Alexandre Dumas the younger (or fils, as the French say — it means “son”) had a lot to live up to.
His dad, after all, was the guy who wrote swashbuckling bestsellers like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo and founded Paris’ Théâtre Historique. His grandfather was a Creole brigadier general in the French army, the son of a French nobleman and an enslaved African woman.
Dumas the elder was famous for his many casual liaisons with a variety of women, and Dumas the younger was the product of one such affair. Fortunately for him, his father recognized him legally, gave him a high-quality education, and assisted him in establishing his writing career. In doing so, however, Dumas père took him away from his mother, whose resulting distress inspired Dumas the younger to frequently feature tragic heroines in his writing.
Dumas wrote novels and eventually plays, where he found his greatest success. In his lifetime, he became even more famous than his father. He was inducted into the Académie française (French Academy) and awarded the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honour). Today, he is best-known for his novel-turned-play La dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), which inspired La traviata and set him on the road to success.
THE ENTANGLEMENT OF TRUTH AND FICTION
Dumas’ novel is a romanticized version of his year-long love affair with Marie Duplessis, Paris’ most famous and sought-after courtesan, who he met when he was just 18. In the novel, Marie becomes Marguerite Gautier and Dumas, Armand Duval (Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont in the operatic version). However, an essential plot element, the interference of Armand/Alfredo’s father in the love affair with Marguerite/Violetta, comes from another of Marie’s affairs. Agénor de Guiche, the future Duc de Gramont, fell madly in love with her and they conducted a brief affair before his father put an end to it. However, the famous move to the country (where Act II,of La traviata is set) was instigated by Dumas, who feared that her extravagant lifestyle was hastening her demise. It was already common knowledge that she had tuberculosis, a common and inevitably fatal illness; Marie knew she would die young. She returned to Paris out of boredom, not because of his father’s demands as the novel, play, and opera suggest.
DUMAS ON DUPLESSIS
In the novel, Dumas describes the character Marguerite just as contemporaries described Marie Duplessis: “She was tall, very thin, with black hair and a pink and white complexion. Her head was small; she had long enameled eyes, like a Japanese woman’s, but they were sparkling and alert. Her lips were redder than cherries, her teeth were the prettiest in the world; she looked like a little figurine made of Dresden china.”
He also described her joy in simple things: “Her delight in the smallest things was like that of a child. There were days when she ran in the garden, like a child of ten, after a butterfly or a dragon-fly. This courtesan who had cost more money in bouquets than would have kept a whole family in comfort, would sometimes sit on the grass for an hour, examining the simple flower whose name she bore.” (He’s referring to a marguerite, French for “daisy”).
CAPITALIZING ON THE LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS
Dumas was out of the country when Marie died, but he arrived in Paris in time to visit her apartments during the sale of her possessions. Soon after, he published a poem entitled “M.D.” which recounted his happy memories of the place and impressions of sadness over its state at the sale. He wrote his novel in just three weeks and succeeded in publishing it a mere year after Marie’s death. The play premiered almost five years to the anniversary date of her passing; and the opera one year later.
Biographers are split on Dumas’ motivation — love, money, or some of each? Not long before her death, Marie deserted Dumas for the composer Franz Liszt, who seems to be the only man she truly loved, and, they had plans for her to join him on tour in Constantinople. Although Dumas’ fictionalized account of his affair with Duplessis depicted her in a flattering and sympathetic light, there’s no question that he profited immensely financially and gained a great deal of social cachet as a result. The success of the play was his big break. He also set himself up as the romantic figure most closely associated with the renowned courtesan, a brilliant marketing move.
In truth, Dumas seemed to have mixed feelings about Marie both before and after her death. He gifted the actress Sarah Bernhardt with his final letter to Marie, in which he appears to try to save face by breaking up with her even though she had long since ended their affair. He also rather crudely stated that they could no longer afford to love each other. He was hardly the first man to squander a fortune on her, and in Dumas’ case, he didn’t have a fortune to spend. (He was rather coldly dismissed by another famous courtesan, Valtesse de Bigne, who, upon his request to enter her boudoir, replied, “Dear sir, it is not within your means!”) Before the success of his play, Dumas was a starving artist type, and rumor has it that he ran up 50,000 francs in debt during association with Marie. Fortunately for him, the play’s success set him up for life.
Suffice it to say that Alexandre Dumas, fils did both Marie and himself great kindness in his fictionalization of their affair. After all, it was Dumas’ characters, the beautiful and noble-hearted Marguerite Gautier and naïve, ardent Armand Duval, who inspired Verdi’s timeless Violetta and Alfredo. And for that, we are indebted to the man who once dated the real Violetta.
La traviata runs November 11, 12, and 14 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and November 30 and December 2 at the Broward Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available at fgo.org.