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Heroes and Heroines We Dare Only Dream About

Heroes and Heroines We Dare Only Dream About

By Ace G. Pilkington

Ken Ludwig, who wrote the adaptation of The Three Musketeers that the Utah Shakespeare Festival is producing this summer, says in the “Introduction” to his play, “Reading The Three Musketeers . . . is like reading the best and longest comic book in the world” ([New York: Samuel French, 2008], 9). He also says, “Dumas had an almost unique ability to create myths with a stroke of the pen” (10). And he adds, Dumas “peoples these adventures with the kinds of heroes and heroines we dare only dream about” (10). While mixing myths with comic books may sound a bit unusual, in the twenty-first century it has almost become the norm.           

Dumas, however, seems to have seen his historical novels differently. He said his purpose was “‘to interpret history rather than to transcribe it’” (Lord Sudley, “Introduction,” The Three Musketeers [New York: Penguin, 1982], 15), but in his vast, interconnected group of novels, he saw himself as writing about history, not fantasy, and he knew the difference since he also wrote about a vampire in The Pale Lady and a werewolf in The Wolf-Leader. As Thomas Flanagan says about The Three Musketeers, “Dumas and his collaborator, Auguste Maquet, believed that they were building, although very loosely, on fact” (“Introduction” [New York: Signet, 1991], xiii). Like most historical novelists or playwrights (and Dumas was both), he is sometimes truer to his story than to his sources. Still, I think Dumas would have been surprised by the notion that his characters were “heroes and heroines we dare only dream about.”

Part of the reason for the difference in perspective between Dumas and Ken Ludwig is that Dumas lived inside the world he wrote about in a way that is sometimes hard for us to understand in the twenty-first century. It is a commonplace to say that Dumas found himself in his characters and his characters in himself. The Musketeers may seem impossible swashbucklers to us, but it didn’t take a flight of fancy for Dumas to imagine himself as d’Artagnan.

Many events in Dumas’ life seem more like his fictions than our facts, and his first duel is a particularly apposite example. It took place in 1825, when he was only twenty-two. As Dumas puts it, On “3 January . . . one of our friends, by name Tallancourt, having . . . been promoted from his office, to the Duc d'Orléans' library . . . treated me and another of our friends called Betz to a dinner at the Palais-Royal” (My Memoirs [New York: Macmillan Company, 1908], vol. III, chapter VI. Project Gutenberg e-book). Both of Dumas’s friends had fought at Waterloo. Following the end of that enormous battle, Tallancourt “felt in his pockets and found that they were empty, he struck his stomach and felt that it was hollow, therefore, catching sight of a small dismounted cannon, and being endowed with herculean strength, he lifted it upon his shoulder and sold it, two leagues away, to an ironfounder, for ten francs.” It seems that the universe itself could not allow Dumas’s two friends (who create the circumstances in which the story happens and also serve as seconds in the duel) to be boring clerks. They are grizzled veterans of Napoleon’s wars (aged thirty-two and thirty-five respectively), and Tallancourt sounds as though he could be one of the inspirations for Porthos.

In any event, Dumas was inordinately proud of the large cloak and top boots he was wearing, and when a stranger said a few words “accompanied by a glance in my direction, and a burst of laughter,” the young would-be playwright challenged him to a duel. Even though Dumas did not hear the words, the look and the laughter were enough. The duel was originally set for January 5, but Dumas’s opponent failed to appear. His excuse was that he had been “skating on the canal the whole of the previous day” and was too tired to get up early. When the two finally did meet, Dumas’s father’s sword proved two inches shorter than that of his opponent. In answer, however, to the suggestion that the longer sword should be assigned at random, Dumas said, with just the right touch of fierce sentiment, “I much preferred to lose the two extra inches of steel, rather than to have my father's sword turned against my breast.”

Dumas quickly wounded his opponent in the shoulder, and the affair, part irascibility, part vanity, part nobility, and part comedy, came to an end. Dumas’s memoirs are filled with duels, his own and those of his friends. At one point, he fought a duel over whether or not he had written all of the play La Tour de Nesle (Edith Saunders, The Prodigal Father [New York: Longmans, Green and CO, 1951], 35). In fact, he says, with, perhaps, a bit of youthful exaggeration, “I have a perfect horror of disputing with my friends, and much prefer to fight a duel with any of them” (My Memoirs, vol. IV, chapter II).

It is not only Alexandre Dumas’s life that is outside the experience of most twenty-first century audiences, but also that of his father, whom he idolized and whose exploits and traumas he used to make characters as diverse as Porthos and the Count of Monte Cristo. General Alex Dumas (also called Thomas-Alexandre) was the son of a French count and a slave from what is now Haiti. He rose to the rank of general during the Napoleonic wars, and to call his exploits and personal qualities legendary may be to undervalue them. As “the strongest man in the French army” he was supposed to be able to “stand up in the stirrups, take hold of an overhead beam, and lift himself and his horse bodily off the ground” (Tom Reiss, The Black Count [New York: Crown Publishers, 2012], 8). “He once fought three duels in one day, winning all three despite being gashed in the head” (8). As a corporal, “he single-handedly captured twelve enemy soldiers” (8). Even more impressive, “he led four horsemen in an attack on an enemy post manned by over fifty men,” killing six and taking sixteen prisoners himself (8).

Perhaps his most remarkable exploit came when he was general-in-chief of the Army of the Alps. General Dumas “put on spiked boots and led his men up seemingly impregnable ice cliffs at night to surprise an Austrian battery” that appeared invincible (Reiss, 9). At the top his men came up against a “palisade which they had considerable difficulty” getting over. “‘Leave it to me!’ cried General Dumas and, taking hold of them, one after the other, by the seats of their trousers, threw them over the obstacle on to the heads of the terrified enemy” (Andre Maurois, The Titans [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957], 23). But as usual in the lives of the Dumas family, humor came hand-in-hand with terror. The climb up the ice cliffs had been extremely dangerous. “‘Every man who falls,’ said Dumas curtly, ‘must understand beforehand that he is a dead man—that nothing can save him. It will be useless then to cry out—and by so doing he may give the alarm, and ruin our chances.’ Three men, so the son tells us, did fall; and their bodies dropped into the darkness, bounding from crag to crag. But not a cry was heard—not a moan—not a sigh!” (Harry Spurr, The Life and Writings of Alexandre Dumas [New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1902], 7). In exchange for such sacrifice, General Dumas “took not only 1,700 prisoners and over forty artillery pieces but Mont Cenis, the key to the Alps” (Reiss, 9).

Some of what Alexandre Dumas wrote in his historical novels is not fact. And sometimes to us it feels like the wildest of fantasies, but for him it must have seemed to be a more colorful and slightly better organized version of his own life. With his stories, he could bring back the father he had lost when he was a child. He could summon the giants of history and put clever, remarkably appropriate words in their mouths. He could make around himself that life of honor and adventure which he felt was his by right of birth and mirth and imagination. No wonder that it was usual for him to begin writing at seven in the morning and to stay at his desk “until seven at night, so engrossed that he was often unaware of hunger and thirst and did not pause to eat or drink” (Saunders, 121). It must sometimes have been hard for him to tell the difference between his life and the living characters he was creating.

For a little while this summer, courtesy of Ken Ludwig’s play, Festival audiences will have a chance to change our twenty-first century perspective for that older, nobler, funnier vision that belonged to Alexandre Dumas.