At first glance, The Three Musketeers looks like an easy write into a play—all those appealing characters, that driving action, chapters of sparkling dialogue, and what style:
ARAMIS: I suppose, sir, that you're not a fool and that you knew very well, even though you've just come from Gascony, that people do not tread on handkerchiefs without a reason.
And What a wonderful mixture of violence and polite society:
DEWINTER: As you see I have no sword. Are you a brave man only when your opponent is unarmed?
D'ARTAGNAN: You have a sword at home?
DEWINTER: I am well furnished.
D'ARTAGNAN: Choose the longest and show it to me this evening.
Very dramatic. But, like all adaptations, there would come major struggles. Since it was first published, the novel has lived a vibrant life. Talking to people I soon found that almost everyone had fond remembrances of the novel, but the incidents they remembered and their favorite parts varied wildly from person to person. Yet most agreed the novel was highly entertaining. Where does that high level of entertainment come from?
I had seen a number of stage versions of the book both in America and England. All were comedies or musical comedies. My own reading of the novel is that it is a romance. The heart of the comedy and drama, the driving force of the action, is romantic love. Love motivates almost everyone in the story, defining each character:
D'ARTAGNAN: If you could see into my heart you would find so much curiosity that you would pity me, and so much love that you would instantly satisfy my curiosity. We have nothing to fear from those who love us.
CONSTANCE: You speak suddenly of love, Monsieur.
D'ARTAGNAN: That is because love has come suddenly upon me; and for the first time; and because I'm twenty.
I believe this range of experience centered on romantic love—the fear, exuberance, intoxication, doubt, revenge and pain—is one of the primary reasons the novel is still so popular and still speaks so universally:
ATHOS: And I say that love is a lottery that, if you win, you win death. And if I have any advice, it is always to lose.
Another reason the book has endured is, of course, the characters. They are all full of powerful and recognizable passions, easily identified with; enviably, they act swiftly and committedly on those passions:
PORTHOS: I shall perforate you with all the thrusts known in fencing schools.
And the story—or rather, the many stories—are constantly in motion, carrying us along easily accessible adventures of the heart:
KITTY: I will only confess that to the man who can read to the bottom of my soul.
D'ARTAGNAN: I will read to the bottom of your soul and whatever else you like.
For the adaptation, one of my major concerns was how to retain as much of the entertainment value as possible. My approach was to follow the original in character, style, structure and tone, stay out of the story's way, and let Dumas himself speak whenever possible. Hopefully, then, much of whatever has greatly entertained so many readers will be reflected in the play.
Once this goal was accepted, enormous problems suddenly surfaced (as they will with any adaptation). The novel is over 600 pages. What to leave out quickly became a major craft problem because many scenes, characters and incidents and most of that gorgeous dialogue had to be left out. What to leave in also became a problem as there is an avalanche of scenes, easily handled in prose, but on the stage (ignoring the set considerations for now), the sequencing of these scenes, the flow of the scenes without going to blackout, and the sheer number of them become problems.
I felt that going to blackout would stall the action, interrupt the flow of the developing stories, and fatigue the audience. Developing an order of scenes to avoid as many blackouts as possible became a daily task throughout the readings and productions.
In order to accomplish this with any success it was necessary to combine scenes. For example, in the novel both the magistrate and the cardinal interrogate Bonacieux. Both scenes contain necessary information; both are highly engaging. By combining the scenes and having the cardinal do all of the interrogating, I eliminated a character, moved the play along more quickly, focused more on the cardinal and eliminated the need for another scene to be placed between these scenes.
Another example: The cardinal's sexual advances on the queen are mentioned twice in the book. Indeed, her rejection of him is a primary driver of the action as a whole. Yet, there is no scene written out in the novel illustrating this central plot point. Rather than simply refer to this scene as Dumas does, I decided to have the cardinal search the queen for the letter to Buckingham (under orders from the king) instead of Chancellor Seguier. This would, in effect, combine two scenes.
QUEEN: Would you dare to lift your hand to your queen?
CARDINAL: I am a faithful subject of the king.
QUEEN: If you are faithful, it is because I have rejected your lascivious advances.
CARDINAL: You have no conscience when bestowing your favors upon an Englishman, a sworn enemy of your king.
QUEEN: Pray God cleanse you of this jealousy; it makes you mad.
Another advantage of combining these two scenes is that we see the cardinal confront the queen and , in doing so, express his intense jealousy of Buckingham. This jealousy is, of course, a major element in the inciting force of the novel, and therefore, the play. One of the most frustrating experiences would come when I would realize a scene had to be cut, especially when it seemed necessary to eliminate what appeared to be a key scene, a scene that seemingly should work, a scene that seemed to be a high point in the novel, written in that gorgeous language:
CARDINAL: It is you who set out, seven or eight months ago, from your country to seek your fortune in Paris?
