Rostand was born in Marseille, France, into a wealthy and cultured Provençal family. His father was an economist, a poet who translated and edited the works of Catullus, and a member of the Marseille Academy and the Institut de France. Rostand studied literature, history, and philosophy at the Collège Stanislas in Paris, France.
When Rostand was twenty years old, his first play, a one-act comedy, Le Gant rouge, was performed at the Cluny Theatre, 24 August 1888, but it was almost unnoticed.
In 1890, Rostand published a volume of poems called Les Musardises.
A burlesque, Les Romanesques, was produced on 21 May 1894, at the Théâtre Français; it would be adapted in 1960 by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt into the long-running American musical The Fantasticks.
Another early play, La Princesse Lointaine, was based on the story of the 12th-century troubadour Jaufre Rudel and Hodierna of Jerusalem (who is the archetypal princesse lointaine character). This play opened on 5 April 1895, at the Théâtre de la Renaissance. The part of Mélissinde (based on Hodierna's daughter Melisende of Tripoli) was created by Sarah Bernhardt but the play was not particularly successful. When Berhardt performed it in London later the same year, it received a bad review from George Bernard Shaw but this was not surprising considering Shaw's bias for realism. Rambaldo di Vaqueiras: I Monferrato, 1922 1922 verse drama by Nino Berrini(it) is based on La Princesse Lointaine.
Bernhardt also was the original Photine of Rostand's La Samaritaine (Theatre de la Renaissance, 14 April 1897), a Biblical drama in three scenes adapted from the gospel story of the woman of Samaria. While not a huge success, Rostand felt satisfied that he had proven to the public that he was something more than a writer of comedies.
The production of his heroic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac (28 December 1897, Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin), with Benoît-Constant Coquelin in the title role, was a triumph. The first production lasted for more than 300 consecutive nights. No such enthusiasm for a drama in verse had been known since the time of Hugo's Hernani. The play was quickly translated into English, German, Russian and other European languages. For his hero, he had drawn on French 17th-century history.
For the play L'Aiglon, he chose a subject from Napoleonic history, suggested probably by Henri Welschinger's Roi de Rome, 1811–32 (1897), which contained much new information about the unhappy life of the Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon I, and Marie Louise, surveilled by agents of Metternich at the Schönbrunn Palace. L'Aiglon, in six acts and in verse, was produced (15 March 1900) by Sarah Bernhardt at her own theatre, she herself performing the part of the Duke of Reichstadt.
In 1902, Rostand became the youngest writer to be elected to the Académie française. He relocated to Provence in 1903 and for the next seven years worked on his next play Chantecler. Produced in February 1910, it was awaited with an interest, enhanced by considerable delay in the production, hardly equaled by the enthusiasm of its reception. Lucien Guitry was in the title role and Mme. Simone played the part of the pheasant, the play being a fantasy of bird and animal life, and the characters, denizens of the farmyard and the woods.
There were two unfinished and unpublished plays – Yorick and Les Petites Manies.
Rostand was married to the poet and playwright Rosemonde-Étienette Gérard who, in 1890, published Les Pipeaux: a volume of verse commended by the Academy. The couple had two sons, Jean and Maurice.
During the 1900s, Rostand came to live in the Villa Arnaga in Cambo-les-Bains in the French Basque Country, seeking a cure for his pleurisy. The house is now a heritage site and a museum of Rostand's life and Basque architecture and crafts. Rostand died in 1918, a victim of the flu pandemic, and is buried in the Cimetière de Marseille.Le Gant rouge, 1888 (The Red Glove)
Les Musardises, 1890
Les Deux Pierrots, ou Le Souper blanc (The Two Pierrots, or The White Supper), 1891
Les Romanesques, 1894 (basis for the 1960 off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks)
La Princesse Lointaine (The Princess Far-Away), 1895
La Samaritaine (The Woman of Samaria), 1897
Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897
L'Aiglon: A Play in Six Acts. 1900
Chantecler: A Play in Four Acts, 1910
La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan (The Last Night of Don Juan, in Poetic Drama), 1921
Le Cantique de L'Aile, 1922
Le Vol de la Marseillaise, 1922