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||Alexandre Dumas (jr.) (1824-1895) - known as Dumas fils|
French playwright and novelist, illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas père, who, at the time of his son's birth, was still an aspiring writer. Dumas fils gained fame with his novel La Dame aux Camélias, in which a fallen girl, Marguerite, gives up her lover rather than see him become a social outcast. The story has been filmed several times. It is based partly on the life of Rose Alphonsine Plessis. She moved to Paris at the age of 14 and became in two years the lover of several important men. Rose took another name, Marie Duplessis, but in Dumas' novel she was Marguerite Gautier and in Verdi's opera Violetta Valéry.
"In my opinion, it is impossible to create characters until one has spent a long time studying men, as it is impossible to speak language until it has been seriously acquired. Not being old enough to invent, I content myself with narrating, and I beg the reader to assure himself of the truth of a story in which all the characters, with the exception of the heroine, are alive." (in Camille: The Lady of the Camellias)
Alexandre Dumas fils was born in Paris. His mother, Marie-Catherine Labay, was a dressmaker. In 1831 he was legally recognized by his father and taken from Marie-Catherine, who first tried to escape with her son. Later she inspired Dumas' mother characters; he often depicted the fate of unmarried women in a tragic light. In boarding schools, where Dumas was sent, he was made miserable by his schoolmates who taunted him about his illegitimate birth. He never forgave them. After studies at the Institution Goubaux and the Collége Bourbon, he abandoned further education to devote himself to writing.
At first, Dumas had no success, and by the time he was twenty
one, he was hugely in debt. In 1844 Dumas père separated from his wife
and Dumas fils
moved to Saint-Germain-en-Laye to live with his
father. There he met Marie Duplessis, a peasant girl from Nonant-le-Pin
in Normandy. At the age of sixteen she was one of the most sought-after
Paris. Dumas and Marie Dupleiss knew each other for over a year, before
she became in 1844 his mistress. The love of her life was
the composer Franz Liszt, but she was not in the position to reject
rich suitors who paid her rent and glorious clothes. It is true that
she loved camellias ‒ they were her calling card. A white camellia
meant that she was sexually available to her lovers, while a red one
meant she wasn't. Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis at the
age 23 in
February 1847 in a Paris apartment in the Madeleine. "She was a duchess
but her duchy consisted of Bohemia," said the poet and novelist
Théophile Gautier (1811-1872). Her fate inspired Dumas' romantic novel, La Dame aux
Camélias, which he wrote in three weeks in a room in the Cheval Blanc. It was adapted into a
play, known in English as Camille.
At first the stage version was rejected by one theater after another. Moreover, the censors of the French Republic regarded it as too scandalous. In England, it was banned for more than 20 years. After the coup d'état of Napoleon III, La Dame aux Camélias was produced by Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris in February 1852. A tear-jerker with an emotionally effective appeal, Dumas' play has ever since fascinated generations of audiences worldwide. Even the tough-minded Lenin wept over the play when he saw its performance in the late 1904 in Geneva, starring the celebrated Sarah Bernhardt.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) based his opera La traviata on the play. Its premiere in Venice at the Gran Teatro La Fenice in March 1853 was a fiasco, but after various alterations to the score and with a different cast, the opera soon became highly popular. While Dumas' play remained banned in England, Verdi's operatic version was licenced for performance and received hearty acclaim, although some critics were unimpressed: "An unfortunate young person who has acted the part of a public prostitute . . . coughs her way through three acts," wrote the London Times in 1856. Originally the working title of the opera was Amore e morte, but it was changed at the insistence of the Venetian censors. Marguerite, whose name means daisy in French, was turned into Violetta. The role of the heroine is considered one of the most difficult in the soprano repertory.
"Business? It's quite simple. It's other people's money." (in La Question d'Argent, 1857)
The play made the novel a huge success and enabled Dumas fils to pay off some of his debts and help his mother. Before 1852 he wrote twelve other novels and started to work on didactic plays that showed a distaste for loose loving. Diane de Lys (1853) was based on his relationship with the wife of the Russian ambassador to France. A Prodigal Father (1859) was an interpretation of his father's character. He formed a liaison with the Russian Nadeja Naryschkine, who was married. They had a daughter in 1860 and four years later they married. In 1867 Dumas published his semi-autobiographical novel, L' Affaire Clemenceau, which is considered one of his best works. It has also served as a source for Henry James's bildungsroman Roderick Hudson (1876). James said of Dumas in a letter that "he is detestable & a childish charlatan: but as a dramatist, I think he understands the business like none of the others."
