Chris Hannan talks about the extraordinary life of Dumas and how he went about adapting The Three Musketeers for the theatre. This article first appeared in the programme for The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain, an English Touring Theatre/Coventry Belgrade/Traverse Theatre co-production which opened on 9th October 2010.
To say that Alexandre Dumas was mixed race is an understatement; he was mixed everything.
His grandfather was a white aristocrat who bought a plantation on the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and married a black slave called Marie-Césette Dumas. In 1786 their black son joined the French army as a common soldier. Within seven years he was a distinguished general, single-handedly holding a bridge against the Austrians and commanding the French cavalry under Napoleon in the Egyptian campaign. On his return General Dumas was captured by the Kingdom of Naples, then at war with France, imprisoned for two years, tortured and poisoned. By the time he came home to his wife Marie-Louise, the white innkeeper’s daughter in a small village in north-east France, he was broken in health though capable enough to father a son, Alexandre, author of The Three Musketeers.
Mixed? You’re not kidding.
With an adventure-story giant of a father and a petit bourgeois mother and with both slave and aristocrat in his background, it must have been difficult for Alexandre to work out where he belonged, and people commented on his mixed race appearance to his face. He was described by a contemporary as “an inextinguishable volcanic eruption”. He wrote over a hundred novels and plays, fought in three uprisings, had umpteen illegitimate children and lunches which lasted from eleven till four, he out-talked and out-opinionated cab-drivers, dressed as blaringly as a king, made uncountable millions and ended his life penniless. He was an orgy of action. In his love life he was a page-turner. As I researched his life I kept thinking, what caused the eruption?
At first I was considering a straightforward adaptation of The Three Musketeers, but I quickly realized that anything approaching a faithful re-telling of the 500 page action-packed epic would take five or six hours in the theatre and I wasn’t sure an audience would wear that. And anyway, as someone who was brought up on Dogtanian and Femme Musketeer, I knew the three musketeers had survived outside of the Dumas novels, in everything from perfume to porn film and from musical to supermarket chain. I decided it would be more fun to write a new adventure, an untold story from the annals of their history. Something, I hoped, that would entertain both 10 year old boys and their mums, as well as the musketeer in the heart of any young teenage girls who’d been dragged along.
That would only happen if I could re-create the spirit of the musketeers in the very different medium of the theatre.
His son used to introduce Dumas by saying, “I have the honour of presenting to you my father, a grown-up child I had when I was very small.” And he was never more a grown-up child, I think, than when writing the musketeers. They feel like an eruption of his animal spirits, endowed with the same large appetites for vengeance and pleasure and torture and justice that children have. He laughed while writing them, as Corot whistled when he painted, and I decided they should be the festive element in the play, the madness, the surrealism.
All I needed now was a story.
The original Three Musketeers was published in weekly episodes; throughout 1844 Dumas was coming up with cliffhangers good enough to make the reader buy the newspaper the following week; this is one reason for the novel’s twists and turns, its bursts of energy and changes in direction. All of that is wonderful in a serialization but a two hour play needs a simpler through-line and a story that carries an emotional force because the hero is changed or renewed by the adventure. Luckily I was still reading about the author’s life...
One day in 1864, when Dumas was 62, he was visited by Mathilde Shaw, a woman who had known him since she was a small child. Shown into his office, she found him asleep in his armchair surrounded by three young sleeping women, one on the carpet at his feet, and all, as she euphemistically put it, “wearing less than Eve before the fall.”
I do feel that the two meanings of the word abandoned are related and the earliest Dumas anecdote is of him is that when he was four his father died and he wanted to go to heaven to demand satisfaction from God and, if necessary, fight him in a duel. For whatever reason - early bereavement or his social uniqueness - Dumas comes across as someone who was profoundly lost throughout his life. A stranger to himself and others. Emotionally isolated, almost absurdly so. And that gave me the beginnings of an idea for d’Artagnan and his story.