Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Alexandre Dumas, Jr. (1824–1895)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Francisque Sarcey (1827–1899)
WE shall not say much about the life of Alexandre Dumas the younger. The history of a great writer is the history of his works. He was born in Paris, on July 27th, 1824. His name on the register of births appears as “Alexandre, son of Marie Catherine Lebay, seamstress.” He was not acknowledged by his father until he had reached his sixth year, March 7th, 1830. I emphasize this particular because it had great influence on the bent of his genius. During all his life Dumas was haunted by a desire of rehabilitating illegitimate children, of creating a reaction against their treatment by the Civil Code and the prejudice which makes of them something little better than outcasts in society.  1
  “When seven years old,” he himself says, “I entered as a boarder the school of Monsieur Vauthier, on Rue Montagne Saint-Geneviève. Thence I passed, about two years later, to the Saint-Victor School; the principal was Monsieur Goubaux, a friend of my father, with whom he collaborated under the nom de plume of Dinaux. This school, which numbered two hundred and fifty boarding pupils, and with the rather strange habits which I tried to depict in ‘The Clémenceau Case,’ occupied all the ground covered to-day by the Casino de Paris and the ‘Pôle-Nord’ establishment. When about fifteen I left the Saint-Victor School for Monsieur Hénon’s school, which was situated in the Rue de Courcelles and has now disappeared. It is in the Collêge Bourbon (now the Lycée Condorcet) that I received all my instruction, as the pupils of the two schools where I lived attended the college classes. I never belonged to any of the higher State schools,—I have not even the degree of bachelor.”  2
  At the end of his years of study he returned to his father. He did not stay there more than six months. The rather tumultuous life which he saw in the house disturbed his proud mind, already filled with serious yearnings.  3
  “You have debts,” his father said to him. “Do as I do: work, and you will pay them.”  4
  Such was indeed the young man’s intention. His first work was a one-act play in verse, ‘The Queen’s Jewel,’ which no one, assuredly, would mention to-day but for his signature. The date was 1845, and the author was then twenty-one. Other works by him were published at various times in the Journal des Demoiselles.  5
  “I was,” he has said, “the careless, lazy, and spoilt child of all my father’s friends. I believed in the eternity of youth, of strength, of joy. I spent the whole day laughing, the whole night sleeping, unless I had some reason for writing verses.”  6
  About 1846 he set resolutely to work. He turned to novel-writing, which seemed to him to offer greater facilities for reaching the public and greater chances of immediate income than dramatic composition. Only two of his novels have survived: ‘La Dame aux Camélias’ (‘Camille’: 1848), because from this book came the immortal drama by the same title; and ‘The Clémenceau Case,’ because the author wrote it when he was in complete possession of his talent, and because moreover it is a first-rate work.  7
  It was in 1852 that the Vaudeville Theatre gave the first performance of ‘Camille,’ the fortune of which was to be so extraordinary. For two or three years the play had been tossed from theatre to theatre. Nobody wanted it. To the ideas of the time it seemed simply shocking, and the play was still forbidden in London after its performances in France were numbered by the hundreds.  8
  There is this special trait in ‘Camille’—it was a work all instinct with the spirit of youth. Dumas twenty years later sadly said: “I might perhaps make another ‘Demi-Monde’; I could not make another ‘Camille.’” There existed, indeed, other works which have all the fire and charm of the twentieth year. ‘Polyeucte’ is Corneille’s masterpiece; his ‘Cid’ breathes the spirit of youth: Corneille at forty could not have written the ‘Cid.’ Racine’s first play is ‘Andromaque’: Beaumarchais’s is the ‘Barber of Seville’; Rossini, when young, enlivened it with his light and sparkling airs. Fifteen years later he himself wrote his ‘William Tell,’ a higher work, but a work which was not young.  9
