Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3248
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 in prose, initiated by Antony, would eventually come to dominate the theater of Paris.
Structurally, Antony is probably Dumas’s best play. The action is straightforward, each scene moves logically to the next, and there is nothing extraneous to draw attention away from the essential elements of characterization and theme.
The play has much of Dumas’s own life in it: Antony, a foundling with no family, no name, no place in society—who refuses, therefore, to allow society to dictate what his behavior should be—is Dumas, the quadroon with obvious Negroid features. Adèle is Melanie Waldor, Dumas’s mistress from 1827 to 1830, and Colonel d’Hervey is her husband, Captain Waldor. To Melanie, Dumas wrote some of his most impassioned love letters. Antony’s agony had been Dumas’s, and many of the lines of the play had previously appeared in love letters written by Dumas and Waldor.
Charles VII chez ses grands vassaux
Dumas did not immediately follow Antony with more drames modernes. Instead, he tried to duplicate elements from two of his earlier plays. Later in 1831 he wrote Charles VII chez ses grands vassaux (Charles VII and his great vassals): Like Henry III and His Court, it would be a drame historique; like Christine, it would be in verse. The play was an almost complete failure, partly because of the language and partly because of Dumas’s difficulties with the acting.
Dumas then returned to more drames modernes, plays of the time for the time. Richard Darlington, staged in December of 1831, was the first. Darlington, like Antony, is a foundling and a selfish egoist, but power rather than love is his ambition. Befriended by Dr. Grey of Darlington in England, the foundling grows up to marry the doctor’s daughter, Jenny, thereby gaining political influence in Darlington. Later, he needs to be rid of Jenny so that he may arrange a more politically advantageous marriage. He kills Jenny, but is caught and executed. The executioner reveals his true identity to Darlington—he is the father who had deserted him years before.
Teresa is the story of a young woman, recently married, who resumes an affair with a former lover, who is engaged to her new stepdaughter. Once her secret is discovered by her husband, her shame drives her to suicide. Many of the questions voiced in Antony about society appear again in Teresa.
La Tour de Nesle
A melodrama, La Tour de Nesle was an even greater success than Dumas’s previous great triumphs. Originally the conception of Frédéric Gaillardet (who later sued Dumas and fought a duel with him over the rights to the play), it had been almost totally rewritten by Dumas, who, even so, requested that his name not appear on the playbills. Under Dumas’s reshaping, the story became a struggle between Marguerite, a queen, and Buridan, an adventurer—the one with rank and power, the other with genius.
La Tour de Nesle deals with the gruesome legends attached to the story of Margeurite of Bourgogne, the wife of Louis X, and her sisters Jeanne and Blanche. Nightly the three women were supposed to indulge in orgies within the walls of the Tower of Nesle, located just across the Seine from the Louvre. The legend has it that each morning the bodies of three handsome young noblemen—the three lovers of the cruel sisters from the night before—would wash ashore below the Tower. Although the legend was false, it provided a powerful stimulus to the imagination of Dumas. As he told his tale of lust, adultery, murder, incest, filicide, and revenge, the supreme melodrama of the age was created. La Tour de Nesle may have had more than eight hundred performances between 1832 and 1834.
In the story, Buridan knows the deadly secrets of Marguerite of Bourgogne—twenty years earlier she had become pregnant by a page in her father’s castle; she had hired him to kill her father in order to protect her reputation. The twin sons she bore were ordered killed, but a sympathetic friend protected them. Twenty years later, all these characters appear in Paris. Buridan, imprisoned by Marguerite, reveals himself to be her lover of two decades earlier and threatens to tell her story to the king. Marguerite quickly arranges his release, but she sets a trap for Buridan, who finds out that one of the young lovers recently killed by Marguerite was her own son by Buridan and that the other son is going to the Tower for a rendezvous with the queen. Buridan rushes to the Tower to try to save his son, Gualtier, but in the ensuing action Gualtier, Buridan, and Marguerite all perish.
The play was melodramatic, but as always Dumas’s energy and verve could create scenes that were memorable: In the first act, Buridan leaps from a window to save himself from the assassins who kill Philippe, as the voice of a watchman is heard in the distance announcing the time and adding that all is well. In the third act, Marguerite comes to the prison to gloat over the captured Buridan, who slowly, calmly begins to recite the details of her past sins. The play was melodrama par excellence.
