Alexandre Dumas, who lived a life as dramatic as any depicted in his more than three hundred volumes of plays, novels. travel books, and memoirs, was born on July 24, 1802, in the town of Villers-Cotterets, some fifty miles from Paris. Hw eas the third child of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (who took the name of Dumas), a nobleman who distinguised himself as one of Napoleon's most brilliant generals, and Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Labouret, Following General Dumas's death in 1806 the family faced precarious financial circumstances, yet Mme Dumas scrimpd to pay for her son's private schooling. Unfortunately he proved an indifferent student who ecelled in but one subject: penmanship. In 1816, at te age of fourteen Dumas found employment as a clerk ith a local notary to help support the family.A growing interest in theater brought him to Paris in 1822, where he met Francois-Joseph Talma, the great French tragedian, and resolved to become a plawright. Meanwhile the passionate Dumas fell in love with Catherine Labay, a seamstress by whom he had a son. (Though he had numerous mistresses in his lifetime Dumas married only once, but the union did not last.) While working as a scribe for the duc d'Orleans (later King Louis-Philippe) Dumas collaberated on a one-act vaudeville, La Chasse et l'amour. But it was not until 1827, after attending a British performance of Hamlet, that Duams discovered a direction for his dramas. "For the first time in the theater I was seeing true passions motivating men and women of flesh and blood," he recalled. "From this time on, but only then, did I have an idea of what the theater could be."
Dumas achieved instant fam on February 11, 1829, with the triumphant opening of Henri III et sa cour. An innovated and influential play generally regarded as the first French drama of the Romantic movement, it broke with the staid precepts of Neoclassicism that had been imposed on the Paris stage for more than a century. Briefly involved as a republican partisan in the July Revolution of 1830, Dumas soon resumed playwriting and over the next decade turned out a number of historical melodramas that electrified audiences. Two of these works- Antony (1831) and La Tour de Nesle (1832)- stand out as milestnes in the history of nineteenth century French theater. In disfavor with the new monarch, Louis-Philippe, because of his republican smpathies, Dumas left France for a time. In 1832 he set out on a tour of Switzerland, chronicling his adventures in Impressions de Voyage: En Suisse; over the years he produced many travelogues about subsequent journeys through France, Italy, Russia, and other countries.
Around 1849 Dumas embarked upon a series of historical romances inspired by both his love of French history and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. In collaboration with Auguste Manquet, he serialiaed Le Chevalier d'Harmental in the newspaper Le Siecle in 1842. Part history, intrigue, adventure, and romance, it is widely regarded as the first of Dumas's great novels. The two subsequently worked together on a steady stream of books, most of which were published serially in Parisian tabloids and eagerly read by the public. He is best known for the celebrated d'Artagnan trilogy- Les trois mousquetares (The Three Musketeers, 1844), Vingt ans apres (Twenty Years after, 1845), and Dix ans plus tard ou le Vicomte de Bragelonne (Ten Years Later; or, The Viscount of Bargelonne, 1848-1850)- and the so-called Valois romances- La Riene Margot (1845), La Dame de Monsoreau (1846), and Les Quarante-cinq (1848). Yet perhaps his greatest success was Le Compte de Monte Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo), which appeared in installments in Le Journal des debats from 1844 to 1845. Le Chevalier du Maison-Rouge (1845-1846) was also a collaborative effort. A final tetralogy marked the end of their partnership, the French revolution novels of Dr. Joseph Balsamo. (These were one of the many inspirations for Dickens's classic A Tale of Two Cities)
In 1847, at the height of his fame, Dumas assumed the role of impresario. Hoping to reap huge profits he inaugurated the new Theatre Historique as a vehicle for staging dramatizations of his historical novels. The same year he completed construction of a lavish residencein the quiet hamlet of Marly-le-Roi. Called "Le Chateau de Monte Cristo", it was home to a menagerie of exotic pets and a parade of freeloaders until 1850, when Dumas's theater failed and he faced bankruptcy. Fleeing temporarily to Belgium in order to avoid creditors, Dumas returned to Paris in 1853, shortly adter the appearance of the initial olumes of his memoirs. Over the next years he founded the newspaper Le Mousquetaire, for which he wrote much of the copy, as well as the literary weekly Le Monte Cristo, but his fincances never recovered. In 1858 he travelled to Russia, eventually publishing two new episodes of his travelogues.
The final decade of Dumas's life bean with costomary high adventure. In 1860 he met Garibaldi and was swept up into the cause of Italian independence. (How Byronic!) After four years in Naples publishing the bilingual paper L'Independant/L'Independente, Dumas returned to Paris in 1864. In 1867 he began a flamboyant liason with Ada Menken, a young American actress who dubbed him "The king of romance". The same year also marked the appearance of a last novel, La Terreur Prussiene. Dumas's final play, Les Blancs et les Bleus opened in Paris in 1869.
Alexandre Dumas died penniless but cheerful on December 5, 1870, saying of death: "I shall tell her a story, and she will be kind to me." One hundred years later his biographer Andre Maurois paid him this tribute: "Dumas was a hero out of Dumas. As strong as Porthos, as adroit as d'Artagnan, as generous as Edmond Dantes, this superb giant strode across the nineteenth century breaking down doors with his shoulder, sweeping women away in his arms, and earning fortunes only to squander them promptly in dissipation. For forty years he filled the newspapers with his prose, the stage with his dramas, the world with his clamor. Never did he know a moment of doubt or an instant of despair. He turned his own existance into the finest of his novels."
This introduction is copied more or less (really less) verbatim from the biography the Modern Library Classics stick in their editions of his work. I like these mini-biographies better than than most of the little mini-blurbs I've seen, and they're certainly better and more informative than anything I could write. So here we are.