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.
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.
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...
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