On Stage: the courtesan who became 'Camille' | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Stage: the courtesan who became 'Camille'

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"This is Marie Duplessis," Jill Daly tells me, turning the stiff, slick pages of an oversize book. "She was the original Lady of the Camellias." She shows me a color portrait from the 1840s: a striking young woman with bright, dark eyes; arching, intelligent eyebrows; and long, shiny black hair framing a gentle, oval face. The woman wears a puffy, white chiffon dress with a daring neckline, and pinned to her bosom a large white flower, a camellia.

"Marie Duplessis was Alexandre Dumas' lover. Dumas wrote Camille as a tribute to her."

Daly turns the page and then snickers: "Here's a copy of her florist bill. See," she runs her finger down the handwritten column of charges, "camellias, camellias, camellias. She wore camellias all the time. Twenty-five days of the month white, five days of the month red."

Ever since she was 16, writer, director, and actor Jill Daly has been fascinated with this woman. "When I first read the novel I wept and wept."

Daly was once one of the more prolific actors and directors of Chicago's off-Loop theater scene--she appeared in or directed productions at the Organic Theater Company, Blind Parrot Productions, Chicago Actors Ensemble, Redmoon Theater, and Curious Theatre Branch. Between the spring of '90 and November '91 Daly directed three productions for the Curious Theatre: The Weirdly Sisters, Looking Through Two Johnnies, and an adaptation of Chekhov's Ward 6. But for the past two-and-a-half years she has devoted all her creative time to writing Camille (Deflowered) and getting it produced.

It's a job made considerably more difficult by the fact that soon after she began work on the play she resigned from the Curious Theatre, the company that had staged most of her work. "During Ward 6 I became aware that I really needed to do my own work. Curious Theatre at that point was very interested in a cooperative, collective process. That's not what I needed at all. What I needed was Jill's play, you know. Jill's work, period."

Daly turns the page to a large, gray, stone sarcophagus--Duplessis' grave at Montmartre. Then she continues: Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis in the middle of nowhere, Nonant, Normandy. When she was 12, her father sold her to a 70-year-old man who pimped her around the village for a while. Then either she ran away to Paris, he took her to Paris, or he sold her to Gypsies who took her to Paris--the story is not clear. There she changed her name and joined the ranks of the grisettes, flirtatious shop girls who frequented dance halls. She earned extra money prostituting herself. Duplessis worked her way up from shopkeepers to merchants and finally into the ranks of noblemen until at 16 she became the most celebrated courtesan in Paris.

"In about two years," Daly says, "she went from this little provincial girl, wearing clogs, illiterate, speaking with a bad accent, to this dazzlingly elegant, sophisticated woman. She taught herself how to read and how to play the piano."

It was while Duplessis was the toast of Paris that she began her affair with Alexandre Dumas, fils, the illegitimate son of the author of The Three Musketeers. The liaison lasted only 11 months. Still, Dumas was racked by guilt and grief when, two years after he ended the relationship, Duplessis died of consumption at 23.

Less than five months after her death, Dumas began Camille, and the novel just poured out of him. Written in a month, this thinly veiled account of their affair brought him immediate fame. And when Dumas' stage version of the novel hit the boards in 1852, his place in the French literary pantheon was assured. Camille went on to become one of the most frequently produced plays of the 19th century. It was also adapted into one of Verdi's most frequently performed operas, La Traviata.

The plot is a typical four-hankie romantic melodrama. Marguerite Gautier falls in love with dreamy-eyed young gadabout Armand Duval. She abandons her lucrative life as a courtesan for that love. But then, when Armand's father asks her to leave Armand for the sake of his family's respectability, she renounces that love, nobly choosing instead to die alone and unloved.

Daly's version turns the tables on Dumas, exposing the ways he exploited and distorted his relationship with Duplessis. "I find the novel both emotionally appealing and so offensive from a feminist point of view that I know I just can't do it straight. There's this inherent fallacy in the story. Marguerite says yes, I will renounce everything I believe in, everything I want in life, for the sake of this bourgeois society that casts me out. Then at the end of the story, the father comes back. She's half dead. She's already spent her life in misery. And he forgives her." Daly laughs. "And she's supposed to be happy about that.

"In my play, Dumas has an image of Duplessis that she can't live up to because she's a living creature. She's not a figment of his imagination. And he tries to force her into this role he has for her in his mind, and because she's a strong person, she resists. Ultimately, he cuts her off and then he uses fiction to tame her, to contain her within the bounds of what he wanted her to be: the act of writing as power."

After completing Camille (Deflowered) almost two years ago, Daly began shopping it around but met with little success. Then during a chance conversation with Cloud 42's artistic director Patrick Trettenero at a Goodman opening, Daly mentioned the project. Trettenero was already planning to direct his own version of the Camille story, Charles Ludlam's drag satire/homage, so the two projects were combined into "Les Deux Camilles," to be performed in repertory.

Is the world ready for two more Camilles? Daly clearly thinks so. "I read [Dumas'] play and I weep every time she says, 'And so a woman once she's fallen may never rise again. What man would want to make her his wife? What child call her mother? And go tell your young daughter that somewhere in the world there is a woman who had one hope, one dream, one thought in life, and that she renounced them all and died of it.' You know, that sort of stuff really gets me. And I want to know why. I want to come to terms with my own relationship with it. I want to come to terms with the myth of the sacrificial, heroic woman, and the man that she's done this for."

The plays are running at the Body Politic Theatre, 2261 N. Lincoln, through April 10. Tickets are $12 to $15. See Section Two or call 871-3000 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.

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