Alexandre Dumas’s most popular work is probably his novel, The Three Musketeers. Many translations of the novel into English still exist, from wordy turn-of-the-century prose to simplified comic versions for elementary students. Adaptations of the novel for dramatic performance in America date back to the late nineteenth century, when Eugene O’Neill’s father, James, performed the role of D’Artagnan, and the adaptations continued on film, with Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan and Vincent Price as Richelieu in 1948, Richard Lester’s memorable version in 1974, starring Michael York and Raquel Welch, and the 1993 Walt Disney production with Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen.
What is perhaps not so familiar is Dumas’s own adaptation of his novel for the French stage; he managed to produce three plays from this one work, starting with an adaptation of the last third of the novel, titled simply Les Mousquetaires, which was performed less than a year after the novel was published in serial form in the Parisian newspaper Le Siècle. Claude Schopp describes the usual life of a novel: “When the first serial appeared on March 14, 1844, Les Trois Mousquetaires were heroes promised a normal destiny: publication in serial, then in book . . . and copies by Belgian bookstores.” (Alexandre Dumas: Genius of a Life, [New York: Franklin Watts, 1988], 326).
Five years after the production of Les Mousquetaires, Dumas was requested to create a play for the Théâtre Historique, the equivalent of moving from off-Broadway to the Great White Way of Broadway. Fernande Bassan comments that Dumas’s path to this major theatre was smoothed by royalty: “The Duke of Montpensier, fifth son of Louis-Philippe, was grieved at having to see a Dumas play staged in a second-rate house, and arranged for him to have [his work] performed at a [real] theatre” ( Le cycle des Trois Mousquetaires—du roman au théâtre, [Studia Neophilologica 57: 1985], 244). For this occasion, Dumas adapted the first third of his novel into La Jeunesse des Mousquetaires, which opened February 17, 1849, and played for eighty-nine triumphant performances before touring the provinces. Since then, this particular play has been revived more than ten times in France.
It is La Jeunesse des Mousquetaires (literally, The Young Musketeers) that contains most of the familiar elements of Dumas’s novel. Where Dumas’s own theatrical adaptation shines is through his crackling dialogue and rich delineation of character. Richelieu is a driven man—a prince of the church who performs evil for a greater good. He is portrayed as arch-machinator rather than villain, guided by a genuine desire to save France from her enemies, since King Louis XIII seems more easily moved to personal, rather than political alarm. Louis’s queen, Anne, sister to the king of Spain, although true to her wedding vows and refusing the duke of Buckingham’s romantic addresses, is much involved with the politics of her adopted country and offers a real threat to the peace of the realm.
Porthos, Aramis, and Athos each have a distinct raison d’être: Porthos is guided by worldly passions—for women, food, drink, and fighting; Aramis is the most serious of the three, intent on studying theology, though as good a soldier as a cleric; the older Athos is the most quick-witted and forceful—he has a secret in his past which will return to haunt him. After D’Artagnan joins the musketeers in their first sword fight against Richelieu’s guards, they readily hail him, not only as companion but as leader, in intelligence as well as valor, despite his youth. D’Artagnan is further supported by his valet Planchet, the epitome of the cunning servant, truly a cousin to Figaro. The other comic figures—Tréville, commander of the musketeers, and Bonacieux, D’Artagnan’s landlord and bumbling husband to the lovely Constance—leaven the abrupt shocks of dramatic action with moments of great humor.
The two prominent villains in this piece are Cardinal Richelieu’s chief agents: Rochefort, the man with a scar on his face, who frustrates and is frustrated by D’Artagnan time after time, each thwarting the plans of the other; and the remarkable villainess, Milady de Winter, once divorced, twice widowed (by her own hand), who can become all things to all people. To see her instant changes from bereft widow to innocent flirt, from brutalized victim to an almost casual and certainly remorseless murderess is to attempt to follow a chameleon; she deceives everyone she comes in contact with, except for the cardinal; even he is forced to grant her favors to keep her in his employ.
Although The Young Musketeers as originally performed is a play in five acts and fourteen locations, (indeed, the first performance of the play is rumored to have taken more than four hours, the last thirty minutes being filled with tumultuous ovations from the audience) the rapidity of the action, the piling of incident upon incident, the constant sense of dangers imminent, faced, and defeated creates in the audience a feeling of time suspended. “An irresistible force enlivens all his dramatic work . . . ; [a coil] of intrigue, knotted together by a skilled hand, drags the audience into a whirlpool of adventures, holding them there, gasping for breath, until the resolution” (Manuel des études littéraires françaises xixe siècle [Paris: Hachette, 1966], 181).
The point has been made that The Three Musketeers, with its rapid shifts of mood and location, is the theatricalization of the novel in its serial form—episodic and cliff-hanging, rather than a continuous novel. Dumas’s dramatization has the power to grip a twentieth-century audience as tightly as his own, 150 years ago. We can agree with Victor Hugo’s admiration for The Three Musketeers: “‘gripping drama, warm passion, true dialogue, sparkling style’” (Schopp, 327).