Because Cyrano is so often referred to as a romantic play, a discussion of romantic and romanticism seems to be in order. Three aspects of the words romantic and romance should be considered by the student of Cyrano: romance, meaning a medieval, chivalric tale; romantic, as used in English literary criticism; and Romantic, as used in French literary criticism.
Romance, as a medieval tale, was a French literary form. During the Middle Ages, when the chivalric tradition was paramount in the minds of the upper classes, the chivalric tale developed. These tales concerned the daring deeds of the knights, and the relationship of the knights to their ladies. Many men were away from home during the crusades, and the tradition of the chevalier servant developed. This is particularly illustrated in Roman de la Rose, in which the chevalier servant loved his lady from afar. He wrote poetry, he served her in every way possible, but he never touched her.
The term romantic in English criticism most often refers to a treatment of a theme. Romantic treatments are sometimes sentimental, idealistic rather than realistic; Victorian literature is largely romantic, for example. The romantic attitude is quite different from the restrained neoclassical attitude. Reason, order, balance are earmarks of neoclassicism, while a wild, free exuberance is characteristic of romanticism.
French literary critics use the word Romantic to indicate the literary period from about 1827 to 1847. Hugo pioneered this period and broke the rules of classicism forever. (See the section of this study guide entitled "Nineteenth-Century French Drama.") The freedom from the unities was exhilarating to the writers and audiences at the time. Vigny translated Shakespeare during the period, and Shakespeare became a hero of the Romantic movement in France. When critics said that Cyrano heralded a revival of the Romantic movement, or Romanticism, they were referring to a revival of this period. In actual fact, Cyrano was not a revival or a copy of the Romantic period plays; it is far superior to most of them.
Cyrano is a truly romantic play, harking back to the tales of chivalry; Cyrano is the perfect chevalier servant. This is a completely French play, a completely French hero. It is not at all like the romantic plays of Shakespeare, for example, and it follows few, if any, of the traditions of the French Romantic period. It is a spark of genius, growing out of French literary tradition, but not tied to any school.