Alexandre Dumas, père

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1944

Article abstract: Dumas was a major playwright who helped to revolutionize French drama and theater. He was one of the best historical novelists, publishing more than two hundred novels.

Early Life

Alexandre Dumas is usually designated père to distinguish him from his father and son of the same name. The...

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Article abstract: Dumas was a major playwright who helped to revolutionize French drama and theater. He was one of the best historical novelists, publishing more than two hundred novels.

Early Life

Alexandre Dumas is usually designated père to distinguish him from his father and son of the same name. The son, known as Alexandre Dumas, fils, was also an important writer of drama and of fiction. Dumas’ father was an impoverished, disillusioned general in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. His prowess and exploits were models for the character Porthos and for many incidents in Dumas’ works.

Dumas was born in the village of Villers-Cotterêts on July 24, 1802. His boyhood was spent there and in neighboring villages (Soissons and Crépy, for example). Early influences were his father, poachers with whom he lived and hunted in the nearby forest, and the sight of Napoleon I en route to and from Waterloo. An early visit to Paris brought him into contact with his father’s friends, all field marshals under Napoleon. Dumas’ early learning was limited to reading and penmanship, later enhanced only slightly by attendance at Abbé Grégoire’s village day school. Literary influences were a production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and reading the works of Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. At the age of fifteen, he was a clerk in a solicitor’s office. At the age of eighteen, he met and collaborated on three vaudevilles with Adolphe de Leuven, a young Swedish aristocrat, who awakened him to drama. At this time he became a clerk to M. Lefèvre at Crépy.

In late 1822, following Leuven’s return to Paris to attempt to stage the plays, Dumas and a fellow clerk went to Paris alternating walking and riding the clerk’s horse, poaching game en route to barter for lodgings. At Paris, Dumas saw the Théâtre Française, met the famous actor François-Joseph Talma, attended a play, and received a touch on the forehead for luck; Leuven had been instrumental in arranging the meeting. Returning home, Dumas quit his job, pooled his assets, and re-embarked for Paris, this time in a coach.

Life’s Work

After a series of successes and failures, Dumas became a major writer in several genres. His literary reputation rests primarily on his novels, his plays, his memoirs, and his many travel books, in which he recorded his experiences in as well as his impressions of Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, Germany, the south of France, and Egypt.

From 1823 to 1844, although he published some fiction and other works, Dumas was primarily a playwright. His early success resulted partly from the acquaintances he made and partly from good luck. His first job at Paris was as a copyist for the Duke of Orléans, the future King Louis-Philippe, in whose palace was housed an important theater, the Comédie-Française. On attending the Théâtre Française, Dumas met the famous writer-theater critic Charles Nodier. Leading actresses often found Dumas attractive, and some were among his mistresses; Talma and other leading actors became his lifelong friends. Political figures, including the Marquess de Lafayette and Giuseppe Garibaldi, were his close associates and his commanders in two wars.

He found his dramatic calling with Christine (1830). Seeing a bas-relief depicting an assassination ordered by Queen Christina of Sweden, he studied the incident in a borrowed book. Collaborating with Leuven (the first of many collaborators for Dumas), he wrote the five-act verse drama in 1829. Through Nodier’s influence, the play was accepted for staging, though such was delayed until the following year. Another historical drama, Henri III et sa cour (1829; Catherine of Cleves, 1831) was produced first. This work is historically significant because Dumas for the first time applied the methods of Sir Walter Scott to drama. A third important serious drama, Antony, was to appear in 1831 (English translation, 1904).

When the Revolution of 1830 began, Dumas began his career as a soldier, following duty and his current mistress to Villers-Cotterêts and Soissons and leading insurgents to victory at his birthplace. At Soissons, he and two students stormed and took an arsenal, recovering powder kegs in the face of a garrison. Disillusioned that his commander and friend Lafayette allowed Louis-Philippe to be chosen king and spurning minor posts offered him, he resigned from the new king’s employ. The next year, his first child was born by Belle Krebsamer, another mistress.

Events of interest during 1832 and 1833 included a dispute over billing for La Tour de Nesle, which was a rewriting by Dumas of an inferior play by Frédéric Gaillardet, the latter being given first billing, and M. Three Stars (Dumas) second; after the latter was given top billing, Gaillardet went to court and also challenged Dumas to a duel. About the same time, Dumas inadvertently discovered the cure for cholera when he mistakenly took undiluted ether. During Mardi Gras, Dumas gave an extended dinner party to which important artists, writers, actors, and actresses were invited. Drawing on his boyhood acquaintances, the poachers, and bartering the excess of game for other provisions, Dumas did the cooking and fed more than one hundred guests.

Dumas returned to the theater to stage Antony and his most popular serious drama, La Tour de Nesle (1832; English translation, 1906). In 1841, he turned to comedy, staging two of his three best that year, Mademoiselle de Belle-lsle (1839; Gabrielle de Belle Isle, 1842) and Un Mariage sous Louis XV (1841; A Marriage of Convenience, 1899). The third was staged in 1843; later, in 1855, it was selected as a command performance by Queen Victoria upon hers and Prince Albert’s visit to Paris.

