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Sweatpants & Culture | Alexandre Dumas, fils

By Jessica Grey

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie was the first person of color to advance in the French arm to the rank of general-in-chief. His son, Alexandre Dumas, inspired by the stories of his father’s life, became one of France’s most successful and widely-read writers. And Alexandre Dumas’ son—Alexandre Dumas, fils—followed in his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps by carving out a singularly successful career. Alexandre Dumas, fils was a widely renowned playwright, dominating the French theatre scene and, for quite some time, eclipsing the fame of his father. While Alexandre Dumas, père started his literary career writing plays and then found success with novels, Dumas, fils started with novels and found success with his plays; plays that were often focused on contemporary issues of morality.

On July 27th, 1824, a dressmaker named Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay gave birth to a baby boy in Paris. Little Alexandre was born out of wedlock, his father married to another woman. Luckily for Alexandre, in early 19th-century France, there was a process in place for legitimation—not that it was utilized with any real frequency outside of the bourgeoisie and nobility, as it was only worth the trouble if there were some kind of inheritance at stake—because his father, Alexandre Dumas, père had just become successful author and could afford to give little Alexandre, fils a quality education and he did. Unluckily for little Alexandre, the law also allowed his father to remove him from his mother, which he also did. As pointed to by a lot of literary critics, it does not take an advanced psychology degree to figure out the fact that illicit love affairs, illegitimate children, and tragic women (author’s note: *groaning* soooo misogynistic though) abound in his work is probably owing to these experiences.

Admittedly, Fils’ (for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to call him “Fils” now) fame has not kept pace with his father’s. I mean, Père is responsible for the D’Artagnan Romances, The Count of Monte Cristo, and the version of The Nutcracker that was adapted into the popular Christmastime ballet. Those shoes had to be awfully hard to fill. For quite a while, though, he did fill them—maybe even stretched them out a bit. And it is mostly owing to the fact that he was in a substantial amount of debt. It was in an effort to get some cash to pay off some of his debts that he turned his novel, La Dame aux camellias, into a play. The adaptation’s English title is Camille and it has been adapted into an opera, a ballet, and has been the basis of nine separate movies, the most recent of which was a television film that aired in 1984 (look at Colin Firth’s babyface!). The novel that started it all, though, was written in eight days, in response to the death of Marie DuplessisParisian courtesan and the younger Dumas’ one-time lover.

So, today, on what would be his one-hundred and ninety-third birthday, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate Fils. Despite his constant moralizing and his fascination with the archetype of the “fallen woman”—La traviata—, his stories, though less well known than his father’s, have inspired so many other storytellers and have had a tremendous impact on the various storytelling arts. Thank you, Alexandre Dumas, fils. And happy birthday!

 

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