Alexandre Dumas and his Father General Dumas: Lives as Full of Adventure, Drama, and Romanticism as his Novel The Three Musketeers

By Heather Helinsky, dramaturg

                 Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Muskeeters, was a self-educated man who found his life’s calling at age 18 when he went to the theatre for the first time. Knowing nothing of Shakespeare, Dumas went with his friends to the nearby town of Soissons to see an adapted translation of Hamlet into French. "Imagine a blind man whose sight is restored! Imagine Adam opening his eyes on creation! " Dumas then quickly organized his own amateur theatre group, performing, directing, choosing plays…and then venturing into playwriting.

Dumas, who grew up without a male role model because his father had died when Dumas was four-years-old, found his calling in Shakespeare’s plays and made his entry into Parisian society with a goal of entering the Comédie-Française. Like the young D’Artagnan who dreams of becoming a musketeer, Dumas made his mark not with the sword, but with rhyming verse, vaudevilles, and melodramas.

At the time, the leading figure at the Comédie-Française was a tragedian named Talma. Just as Captain Treville of the musketeers welcomed D’Artagnan because of a warm memory of D’Artagnan’s father in the novel, Talma also had fond memories of Alexandre Dumas’ father, General Dumas. Talma gave the young man free tickets. Once when Dumas snuck backstage to visit Talma and ask for his blessing, the grand tragedian declared: "So be it! I baptize you a poet, in the name of Shakespeare, Corneille, and Schiller! "

Transformed and transfixed by the theatre, Dumas’ stories take dramatic twists and turns. It’s not the plot that made The Three Musketeers so enduring; it’s the other qualities of brotherhood, honor, and engaging theatrical swordfights that makes the work a classic.

The Three Musketeers was written as an episodic serial published chapter by chapter, much like Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Every film or stage adaptation of The Three Musketeers has to make some changes to the episodic plot to fit into the short span of a play. As the novel won immediate success and readers wanted to consume more spin-offs, it was immediately adapted into a play by Dumas himself.

Dumas first changed the narrative when he wrote the first play with his musketeer characters, La Jeunesse des Mousquetaires (The Young Musketeers), which opened on February 17th, 1849. His first stab at adapting his novel into a play only included the first third of the novel, which tells of the adventure of recovering the Queen’s twelve diamonds so she can wear them at a ball and stop her husband from suspecting that they had been given to her suitor, the English Duke of Buckingham.

The Three Musketeers is an actiondriven, swash-buckling story, with the four friends always being chased by Cardinal Richelieu’s guards, taking pleasure in outwitting them at every turn. Yet, what was Alexandre Dumas’ intent in telling this story? The greatest tragedy in an Alexandre Dumas story is to be forgotten by society. In contrast, his heroes have great memories.

D’Artagnan, the young man from Gascony, is an outsider who arrives in Paris aspiring to be a musketeer. While he does have a gift with the sword, his true talent is his memory. As the novel unfolds, D’Artagnan is lost trying to figure out all the ways of Parisian society, politics, and intrigues—however, he’s a quick study and has a sharp eye for detail, like a good detective. D’Artagnan has a knack for turning chance encounters into allies, or happening upon enemies he’d do well to avoid later. As he stumbles into an intrigue involving the English Duke of Buckingham’s desire to woo Queen Anne, he is able to remember and recall the faces of anyone he’s ever run into on the road. D’Artagnan’s talent for recall helps him work his way up in society, as he works towards his goal of becoming one of the King’s Musketeers.

Dumas became known for his "historical " novels, although his histories were less history and more history as imagined by Dumas. He took great liberties with the time period to service his own stories. Yet for many of Dumas’ adventure narratives, he had to look no further than his father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ own stories as a young social climber in Paris.

Dumas’ father was a man of color who worked his way up to become General Dumas during the French Revolution. The French Revolution offered a promise to men of color, like himself, to enjoy the same privileges as white Frenchmen. General Dumas even served Napoleon on his campaigns but then was betrayed at the end. For that reason, he did not achieve what he merited and died in obscurity in 1806. Dumas wrote stories inspired by his father’s memory, and it’s why the bond between father and son are so strong in his works.

General Dumas was the son of the French Count Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, who went to the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) to make his fortune in the American colonies. By December 1775, Count Antoine made his return to France to claim his estate, followed shortly by his son, listed on the ship’s manifest as "the slave Alexandre. " The 14-year-old boy Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, a child born in the new world, stepped off the boat into Le Havre on August 30, 1776, to return to the "old world " of European intrigue, ideas, traditions, and politics.

Count Antoine, who was already in his 60s, took what was left of the estate and lavished all he could on his promising son. Count Antoine wanted his son Thomas-Alexandre to have all the latest fashions, a lackey, the best education money could buy—and an excellent fencing teacher! His fencing master also happened to be a man of color with a title living in France, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who later—during the French Revolution in 1789—formed a mounted cavalry called the Légion Noire and recruited his protégé Dumas as his second in command.

