THE idea of attributing a serious purpose to such a man as Aleqandre Dumas may seem absurd, yet a purpose of some sort he must have had when he wrote "Camille." As nearly as can be gathered from the play itself, his purpose was this: He wished to show that the greatest and highest type of love is the love that can sacrifice not only itself but its object, the love that will destroy before it would degrade. He wished to show that this intensest of human passions is not experienced by all humanity alike. That all men feel it in some degree, just as all men have imaginations in some degree, but that a love like Camille's is as much of a phenomenon as an imagination like Shelley's . Further, he wished to show that this peculiar strength of emotion was a phenomenon that was not influenced by ordinary social distinction, that it might occur in the highest ranks of society or in the lowest.
To illustrate this in the strongest way he knew, he gives this love to the heroine of his novel, and lets it make a bad woman good. This is the Camille that Clara Morris plays. Modjeska and Duse both make a very different and a very much higher woman out of the role. Modjeska makes her sweet and womanly, Duse makes her cold, both make her entirely the victim of circumstances. She has seen sin without perceiving it, known it without really understanding it, evil has touched her and left its stain upon her, but it is and always has been hateful to her. This is a very lofty and beautiful creation, but it is not the Camille of Alexandre Dumas. Clara Morris pitches her acting in a much lower key. She has worn camelias because she liked them, it is only when she takes heather rose from Armand's hand that she has any inclination for them. She is not altogether what the world has made her, there have been times when she has exulted in being the queen of the camelias. This Camille is not a very lofty or a very ideal woman. Modjeska has dwelt among those grand dream women of the great master so long that she unconsciously purifies a part when she touches it. Clara Morris in one of her climaxes would frighten Juliet or Imogen to death. She does not see the world any better than it is, she sees the black problems that stare civilization in the face, and she has neither the delicacy nor falsehood in her to close her eyes upon them. Perhaps this is disgusting, revolting, at any rate it is realism.
HE is a peculiar looking baby. He has the unmistakable chin and the unmistakable nose of an unmistakable race. He lies back in his baby carriage with the same air that an old man leans back in his chair. His small black eyes are bright and black, but he stares in front of him as though he were thinking. His little brow is wrinkled as though he had the cares of a lifetime on his shoulders. His lips are thin and drawn tightly together, and he's rubbing his little hands together. He looks like a very, very old man. He is one of the oldest races in the world, and he looks as though he had never been made over when he was transmigrated, but as though he carried the years of all his lives upon him. He looks as though he might have made brick in Pharaoh's brickyard, and now as he lies in his carriage he looks as if he might be thinking over some old business transaction that he conducted with the workman Hiram, king of Tyre, some three thousand years ago. Every now and then he puts his hand up to his chin as though feeling for the gray beard that ought to be there. Presently he begins to cry in a high, cracked voice that is not at all like a baby's, it seems strange and foolish and rude in him to cry. One can not imagine why he does it. He is too old to have a right to cry. To comfort him his mother, a dark stout woman of her people gives him not an orange or a bon bon, but a penny. He reaches out for it eagerly and looks at it carefully on both sides as though seeing if it were genuine. Then he folds his long thin little fingers over it and settles back on his pillow with a long sigh of content, and dreams of the things he will sell when he is a man.
SHE sat playing the piano for a dance. She was a little gray-haired woman with a look of sad experience in her face. She played with that strong touch and perfect time that are delightful to dance to, but her movements were careless and mechanical and she evidently held in contempt the dance music she played. Occasionally she glanced over her shoulders at the dancers and the lines about her mouth deepened into an ironical smile. She had a right to smile, she had seen enough of the pitiful comedy of the world to laugh over it. She used to play for us when we were young, and she knows how we have grown too stout for our old dress suits and how our old sweathearts have outgrown their dancing shoes. She knows those of us who still carry little seared places from the old flames that died hard; she knows those of us who obtained our heart's desires and have since sought refuge from them by process of law, she knows that the friend of my youth, whom I loved better than myself and to whom I gave my sweetheart, I yesterday sued for $20,000. She has played for other feet and knows the end of it all. Perhaps she can even recognize on some dancer a knot of real lace her mother wore when she danced to that same waltz twenty years ago, and she sees that my son's hair, in spite of all the brushing of his barber, standing on the crown just as mine used to when I had some there. She has every right to be a cynic. She is on the last dance now. When it is over she turns around on the stool with a sigh of relief. A young man comes hastily up to her, his eyes shining and his face is flushed.
"Please play one more waltz, just one, just part of a one." He thrusts his hands into his pockets and offers her a bill for it that shakes and flutters in his grasp as he hastily glances across the room in an agony of nervous apprehension. She has a good right to laugh, but she does not laugh this time, but her sharp eyes cloud over and she says quietly:
"Never mind the money. The violinists are tired and have gone, but I will play for you." I must seek her in the morning and scold her for her good heart, that last waltz is likely to cost me dear. She ought to have known better after all these years.
HE was the last man in the world you would expect of having concealed manuscripts, and yet he drew that one from his desk as quietly and calmly as though he had handled manuscripts instead of bank statements all his life.
