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...
(The entire section is 941 words.)