Buckle and Swash, Slice and Dice
My ten-year-old son’s favorite show at Stratford this year was The Three Musketeers. Based just on that information, you can probably guess why: magnificent swordplay, an exciting plot, and a lively and amiable cast.
And I would concur with at least two of those judgments. The swordplay really is magnificent – kudos to fight director John Stead. And the cast is lively and amiable. Graham Abbey brings depth and gravity to the wounded Athos; Mike Shara a charming naivete to the ladies-man-cum-cleric Aramis; Jonathan Goad is cast effectively against type as a dim but jolly Porthos; and Luke Humphrey is perfectly cast as the dashing male ingenue, D’Artagnan. The supporting cast is more uneven, but it doesn’t matter that much; director Miles Potter has done what is necessary to keep things moving, which is vital with so much plot to race through, so you never really stop long enough to savor a moment much – or to wince at one that doesn’t work.
But while the plot is copious, is it really compelling? How much flavor does this old chestnut still have?
The Three Musketeers is basically “Entourage” – it’s a male fantasy of group camaraderie and easy women. The heart of its appeal lies in that vicarious experience, and not in the plot, which is highly problematic for several reasons, all of which are manifest in the various film adaptations and not just this 1960s-era stage adaptation by Peter Raby.
To begin with, there are really two plots. The first is an extravagantly silly adventure involving the recovery of certain diamonds that were a gift from the King of France to his Queen, and which she bestowed on her lover, the Duke of Buckingham. This is at least as silly as having Vince’s future depend on the return of a missing Shrek doll. The second is a dark, brooding tale of a bad girl who has risen by treachery and seduction who finally gets her comeuppance. This plot is worse than merely silly; it’s extravagantly misogynistic as well as making very little sense – and, worst of all, it offers essentially no opportunities to buckle or to swash.
These two plots have essentially nothing to do with one another. Moreover, shifting from the first to the second involves turning a secondary character in the first plot – Milady de Winter – into the primary villain, and turning the primary villain of the first plot – Cardinal Richelieu – into an ambiguous but distant figure of authority rather than an outright villain. There’s no good emotional reason for the shift; it’s just a consequence of yoking these two largely unrelated stories together.
Finally, the political context of the story, which would have been clear to Dumas’s audience, is utterly baffling to a modern audience. The Queen is French, but she’s also Austrian, so Richelieu doesn’t trust her. Richelieu is the bad guy, but he’s trying to prevent the Queen from handing French interests over to England, so he’s a patriot. The Queen, meanwhile, is cheating on the King with Buckingham, but her dalliance is the only thing stopping Buckingham from waging war to help the Protestant cause in France. And the Musketeers serve the King, which means they hate Richelieu, even though Richelieu formally is employed by the King and is trying to build up the French state. Finally, the only thing that really seems to matter is honor – meeting a formal challenge head-on, keeping one’s promise not to wage war so long as one has possession of a bunch of diamonds – but there’s no particular dishonor in lying, or stealing, or brawling – and certainly not in sleeping with another man’s wife, or bedding a woman under false pretenses. I didn’t even try to make sense of it to my son; it barely made any sense to me – except, again, as an “Entourage”-style fantasy in which the rules of the world (the 17th century French court or 21st century Hollywood) are just so many amusing but meaningless obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of wine, women and fame.
So if I were reworking another adaptation, here’s what I’d do. First, I would stay with the Musketeers as much as possible. I wouldn’t cut away just to explain the plot – the plot doesn’t need to be explained. I’d only cut away for real drama. The plot, meanwhile, I’d reorder so that the Milady plots and the diamond plot run – as much as humanly possible – in parallel rather than serially. And I wouldn’t even try to explain the diamond plot completely – indeed, I’d play attempts by other characters to explain it to the Musketeers as comedy, making it blatant that nobody can make sense of the court’s intrigues except the Milady de Winters and Richelieus of the world, who hope to thrive by mastering them, while the Musketeers gleefully have no idea why they are sent to do this or that, but simply do it for the glory of the exploit itself, without regard to the political consequences.
This reordering would require changing a bunch of plot, probably even moving the war around. So be it. The important thing is that there continue to be swashbuckling escapades in the second half of the play, that the pursuit of Milady not take a whole hour, and that we not be bored by the ridiculous intrigues.
But really, as the “Entourage” comparison should make clear, the best way to breathe life into The Three Musketeers would be to give up on adapting it as a movie or a play, and make it a television series, just as the original novel was serialized. And not a miniseries – a proper long-form open-ended series. You could ditch the entirety of the original plot, leaving only the key characters and their relationships, and let new writers invite new escapades each episode, while slowly, slowly in the background the Milady plot moved inexorably forward to its inevitable gruesome conclusion, which would dominate the end of, say, the third season.
And for anyone interested in such a project, taking in the current Stratford production would be a perfectly worthwhile bit of script research.
The Three Musketeers runs through October 19th at Stratford, Ontario’s Festival Theatre.