  If the theatrical managers had recoiled from ‘Camille’ in spite of the great names that recommended it, it is because it was cut after a pattern to which neither they nor the public were accustomed; it is because it contained the germ of a whole dramatic revolution. Now, the author was not a theatrical revolutionist. He had not said to himself, “I am going to throw down the old fabric of the drama, and erect a new one on its ruins.” To tell the truth, he had no idea of what he was doing. He had witnessed a love drama. He had thrown it still throbbing upon the stage, without any regard for the dramatic conventions which were then imposed upon playwrights, and which were almost accepted as laws. He had simply depicted what he had seen. All the managers, attached as they were to the old customs, and respectful of the traditions, had trembled with horror when they saw moving around Camille the ignoble Prudence, the idiotic Duc de Varville, the silly Saint-Gaudens. But the public—though the fact was suspected neither by them nor by the public itself—yearned for more truth upon the boards. When ‘Camille’ was presented to them, the play-goers uttered a cry of astonishment and joy: that was the thing! that was just what they wanted! From that day, which will remain as a date in the history of the French stage, the part of Camille has been performed by all the celebrated actresses. The part has two sides: one may see in it a degraded woman who has fallen profoundly in love, rather late in life; one may also see in it a woman, already poetical in her own nature, suddenly carried away by a great passion into the sacred regions of the Ideal.  10
  Almost any young man in Dumas’s place would have lost his head after so astounding a success, and might not have resisted the temptation of at once working out the vein. For on coming out of the theatre after the first performance, the author had all the managers at his feet, and the smallest trifle was sure to be accepted if it only had his signature. But he had learned, by the side of “a prodigal father,” the art of husbanding his talent. He declined to front the footlights again, save with a work upon which he had been able to bestow all the care and labor it deserved: he waited a year before he gave, at the Gymnase theatre, ‘Diane de Lys.’  11
  ‘Diane de Lys’ undoubtedly pleased the public, but its success was not exactly brilliant. It is full of great qualities, it is strongly conceived, constructed with rare power and logic, but it added nothing to his reputation. The play as a whole seemed long and melancholy. It is a curious subject for critical study, as one of the stages in which the genius of the author stopped awhile, on its way to higher works. It will leave no great trace in his career.  12
  Two years later he gave at the Gymnase theatre—I do not dare to say his masterpiece, but certainly the best constructed and most enjoyable play he ever wrote, ‘Le Demi-Monde’ (The Other Half-World). In this play he discovered and defined the very peculiar world of those women who live on the margin of regular “society,” and try to preserve its tone and demeanor. What scientific and strong construction are here! What an admirable disposition of the scenes, both flexible and logical! And through the action, which moves on with wonderful straightforwardness and breadth, how many portraits, drawn with a steady hand, each one bearing such distinctive features that you would know them if you met them on the street! Olivier de Jalin, the refined Parisian, the dialectician of the play, who is no other than Dumas himself; Raymond de Nanjac, handsome and honest, but not keen or Parisian; and that giddy Valentine de Sanctis, whose head turns with the wind, whose tongue cannot rest one moment; and especially Suzanne d’Ange, so witty, so complex, so devious in her motions, so roublarde, as a Parisian of to-day would say.  13
  Between ‘The Demi-Monde,’ and ‘La Question d’Argent’ (The Money Question), which followed, Dumas spent two years at work. ‘La Question d’Argent’ is a favorite play with the connoisseurs; but its reception by the public was of the coldest. It is a noteworthy fact that plays turning upon money have never been successful. Lesage’s ‘Turcaret’ is a dramatic masterpiece: it never had the luck to please the crowd. Dumas’s Jean Giraud is, however, a very curiously studied character. The author has represented in him the commonest type of the shady money-man, the unconscious rascal. And very skillfully he made an individual out of that general type, by giving to Jean Giraud a certain rough good-nature; the appearance of a good fellow, with a certain degree of fineness; a mixture of humility and self-conceit, of awkwardness and impudence, and even some ideas as to the power of money that do not lack dignity, and some real liberality of sentiment and act,—for wealth alone, though acquired by ignominious means, suggests and dictates to the great robbers some advantageous movements which the small rascal cannot indulge in: and around this Turcaret of the Second Empire how many pictures of honest people, every one of whom, in his or her way, is good and fine!  14