Angèle contains Dumas’s first Don Juan type, Alfred d’Alvimar, who seduces Angèle, then runs away with her mother, a widow who is still young enough and pretty enough to be of interest to d’Alvimar—for a while at least. Some months later the pregnant Angèle finds her mother in Paris, just as d’Alvimar is planning to desert her. As d’Alvimar tries to flee, he is challenged by a young doctor, Henri, who is in love with Angèle. Henri kills d’Alvimar in a duel and then marries Angèle to give her and the child a name, even though he knows he soon will die from a disease that his medical knowledge cannot cure. As a drame moderne, Angèle is generally considered a better play than Teresa.
Among the plays which followed, Catherine Howard was a huge success. Dumas termed the play “extrahistorical”; that is, he took the names of characters from history but the actions of the characters are purely imaginary. Catherine, already married at the time Henry VIII decides he wants her for his queen, is quite willing to leave one husband for another if the new one can give her the glory of a crown. Her first husband drinks a potion that places him in a deathlike trance, and thereby he is able to escape being murdered by the king. Later, when Catherine has fallen out of favor with Henry, her executioner is her first husband.
Don Juan de Marana
Don Juan de Marana is a weak and hurried effort. It reminds the reader somewhat of a mystère by Pedro Calderón de la Barca as good spirits struggle with evil ones. Dumas lifted several situations from other plays, a fact that his critics did not allow to pass unnoticed. The play is one of the worst Dumas ever penned.
In 1836, with Edmund Kean, which deals with the life of the English actor Edmund Kean, who had recently died, Dumas wrote one of his deepest and most interesting plays. Kean is a lineal descendant of Antony; specifically, he is a study of a great artist set apart from his fellows by his talent. Born into the lower classes, his talent has gained for him the adulation of the upper classes, even of royalty. He can be an acquaintance of lords and princes, but only to a certain degree: He must keep his place; he must not presume too far. Rival to the prince of Wales for the affections of the same lady, Kean stops in the middle of his performance of Romeo and Juliet to hurl insults at his rival in the audience.
As always in Dumas’s drames modernes, society defeats the individual. Kean is advised to leave England after his tirade against the prince, and the lady whom he loves decides that she cannot sacrifice her social station or her rewarding position as the mistress of the heir to the throne merely to become Kean’s. Dumas called his play a comedy and arranged a happy ending: Kean leaves for America with Anna, a young woman who has been in love with him for a long time and the very woman whom he once saved from abduction by an English nobleman, one of those fine gentlemen who believes himself far above Kean in quality.
The subtitle, “Désordre et génie” (literally, “disorder and genius”), glances at Kean’s excesses, alcohol and sex, and implies the question of whether the genius would have been the same without the disorder. It is tempting to read Edmund Kean as, in part, the autobiography of Dumas. Kean’s attack of English critics expresses Dumas’s view of many French critics. Moreover, Dumas knew that, in spite of his literary accomplishments, there were many doors in Paris that would never be open to him because he was one-fourth black. (When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his Edmund Kean in 1953, an adaptation of Dumas’s play, he had Kean playing Othello in the famous scene in which Kean denounces the prince from the stage.)
The Lady of Belle Isle
Early in 1839, Bathilde, written with Auguste Maquet, received a fair reception, and in April Dumas had three new plays appear, not one of which was entirely his own work. The most significant of these was the sparkling comedy The Lady of Belle Isle, which clearly showed Dumas’s considerable gift for comedy. The Duke de Richelieu wagers that he can seduce a young lady, Gabrielle, within twenty-four hours; unfortunately, for this hurried enterprise he enlists the aid of a former mistress, the Marquise de Prie, who, being more than a little upset, substitutes herself for Gabrielle in the darkness of the young lady’s bedchamber after having sent Gabrielle away to effect the other main action of the play, the release of her father and brother from the Bastille. The play was criticized for the unrealistic substitution of the marquise as the conquest of the evening, but this has not kept audiences from making it Dumas’s most popular comedy.
In 1841 and 1843, two more comedies in the same eighteenth century vein enjoyed a measure of popularity and further showed Dumas’s gift for witty dialogue. After these comedies, Dumas’s great success as a writer of novels left him with less time for the theater. Among his later plays, Le Comte Hermann (Count Hermann), produced in 1849, is one that he valued highly. There were a few other good moments for Dumas in the theater, and some very unusual ones as well—Le Vampire, for example, in 1851. By this time, however, French Romanticism was dying, Dumas’s career was in serious decline, and he would never again be a vital force in the theater of Paris.