"Yes it is a novel, I did it when I was very young. Of course it is crude and violent and often flat, but it had some promise in it, at least the publishers thought and they are generally impartial judges. I meant it very decidedly when I wrote it. I suppose that is its redeeming features. I never had it published. I had a good offer from a publisher in New York, but I did not accept it. My wife rather objected. She does not approve of the realistic school and this is decidedly realistic and even pessimistic. I was brought up in a mining town in the world and I saw the rough side of the world first and imagined I wanted to tell the world a few things about itself, but I suppose it is just as well off without knowing them, and probably other men have said the same thing better by their time anyway. Then there is more money in banking."
We talked on of business and politics and the chances of the next election and kept the interest up with cigars and Scotch whisky, but I noticed he left his hand on the bundle of paper most of the time, unconsciously stroking it. When we went to go before he turned out the gas I saw him look at it tenderly as he put it away, as one looks at a weakly, deformed child that one loves for its very weakness because it is one's own.
Later when we reached his home I heard his wife entertaining the new author from Colorado with her views and hopes on western literature. She is a nice little woman, his wife, I don't know of one who can give a better dinner or sing songs better, or be more charming at a theatre party. They are very nice ladies, these Delilahs of our day. They are a great improvement on the old fashioned ones of four thousand years back. They do not turn a great mob of Philistines on us to shear us of our strength, they only insist from the standpoint of polite society that we visit a barber occasionally. Not that they have any grudge against our strength, but they can't have us going around with our locks streaming, and I don't blame them.
Dumas: Alexandre Dumas the younger (1824-1895) was the son of a noted writer, Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, and a dressmaker, Marie-Catherine Labay. In 1831 the elder Dumas recognized him as his son and took the boy from his mother and placed him in schools. The younger Dumas went to live with his father in 1844, where he met Marie Duplessis, a young courtesan who died of tuberculosis in 1847, inspiring Dumas' most famous novel, La Dame aux camellias (1848). He wrote prolifically; many of his novels and plays depict the problems of fallen women and unwed mothers. His A Prodigal Father (1859) is based on his father; The Clemenceau Case (1867) is thought to be somewhat autobiographical. Dumas was admitted to the French Academy in 1874 and awarded the Legion of Honor in 1894.
Camille: The English play Camille is based on the play La Dame aux camélias (1852), based on the novel (1848) by Alexandre Dumas the younger (1824-1895). In the play, Armand Duval, a poor young man of a good family, falls in love with a famous courtesan, Camille (named Marguerite Gautier in the original). Skeptical of his love at first, she comes to return it and the two retire to an idyllic life in the country. However, Armand's father comes to her and begs her to set Armand free for the sake of his reputation and for the marriage chances of Armand's young sister. Camille pretends to be tired of Armand and returns to Paris and her old life. She is, however, dying of tuberculosis, and the two are reunited before her death. The role of Camille was also a favorite of Sarah Bernhardt and many other tragic actresses.
Verdi's opera La Traviata (1853) is based on the story of Camille, and the play has been made into films as well, notably one starring Greta Garbo (1936).
Shelley: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), English Romantic poet, showed his disposition to rebel against established customs and beliefs while still young: he was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet, "The Necessity of Atheism." In 1813 Shelley brought out his first volume of poetry, Queen Mab. The following year he fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and eloped with her (accompanied by her stepsister, Claire Clairmont). Much of the remainder of Shelley's short life was spent abroad, especially in Italy, sometimes in the company of Byron. Promethus Unbound (1819) shows Shelley's revolutionary, idealistic, and visionary spirit. He died while sailing in a sudden storm; when his body was recovered, it was burned on the beach in an ancient Greek tradition.
Clara Morris: Born Clara Morrison, Morris (1848-1925) made her New York debut in 1870 and was a great success playing passionate, suffering heroines in roles in such plays as Jezebel, Camille (1874), Miss Multon, a version of East Lynne (1876), Jane Eyre (1877), and The New Magdalen (1882). She formed her own company about 1878 and toured the country. She was never famous for her beauty, and her voice was flawed, but the emotional power of her acting overcame these defects. Morris retired in the 1890s as the new kinds of realistic plays of Ibsen and Shaw and Pinero made the older dramas seem old-fashioned and histrionic. In retirement she wrote articles and columns on acting, as well as volumes of reminiscences that show her acting was not so instinctive and unpracticed as Cather supposed.
Image available at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Image available at the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections.
Modjeska: Helena Modjeska (1840 or 1844—sources differ) was born in Cracow, Poland, and went on stage in 1861; the name by which she is best known is a simplified version of her Polish stage name. She was acclaimed as the greatest Polish actress, but emigrated to a ranch in Orange County, California, in 1876 with her husband, Karol Chlapowski, a minor Polish nobleman; the titles of Count and Countess appear to have been bestowed on them later. Modjeska learned English quickly enough to make her American stage debut in 1877 and soon became one of the best known and most respected actresses in the country, known for her historical and Shakespearean roles as well as the modern emotional dramas. She retired in 1907 and died in 1909.
Modjeska appears in Cather's My Mortal Enemy (1926).
