Brookfield Magnet which told the curious tale of Gross’ legal battle with Rostand and the American touring company that was producing Cyrano.
Stack, an attorney, did some digging and discovered where the court records were kept – in the Federal Archives, located at 7358 S. Pulaski, near Midway Airport. A member of the Chicago Literary Club, Stack made it the basis of a paper, which he presented to the members in 1987.
The case, “Samuel Eberly Gross v. Richard Mansfield and A.M. Palmer” (the lead actor and producer, respectively, of the Chicago production of Cyrano) states that Gross distributed The Merchant Prince of Cornville to actors, playwrights and theatrical managers, but he had no luck getting it produced. Finally, a man named A.R. Cauzaran, who adapted French plays for a Chicago company owned by Palmer, suggested it might be more conducive to the French stage.
Gross, apparently something of a Francophile anyway (he assigned French names to several streets in what is today Brookfield and claimed his parents were “of pure Huguenot blood”), decided to shop his play overseas. In Paris, he gave a copy to a French actor named Constant Coquelin, who managed the Porte St. Martin Theater. Coquelin kept it for several weeks, then returned it without comment.
At that point, Gross apparently set the play aside until 1896, when he published 250 leather-bound editions and obtained a copyright registration from the Library of Congress. In response to reading his play, one Howard Kyle of New York wrote, “Most remarkable of all in the book is your dual wooing scene. Do you know that you anticipated the most effective device in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac? The balcony scene where Christian stands in view and speaks the words of Cyrano, who prompts him from the shadow, is quite the most successful in the performance of that very triumphant play.”
A month after Cyrano opened in Chicago (Dec. 5, 1898), Gross filed his lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Chicago alleging plagiarism. Judge Christian C. Kohlsaat presided, and he appointed well known Chicago attorney E.B. Sherman as “Master of Chancery,” charging him with sifting through the evidence and ultimately submitting a decision for the judge’s review.
By curious coincidence, Constant Coquelin, the man Gross had entrusted Merchant Prince to in Paris, was the very actor who originated the role of Cyrano. He testified that he discussed the role for the first time with Rostand in March of 1896. Rostand, on the other hand, said he gave Coquelin the part to learn in November of 1895 – a clear discrepancy. The first performance, however, didn’t take place until 1897. Rostand claimed he had never heard of Merchant Prince and didn’t find any resemblance between the two plays.
The date discrepancy and the connection with Coquelin, however, led Sherman to conclude that Rostand would have had access to Merchant Prince. Next, he had to determine “a common origin or an appropriation of one by the other.” While the plots are not identical, Sherman itemized 30 similarities, noting, for instance, that the balcony scene in each is the pivotal act, and that each involves use of a surrogate.
Other coincidences are difficult to dismiss. Bluegrass, who is Cyrano’s counterpart in The Merchant Prince balcony scene, is wearing a mask with a long nose. His “front” is named Hercules Whetstone, while the full name of Rostand’s main character is Hercules-Savanien de Cyrano de Bergerac.
Such parallels led Sherman to conclude, “A careful study of the plot, construction, characters, situations and language of the climax … of the two plays, the balcony scene, reveals a manifest appropriation by M. Rostand of the corresponding part of the Complainant’s play. …”
In May of 1902, Judge Kohlsaat upheld Sherman’s opinion and awarded Gross what he asked for, $1 in “nominal damages.” As Schonemann put it in his column, “Gross was willing to write off the case on the basis of vindication.” He probably should have asked for more since, by the time he died in 1913, his estate had dwindled to an estimated net worth of $40,000.
After the verdict, the New York Times published an excerpt from The Merchant Prince balcony scene so readers could decide. Gross told the paper, “Of course I feel happy over the decision. It sort of struck Rostand amidships. We have not heard from him yet, but the slurring remarks of others have been swallowed by the public.”
The article also reported that Gross intended to write a follow-up play set in France and “produced in Grossdale in a theatre to be built on the lines of the Shakespeare memorial theatre at Stratford-on-Avon.”
