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Romance, Humor, and History

Romance, Humor, and History

By Ace G. Pilkington

Though he wrote in almost every genre, Alexandre Dumas achieved his first great success (and immediate fame) in 1827 with the production of his historical drama Henri III et sa Cour by the Théâtre-Français. The play combined those twin pillars of Dumas’s success—history and romanticism. In fact, the new literary vintage that Dumas had decanted (in the shade of those pillars if anyone is worried about mixed metaphors) was so heady “that during the next days young romantics, excited by the endless ovation, danced around the bust of Racine, singing: ‘Racine has fallen’” (Claude Schopp, Alexandre Dumas: Genius of Life, trans. A. J. Koch [New York: Franklin Watts, 1988], 108). France (or at least much of the young and vigorous part of it) was ready to embrace history and romanticism and rejoice in the fall of classicism and classicists. The exuberance was so great that busts of Racine and Voltaire were thrown out of windows (Schopp, 108) with something of the same sense of liberation that attended a later generation’s toppling of statues of Lenin and Stalin.

When Dumas shifted his main energy (and that of his collaborators) from drama to novels, “From very early on he had planned to annex the whole of history to his romantic domain” (André Maurois, The Titans, trans. Gerard Hopkins [New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957], 182). Working primarily with Auguste Maquet, Dumas produced The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and six other romans-feuilletons (or serialized novels) in just over two years (Schopp, 326 27). He worked simultaneously on a variety of multi-volume retellings of the history of France—and occasionally of other countries—one of Dumas’s most interesting works is The Black Tulip, set in Holland in 1672.

The musketeer saga alone includes The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne or Ten Years Later (usually printed as two volumes), Louise de la Vallière, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Son of Porthos or the Death of Aramis. That last novel, according to George McDonald Fraser (screenwriter for the 1973 films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and a historical novelist himself), “set a style in titles which Hollywood fastened on joyfully” (The Hollywood History of the World [New York: William Morrow, 1988], 103).

Perhaps one reason for Dumas’s enormous and enduring success is the kind of romanticism he practiced. While he was capable of summoning up the whole grisly Gothic pantheon, as he does in Castle Eppstein, his imagination most often exaggerates and transforms the real world instead of deforming or abandoning it. Also, he frequently mixes his romanticism with humor.

In The Three Musketeers, for instance, Dumas begins with the suggestion that the Sturm und Drang of adventure should not be taken with absolute seriousness. He describes D’Artagnan as “Don Quixote at eighteen . . . Don Quixote clothed in a woollen doublet, the blue colour of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure” (Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers [Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1978], 1). In his first duel, the fiery, intelligent hero of this quintessential romantic novel has his father’s sword broken by peasants wielding farm implements, and the villain Rochefort contemptuously (but mercifully) suggests, “Put him on his orange horse again and let him begone” (Dumas, 5).

Even some of the musketeers’ most heroic and exuberant feats shade quite deliberately and perceptibly into the ridiculous. When, for instance, the musketeers have defeated the cardinal’s guards in the vicinity of M. de la Trémouille’s hotel, the musketeers have every intention of burning the place down in order to punish Trémouille’s servants for fighting on the wrong side. D’Artagnan and company dissuade their friends from this incendiary policy, not because torching buildings in the middle of Paris is bad business but because they are almost late for an audience with the king and “would very much have regretted that such a feat should be performed without them” (Dumas, 42).

It was one of Dumas’s greatest strengths as a writer that he could find all his characters in himself and himself in all his characters. He came by his sense of adventure and romanticism naturally from his father, who was one of Napoleon’s generals. He “inherited from his father a taste for those combats, seemingly incredible, but nevertheless true, in which a man single-handed . . . disarmed a hundred” (Maurois, The Titans, 178). He called his autobiography The Road to Monte Cristo and saw himself, at least in part, as that preternaturally accomplished, inexhaustibly wealthy figure. “In Dumas’s eyes, Dantès is a plausible hero quite simply because Dantès is Alexandre Dumas himself. Or, more exactly, Dantès is Dumas such as Dumas would have wished to be” (André Maurois, “Introduction,” The Count of Monte Cristo [Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1941], vii).

Of course, in Dumas’s case, the money tended to run out. “Because he wished to build Monte Cristo’s castle at Saint Germain . . . Dumas started along the road to ruin” (Mauois, “Introduction,” The Count of Monte Cristo, vii). A long list of similar extravagances left him penniless at the end of his life, a charge against which he humorously defended himself on his deathbed. Seeing two gold “louis” on a nearby table, he said, “Everybody has said that I was prodigal. . . . Do you see how you were all mistaken? When I first landed in Paris I had two ‘louis’ in my pocket. Look . . . I still have them!” (Schopp, 488).

Dumas, of course, was not only Dantès, he was also D’Artagnan, a young man who came from the provinces to Paris, seeking help from his father’s old friends. He tells the story in his memoirs of how, wearing old-fashioned “nankeen breeches,” he attempted to impress two girls by leaping across a fourteen-foot ditch. In true D’Artagnan fashion, he made the leap but split his breeches and was forced to run home so that his mother could sew them up (Alexandre Dumas, The Road to Monte Cristo, ed. Jules Eckert Goodman [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956], 31 32).

Dumas, like D’Artagnan, fought duels. One was postponed for a day because “his adversary had caught a cold . . . while skating on the canal” (Schopp, 65); another was canceled altogether because his opponent had lost two fingers in a duel which had precedence over the one with Dumas (Schopp, 109). When his first play was accepted by the Théâtre Français, Dumas dashed through Paris with all the fire of a young Gascon and “fell flat in the middle of a gutter, creating a gridlock of carriages and horses” (Schopp, 97). His manuscript vanished in the accident, but with a memory which Dantès might have envied, he had the whole thing in his head. While Dumas’s mistresses rivalled those of Aramis, his attitude to money chimed nicely with that of Porthos. He once said, “I have never refused money to anybody . . . except my creditors” (Maurois, The Titans, 160).

Dumas’s romanticism, then, is the real thing, not a mask put on for a literary occasion, but a part of his life that spills over into his pages. It can be a whirlwind or a gust of laughter or (as it so often is ) both together. Paradoxically, there is a realism to this romanticism that validates its exaggerations and makes us believe them to be true. In the same way, Dumas makes history his own, creating a world out of himself so that “in the final analysis history is for Dumas . . . a means of projecting his novel out of real time completely, and this is precisely what gives his fiction its perennial and endearing freshness” (F. W. J. Hemmings, Alexandre Dumas: The King of Romance [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979], 123).

It is also one of many things which makes Dumas’s work so hard to transport successfully into another medium. Fortunately for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, five years after he created the novel, Dumas, himself (with, as usual, help from Maquet), wrote the play which Christine and Daniel Frezza have translated and adapted for the Festival. It has all the romantic dash of the original. As Jesse F. Knight, one of the editors of the scholarly journal The Romantist wrote to me concerning the new Festival translation, “I can’t recall reading a play that moved so swiftly.” And he went on to say, “Another thing I like about it is that the adaptation accepts Romanticism, the novel, and the play on their terms” (e-mail to the author, 15 March 1996). To accept Dumas on his own terms is a great feat, and to translate that acceptance to an audience is, perhaps, an even greater gift.