  One year later Dumas carried to the Gymnase, his favorite theatre, ‘Le Fils Naturel’ (The Natural Son); and the next year ‘Un Père Prodigue’ (A Prodigal Father; known also in English through a free adaptation as ‘My Awful Dad’).  15
  In ‘Le Fils Naturel’ Dumas for the first time wrote a theme-play, a kind of work in which he was to become a master. Hitherto we have seen him drawing pictures of manners. To be sure, philosophical considerations on the period depicted are not wanting, but the play has not the form and does not assume the movement of a thesis. It does not take up one special trait of our social order, one of our worldly prejudices, in order to show its strong and weak sides. ‘Le Fils Naturel’ is the work of a moralist as well as of a playwright; or rather, it is the work of a playwright who was a born moralist.  16
  ‘Un Père Prodigue’ originally excited great curiosity. It escaped no one that in his Count Fernand de la Rivonnière, Dumas had shown us some traits of his illustrious father, who had been a prodigal father; and that he had depicted himself in Viscount André. Every one made comparisons; some, of course, accused the author of filial disrespect. The accusation was ridiculous, and he did not even answer it. He had so well disguised the persons, he had transported them into such different surroundings, that no one could recognize in them their true prototypes. Then—and this is no small praise—if Count de la Rivonnière is guilty of one fault, that of throwing to the wind his fortune, he is a most amiable nobleman, full of broad ideas and generous sentiments,—has a warm heart. The fourth act, in which the father sacrifices himself in order to save his son’s life, is pathetic in the extreme. But nothing equals the first act, which is a model of animated and picturesque composition. No one ever painted in more vivid colors the pillage of a household, and a family without so much as a shadow of discipline. It is an accumulation of small details, not one of which is of an indifferent nature, and which, taken together, drive into our minds the idea that this nobleman, so well-mannered, so charming in conversation, so sober for himself, is running to ruin as gayly as he can.  17
  For four years after the production of ‘Un Père Prodigue’ Dumas wrote nothing. But in 1864 he reappeared at the Gymnase with a strange play, ‘L’Ami des Femmes’ (A Friend of the Sex), which completely failed. After ‘L’Ami des Femmes’ there was another interruption, not of Dumas’s labors but of his dramatic production. Perhaps he was sick of an art which had caused him a cruel disappointment. He turned again to novel-writing, and published (1866) ‘L’Affaire Clémenceau’ (The Clémenceau Case), the success of which was not as great as he had hoped. In France, when a man is superior in one specialty people will not let him leave it. He is not allowed to be at once an unequaled novelist and a first-rate dramatist.  18
  At that time Dumas hesitated which road to follow. An incident which created a great deal of comment threw him back towards the stage, and towards a new form of comedy.  19
  M. Émile de Girardin, one of the best-known publicists of the Second Empire, had bethought himself, when over fifty years of age, and knowing nothing of this kind of work, to write a play. He had been a great friend of Dumas père, and had kept up the most affectionate intercourse with his son. He had asked him to fit his play for the stage. It possessed one really dramatic idea. Dumas, in order to oblige his father’s friend, made out of it ‘Le Supplice d’une Femme’ (A Woman’s Torture). Émile de Girardin, who was self-conceited and somewhat despotic, refused to recognize his offspring in the bear that Dumas had licked. He declined to sign the play: “Neither shall I,” Dumas retorted.  20
  ‘A Woman’s Torture’ was acted at the Comédie Française with extraordinary success. This success was for Dumas a warning and a lesson. ‘A Woman’s Torture’ was a three-act play, short, concise, panting, which hurried to the coup de théâtre of the second act, upon which the drama revolved, and rushed to its conclusion. The time of five-act comedies, with ample expositions, copious developments, philosophical disquisitions, curious and fanciful episodes, was gone. Henceforth the dramatist had to deal with a hurried and blasé public, which, taking dinner at eight, could give to the theatre but a short time, and an attention disturbed by the labor of digestion. ‘A Woman’s Torture,’ which lasted only an hour and a half, and proceeded only by rapid strokes, was exactly what that public wanted. After that time Dumas wrote only three-act and one-act plays; using four acts only for ‘Les Idées de Madame