Most of the works of Alexandre Dumas, fils, were published in the late nineteenth century by Calmann-Levy. In addition to his theatrical works, Dumas wrote twelve novels, two of which, La Dame aux camélias (1848; Camille, 1857) and Diane de Lys (1851), he later dramatized. The others are prosaic and pretentious, including the best known and most successful, L’Affaire Clémenceau: Mémoire de l’accusé (1866; The Clemenceau Case, 1890), a sort of autobiographical roman à thèse in which the author, at length, attacks societal prejudices against illegitimate children. In his later years, Dumas was himself embarrassed by his youthful prolixity and withdrew most of the novels from publication. As a result of restrictions in his will, almost none of Dumas’s correspondence has been published.
The career of Alexandre Dumas, fils, is one of the most intriguing in nineteenth century French letters. Although easily the most popular dramatist of his time, he has today but two claims to notoriety. First, he was the illegitimate son of one of the most illustrious men of the time, Alexandre Dumas, père, author of Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846); second, he wrote what was without doubt the most successful play of the nineteenth century, Camille, which set the model for French drama for fifty years. Beyond these two distinctions, Dumas’s life and literary work is largely ignored by modern scholars, despite the fact that he was one of the most prolific, successful, and influential dramatists of his day.
Between 1852 and his death in 1895, Dumas penned a nonstop series of novels, plays, and social treatises all aimed at instructing and edifying the general public on the necessity of strengthening and preserving the traditional family structure. Therefore, the terms often applied to his theater—le théâtre utile (useful theater, a term Dumas himself coined) or le théâtre à thèse (thesis theater)—serve to describe an artistic perspective that is intentionally didactic and therefore usually (unintentionally) devoid of subtlety and replete with sentimentality.
Often overlooked but of particular historical interest today are Dumas’s pamphlets and long memorandums defending the rights and privileges of women. Notable among these are L’Homme-femme (1872; Man-Woman: Or, The Hearth, the Street, 1873) and Les Femmes qui tuent et les femmes qui votent (1880; the women who kill and the women who vote), which argue for women’s suffrage, for the election of women to governmental posts, for reform of the divorce law, and against traditional evils (such as prostitution and adultery) that threaten the stability of the family unit....