Alexandre Dumas, French novelist and dramatist, was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterêts, near Soissons. His father, the son of a marquis and a Haitian slave, was a Napoleonic general who died in 1806, leaving his family little but the memory of his bravery. After a sketchy education, Dumas became a notary’s clerk in Villers-Cotterêts. He went to Paris in 1823 and, because of his elegant handwriting, secured a position with the Duc d’Orléans (later King Louis Philippe). In time Dumas rounded out his education by omnivorous reading, especially of plays, which had interested him since adolescence.
Romantic by nature and in appearance and bursting with vitality, Dumas led a life as ebullient as that of his swashbuckling heroes. He had an affair with a dressmaker, and an illegitimate son was born in 1824; and Dumas’s first produced play, The Chase and Love, was written one year later.
Although Dumas and Victor Hugo share the credit for introducing romanticism to the French stage, it was, strictly speaking, Dumas—self-educated, unknown, and untried—who, at the age of twenty-six, struck the first blow at the classical tradition with his third produced play, Henry III and His Court, performed at the Comédie-Française in 1829. It was the first romantic prose drama to be staged in Paris and was immediately successful.
During the 1830 Revolution, Dumas became a captain in the National Guard and a public idol, but his political activities made it expedient for him to flee France temporarily. In 1840 he married his mistress, Ida Ferrier, an actress, from whom he soon separated after having spent her entire dowry.
Dumas wrote fifteen plays before 1843, the year he began his prodigious career as a novelist, which began in 1844 with The Three Musketeers and went on through many successful adventure novels. The Three Musketeers has been translated extensively and adapted for the stage in almost every age and country. But it was Dumas who first rewrote his novel as drama; in fact, he produced three plays from the novel, first The Musketeers, from the last one third of the novel; then The Young Musketeers, consisting of most of what we see on stage today; and, finally, The Three Musketeers.
About the same time, he built Monte-Cristo, his fantastic chateau on the outskirts of Paris. Nearby he established the Théâtre Historique, where a historical play, usually one of his own, was presented each evening. Soon, however, having spent his funds too lavishly, he went to Brussels to escape his creditors and began work on his Mémoires. Upon his return to Paris he founded a daily paper called Le Mousquetaire, but it lasted only until 1857. The following year, he went to Russia, and in 1860 he went to Italy, where he joined Garibaldi’s forces. He remained in Naples as keeper of the museums for four years. During this period his prodigious output included innumerable historical volumes and novels.
After his return to France and continuing to leave beyond his means, his debts continued to mount.In his last years Dumas was at the mercy of creditors and a series of affairs with tyrannical actresses. He died of a stroke in Puys, near Dieppe, on December 5, 1870. He had written 301 volumes in all.
His most famous plays are Henry III and His Court (1829), a spectacular prose drama involving assassination and other violence; Antony (1831), a contemporary drama of passion, jealousy, and death; and The Tower of Nesle (1832), a romantic thriller reconstructing medieval crimes on a grand scale.