Though Dumas had published fiction earlier and drama later, the real shift to fiction came in 1842, with the publication of his first great historical novel, Le Chevalier d’Harmental (1842; English translation, 1856). The following years saw the publication of his most popular, though not regarded as his best, novels, Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846), Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845; The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846), and La Tulipe Noire (1850; The Black Tulip, 1851).

Dumas’ recognized best novels are not always as well known. Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (1848-1850; English translation, 1857), perhaps the most popular of these, is the sequel to Vingt Ans après (1845; Twenty Years After, 1846) and The Three Musketeers, forming with them a trilogy. As noted in the publishing dates, Dumas, like Charles Dickens, often issued his novels in serial form in journals. The following are also among his best works in this genre of historical fiction, Les Quarante-cinq (1848; The Forty-five Guardsmen, 1847), Ange Pitou (1853; Taking the Bastille, 1847), Black (1860; Black: The Story of a Dog, 1895), and Conscience l’Innocent (1852; Conscience, 1905).

In January of 1860, Dumas met Garibaldi and traveled with a letter from him. Dumas purchased a schooner, The Emma, sailing the Mediterranean with friends. Eventually, he joined Garibaldi’s campaign with the same spectacular success he and his father had previously enjoyed in Egypt and France. In freeing Naples from the Bourbons, he avenged his father of the imprisonment and torture he had suffered at their hands. In Palermo, Dumas was popular as a writer and a hero until the political climate changed: Garibaldi, like Napoleon and Lafayette before him, swerved from complete dedication to republicanism. After supporting and later criticizing Garibaldi publicly, Dumas returned to Paris.

Having been regarded as the most important playwright and now the most famous novelist in France, the aging Dumas found his luck failing him. Having made a fortune and having wasted it through his lavish lifestyle and his unbridled generosity, he worked furiously trying to save his palatial estate and his tarnished reputation. As his method had always been to work with collaborators who supplied ideas and minor works, or who provided details and basic plots, to which Dumas gave his touch of literary genius, he was now faced with accusations and even suits charging him with plagiarism. Posterity has vindicated Dumas, since none of his collaborators has achieved anything of note unaided by him. His prolific productions came to be expanded by his need for money: He published novels in serials; he wrote accounts of his many travels (regarded as among the best travel literature); and he wrote and published Mes Mémoires (1852; My Memoirs, 1907-1909), sharing numerous details of his own experiences and observations as well as information about the people he had known, who numbered among them the most famous of his day. Eventually, after further travel, he lingered and died in bed at his son’s estate in Puys.

Summary

In writing about Alexandre Dumas, père, one is overwhelmed not only by the amount that he wrote (estimates run from seven hundred to more than one thousand volumes) but also by the great volume of information, often of much interest, about the man, his family, and his famous acquaintances. He, like his characters, was lavish, demonstrative, flamboyant, wealthy, and generous, as well as quarrelsome and forgiving. A quadroon, he was descended from paternal grandparents of the lower aristocracy and of West Indian black ancestry. His physical appearance changed from slender and military to portly with a large overhanging belly. He had fuzzy hair, thick lips, and blue eyes. His tastes in clothing were extravagant. After being rebuked for presenting his mistress Ida Ferrier to the king, he was boxed into an unwanted marriage, which, as was his wont, he graciously accepted. He would have publicly acknowledged all three of his illegitimate children, but the mother of his younger daughter refused to permit this. His friend Victor Hugo lacked his fame but surpassed him in poetic ability. The two share credit for revolutionizing the theater of France.

Bibliography

Bell, A. Craig. Alexandre Dumas: A Biography and a Study. London: Cassell, 1950. Attempts to vindicate the genius of Dumas in the light of hostile critics, flippant biographers, and neglectful literary historians. Lists authentic and spurious works and provides an index.

Castelar, Emilio. “Alexandre Dumas.” In The Life of Lord Byron, and Other Sketches. Translated by Mrs. Arthur Arnold. New York: Harper & Row, 1876. A chapter of rhythmic prose on Dumas in a collection composed of a lengthy life of Lord Byron and brief treatments of Dumas, Hugo, and three lesser-known writers.

Dumas, Alexandre. An Autobiography-Anthology Including the Best of Dumas. Edited by Guy Endore. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. As the title suggests, included are excerpts from Dumas’ own works, from My Memoirs, travel books, prose fiction, and others, interspersed with introductory comments by the editor, providing a running commentary on the life, writing career, and particular works.

Dumas, Alexandre. The Road to Monte Cristo: A Condensation from the Memoirs of Alexandre Dumas. Translated by Jules Eckert Goodman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956. Goodman finds in the more than three thousand pages of the six volumes of the memoirs two types of material: much matter of lesser importance, since Dumas was paid by the line in his later years, and, interspersed among this matter, much that makes up an exciting and intriguing autobiography of Dumas for thirty years.

Maurois, André. Alexandre Dumas: A Great Life in Brief. Translated by Jack Palmer White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964. For the first reader of the life of Dumas, provides the basic facts in readable and limited fashion. Maurois is one of the recognized authorities on Dumas.

Maurois, André. The Titans: A Three-Generation Biography of the Dumas. Translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Harper & Row, 1957. Emphasis in the first of ten parts is devoted to Dumas and his young son. Parts 2 through 6 focus on Dumas, père, 7 and 8 on père and fils, 9 and 10 on fils. The same work was published in England under the title Three Musketeers.

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