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France's Greatest Adventure Writer Dramatizes the Life of Napoleon—The Long Hot Summer of 1830

by Member Frank Morlock, Greenbelt, MD

[This article first appeared in the Bulletin of The Napoleonic Society of America, Volume 64,  Summer 1999.]

Paris was in chaos. The Revolution of 1830 was in full swing. The last Bourbon, Charles the X, was in the process of being overthrown. General Lafayette was holed up in the Hotel de Ville, clamoring for a republic. There was a yearning for, a nostalgia for, Bonaparte.

Napoleon was dead barely ten years. At least five theatres had some sort of Napoleon drama playing that summer. Great historical accuracy was the rule. Napoleon's valet, Marchand, was employed by one theatre as a consultant to the costume director. At one performance a former mistress of Napoleon's was seen weeping in her box. Revolution was in the air and France was ripe for—? No one was quite sure, except that the desire for change was great and a gigantic opportunity was ready for someone capable of taking advantage of the situation.

There was some sentiment to put Napoleon's son on the throne. A poem by Barthelmy, Le fils de l'homme (The Son of the Man) was being staged although the author spent several months in jail for it the year before. It portrayed the Duke of Reichstadt as a prisoner. In fact he was, and so much so that any ambition he may have had to take advantage of the opportunity was frustrated because he was kept completely unaware of the situation in Paris.

Sensing that it was both too late and too soon for another Napoleon, Louis-Philippe successfully cast himself in the role of the Citizen-King and protector-patron of Bonapartism which was perceived at the time to stand for liberalism (of a sort).

Alexandre at 28, already a
successful playwright.

Elsewhere, in the theatre, the youthful Alexandre Dumas, barely twenty-six years old, had just scored a tremendous success the year before with Henri III et sa cour (Henry the Third and His Court) which established him along with Hugo as the leader of the Romantic movement in the theatre.

Meanwhile, for publicity purposes, the lead actors in the Napoleon plays were to be seen stalking the streets of Paris, scowling, hair combed forward, hands thrust in pockets. A surreal atmosphere hung over the city.

Dumas on Napoleon

Not many people know that the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo wrote two plays about Napoleon, or, for that matter, that Dumas was a playwright at all. But Dumas was famous as a playwright long before he became known for his novels, long before D'Artagnan and Edmond Dantes became household names. Dumas was the Spielberg of his day. And the most successful of the Romantic dramatists who alone were changing French theatre forever. Dumas had no reason to like Napoleon. Alexandre's father had been one of Napoleon's generals. A giant of a man given to Herculean feats of strength, his most astonishing display of strength was to mount his horse under a strong beam. Grasping the beam with his hands and his mount with his legs, he would perform a series of pull-ups lifting both himself and his horse to the amazement of onlookers.

Alexandre's father,
General Dumas.

For a while, General Dumas was an intimate friend of Napoleon, and to such a degree that Napoleon would give him entry when he was naked in bed with Josephine. But this remarkable friendship did not last, and for reasons that are not altogether clear, Napoleon came to detest his former friend.

When General Dumas was captured, Napoleon refused to ransom him, and Dumas languished in an Italian prison under conditions that ruined his health. Eventually released, his health broken, Dumas returned to France to die, leaving the four year old Alexandre without a father and his mother without support. Napoleon refused to provide a pension. Yet, despite this, the Dumas family remained staunchly Bonapartist, even after it became impolitic to do so.

So why did Dumas unexpectedly write a play about a man he had many reasons to hate? This is what Dumas says in his Memoirs:

"I was in bed when Harel (Charles Jean Harel 1790-1846) came in. He had an idea for a play about Napoleon. While it struck me as an excellent business speculation, it did not appeal to me from an artistic standpoint. The injuries Bonaparte had inflicted on my family made me inclined to be unjust toward Napoleon—I therefore refused."

Dumas also says that Harel was the first manager to have the idea of putting on a Napoleon play that year. Harel, at the time, was the manager of the Odeon Theatre. In 1829 the condition of the Odeon was deplorable. The stars had left and the financial condition was serious. Most plays could simply not be cast because of the few actors remaining. In desperation, Harel was appointed director and things soon began to improve.

