Amusement for the Fireman

Program notes by Ted McGee


Alexandre Dumas proposed Athos, Porthos, and Aramis as the title for his new novel. His publisher, however, had an alternative, which Dumas accepted with delight: “I am all the more of your opinion,” he wrote, “to call the romance Les Trois Mousquetiers since, there being four, the title will be absurd, which promises for the book the greatest success.” The Three Musketeers has certainly had “the greatest success.” First serialized in a Paris newspaper in 1844, the work captured the popular imagination of Dumas’ time. His readers, like the people who crowded the docks of New York to learn the fate of Dickens’s Little Nell, waited in long line-ups for the release of the final instalment of The Three Musketeers. Dumas understood well enough his significance in his time: “Lamartine is a dreamer, Hugo is a thinker, I am a popularizer.”

The three great stories on which Dumas’ fame now rests – The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask – came out in book form almost immediately after their serialization. With the profits from their success he built his “Château de Monte-Cristo,” where, on July 27, 1847, over five hundred guests joined him for a little housewarming party. Dumas was no less flamboyant in his personal style; he was remembered by his contemporaries as a man of “fantastic clothes” and “dazzling waistcoats” and a writer who had different pens for different genres, who preferred coloured paper to white and who, if at all possible, used any ink but blue. Throughout the twentieth century, his novels remained in print while spawning abridgements, translations, sequels and adaptations – adaptations for Classic Comics, series television, musical theatre and the opera house. The Three Musketeers in particular proved to be a staple of the film industry, from Thomas Edison’s silent film in 1911 to the colourful romp of 1973 starring Michael York, Richard Chamberlain and Raquel Welch. Hollywood bestowed what Oscar Wilde might have called one of the sincerest forms of flattery when it produced in 1922 a brilliant burlesque: The Three Must-Get-Theres, with Max Linder as “Dart-in-again.”

To the nineteenth century, Dumas was much more than the novelist. In the year he died, the Larousse Grand Dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle celebrated him as “the most prolific and popular playwright in France.” He launched his career with a collaborative one-act play in 1820, and by the time of his death in 1870, the catalogue of his plays included sixty-six titles, a number that almost doubles when fragments, vaudeville sketches, collaborative pieces and new discoveries are added to his output. The range of Dumas’ publications makes it clear that he was truly a professional writer. And as a novelist, historian, literary archivist, diarist, essayist and travel writer, he wrote as a playwright, relying on the dramatic conflict of personalities, the live conversation, the compression of time, the intensity of action and the sharply focused scene, rather than the sweep of chronology and the impersonal forces shaping human history. “Never, surely, was there a writer,” says Richard Stowe, one of Dumas’ biographers, “more ready to see the world as a stage and all the people in it as actors.”

Though the flair for drama in Dumas’ writing invited stage adaptation of his novels, their sheer size – The Three Musketeers occupied eight volumes when first published in book form – presented daunting challenges. Dramaturge Peter Raby and director John Hirsch took up that challenge for the 1968 Stratford Festival season. While reducing Dumas’ tale to an evening at the theatre, the script for The Three Musketeers kept seventy-four characters (over fifty in need of doublet and hose), at least fifteen armed encounters and seven seductions. The traffic moved at breakneck speed through forty scene changes, many quite extreme, leaping, for example, from D’Artagnan’s apartment over a grocery store in Paris to Richelieu’s palace, or from a tavern outside Amiens to Windsor Castle. With its many swordfights and “seventeenth-century” weapons (breakable swords and bottles, and muskets with hidden magazines to create the illusion that they are single-shot weapons), the show depends upon actors’, designers’, coaches’ and prop-makers’ expertise. With a few deft strokes of characterization, the script creates a wide array of distinctive characters from all social classes, characters who make the world of the play vibrant and complex. Obviously not for every theatre, The Three Musketeers requires a large company, a well-stocked costume warehouse, a team of skilful technicians and a stage – derived from an Elizabethan thrust stage, say – unencumbered by fixed sets that might impede the flow of action. In short, Raby and Hirsch made of Dumas’ big novel a really big show perfectly suited for the Stratford Festival.           

Their script, the basis for this year’s production too, preserved the three main plots that Dumas took from the historical events of the 1620s: the recovery of the queen’s diamonds, the siege of La Rochelle and the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham. Like Dumas, Raby and Hirsch imposed some unity on the novel’s “sprawling extravaganza” of “violence, love, money and politics” (as they saw it) by giving centre stage to D’Artagnan’s quest to become one of the King’s Musketeers. In this enterprise the young Gascon outwits, exposes and ultimately defeats the shrewd, villainous Cardinal Richelieu and the mysterious, alluring femme fatale Milady. D’Artagnan’s story is a romantic adventure: “money flows into his hands, women fling themselves at him, and his actions affect the fate of nations.”

Dumas’ original story and its stage adaptation include characters who are too virtuous and too villainous to be true. Their spheres of activity also challenge the limits of conventional expectation. Politics of both church and state is a scene of high intrigue, not one of administrative policies and procedures. Love is passionate and powerful, but not within marriage. Only two men marry for love: the one hangs himself, the other is poisoned by his wife. Outside of marriage, however, passionate love thrives. Men are gallant in the service of women, as Athos is when he decides to help D’Artagnan save the queen’s reputation: “We have two weeks’ leave and two hundred crowns; so let’s go get ourselves killed.” And men and women die for love: “Restore these diamonds to the Queen,” says the Duke of Buckingham. “Tell her that I obeyed her with my final breath. Tell her that my eyes closed looking on her treasure. Tell her I died, not for England, but for France.” The world of The Three Musketeers is a world of high romance, derring-do and adventure – comic in its extremity.

As a playwright, Dumas aimed to give theatregoers entertainment and pleasure. His adaptations of Shakespeare make this clear: his Hamlet eliminated the death of the prince; his Othello cut Iago, a character Dumas considered too evil for French audiences. When his own script of The Three Musketeers was being rehearsed, Dumas noticed that a fireman on duty in the theatre left during one scene. Learning that the fireman found that scene less “amusing” than earlier ones, Dumas immediately scrapped the scene, took off his cravat, rolled up his sleeves and set to work rewriting it. “It didn’t amuse the fireman,” he said. “I’m destroying it.” The Three Musketeers should provide, after all, amusement (and then some) for everyone.

Ted McGee is a professor of English at the University of Waterloo.




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