Dumas was admitted to the Académie Francaise in 1874. He wrote several plays, among which Denise (1885) and Francillon (1887) gained considerable success. In 1894 he was admitted to the Légion d'Honneur. After his wife died Dumas married Henriette Régnier, who had been his mistress for eight years. His last play, The Return from Thebes, was left unfinished. Dumas died at Marly-le-Roi on November 27, 1895. On the day of his funeral, mourners took flowers from his grave and placed them on the nearby tomb of Alphonsine Plessis, who was believed to be the real 'Lady of the Camellias'; Dumas himself was the 'Armand Duval' of the roman à clef.
In his works Dumas underlined the importance of marriage and the moral purpose of literature. Playwrights have shown human beings as they are, but they should show how they ought to be. Dumas was against the emancipation of women, adultery and prostitution, and wrote sharp prefaces to his plays to make their high intentions more obvious. Dumas' Dame aux Camélias and The Half-World (1855) reflected the changing idea of love and family of the mid-1850s. A woman with a doubtful reputation is a danger for the bourgeois family: she must be removed from the social body as a center of infection. If one has already seduced such a girl, then one should also marry her. If one has brought an illegitimate child into the world, then one should legitimize it, as Dumas pleads in his plays The Natural Son (1858) and Monsieur Alphonse (1873). In certain circumstances a man can be forgiven his adultery, a woman never.
Dumas was of the opinion that there is no art at all in inventing a dramatic situation and thinking out a conflict. The art consists rather in the due preparation of the scene in which the plot culminates and in the smooth unraveling of the knot. The development of the plot must be like a mathematical operation. If the result is wrong, the whole operation is wrong. Therefore one must begin working on the end, the solution, the last word of the play.
La dame aux camélias (1852, Camille; The Lady of the Camelias). "In my opinion, it is impossible to create characters until one has spent a long time in studying men, as it is impossible to speak a language until it has been seriously acquired. Not being old enough to invent, I content myself with narrating, and I beg the reader to assure himself of the truth of a story in which all the characters, with the exception of the heroine, are still alive." The story is narrated by the writer Armand Duval, his friend. Marguerite Gautier is a beautiful young courtesan suffering from tuberculosis. She is loved by Armand Duval, but their happiness ends abruptly, when M. Duval, Armand's father refuses to accept their relationship. He asserts that their romance will destroy his son's career and social position, also it prevents the marriage of his younger sister. Marguerite leaves her lover, pretending to be returning to a rich admirer. Armand follows her to Paris and wounds his rival in a duel and is forced to leave France. Marguerite's fortunes deteriorate rapidly, she is deserted by lovers and friends and moves to a shabby flat. Armand's father writes to his son of Marguerite's sacrifice and misfortunes. Armand returns to Marguerite's side and she dies in his arms. "I do not draw from this story the conclusion that all women like Marguerite are capable of doing all that she did--far from it; but I have discovered that one of them experienced a serious love in the course of her life, that she suffered for it, and that she died of it. I have told the reader all that I learned. It was my duty."
For further reading: Les idées sociales dans le théâtre de Alexandre Dumas, fils, by C.M. Noel (1912); La morale de Dumas, fils, by E. Seillière (1921); Alexandre Dumas et Marie Duplessis by J. Gros (1921); Alexandre Dumas, fils, Dramatist by H.S. Schwartz (1927); Dumas, Father and Son by F.H. Gribble (1930); Aleksande Dumas fils by N.C. Arvin (1939); Three Musketeers: A Study of the Dumas Family by André Maurois (1957); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, ed. Stanley Hochman (1984); The Ladies of the Camellias by Lillian Garrett-Groag (1996); The Sounds of Paris in Verdi's La traviata by Emilio Sala (2003); The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis by Julie Kavanagh (2013); The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis by René Weis (2015) - See also: Jules Verne