Aubray’ (Madame Aubray’s Ideas); and these four acts are very short. In 1867 this play announced Dumas’s return to the stage; and Dumas is here more paradoxical than he had ever been. His theme looked like a wager not simply against bourgeois prejudices, but even against good sense, and, I dare to say, against justice. This wager was won by Dumas, thanks to an incredible display of skill. He took up the thesis a second time in ‘Denise,’ and won his wager again, but with less difficulty. In ‘Denise’ the lover struggles only against social prejudices, and allows himself to be carried away by one of those emotional fits which disturb and confound human reason. In ‘Madame Aubray’s Ideas’ the triumph is one of pure logic.  21
  ‘Une Visite de Noces’ (A Wedding Call) and ‘La Princesse Georges’ followed rather closely on ‘Madame Aubray’s Ideas.’ ‘A Wedding Call’!—what a thunderbolt then! It was of but one act, but one act the effect of which was prodigious, the echo of which is still heard. Time and familiarity have now softened for us the too sharp outlines of this bitter play. It has been acknowledged a masterpiece. It is certainly one of the boldest works of this extraordinary magician, who, thanks to his unerring skill and to the dazzling wit of his dialogue, brought the public to listen to whatever he chose to put upon the stage. It seemed that, like a lion tamer in the arena, Dumas took pleasure in belaboring and exasperating this many-headed monster, in order to prove to his own satisfaction that he could subdue its revolts.  22
  ‘La Princesse Georges’ is a work of violent and furious passion. We find in it Madame de Terremonde, the good woman who adores her husband, but who adores him with fury, who wants him all to herself, and who, when sure that she is betrayed, passes from the most exasperated rage to tears and despair. There is in the first act a scene of exposition which has become celebrated. No one ever so rapidly mastered the public; no one ever from the first stroke so painfully twisted the heart of the spectators.  23
  Let us pass rapidly over ‘La Femme de Claude’ (Claude’s Wife: 1873). Of all his plays it is the one Dumas said he liked best, the one he most passionately defended with all sorts of commentaries, letters, prefaces, etc.; the one which he insisted on having revived, a long time after it had failed. To my mind that play was a mistake; and the public, in spite of Dumas’s arguments, in spite of the protests of the critics, who are often very glad to distinguish themselves by not yielding to the common voice,—the public insisted on agreeing with me.  24
  Only a few months later, Dumas brilliantly retrieved himself with ‘Monsieur Alphonse.’ His Madame Guichard is the most cheerfully vulgar type of the parvenue which any one ever dared to put upon the stage. She can hardly read and write; she is no longer young, and she is “to boot” very proud of her money; she has no tact and no taste; but at heart she is a good sort of woman. Her morality is as primitive as her education. But deceit disgusts her; she hates but one thing, she says,—lying. She is not troubled by conventionalities; and her speech has all the color and energy of popular speech. But see! Dumas in depicting this woman preserved exquisite measure. Madame Guichard says many pert and droll things; she never utters a coarse word. Her language is picturesque; it is free from slang. Hers is a vulgar nature, but she does not offend delicate ears by the grossness of her utterance. Dumas never drew a more living picture; she is the joy of this rather sad play.  25
  All that remain to be reviewed are ‘L’Étrangère,’ ‘La Princesse de Bagdad,’ and ‘Françillon’; all of which were given at the Comédie Française. ‘L’Étrangère’ is indeed a melodrama, with an admixture of comedy. Had he gone further in that direction, Dumas might have made a new sort of play, which would perhaps have reigned a long time on the stage. But after this trial, successful though it was, he stopped. ‘La Princesse de Bagdad’ entirely failed. ‘Françillon’ was Dumas’s last success at the Comédie Française.  26
  After 1887 Dumas gave nothing to the stage. He had completed a great five-act play, ‘The Road to Thebes,’ which the manager of the Comédie Française hoped every year to put on the boards. Dumas kept promising it; but either from distrust of himself or of the public, or from fatigue, or fear of meeting with failure, he asked for new delays, until the day when he declared that not only the play would not be acted during his life, but that he would not even allow it to be acted after his death.  27