When Rostand was heard from, his scathing response virtually dripped with sarcasm:
“I am ready to admit I took … all our 17th century history from Eberle Gross of Chicago, and, in order to end the matter once and for all, I confess I stole Les Romanesques from Smithson of Jefferson City, Mo.; La Princesse Lointaine, from Giles Trumbull of Columbus, Ohio; L’Aiglon from Tom Sambo of Springfield, Illinois; and that I drew the idea of La Samarataine from the apocryphal gospel of the Rev. Hon. Augustus Wonnacott of Hartford, Conn. I add that I am negotiating, at the present moment, with a Virginia planter for the purchase of a manuscript, and that I have just purloined from the house of a Louisiana shipowner a great piece on Joan of Arc, the Maid of New Orleans.”
But Rostand did pay a price. For a number of years, theater companies were prohibited from producing Cyrano in the United States.
Paul Stack freely admits Gross doesn’t measure up to Rostand as a wordsmith, but that isn’t the point. However it happened, the coincidence is too remarkable to be dismissed. “Although Cyrano de Bergerac is unquestionably the work of a talented author,” Stack concluded in his Chicago Literary Club presentation, “it is also undeniably a plagiarized work, a fact which today remains a secret to nearly all.”
He thinks Rostand’s response falls into the “He doth protest too much” category, further indicting him. It implies that the American author was “some kind of barbarian,” Stack says. “Gross was hardly a stupid man. He was very erudite.” In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for businessmen of that era to dabble in the arts, Stack notes, because you weren’t a true “gentleman” unless you were a well rounded individual.
While Cyrano isn’t “a straight lift,” Stack speculates that Rostand either read Merchant Prince or had it synopsized (his deposition leads to that conclusion, according to Stack), and that he liked the surrogate-under-the-balcony concept, so he appropriated and adapted it. Though it might seem preposterous to most people that a giant of French literature would plagiarize a play by some businessman from Illinois, Stack says, “The evidence is overwhelming.”
Rostand never appealed the decision.
The only remaining copy of The Merchant Prince of Cornville Stack is aware of can be found in the Federal Archives. Schonemann’s column mentioned that, as of 1951, a bound volume existed “which contained comparative passages (of the two plays), which were calculated to show what Gross alleged, an outright case of plagiarism.”
Stack doesn’t believe this curious story should remain a mere footnote in literary history. He would love to see actors stage a “mock trial,” featuring a fictional Rostand appeal. He thinks the Brookfield Public Library should not only have a copy of the play available for the public to peruse, but an entire section devoted to Samuel Eberly Gross, whom Stack thinks is every bit as fascinating as Riverside’s Frederick Law Olmsted.
The Merchant Prince of Cornville, a comedy, is a long play, written in the stilted language of another era, Stack says, so he’s not sure anyone would ever stage a production today, but stranger things have happened.
Such as Samuel Eberly Gross of Brookfield winning a plagiarism trial against Edmond Rostand of Paris.
In Samuel Eberly Gross’ play, The Merchant Prince of Cornville, two men cloaked in shadows, Major Bluegrass and Mayor Whetstone, take turns speaking to an unsuspecting Violet, who is standing on a balcony above:
Violet (addressing Whetstone): Do my two eyes behold Mayor Whetstone of Cornville?
Whetstone: You do behold with two unless with one you kindly wink upon me, which I half believe you do.
Violet: Is thy meaning double or single?
Whetstone: Sweet Miss Violet, I have been a man with an eye single to business but who would double his business.
Bluegrass: Don’t give her any quandaries.
Violet: Why, thou hast changed thy voice!
Whetstone (aside): Major, you rascal, assume my voice!
Bluegrass (assuming Whetstone’s voice): Sweet Violet, it is in the air, that’s sometimes tuneful and sometimes not, that doth affect the change.
Violet: Thou art an artful man.
Bluegrass (still assuming): Sweet Violet, ’tis even noted so.
Whetstone (aside): Confound you, ’tis not so!
Bluegrass (still assuming): I meant to say the air is so.
Later, Whetstone takes over the conversation from a stumped Bluegrass and professes to love Violet “as long as the grass grows.” Bluegrass stands at his back, but when Violet asks what’s behind him, he replies, “‘Tis but the shadow cast by the moonlight.”