As Dumas recounted in My Memoirs, translated and edited by A. Craig Bell: “How many times did I stop him as he casually spoke of this actor or actress and that. … And he good-naturedly held forth upon the genius and talent and good fellowship of those eminent artistes, playing upon the unknown notes of the keyboard of my imagination, causing ambitious and sonorous chords to vibrate within me that had hitherto lain dormant, the possession of which astonished me greatly when I began to realize their existence.”
Soon, de Leuven and Dumas began collaborating on comedic plays, and two years after Dumas moved to Paris, they achieved a modicum of success with 1825’s La Chasse et l’Amour (Hunting and Love). Dumas greatly expanded his network of mentors in Paris. For instance, while working as a copyist for the duke of Orleans, Dumas met E.H. Lassagne, who encouraged him to pursue his education and writing. And, as a guest at the literary salon of French writer Charles Nodier, Dumas rubbed elbows with Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine. Nodier, in particular, supported Dumas’ forays into writing more serious works, including the historical tragedy Christine.
A Successful Playwright
The year 1829 saw the debut of Dumas’ hit play Henri III et Sa Cour (Henry III and His Court) at the Comédie-Francaise Theater in Paris. “What it lacked in subtlety it more than made up for in excitement and movement,” Stowe writes. Peter E. Carr, assessing the play’s importance in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, says it was “the first French drama of the romantic movement.”
Its success enabled Dumas to continue writing plays, and he staged them at a breakneck pace. “Between 1829 and the end of 1851,” Stowe writes, “only one year—1844—saw no new play by [Dumas] on some Parisian stage. Several years saw four or five produced, and in April of 1839 he actually achieved three premieres within fifteen days.” I know prominent writers who tweet less frequently than that! As a result, Dumas’ audience ballooned, and as Jonathan Edwards writes in Africana, “although some elite writers could fault his literary style, they envied his popularity.”
One of Dumas’ better-received plays was 1831’s Antony, which, he claimed with characteristic bombast, was “not a drama, Antony is not a tragedy, Antony is not a play. Antony is an episode of love, of jealousy, of anger, in five acts.” Dumas had written—and lived—those acts, as the play was inspired by his love affair with writer Mélanie Waldor. The play, Stowe writes, “represented a new theatrical genre—in this case the drame moderne,” even though the censors kept it off the stage from 1834 to 1867. Of all of Dumas’ plays, his most popular was Le Tour de Nesle (The Tower of Nesle), which, premiering in 1832, enjoyed a staggering run of nearly 800 consecutive performances.
A Successful Novelist
Beginning in 1837, Dumas turned his attention to writing novels. There were practical reasons: His plays had begun to falter at the box office, and a lively market was developing for serial novels, whose authors were becoming wealthy and famous (think Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist). Tracking Dumas’ works, Stowe writes that “Le Chevalier d’Harmental (1842), his first novel done in collaboration with Auguste Maquet, established Dumas as a novelist and pointed the direction he was to follow … it successfully combined history, intrigue, high adventure, and romance in a manner soon to become familiar to thousands of readers the world over.”
“Never in the whole course of French literature has there been anything comparable to Dumas’s output between the years 1843 and 1855,” André Maurois argues in his 1957 book The Three Musketeers: A Study of the Dumas Family. “Novels of from eight to ten volumes showered down without a break on the newspapers and the bookshops.” Even more remarkable, Maurois adds, is that “[i]n this vast production there were few failures.”
In 1844, Dumas released Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers), the first book in his successful d’Artagnan trilogy, which also featured Vingt Ans Après (Twenty Years After) and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (The Viscount of Bragelonne). But it was with the Musketeers that Dumas achieved literary immortality. “Whatever liberties and mistakes may be ascribed to him,” Stowe observes, “in this novel [Dumas] produced a convincing illusion of historical reality, bringing a remote period to life with exceptional immediacy and concreteness.” To those who read The Three Musketeers in the bloom of childhood, the characters Athos, Porthos and Aramis, and not least d’Artagnan, signify adventure, fun and friendship. The paths they burn in the brain last for a lifetime.