1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dumas, Alexandre (fils)
DUMAS, ALEXANDRE [“Dumas Fils”] (1824-1895), French dramatist and novelist, was born in Paris on the 27th of July 1824, the natural son of Alexandre Dumas (see above) and the dressmaker Marie Labay. His father at that date was still a humble clerk and not much more than a boy. “Happily,” writes the son, “my mother was a good woman, and worked hard to bring me up”; while of his father he says, “by a most lucky chance he happened to be well-natured,” and “as soon as his first successes as a dramatist” enabled him to do so, “recognized me and gave me his name.” Nevertheless, the lad’s earlier school-life was made bitter by his illegitimacy. The cruel taunts and malevolence of his companions rankled through life (see preface to La Femme de Claude and L’Affaire Clémenceau), and left indelible marks on his character and thoughts. Nor was his paternity, however distinguished, without peril. Alexandre the younger and elder saw life together very thoroughly, and Paris can have had few mysteries for them. Suddenly the son, who had been led to regard his prodigal father’s resources as inexhaustible, was rudely undeceived. Coffers were empty, and he had accumulated debts to the amount of two thousand pounds.
Thereupon he pulled himself together. To a son of Dumas the use of the pen came naturally. Like most clever young writers—and report speaks of him as specially brilliant at that time—he opened with a book of verse, Péchés de jeunesse (1847). It was succeeded in 1848 by a novel, La Dame aux camélias, a sort of reflection of the world in which he had been living. The book had considerable success, and was followed, in fairly quick succession, by Le Roman d’une femme (1848) and Diane de Lys (1851). All this, however, did not deliver him from the load of debt, which, as he tells us, remained odious. In 1849 he dramatized La Dame aux camélias, but for various reasons, the rigour of the censorship being the most important, it was not till the 2nd of February 1852, and then only by the intervention of Napoleon’s all-powerful minister, Morny, that the play could be produced at the Vaudeville. It succeeded then, and has held the stage ever since, less perhaps from inherent superiority to other plays which have foundered than to the great opportunities it affords to any actress of genius.
Thenceforward Dumas’s career was that of a brilliant and prosperous dramatist. Diane de Lys (1853), Le Demi-Monde (1855), La Question d’argent (1857), Le Fils naturel (1858), Le Père prodigue (1859) followed rapidly. Debts became a thing of the past, and Dumas a wealthy man. The didactic habit was always strong upon him. “Alexandre loves preaching overmuch,” wrote his father; and in most of his plays he assumes the attitude of a rigid and uncompromising moralist commissioned to impart to a heedless world lessons of deep import. The lessons themselves are mostly concerned with the “eternal feminine,” by which Dumas was haunted, and differ in ethical value. Thus in Les Idées de Madame Aubray (1867) he inculcates the duty of the seducer to marry the woman he has seduced; but in La Femme de Claude (1873) he argues the right of the husband to take the law into his own hand and kill the wife who is unfaithful and worthless—a thesis again defended in his novel, L’Affaire Clémenceau, and in his pamphlet, L’Homme-femme; while in Diane de Lys he had taught that the betrayed husband was entitled to kill—not in a duel, but summarily—the man who had taken his honour; and in L’Étrangère (1876) the bad husband is the victim. Nor did he preach only in his plays. He preached in voluminous introductions, and pamphlets not a few. And when, in 1870 and 1872, France was going through bitter hours of humiliation, he called her to repentance and amendment in a Nouvelle Lettre de Junius and two Lettres sur les choses du jour.
As a moralist Dumas fils took himself very seriously indeed. As a dramatist, didacticism apart, he had great gifts. He knew his business thoroughly, possessed the art of situation, interest, crisis—could create characters that were real and alive. His dialogue also is admirable, the repartee rapier-like, the wit most keen. He was singularly happy, too, in his dramatic interpreters. The cast of L’Étrangère, for instance, comprised Sarah Bernhardt, Sophie Croizette, Madeleine Brohan, in the female characters; and Coquelin, Got, Mounet-Sully and Fébvre in the male characters; and Aimée Desclée, whom he discovered, gave her genius to the creation of the parts of the heroine in Une Visite de noces, the Princesse Georges and La Femme de Claude. His wit has been mentioned. He possessed it in abundance, of a singularly trenchant kind. It shows itself less in his novels, which, however, do not contain his best work; but in his introductions, whether to his own books or those of his friends, and what may be called his “occasional” writings, there is an admirable brightness. At work of this kind he showed the highest literary skill. His style is that of the best French traditions. Towards his father Dumas acted a kind of brother’s part, and while keeping strangely free from his literary influence, both loved and admired him. The father never belonged to the French Academy. The son was elected into that august assembly on the 30th of January 1874. He died on the 27th of November 1895.