Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
Camille established the artistic reputation of Alexandre Dumas, fils. Although Dumas initially could not find a theater to produce Camille because of its scandalous subject, the play caused a sensation as soon as it was performed in Paris. It went on to become one of the most popular plays of the nineteenth century in Europe and in America; nothing Dumas later wrote ever matched its phenomenal success.
There are many reasons for the play’s great appeal. First, the play presents an intimate and realistic view of a segment of French society that has long fascinated respectable folk—the demimonde of high-class courtesans and their many wealthy protectors. Audiences may take vicarious pleasure in a world of private boxes at the opera, fancy-dress balls, high-stakes gambling, late-night suppers of oysters and champagne, fabulous clothes, and dazzling jewelry. The younger Dumas knew this world quite well; he and his father amused themselves at least on its fringes. Moreover, he had the keen eye of a born social anthropologist, and he focused on the details of this life—its pleasures, costs, and self-deceptions—with rapt attention.
At the same time, Camille, unlike Dumas’s later thesis plays, brims with romantic sentiments not to say sentimentality. Marguerite earns her livelihood as a courtesan and leads a dissipated life that is literally killing her, but she finds redemption through the power of true love. Vice and redemption appear in their most audience-pleasing forms. Marguerite renounces her glamorous life in Paris. Without a backward glance, she sells off her fine possessions to pay her debts and begin a new life with Armand. When she realizes that all her efforts to reform will not redeem her in the eyes of the world and that her reputation will harm Armand and his family, she sacrifices the love of her life, although it means making him hate her. She knows that she will soon die of consumption; she gives up those last few months of happiness and peace for his sake. The sharp contrast between the inspiring generosity of her actions and the world’s harsh view of fallen women places Marguerite safely in romanticism’s pantheon of the beautiful and the doomed—redeemed sinners who die as they are saved. The poignant irony of her situation appeals irresistibly to the romantically inclined.
Camille derives much of its power from the intensity of Dumas’s deep emotional commitment to the subject. In 1844, at the age of twenty, he had met and fallen in love with Marie Duplessis, who became the model for Marguerite Gautier in both his play and his earlier novel of the same name (1848). Like Armand, he lured his beautiful demimondaine to simpler pleasures for a time, but she soon returned to her old life and died of tuberculosis not long after. In real life, Marie had nothing to do with Dumas’s father (who was anything but a provincial prude), nor did she renounce her lover for the sake of his family, nor was he present at her deathbed. The idealized version of their affair that appears in his novel proved popular with French readers, although not nearly so popular as the dramatization a few years later.
A remarkably skillful piece of theatrical writing, especially for a first play, Camille resembles and differs from Dumas’s later works. Even in this tender romantic drama, audiences can discern traces of the preachiness that would soon dominate his work in Marguerite’s frustration with a society that countenanced a sexual double standard and refused to forgive women who had strayed from the path of middle-class virtue. In part, that theme reflects Dumas’s life, for he remained devoted to his mother all his life, despite the prevailing condemnation of women who bore children out of wedlock as she had done. In his later plays, the moralism, while well intentioned, becomes overt and fairly predictable. In Camille, however, the message comes through much more subtly, as a result of the audience’s sympathetic emotional response to the characters. His most affecting play was written from the heart, not the head.
The image of Camille has permeated Western culture as an emblem of redemptive, self-sacrificing, romantic love. At least six cinematic versions of the play exist, and, up through the 1930’s, the play itself was performed frequently. After that, however, it almost disappeared from the stage, except in the form of Giuseppe Verdi’s popular opera La traviata (1853). In part, this reflects the more internalized styles of acting that developed in the twentieth century, such as the realistic psychological approach of Konstantin Stanislavski. The visible tears, audible sobs, full-body shudders, and racking coughs popular with earlier audiences seem overdone today. Melodramatic climaxes, as when Armand throws his gambling winnings in Marguerite’s face, now probably would produce laughter rather than a horrified gasp. Such extravagant gestures may work well in an opera house but seem out of scale with more modern theatrical expectations.
In a sense, Camille appears destined to become, at best, a museum piece. Yet Dumas’s urgent passion shines through the old-fashioned dramatic structure, probably because of the total conviction with which he portrays the young lovers. Novelist Henry James called it “an astonishing piece of work” that evokes the extreme joys and sorrows of the springtime of life. As he put it, Camille abounds in “fresh perversity, fresh credulity, fresh passion, fresh pain.” While the literary artifact may fade because of being too closely tied to the period of its creation, the story, the characters, and, above all, the passionate emotions remain vivid and powerful. Unlike its heroine, the play, in this sense, will surely survive.
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