Even among Paris' rascally theatre directors, he was notorious not only for the number of his creditors, but for his skill in eluding them. Several times he is said to have eluded the bailiffs by running on stage and vanishing through a trap door. Nonetheless, he seems to have been the man for the job. He cut prices and brought new authors and actors to the theatre.

The actress,
Mademoiselle Georges.

The most important of the new actresses was Mlle. Georges, his mistress, who had her own company, and was generally acknowledged to be France's greatest tragic actress. She had already influenced Harel to stage Dumas' Christine (about Queen Christiana of Sweden) which was a great success.

Dumas did not have a high opinion of Harel. Desirous of serving his country, and perhaps of escaping from Harel's blandishments, Dumas convinced General Lafayette, who was still playing the role of "Gentleman Revolutionary", to send him to La Vendee with a view to forming National Guard units. The expedition was hardly a success but it got Dumas out of Paris for six weeks between June and mid-July.

On his return, Dumas found that Talleyrand had been sent as ambassador to London and that the forces of reaction were waxing. While Dumas was on the grand tour, Harel was stewing over the fact that other theatres were having a huge success with his idea. Shortly after his return Dumas received and accepted a dinner invitation from Harel. Dumas was wary, but Harel carefully avoided all mention of the Napoleon project throughout the evening. After the other guests had departed, Dumas, though still suspicious, was sufficiently disarmed as to accept a tour of the house. Harel led Dumas into a room that could only be accessed through Mlle. Georges' apartment. Harel asked Dumas if he liked it. Dumas replied politely, perhaps even honestly, that he did. "Ah," said Harel, "I am indeed delighted that it pleases you, because it is for you." Dumas was stupefied. "You will not leave until you have written me my Napoleon."

All Dumas' protests were of no avail. His son? He would come to dinner. What about his mistress? She had been pacified with a bracelet. Reference materials? The room was filled with them. Dumas knew when he was beaten, and not altogether averse to enjoying the charms of Mlle. Georges, he gave in. "Tomorrow I will set to work upon your Napoleon and in a week you shall have it."

Mlle. George began to pout. "Why in such a hurry to leave?" To Dumas' rejoinder that it was Harel who was in a hurry, Mlle Georges replied in her most regal manner, "Harel will wait." This is a story to relish, and Dumas told it with great flair in his Memoirs, but when we add the fact that Mlle. Georges (Marguerite-Josephine Weymer 1787-1867) had been in her youth Napoleon's mistress, and was the mistress seen weeping in her box earlier in the summer, the story becomes, as the French say, "irresistible".

Harel, her current lover, was an ardent Bonapartist, had been a prefect of Napoleon's at Soissons during the Hundred Days and forced into exile for seven years for his activities, unable to return until the amnesty of 1822. Many years later, Mlle. Georges confided to Arsène Houssaye, the director of the Comédie Française under the Second Empire that it was Harel's devotion to Napoleon that first caused her to fall in love with him. Mlle. Georges was also a Bonapartist and had suffered for it during the Restoration. She refused to swear allegiance to the restored monarchy and was expelled from the Comédie Française, losing valuable income and pension rights. She founded a touring company and met Harel in Brussels.

Georges liked to receive company with her bosom (for which she was famous) exposed. Her guests got used to her exhibitionism and acted as if they didn't notice (at least according to Dumas). She appears to have been one woman who didn't object to men talking to her chest. None of this hurt her career. Nor did the extra weight she put on. It seemed to give an added gravitas to her portrayal of tragic queens. "How many fat queens and oversized empresses we have disinterred from history for her benefit," remarked Gautier.

She and Harel were considered an odd couple. She was excessively clean whereas Harel was raffish and frankly dirty.

Mademoiselle Georges and Napoleon

In 1803, when her affair with Napoleon began, "Giorgina" as Napoleon dubbed her, was only sixteen. She later numbered Talleyrand and Metternich amongst a long succession of lovers. When the Allies forced Napoleon into exile at St. Helena she offered to go with him. She was serious. Napoleon, perhaps still cherishing the hope of reconciling with the Empress Marie Louise, refused. Possibly Napoleon was angry that Wellington had enjoyed her favors during his first exile to Elba.

