The plays of Alexandre Dumas, fils, can be easily divided into three thematic groups or periods. His early comédies de murs (comedies of manners), written between 1852 and 1855, include three of his best-known works: Camille, Diane de Lys, and The Demi-Monde. These first and best works are concerned with presenting a realistic picture of a certain side of Parisian life in the early years of the Second Empire. The second group, the pièces à thèse (thesis plays), includes those plays written between 1857 (The Money-Question) and 1871 (Princess George); as their appellation suggests, each of these plays contains a single, clearly focused thesis that offers a solution to some troubling social evil. From 1873 (The Wife of Claude) through 1881 (La Princesse de Baghdad), the playwright entered a mystical-symbolic period in which he attempted to create, not the real-life characters of his earlier work, but, as he said, “essences of beings.” These works proved to be so esoteric that the public recoiled from them in absolute rejection. In an attempt to recapture his audience, Dumas conceived two final works, Denise in 1885 and Francillon in 1887, in which he reverted to the earlier, successful pièce à thèse formula. Even though both works were enthusiastically received by the public, the author’s will to produce had weakened. He wrote no dramatic works after 1887.
Of these three periods, only the first two are of general interest to the modern student, Dumas’s symbolic period having been such a complete failure. His early work, although rarely produced today, offers the reader some interesting material, including a variety of realistic and entertaining depictions of the earthier side of Parisian life during the Second Empire. Of Dumas’s many plays, Camille (a comedy of manners) and Madame Aubray’s Ideas (perhaps his most representative pièce à thèse) are of particular interest, for they provide an introduction to the most important elements of the author’s work. In order to appreciate Dumas’s contributions to the development of French drama through these works, it is helpful to recall the state of the theater in Paris in the 1840’s and 1850’s.
In retrospect, the theatrical scene into which Dumas’s work came was rather dismal. With only a few exceptions, the dramatic offerings of the 1840’s and the early 1850’s are among the most banal in nineteenth century French letters. The contemporary theater was dominated by the dramatic artifices of Eugène Scribe (he wrote more than three hundred plays between 1815 and his death in 1861) and by those who rigorously adhered to Scribe’s doctrine of the well-made play. For Scribe and his collaborators, the success of a play depended primarily on the unwinding of a plot of labyrinthine complexity through the ingenious use of intellectual legerdemain and coups de théâtre that would bewilder and enchant the audience. Such fare was immensely popular among a theater audience composed largely of nouveaux riches, whose thirst for pure diversion and entertainment well reflected the general social tenor of the times. The year 1843 marked, with the production of Hugo’s Les Burgraves (pr., pb. 1843; The Burgraves, 1896), the death of Romanticism on the stage. That same year, François Ponsard’s reworking of the classical tragedy Lucrèce was met with great success by a public long overwhelmed by the excesses of the Romantic theater; the école du bon sens (the school of good sense) had been inaugurated. The best work of this group of reactionaries against the Romantics, however, would not appear until 1854, withÉmile Augier’s Le Gendre de M. Poirier (Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law, 1915), and again in 1855 with Le mariage d’Olympe (Olympe’s Marriage, 1915), the latter being an undisguised reply to Dumas’s Camille, in which the author presents the thesis that a scarlet woman can never be redeemed by true love.
Within this setting, Camille appeared like a thunderbolt, cleansing the stale air that had surrounded the Romantic theater and, with one electric jolt, rending nineteenth century French theater into two parts, before and after Dumas, fils. If one is to believe the critics of the period, this is no overstatement. The play appeared startlingly revolutionary and refreshing to a tired theater public; words such as “original,” “unique,” and “new” appear over and over in the reviews of the time. Almost all the tenets of Scribe, and particularly the doctrine of the sublimation of life to artifice, fell before Dumas’s art. The theme, that of an honest young man falling in love with a courtesan, was also intriguingly controversial, even though Hugo and Augier had presented somewhat similar circumstances in earlier works. What was most welcome, however, was the fact that on almost every count, the play diverged from the accepted theatrical formulas of the day. The work is almost completely devoid of artifice. There are no startling unveilings of concealed identities, no fortuitous discovery of a revealing letter, no attempts whatsoever to conceal any element of the plot from the audience. The work shocked audiences by its sheer simplicity. What Dumas presents here is an unencumbered love story, the success of which depends largely on the dynamics of dialogue and the verisimilitude of the relationship between Marguerite and Armand. As might be imagined, the author had great difficulty in getting his play produced.
It was not only the originality of the work but also the attention given to a courtesan that initially threatened to prevent the production of the play. In 1847, Dumas had written a romanticized account in novel form of his affair with Marie Duplessis. The work was an instant success and brought the author his much desired notoriety. As was the vogue of the period, Dumas hastened to adapt his work to the stage, the great arena for intellectual combat under the Second Empire. Real literary success meant success in the theater. Working night and day for a week, Dumas completed his play in the summer of 1849.
The story of how the play finally came to the stage is a drama in itself. At first, Dumas hoped that his father’s theater, the Théâtre Historique, would produce the work, but a series of unfortunate circumstances led to the closing of the theater at the end of 1849. Over the course of several months, all the major theaters in Paris rejected the work, either for moral reasons or because it lacked the Scribian elements popular at the time. Finally, in mid-1850, the Vaudeville Theater accepted the work, but when the play was submitted to the government censors, it was banned as an affront to public morality. Not until after the coup d’état of December, 1851, was production of the play approved. The first performance was at the Vaudeville Theater on February 2, 1852, the fifth anniversary, to the day, of the death of Marie Duplessis. Despite numerous expressions of fear, even among the actors, that the play was too revolutionary in style and structure for Parisian audiences, opening night was an unqualified success; two hundred performances to packed houses followed. The modern comedy of manners was firmly established.
The plot of Camille is refreshingly simple when compared with those of other plays of the period. In the first act, there is essentially no action in the traditional sense. The opening scene takes place in Marguerite’s Parisian boudoir, where, during the course of an evening, the audience is introduced to all the fluttering characters who hover around Marguerite, who is known to all as the lady of the camellias because of her singular love for this delicately scented flower. (The scents of all other flowers, she contends, make her ill.) Marguerite’s collection of friends, all of whom have arrived for dinner after an evening at the opera, constitutes an odd, but fairly accurate menagerie of Second Empire types, although Dumas has given each a distinctively individual character. Arthur de Varville is a tireless young dandy who, despite Marguerite’s constant rejection of him, returns night after night to be near her, submitting to her unyielding abuse (“You are monotone,” she tells him); his destiny, Varville maintains, is simply to await his love. Varville is everything that Armand is not—rich, self-confident, and titled. He is not, however, loved. Prudence, one of Dumas’s most vivid creations, is an aged courtesan who has passed the point where she can survive by her trade. In order to live, she attaches herself to Marguerite, procuring for her...
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