Moving Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers to the stage is all about choices. The first one is about those pesky horses.
No hobby horses, no horse puppets, no I’ll-take-the-head-and-you-take-the-rear horses and of course no live horses. This was one of the first decisions my co-adapters, Linda Alper and Penny Metropulos, and I agreed upon when we sat down to envision our stage version of Alexandre Dumas’ thrilling adventure novel, The Three Musketeers. The many daring trips on horseback would simply have to be left to the many Musketeers films where they rightly belong.
Transporting a novel to the stage involves a smorgasbord of similar choices that, taken cumulatively, give an adaptation its shape and feel. These choices fall into four basic categories: what gets kept, what gets jettisoned, what gets added and what gets transformed. And when, as in this case, you’re trying to squeeze a 700-page novel into a two-and-a-half-hour play, there’s a heavy emphasis on what gets left out.
This adaptation was originally created for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to be performed on their 2,000-seat outdoor Elizabethan Stage. One of the givens was to think big; this was no time for minimalism. So in addition to calling for a large cast and multiple swordfights, we committed ourselves to telling the entire plot of the novel, from d’Artagnan’s arrival in Paris to his receiving a lieutenancy from Cardinal Richelieu.
The novel divides roughly into two halves that could be titled “The Affair of the Diamond Studs,” in which d’Artagnan saves the Queen’s honor, and “Milady’s Revenge,” which speaks for itself. Both parts are needed to tell d’Artangan’s story fully. If the 1948 Gene Kelly-June Allison film version was able to condense the whole novel to two hours of screen time, then we could surely do it on stage in two-and-a-half. (We certainly didn’t want to follow the lead of Richard Lester who in 1973 made two separate films out of the material.)
The three of us saw the novel as a classic hero’s journey, in which a brave but inexperienced young man (here, d’Artagnan) is put through a series of tests, some of which he fails, to emerge older and wiser by story’s end. This meant keeping our eyes on d’Artagnan at all times. What is he doing, what is he learning and how are his three mentors—Athos, Porthos and Aramis—helping him? Where does he succeed and where does he stumble? How does this scene or that character relate to d’Artagnan’s journey?
In terms of overall approach to the material, we wanted our version to honor Dumas’ tone, which is both lighthearted and romantic. The Three Musketeers is first and foremost an adventure, and we wanted the plot to gallop apace (but without horses!). That said, it was equally important to try to carve out enough stage time to flesh out all of the major characters as much as possible. For example, each of the musketeers has or had a love interest, and each man’s approach to love reveals aspects of his true colors.
Although we couldn’t retain each of the musketeers’ serving men, we kept d’Artagnan’s man Planchet, because he not only plays a critical role in one of the plot lines, he also provides our hero with a humorous sidekick, much as Sancho Panza does for Don Quixote.
We wanted to embrace the novel’s unabashed romanticism and avoid imposing a contemporary spin. This affected our use of language; we strove to give the dialogue a certain heroic swagger, taking our lead from Dumas’ own elevated yet breathless style.
To economize narratively, we decided to start the story in Paris, even though the book begins with d’Artagnan bidding farewell to his parents in Gascony in southern France. In that scene his mother gives him a special salve to cure wounds and his father gives him his sword and an odd-looking yellow horse (which we conveniently didn’t have to show). We also left out the second scene in which d’Artagnan catches a glimpse of the Cardinal’s associates, Rochefort and Milady. In that scene d’Artagnan is taunted about his yellow horse, so again, by skipping this scene, we again sidestepped the dreaded horse conundrum.
One of the book’s themes that appealed to me was a larger, geo-political one. Many of the characters in the play are historical: King Louis XIII was just eight-and-a-half when his father, Henry IV, was assassinated and Louis had the crown foisted upon him. His mother, Marie de Medicis, became the Regent of France and later, as King Louis grew into his role as king, he began to lean heavily on master politician Cardinal Richelieu, who famously ushered in the modern nation state.
At the beginning of the book and our play, the injured Athos, who’s just been handed d’Artagnan’s mother’s salve, says to the youth: “By my faith, this is the proposition of a perfect knight. In the days of Charlemagne, every man of honor spoke as you do. Unfortunately, young man, we do not live in the times of that great emperor, but in those of Cardinal Richelieu.” The Age of Chivalry, embodied by the musketeers, was being replaced by the Age of Politics.
A side note: why are characters so associated with the sword called musket-eers? Muskets, we found out, were developed to pierce armor and were used at this time side by side with the sword. (The term “lock, stock and barrel” refers to the main parts of a musket.) So to give the musket its due, we included the laborious step-by-step instructions on loading and firing the gun.
Another important decision we made after some trial and error was not to use a narrator. This device, adopted by many adaptors of fiction to drama, just seemed to slow the story down for us. Why not keep the action moving forward by absorbing any needed exposition into the dialogue itself?
“Show, not tell” became our watchword.
And then there were the scene transitions. Shakespeare’s convention when changing scenes was to have each new scene start with new characters, which left open the possibility for change of place or time between the exit of one group and entrance of another. Because of our focus on d’Artagnan, he often appeared at the end of one scene and at the start of another. That fact, along with our desire to keep the story flowing while resetting the stage, led us to one of our biggest inventions—what we came to call “the nugget.”
We decided to find bits of authentic period text to insert in these junctures—text that related thematically to the scene we were moving in or out of. Inserted as a buffer between the scenes, the “nuggets,” through a sort of dramatic sleight of hand, give the illusion that the play is advancing full steam ahead even though set pieces might be coming or going.
Of course we relied on the counsel of experts wherever we could find them. There is one moment at the end of the play, silent but powerful, that was inspired by the ten-year-old son of one my collaborators. At the conclusion of the first big sword fight, d’Artagnan is stripped of his father’s sword by the Cardinal’s men. Leaping ahead to the end of the play, d’Artagnan, as written in the book, receives a lieutenancy from the Cardinal and leaves his office. Our budding dramaturg asked us why he didn’t get his father’s sword back, now that he had made peace with the Cardinal. So, thanks to one boy’s narrative instincts, that is now exactly what happens.
Speaking of my collaborators, it seemed only fitting that there were three of us. We each brought our own unique perspective to the table: Linda, the actress, had a particular gift for writing dialogue; Penny, the director, kept her eye on the big picture and staging issues; I, as the dramaturg, concerned myself with structure and editing. In practice, our roles were more fluid than this, but our three-pronged partnership provided a stable footing and a built-in critical sounding board for the project.
So, if you feel so inspired, pick up Dumas’ novel and give it a go. The book may be long, but it’s a fast and fun read. Close your eyes and dream up your own personal adaptation. What would you keep, toss, add or change? How would you cast it? And perhaps most importantly, how would you handle the horses?
Douglas Langworthyis the Literary Manager of the Denver Center Theatre Company — and, of course, one of this play’s adaptors. This article originally appeared in Applause magazine.