D'ARTAGNAN: I am at the age of extravagant hopes, Monseigneur.
CARDINAL: There are no extravagant hopes but for fools, and you are a man of understanding. What would you say to a lieutenant's commission in my guards and the command of a company?
It seemed inconceivable I couldn't keep this important scene, but I could not; there didn't seem to be room for it. And yet it seemed dramatically necessary to make room for scenes mentioned in the novel, but not written out in dialogue. These scenes would have to fit seamlessly in character, style and tone with the scenes more easily lifted from the book and containing mostly Dumas' original dialogue. I wrote a number of these, as in the sequences involving the abductions of Madame Bonacieux. Indeed, following the two abductions became necessary because they are major spice of action in both halves of the book. Yet these scenes are not written out in dialogue in the novel.
CONSTANCE: But who are you? What is your name?... Are you an agent? Of whom?
ROCHEFORD: You know much more than you appear to know and I'm sorry to say that if you do not come with me now, without my asking again, I will take you by force.
There were times that I pieced together the dialogue for a scene mentioned in the novel but not written out by lifting speech out of other parts of the book, as in the scene where Milady attempts to take the two diamond studs from the Duke. She has to get close enough to the duke to remove them from his coat. The implication in the novel is clear: in order to have the duke take off his coact in her presence so she can remove the diamonds, Milady seduces him.
MILADY (to DUKE): Dancing with the eligible men of London only increases my respect, my admiration, and my longing for you. And that is why I risked humiliation in inviting you, once again, into my home. I have struggled against you, struggled against my heart, my pride as a woman, but I must say this, my lord, and this you must believe: I belong to you body and soul. This is my strength, my life.
I cannot now remember exactly where I found these lines in the novel, but most of them, in essence, were written by Dumas. Which brings us to Milady. What a villain; what an actress. And the lines Dumas gave her:
FELTON: Tonight, after twelve, I will come and you will convince me.
MILADY: I am lost. Do not be lost with me. My death will be much more eloquent than my life, and the silence of my corpse will convince you.
I can't write these characters, in that moment, any better than Dumas. Indeed, it would be sheer arrogance if I thought I could. So through the process of the readings, workshops and productions I constantly deferred to Dumas whenever dramatically feasible.
Which brings me to the translations. As I don't speak French, much of my time was spent pouring over different translations of the novel. I referred to three public domain translations but based the play on an 1888 translation. Frequently there were bizarre (to me), unspeakable, or archaic phrases or word choices that I felt needed to be changed. But most often the dialogue simply had to be cleaned and focused, as in the following. The first set of quotes is taken verbatim from early in the book and the second set is what I finally ended up using in the play.
D'ARTAGNAN: Well, I am sure that in less than three days this balsam would cure you, and at the end of three days, then you would be cured—well, sir, it would still do me a great honor to be your man.
ATHOS: Pardieu, Monsieur! That's a proposition that pleases me; not that I accept it, but a league off it savors of the gentleman. Thus spoke and acted the gallant knights of the time of Charlemagne, in whom every cavalier ought to seek his model... I think these fellows will never come.
D'ARTAGNAN: If you are in haste, and if it be your will to dispatch me at once, do not inconvenience yourself, I pray you.
ATHOS: There is another word which pleases me... that did not come from a man without brains and certainly not from a man without a heart. Monsieur, I love men of your kidney, and I foresee plainly that if we don't kill each other, I shall hereafter have much pleasure in your conversation. We will wait for these gentlemen, so please you; I have plenty of time, and it will be more correct.
These lines in the play become:
D'ARTAGNAN: If you would allow me, I have a miraculous ointment for wounds given to me by my mother. I am sure in less than three days it will heal your wound, and then, when you're cured, I'll still regard it as an honor to be your man.
ATHOS: That's a suggestion that pleases me. Not that I accept it, but the offer comes from the heart of a gentleman. The gallant knights of Charlemagne spoke in this fashion and we should take them as our model. I think these seconds of mine will never come.
D'ARTAGNAN: If you're in a hurry and wish to dispatch me at once, do not inconvenience yourself.
ATHOS: Ah! That came from a man with brains as well as heart. I see that if we do not kill each other, I'll take pleasure in your conversation. But we'll wait; it will be more correct.
Much of the time, it was simply a word choice here and there because the dialogue is already so rich. How well this process succeeded I'll leave others to judge. But the journey of three years with the book and the script has been a most entertaining adventure.