Nonetheless, Napoleon treasured his memories of her with great tenderness, an attitude he seldom observed towards his light o'loves. At one point, he supposedly suggested having a child with her. Georges was willing but the flesh wasn't. "He would have been such a beautiful bastard," she sighed. Shortly after their liaison began, the First Consul attended a performance of Corneille's Cinna. In the fifth act Georges turned directly to Napoleon's box when she uttered the lines "Cinna is at my feet, others will kneel there yet." There was a sensation in the house. Napoleon was not angry. But Josephine who was with her husband was mortified and wildly jealous.

Shortly after, during their tryst, Napoleon, who admired the actor Talma, wanted to read the same scene with his Giorgina. Giorgina wanted to go to bed, but Napoleon dragged her to the library to find a copy of Corneille. It was on the top shelf and Napoleon mounted one of those little ladders on wheels that these days are only found in old, expensive libraries. At this point Giorgina rebelled, and seeing a wonderful opportunity began furiously pushing the ladder forcing the Man of Destiny to cling tight for dear life. "Giorgina, no! Stop! That is not in the script." Meanwhile, in her apartment on the floor below Josephine was trying to work up the courage to burst in and stage a jealous scene. At the last moment, her courage deserted her.

Dumas Trapped in Mlle. George's Apartment Writes Napoleon

From the foregoing it is clear the Mlle. Georges knew how to trap a man and make him like it. Though Dumas always believed Harel was responsible for holding him prisoner, one suspects the idea was hatched in the fertile, audacious brain of Mlle. Georges. Georges was still beautiful and although she was living with Harel as his mistress she took other lovers. They had an understanding.

Dumas was needed, and Dumas was very handsome—As Dumas wrote the scenes, he handed them to Mlle. Georges who corrected them and passed them to a copyist, Vertreuil, who copied them out. It took a bit longer than a week, whether this was because of the writing or the pleasure of Mlle. George's company is not known. Within ten days, this enormous play was in rehearsal. As originally written it contained 9000 lines in 24 scenes.

Frederick Le Maitre (1800-1876) starred as Napoleon. There were around ninety speaking parts after some revisions. Dumas suggests the play was only a modest success, but this is not true. Harel expended the enormous sum of 100,000 francs on the production. The audience was requested to wear National Guard Uniforms; during intermissions Napoleonic marches were played by the orchestra. Particularly acclaimed were the scenes of the burning of Moscow and the crossing of the Beresina. Horses from Franconi's circus were used on stage.

The play did good business throughout the winter after opening on January 10, 1831. Harel staged more plays by Dumas; something managers are reluctant to do for an author who has provided them with a colossal failure. But the critics did not like it. They pretended that drama was sacrificed to mere spectacle. Immediately upon his release Dumas directed all his energy into writing the play for which he was and remains most famous: The wild romantic melodrama, Antony.

Another wild success, although this play was not produced by Harel.

The Plays and What They Tell About France

The Dumas Napoleon was written with great speed, but it is not carelessly written. It falls into the type of play moderns would call epic theatre. The cast and scene requirements are operatic in scale and large even for the time. Today it would make a great screen play. The white heat of the writing is reflected in the action; the play moves like an Army moving in quick time. The subtitle of the play is instructive "Napoleon, or Thirty Years in the History of France." For both Napoleon and France are center stage. Their destinies inseparably entwined. A very forceful portrait of Napoleon emerges.

From the opening scene where Napoleon is a young artillery General at the siege of Toulon, Bonaparte dominates the action. The story is given both unity and significance by following several minor characters. Labredeche, an amusing hanger-on and pension seeker, ever professing his loyalty to the present regime, and his sufferings at the hands of the last; Lorraine, an illiterate soldier from the province from which he takes his name, who becomes a standard bearer, and is unwaveringly loyal to his hero, and most importantly, The Spy; a British agent spared by Napoleon at Toulon because Napoleon recognizes his usefulness.

From then on at every turning point in the action The Spy appears ready to lay down his life for the man who gave him back his. It's impossible to do justice to the play by recapping it. To read it is to experience the tumult that France went through for nearly thirty years.