Image available at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery and the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections.
Eleonora Duse: Eleonora Duse (1859-1924) was born into an impoverished Italian acting family and began performing at an early age; when her mother became ill, Duse had to take over her roles. Her first success was as Juliet in 1873, though her career did not take off until 1879, after performing in Zola's Thérèse Raquin. She toured Italy and by 1885 was acclaimed as Italy's greatest living actress. After a tour in South America, Duse formed her own company in 1886, with a large repertoire ranging from classical and contemporary French drama to Shakespeare and Ibsen. She met with great success in Paris, where she was considered Bernhardt's only rival. In 1893 Duse came to the U.S., where the restraint and naturalism of her style (for many years she wore no makeup on stage) were also acclaimed. She became the type of the actress who subsumes herself in her art. Her health was fragile, and she retired from the stage in 1911, returning to it in 1921; she toured Europe and then the U. S. in 1923. She collapsed and died in Pittsburgh in April 1924; her body lay in state there and then was taken to be buried in Asolo, Italy.
Duse became known for her love affairs, both with men and (perhaps lesser known at the time) with women. She was married to actor Teobaldo Checchi in 1881, with whom she had a daughter; they were divorced in 1885 after an affair with another actor. The most famous affair was a tempestuous one with Italian poet and playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio, whom she met in 1895; he wrote several verse dramas for her.
Image available at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Armand: Armand Duval, Camille's idealistic lover. When he believes that Camille has tired of him and has returned to her old life, he denounces her at a ball, causing her collapse into her final illness. When he learns why she left him, he returns to her and she dies in his arms.
Juliet: The heroine of Shakespeare's early romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594-95), the part was considered one of the great roles for an actress. Romeo and Juliet come from families feuding with each other, the Montagues and Capulets, but fall immediately in love. They are forced to meet in secret—the balcony scene being the most famous in all of Shakespeare—and try to marry in secret. The friar gives Juliet a potion that simulates death, and Romeo, in despair, kills himself. When Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead, she kills herself.
Imogen: Imogen, the daughter of Britain's king, Cymbeline, secretly marries Posthumus, the son of a soldier. They exchange tokens of fidelity (a ring and a bracelet) before he flees to Rome to avoid the wrath of the king and queen. There he makes a bet with Iachimo that Imogen is faithful. Iachimo, failing to seduce Imogen, steals the bracelet and convinces Posthumus, who writes his old servant, Pisano, commanding him to kill Imogen. Instead, Pisano takes her to Wales, where she disguises herself as a boy and unknowingly encounters her lost brothers. She inadvertently takes a drug that causes a deathlike sleep; her brothers lay out his/her body and that of the queen's son, Cloten, whom they had beheaded when he came to rape Imogen while wearing Posthumus's clothes. When Imogen wakes she thinks the body is that of Posthumus. She joins the invading Romans and is captured by Cymbeline, who grants him/her a boon. She commands Iachimo to confess how he won Posthumus's wager, and she is finally recognized and reunited with Posthumus.
One of the oldest races: i.e., the baby is Jewish; the Chinese would be one of the other oldest 'races' of people in the ethnology of the time.
Pharaoh's brickyard: Traditionally the Jews were thought to have been forced to work on the construction of the Pyramids when they were in bondage in Egypt, though Exodus does not specify the form of their labor.
Hiram, king of Tyre: In 967 BC, the sea king of Tyre, Hiram, was in contact with King Solomon about the plans to build a temple in the name of the Lord. Hiram assisted in building what would be later known as the Temple of Solomon by providing materials and laborers for the project.
Dress suits: men's evening clothes, then consisting of black cutaway coat, white waistcoat, and white tie.
last man in the world to have a novel: This prefigures Jim Burden in the introduction to My Ántonia, the businessman who brings his manuscript to the narrator.
realistic school: William Dean Howells was the leading American exponent of a school of realism that paid close attention to the details of the ordinary lives of middle-class people. Another form of realism—now generally called naturalism—which focused on the lives of the poor was emerging into prominence in the 1890s; Zola was its French leader.
Chances of the next election: Nebraska's next election, in 1894, would continue the struggle among the Populists and free silver advocates, who would nominate Silas Holcomb for governor; the gold standard Republicans, who nominated Thomas Majors; and the divided Democrats, some of whom nominated the Populist candidate, Holcomb, and the gold bug Democrats, who nominated Frank P. Ireland.
The Nebraska State Journal was a staunchly Republican newspaper, supporting Majors and the gold standard against the free-silver advocates.
New author from Colorado: Possibly an invention of Cather's; no writer from Colorado beginning his career in the 1890s has yet been found.
Delilahs: Delilah, in the biblical story of Samson in Judges 16: 1-21, learns that the secret of Samson's abnormal strength is in his never-cut hair. She lures him to her bed, then orders it to be cut in his sleep, draining him of his strength and allowing him to be captured by the Philistines.
Philistines: Historically, the Philistines were a people who occupied the five cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. They were traditional enemies of the Israelites. In the late 19th century the term was used disparagingly to mean people with no interest in, or even active hostility to, the arts.