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France's Greatest Adventure Writer Invents the 'Roman versus Christian' Epic in 1837

by Member Frank Morlock, December 6, 2000

[This article first appeared on The Vines.]

Alexandre Dumas had so many great accomplishments that it is easy to forget some of his minor ones, such as writing the first Hollywood-style Roman versus Christian epic in 1836. The play was called Caligula and it was probably the first and only play ever to be written to star a horse and be blessed by a Pope.

Dumas in Rome

Dumas found it was a good idea to take the air in Italy in 1836, to get away from his temperamental mistress, Ida Ferrier, and from possible repercussions for his republican political activities of the previous year. Rome was not known for its salubrious climate in those days, but decidedly the air was fresher than Paris for Dumas. Dumas was at the time only famous as a dramatist and a leading light of the Romantic Movement. D'Artagnan and Monte Cristo would not be conceived for several years to come. But Dumas was famous enough and ambitious enough to wangle an interview with the Pope Gregory XVI. Dumas was nervous. His best suit hadn't fared too well in his travels and was a little threadbare. After kissing the Pope's toe things got worse. The Pope reproached him for the morality (or lack of it) in several of his plays and opined that the stage should be a pulpit. Dumas protested that for his part he would like nothing better, but that he would be torn to shreds or thrown to the lions if he began preaching. Then Dumas recalled that he was contemplating a drama about the persecution of early Christians under Caligula. His Holiness, who knew his history, objected that the first persecutions came somewhat after Caligula's death. Not to worry, Dumas knew of a popular tradition that might allow him to alter the historical record in the interests of advancing true religion. To which His Holiness replied, "Do it then, my son. What you propose may not succeed in the eyes of men, but the intention will at least have merit in the eyes of the Lord."

Had Dumas known how prophetic these words were to be, he might have chosen not to write the play at all. Dumas liked box office. Dumas understandably forgot to mention to the Pope that his collaborator Anicet-Bourgeois had the original idea for the play as a means of providing a vehicle for a sensational performing horse from the Circus Franconi. The horse would play Caligula's famous horse, Incitatus. Alas the horse died before the play was written. One can only speculate what Dumas had in mind had the horse survived. It was another bad omen, but Dumas was ever an optimist.

Dumas writes a play for his mistress

Alexandre's mistress,
Ida Ferrier.

Not only did Dumas fail to tell the Pope about the real origin of the idea for the play, he also neglected to tell the Pope his real reason for writing it. He needed a starring vehicle for his live-in lover, Ida Ferrier who was an actress of great ambition but seemingly little talent. Ida had played with passable success in a previous Dumas play -- indeed it was the way she "thanked him" for the part that brought her into his life and his bed. Ida was still a starlet and she wanted to be a star. And not only did she want to be a star, her overriding ambition was to play on the boards of the holy of holies, the Théâtre Française.

Ida was considered extremely beautiful when Dumas met her in 1832. She was 22, of a remarkably white complexion with golden blond hair. Dazzling. She dazzled Dumas who wasn't easily dazzled or perhaps too easily dazzled. The relationship was stormy and Dumas had taken a two-year time out. But he came back again, wanting to please. Dumas wrote the role of the virginal Christian maiden, Stella, expressly for Ida. Ida, who was putting on weight at an alarming rate, was miscast. Not only did her ambition outstrip her talent, her blubber threatened to outstrip her dress. Casting Ida as Stella might alone have doomed the play, but there were other factors that were to prove equally fatal.

Dumas and the Comédie

Dumas had been at odds with the Comédie Française for longer than he had known Ida. His last play to be staged there was Henry III and His Court. This was a romantic play, and the comedians were, as the defenders of classicism, hostile to the Romantics. There was that awful squabble over his play Antony that led to a lawsuit brought by Dumas. In short, there was bad blood between the playwright and the performing company. Events would prove it was deeper than either side anticipated. But at the moment all seemed sweetness and light. Both sides wanted to patch things up. Dumas was too important and too successful to be ignored, and he was big box office which the Comédie sorely needed. Although the Comédie was the bastion of classicism, the sworn enemy of the Romantic movement that Dumas (along with Victor Hugo) personified, and the anger was directed not only against the plays but the playwrights themselves. The Comédie was determined to make the play a success. The Comédie disbursed 30,000 francs for the production, a huge sum for the Comédie and a significant amount if not a huge one for the commercial theatres. Ida was given what she wanted -- a five month contract -- which means it was estimated that Caligula would run that long. Roughly 150 performances. The rapprochement was going well.

Horses again: No horses for Caligula's chariot

But signs of trouble soon began to appear almost immediately as the play went into rehearsal. The actress cast in the role of Messalina refused to play the part feeling unable to square her exemplary private morals with the role of a notorious adulteress and nymphomaniac. She was replaced by an actress with a better understanding of the differences between art and life.

Considering that a performing horse was the real origin of the play it is rather ironic that the real trouble began over horses to pull Caligula's chariot. Dumas wanted real horses, but the Comédie wouldn't hear of it. One societaire observed: "Fancy asking us to provide horses when we can barely afford in our classical poverty to act on foot." Dumas threatened a law suit. Remembering his previous success in litigation, a compromise was reached. The chariot would be pulled by girls dressed as the hours of the Day and Night.