The Vendôme Column.

If Dumas was prejudiced against Bonaparte, he did not let it appear in this work. Bonaparte could hardly have asked for a more enthusiastic portrait or one that would endear him more to posterity. And yet Napoleon is by no means merely Bonapartist propaganda. On April 3rd, 1831, around the time the play closed, Louis-Philippe issued a decree returning Napoleon's statue atop the Vendôme Column.

Twenty Years After

The second Napoleonic play, The Barricade at Clichy deals with Napoleon's campaign against the Allies and the events surrounding his return from Elba. This time, although the play is still epic in scale, the point of view is more personal. Colonel Bertrand has vowed not to survive the fall of Napoleon. Blinded by a grenade at the barricades protecting Paris from the Allied troops, his son and daughter contrive to keep him in ignorance of Napoleon's exile. They read him reports and despatches of Napoleon's victories they themselves have invented. When the Colonel eventually learns that his family is deceiving him, tragedy is averted by the real return of Napoleon from Elba, just in time to prevent the younger Bertrand from being executed by firing squad for his Bonapartist activities.

This play was written years later, while Prince Louis Napoleon was occupying the Presidency before his coup d'etat. Dumas was accused of attempting to curry favor, a charge he warmly denied. This time the play was not written while Dumas was being held captive by the sensuous Mlle. Georges. Dumas' hand as a dramatist was just as sure as it was nearly twenty years earlier. Napoleon, now is intent on justifying his role in history, justifying and defending his actions, and portraying himself as the champion of European liberty. This seems to be exactly the tack Napoleon took in his exile at St. Helena. Dumas' motives in writing the play are not clear. If he was seeking favor in what was to become the Second Empire, he does not seem to have been successful.

He is, however, known to have frequented Bonapartist salons both in 1830 and again under the Second Empire, accepting invitations from Princess Mathilde.

Napoleon as a Romantic Hero

Even if we accept Dumas père's protests that he was a convinced republican and not guilty of Bonapartism, clearly Dumas admired heroic qualities in his heroes (remember the Musketeers) and Bonaparte had such qualities in abundance. Napoleon appealed to other romantic writers as well, men as different as Stendhal and Pushkin. Why? Napoleon, the historic figure was the supreme classicist. The world he believed in was a classical one. It is not surprising he chose to be styled Emperor, not King. He stood for a return to Roman virtues, to the days of Caesar and Augustus not those of Louis XIV. He wanted to be a patron of the arts, loved the theatre, even took lessons from Talma in how to behave like an Emperor. But for all this, Napoleon the myth is the posterboy for romanticism.

In a world of chaos, he imposes order, but he alone is free. The word impossible does not exist for him. He recognizes no limits to his ambitions. Neither religion, nor prejudice, nor tradition can check him. This gives him his magical appeal. His life is a fairy tale of the ego unbound, unleashed and unstoppable. Dumas Napoleon brings out these mythopoeic characteristics in Napoleon. Dumas was always ambivalent about Napoleon. That ambivalence gives his work its tension, and its authenticity.

It is easy to dismiss Napoleon as just another man on horseback in a time of crisis. He is more than that. As Wellington is supposed to have said "his genius begins where that of other general's leaves off." Before translating Dumas' Napoleon I had read about him , but something was missing: personality.

I'd read Tolstoy's War and Peace when quite young. I realize now the degree to which I was a victim of Russian and British anti-Napoleon propaganda. After reading Dumas, I felt like standing up and saluting the little guy. I began my own research and found him quite fascinating. I even wrote a screenplay about him based on his relationship with his mother (as yet unsold).

Dumas devoted a chapter in The Companions of Jehu to Napoleon, a novel which he later dramatized and in which Napoleon appears as a characer. In addition Dumas also wrote a number of short stories about Napoleon and Josephine. They are said to be excellent, copies of them in French or in English are difficult to find. These plays may be visited on the internet (http://www.cadytech.com/dumas/morlock.html). I invite anyone interested in discussing Dumas join Club Dumas (http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/clubdumas) or contact me directly frankmorlock@msn.com or Frank Morlock, 6006 Greenbelt Rd. #312, Greenbelt, MD 20770.

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