As Thomas-Alexandre turned 19, the same age as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers, he was accepted by Parisian society for his handsome good looks, his talent for dancing, and his reputation as a swordsman, but he was also thrust forward into complicated politics. What did it mean for the French, who were in love with the ideals of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, to also have black slaves? As more mixed race marriages occurred from France’s colonial enterprises, Thomas-Alexandre was coming of age as a Count, a six-foot-tall handsome man of color with money that his father had put in his pocket, and was now running around Parisian society and falling in love.

Alexandre Dumas, the son and the novelist, knew from his father’s story what it meant to be young, in love, and an outsider. Although eventually Dumas’ father worked his way up the social ladder to make a name for himself, he encountered a major problem: the French values of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity " still hadn’t caught up to European society’s attitudes towards race.

French military records paint a picture of General Dumas as a bold hero. He first captured the army’s attention as a lowly corporal when he captured 12 enemy soldiers and marched them back to camp by himself. As a leader, unlike other generals, he did not give orders to his men and then hang back to watch them put their lives on the line; Dumas was the first to charge out into battle, protecting his men from the first attack. Later, Napoleon used General Dumas’ intimidating physical strength to his advantage. When Napoleon campaigned in Egypt, he knew it made an impression on the enemy to see Dumas lead an army of white soldiers. Napoleon gave Dumas his own elite guard of two dozen men and instructed him: "I want you to be the first general that they see, the first leader they deal with. " According to the memoirs of Napoleon’s chief medical officer Nicolas-René Desgenettes,

Among the Muslims, men from every class who were able to catch sight of General Bonaparte were struck by how short and how skinny he was…The one, among our generals, whose appearance struck them even more…was General-in-Chief of the cavalry, Dumas…when they saw him ride his horse over the trenches, going to ransom the prisoners, all of them believed that he was the leader of the Expedition.
It was during this campaign that Napoleon’s great betrayal of Dumas’ father occurred. The French officers began to complain about the purpose of this whole war. They were exhausted, hot, starving, and ready to leave the Middle East for home. Dumas rode out on his own to find nourishing food, but his good deeds to care for his men were derided by those calling him racial epithets. When he finally asked Napoleon for leave to take the men back to France, Napoleon conceded but then muttered as Dumas was leaving: "Blind is he who does not believe in my fortune. "

These words proved true as Napoleon left his General-in-Chief behind as a prisoner in the fortress of Taranto, which later became the inspiration for his son’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo. When General Dumas was finally freed—much due to his loving wife’s letters begging for her husband’s return back in France—he was physically weakened by several illnesses, including a paralysis. General Dumas died at home of a grave illness when his son was four.

Alexandre Dumas, the son, tried to right an injustice by writing stories where fathers showed kindness to their sons and sons fought duels to honor their fathers. He invented worlds where the true values of the French Revolution applied to everyone, honor was defended, and there were rich rewards for standing by your brother on the battlefield.

In Dumas’ world of The Three Musketeers, our heroes are true examples of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity "—the battle cry of his generation fighting in the 1848 Revolution. Outsider D’Artagnan quickly earns the respect of his friends Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. They fight for liberty for their country and King Louis XIII against the oppressive regime of Cardinal Richelieu and his spies. They fight for their personal freedom to love whomever they wish to love. And as always, those characters who live the promise of "all for one " will triumph over the other characters who follow their own selfish desires and schemes.

Yet setting The Three Musketeers in the 1620s, roughly 200 years before Dumas’ own time, enabled him to make clear parallels. Cardinal Richelieu became an apt villain to look back to during the mid-1800s when European monarchies were challenged by Revolutionary ideals. Richelieu was originally from a minor European family who grew to be the most powerful man in 17th-century France. The mother of King Louis XIII appointed Richelieu as a Chaplain who was then appointed to France’s Secretary of State for War and Foreign Affairs. Richelieu’s power, as he worked to centralize France and eliminate the Huguenots, made him the scheming villain. For someone who had so much control over King Louis XIII, Dumas has some fun at his expense that a young 19-year-old from Gascony could outwit the most dangerous intellect in France.

In playwright Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of The Three Musketeers, a new character is invented who hopes for equality with the musketeers. Ludwig’s adaptation was originally commissioned by England’s Bristol Old Vic Theatre as a comic British panto performed during the Christmas season. Ludwig, known for his farce Lend Me a Tenor and the musical Crazy for You, chose The Three Musketeers because it was a great work of art with the spirit of Robin Hood that could be "full of mayhem, sacrifice, and tears. "

The spirit of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is embodied by that famous quote "All for one, and one for all. " Director Rick Sordelet explores that in this adaptation by playwright Ken Ludwig.

"Like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, we all think we know the story of The Three Musketeers, " says Sordelet, who has directed this particular version once before at Seattle Repertory Theatre. "It’s a great opportunity to re-visit this great work of literature. How do we stage this tale the audience thinks it knows, to re-imagine it, surprise them, and have a lot of fun along the way? "

Heather Helinsky is a freelance dramaturg with an MFA from A.R.T./Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard and is a 2001 alumna of DeSales University Theatre.

Editor’s Note: For more on Dumas’ father, reference the Pulitzer Prize winning The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. New York: Broadway Books, 2012.