The play in performance

By the time the play opened Dumas should have known the auguries were not good. Most critics were caustic about Ida. She was just too fat to elicit sympathy as the virginal Stella. Beside being too fat she lisped -- and she was clumsy. She managed to trip several times (or was she pushed?) As one catty critic observed "How can anyone with a waist as thick as that take the part of an ingenue?" "If one is to be kidnapped every evening one should at least be transportable" And then there was the incongruity of Dumas' scandalous live-in mistress playing the gentle Christian virgin.

The play ran only twenty performances. Ida's career never recovered. She eventually settled for being Mrs. Dumas a few years later. That part only lasted four years. Wags said Dumas married her because that was the only way he could hope to get a legal separation. Some even crueller voices hinted Dumas said it himself.

The script

Despite the play's failure, the script is in many ways quite excellent. The story is that Stella, the daughter of Caligula's nurse, Junia, has returned from Gaul where her mother prudently sent her to avoid the dangers of the corrupt court. Stella is accompanied by Aquila, a Gaul, her fiancé. Stella has become a Christian to the surprise of her mother Junia who remains a staunch, pious adherent of the old gods. Caligula seems to have had some genuine affection for his nurse and she for him. He attempts to conceal his viciousness from her until the end. But, hearing that his Nurse is in Naples and being nearby (and also hearing that she has a beautiful daughter) Caligula drops in for a filial visit. Seeing Stella, and lusting after her, he sends his henchman to kidnap Stella, and has her fiancé, Aquila, taken into arrested as a runaway slave, and then resold into slavery. To this story is joined the political plot. Valeria Messalina is Caligula's mistress. But she has other lovers as well, including Cherea, whom she is trying to persuade to kill Caligula so he can have her for himself. Cherea appears more interested in Messalina than the plot, but to humor Messalina he purchases Aquila as a slave in order to have someone he can trust and who is entirely his creature to back him up.

Aquila unaware of Caligula's role in his own misfortunes and of what has happened to Stella, refuses to assist Cherea, but when he discovers that Caligula is behind the kidnapping of Stella, he willingly joins the plot. Introduced into the palace by Messalina, he finds Stella who converts him to Christianity. But Caligula catches them and has Stella killed when she spurns him. Messalina now intervenes and helps Junia and Aquila along with Cherea, to assassinate Caligula. They do. Messalina immediately discards Cherea and sends the tyrannicides to their death. She in turn takes the terrified Claudius as her husband. Messalina triumphs: Claudius is hers and so is the Empire.

This brief narrative reveals that the play is far above the usual claptrap of Christians versus Romans. It presents a very grim picture of Rome under Caligula. In the end a very ruthless immoral woman triumphs over an all-powerful, cowardly and capricious tyrant by using her sexuality and cunning. Messalina has no illusions about ridding the nation of tyranny. She rids the nation of Caligula (who will not be sorely missed) to replace his tyranny with her own. She knows she cannot control Caligula, but she can control Claudius.

The old patriotic Romans end up suffering martyrdom under Caligula as well as the Christians. Caligula is the enemy of all decent people. Strictly speaking, Stella does not die for her beliefs, but rather to protect her chastity. Roman women had done that before, the most famous case being Lucretia.

The local legend

How comes it that Stella has been converted to Christianity in Gaul of all places? The popular legend that Dumas mentioned to the Pope was the story that Mary Magdalene and three other Christians had been shipwrecked somewhere near Marseilles shortly after the Crucifixion and had proselytized in Gaul.

At the time I was translating the play I had never heard of the legend, but Dumas obviously knew of it in 1836. More recently I read of this legend in connection with the Priory of Sion which has been much talked about in some circles in the last fifteen years . The idea seems to be that the Holy Grail was brought back by the Templars from Jerusalem, and that, after The Templars were disbanded and crushed as heretics in 1325, an organization known as The Priory of Sion continued the Templar traditions and is still operative in Southern France and somehow connected with Rennes le Chateau which is believed to be a center of their activity. This tradition supposedly involves an alternate reading of Christianity which is Gnostic, and in which Mary Magdalene married Jesus and may have been his equal. The mysterious Priory of Sion is said to have been headed at one time by Leonardo da Vinci.

Dumas' connection to the priory

Dumas makes no mention of the Priory in Caligula or in any of his writings with which I am familiar. However, he is the author of over 600 works and there remains much with which I am not familiar. However, in works dealing with the Priory mention is made of Charles Nodier being the head of the Priory for many years in the 19th century. Now it so happens that Nodier was one of Dumas' closest friends and mentors. Nodier was himself a writer and he often hosted soirees for the Romantics.

I draw no conclusions from this but I find the coincidence or concurrence fascinating and would welcome information on Nodier's activities involving the Priory and, of course, any information regarding Dumas and the Priory.

Dumas' other works of interest to classicists

In addition to Caligula, Dumas wrote a novel Acté, and two other plays with Roman backgrounds, Catilina and The Testament of Caesar. Dumas also adapted the Orestia of Aeschylus and wrote a lost play called The Greeks.

The translation of Caligula

Caligula has never previously been translated into English. My translation may be found at http://www.cadytech.com/dumas/morlock.html together with my translations of other Dumas plays. The Orestia will be added in the not too distant future. The play may be freely downloaded. Those interested in Dumas should join Club Dumas at Yahoo.com clubs.

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