  This death he saw coming, with sad but calm eyes. It was a sorrow for us to see this man, whom we had known so quick and alert, grow weaker every day, showing the progress of disease in his shriveled features and body. The complexion had lost all color, the cheeks had become flaccid, the eye had no life left.  28
  On October 1st, 1895, he wrote to his friend Jules Claretie:—“Do not depend upon me any more; I am vanquished. There are moments when I mourn my loss, as Madame D’Houdetot said when dying.” He was at Puys, by the seaside, when he wrote that despairing letter. He returned to Marly, there to die, surrounded by his family, on November 28th, 1895, in a house which he loved and which had been bequeathed to him years before by an intimate friend.  29
  His loss threw into mourning the world of letters, and the whole of Paris. People discovered then—for death loosens every tongue and every pen—how kind and generous in reality was Dumas, who had often been accused of avarice by those who contrasted him with his father; how many services he had discreetly rendered, how open his hand always was. His constant cheerfulness and good-nature had finally caused him to be forgiven for his wit, which was sarcastic and cutting, and for his success, which had thrown so many rivals into the shade. This witty man, who was always obliging and even tender-hearted, had no envy, and gave his applause without a shadow of reserve to the successes of others. Every young author found in him advice and support; he did not expect gratitude, and therefore was soured by no disappointment. He was a good man, partly from nature, partly from determination; for he deemed that, after all, the best way to live happy in this world is to make happy as many people as possible.  30
  If in this long essay I have not spoken of Dumas as a moralist, it is because, in my opinion, in spite of all that has been said, Dumas was a dramatist a great deal more than a philosopher. In his comedies he discussed a great many moral and social questions, without giving a solution for any; or rather, the solutions that he gave were due not to any set of fixed principles, but to the conclusion which he was preparing for this play or that. He said, indifferently, “Kill her” or “Forgive her,” according to the requirements of the subject which he had selected; and he would afterwards write a sensational preface with a view to demonstrate that the solution this time given by him was the only legitimate one. These prefaces are very amusing reading; for he wrote them with all the fire of his nature, and he had the gift of movement. But they were a strange medley of incongruous and contradictory statements. Every idea that he expresses can be grasped and understood; but it is impossible to see how it agrees with those that precede and follow. It is a chaos of clear ideas.  31
  Dumas was not a philosopher, but an agitator. He stirred up a great many questions; he drew upon them our distracted attention; he compelled us to think of them. Therein he did his duty as a dramatist.  32
  He gave much thought to the fate of woman in our civilization. We may say, however, that though loving her much, he still more feared her, and I shall even add, despised her. All his characters who have the mission of defending morality and good sense are very attentive to her, but keep her at arm’s-length. They are affectionate counselors, not lovers. They hold her to be a frail being, who must be controlled and guided. Some one has said that there was in Dumas something of the Catholic priest. It is true. He was to women a lay director of conscience.  33
  He was a great connoisseur of pictures and a great art lover. Music, I think, is the only art that did not affect him much. He was a dazzling talker; his plays teem with bright sayings; his conversation sparkled with them. I did not know him in his prime, when he delighted his friends and companions by his unceasing flow of spirits. I became intimate with him only later. If you knew how to start him, he simply coruscated. I never knew any one, save Edmond About, who was as witty, and who, like About, always paid you back in good sounding coin.  34
  Dumas was a member of the French Academy. He had not wished for that honor, because it had been denied to his father. He desired, in his reception speech, to call up the great spirit of this illustrious father and make it share his academician’s chair. He had this joy; the two Dumas were received on the same day. Their two names will never perish.  35
  [The editors have been compelled, for lack of space, to leave out that part of M. Sarcey’s valuable essay which is a professional analysis of several of Dumas’s plays, and which would be of interest, chiefly, to special students of the French drama and stage.]  36

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