Alexandre Dumas, père Drama Analysis
Alexandre Dumas, père, rose to fame through his dramatic works, although later generations best remember him for his novels. For a period of forty years, Dumas was a major force in French literature. In 1893, almost a quarter-century after his death, one critic called Dumas “a summit of art”; the critic was George Bernard Shaw.
Henry III and His Court
In his first major success, Henry III and His Court, Dumas combined a plot of sexual intrigue with one of political intrigue. The play begins with the queen of France, Catherine de Medicis, informing an astrologer, Ruggieri, of her plans to use a woman to overcome Henri, the duke of Guise, whom she sees as the greatest threat to her son, King Henry III, and to her own power. She has learned of the love shared by the duke’s wife and one of the king’s favorites, Saint Mégrin, who is due to visit Ruggieri shortly. The queen has had the duchess drugged and secretly transported to Ruggieri’s quarters, where Saint-Mégrin will find her, and where the queen plans for the duke of Guise to find both of them. The duke arrives too late to catch his wife in a compromising situation, but in her haste she has left behind a handkerchief, which he finds and correctly guesses is proof of a rendezvous between his wife and Saint-Mégrin. Dumas carefully drafted his curtain lines, and the first-act curtain falls to the duke’s fierce cry for vengeance. On the next day, the duke forces his wife to write a letter inviting her lover to her chamber. When he appears, she tries to send him away, but he is wounded by the henchman of the duke, who, from his wife’s window, throws down the handkerchief that he found the night before and speaks the famous curtain lines that instruct his men to stuff his wife’s handkerchief down Saint-Mégrin’s throat so that his death will be the sweeter. Then the duke adds that, now that he has taken care of the servant, he will take care of the master. This last line keeps the political conflict of the play—the power struggle between Henry III and the Guise—firmly in the audience’s mind. The Guise desires to become head of the Catholic League, but he is thwarted in his ambitions by the king, who appoints himself to the position, thus causing the ominous fury of the duke’s closing line.
Dumas did an excellent job of bringing separate historical accounts together to create a sense of unity in his play. History recorded that the duke once angrily confronted his wife with charges of infidelity and gave her a choice of means of suicide: a dagger or a cup of poison. The fear-stricken duchess drank from the cup, only to be informed some hours later that she had merely tasted soup. The actual story of a jealous husband’s revenge against his wife’s lover comes from the account of the death of Bussy d’Amboise, killed by order of the count of Montsoreau. By attaching Montsoreau’s story to the life of the duke of Guise and having d’Amboise become Saint-Mégrin, a follower of the king, Dumas was able to frame the domestic plot within the larger plot of the power struggle involving the League.
Dumas’s next production was Christine. This was a revised version of an earlier play that he had not been able to get produced. In his new play about the Swedish queen who had abdicated but then plotted to regain her throne, Dumas added a new character, Paula, a young woman who greatly affects the motives for the later action. When Christina and Mondaleschi, an Italian nobleman, leave Stockholm, Paula, in love with Mondaleschi, follows in disguise. Later, in Fontainebleau, Mondaleschi turns against Christina, who discovers his treachery and orders him killed. Paula commits suicide. In the earlier draft, Mondaleschi’s murder had been merely a political action; Paula’s presence makes the murder seem in part an action by a disappointed lover. In the third major episode, in Rome much later, the dying Christina speaks of her regrets for her actions years earlier. For the most part, the play received a favorable response, but it is not a great play. Dumas wrote it in verse, and he had no great talent for poetry. The play lacks the psychological power to be considered a tragedy, and it lacks the energy and fire needed to be termed a drama. Dumas knew that he had not succeeded in accomplishing his purposes with this work.
Nor was he satisfied with his next play, Napoléon Bonaparte, even though it also received a generally favorable reception from its audiences. He had written the play only because the producer Félix Harel had insisted on it (Harel had actually locked him in a room and told him that he could not leave until he had finished). The play covered three decades in the life of Bonaparte, was nine thousand lines long, and was written in nine days. Dumas knew it was not good, but under the circumstances he was not upset by its weaknesses. In less than four months, he would produce a play that became such an immediate success that he could afford not to dwell on the difficulties of his two previous efforts. Antony would take Paris by storm.
Just as Henry III and His Court was the first drame historique, so Antony was the first drame moderne. Everything about Antony is modern; everything belongs to the 1830’s. The hero, Antony, is a passionate young man, unwilling to let conventional morality restrict his pleasures; he will enjoy the married lady of high position that he has chosen to love—regardless of what happens to him or to her.
At the beginning of the play, Antony returns to Paris after an absence of three years to see Adèle, the woman with whom he had fallen in love before. Antony, as is revealed later, is illegitimate. Therefore, because he could not offer Adèle a name and a future, he had run away earlier. Now he has decided to pursue her at all costs, even though she has married and given birth to a daughter during his absence. Adèle tries to avoid him, but her horses bolt, and she is saved from a dangerous accident by Antony. Antony has been injured while stopping the runaway horses and is carried into her house, where a doctor orders him to stay until he is fully recovered. Uncertain of her power to resist Antony’s advances, Adèle runs away to join her husband, Colonel d’Hervey, in Strasbourg. The farewell letter she leaves for Antony angers him. He rushes ahead of her, and when she stops at an inn, she finds herself confronted by Antony, who breaks a pane on the glass door, unlatches it, rushes in, stifles her screams with his handkerchief, and drags her toward the bed. Some months later, Adèle is present at a party to which Antony has also been invited. Adèle’s virtue is viciously attacked by one of the ladies present; Antony defends her and furiously denounces Parisian society for its hypocrisy and false values. Adèle flees, followed by Antony, who has just been warned that Colonel d’Hervey is due home very soon. Antony arrives only shortly before the angry husband begins to pound at the door. Antony begs Adèle to flee with him, but she refuses because of what the disgrace would do to her husband and daughter. Filled with fear and shame, she begs Antony to kill her in order to put an end to her agony. Antony stabs her to death just as d’Hervey batters down the door; in one of the magnificent curtain lines for which Dumas is famous, Antony protects Adèle’s name by shouting to the astonished husband: “She resisted me—I have killed her.”
The ending came so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that it had an unprecedented shock effect on its audience. Adultery, an attack on the laws of society, and then an abrupt murder—the audience was dismayed; yet it was also powerfully impressed, and its applause was overwhelming. Dumas had created a new dramatic world. The modern play...
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