Natasha's Cliff Notes on The Lady of the Camellias

"The Lady of the Camellias" is a French tragic play based on Alexandre Dumas (the younger) 1848 novel by the same name, (it is sometimes referred to as "Camille"). The play was adapted for the theater by Dumas in 1852 and then for the opera by the composer Verdi's 'La Traviata' in 1853. The play became a favorite of audiences in the late 19th century.

The story is set in Paris during the mid 1800's.

The lead heroine is Marguerite Gautier, a young beautiful courtesan who is a "kept woman" by counts and dukes -- men of "Fashionable Society". She meets a young middle class lover Armand Duval who does the unpardonable thing of falling jealously in love with her and breaking all convention of what's expected between a courtesan and her admirers. He, of course, has no way of sustaining the standard of living which she is accustom.

In her fragile physical state (Marguerite has tuberculosis which we learn later) she moves to the country. There in her new house, a confrontation between the jealous Armand and her rich admirers and "benefactors" takes place. For the first time she sticks up for her lover -- making a life choice -- and they are left indignantly and alone. 

Armand becomes depressed, his career seems doomed by the intolerance of French society, and knowing he will never be able to support Marguerite to the level she deserves. Unbeknownst to Armand, his father comes to plead for her to leave Armand to save both his son's reputation and that of his younger innocent sister -- whom is also tainted by the scandal. To prove her love, she agrees and leaves Armand. She returns to Paris where she despairingly throws herself back into her old lifestyle. Armand can't believe she's left and searches for her -- finally finding her in Paris in the arms of a new lover.

Time passes.

The two accidentally meet again in public.  Marguerite is now in the company of a another beautiful courtesan and Armand begins "paying court" not with her but with her friend trying to strike back at Marguerite out of his own sense of hurt. Deathly ill, Marguerite visits Armand one last time to plead that he stop humiliating her, and they make love again -- both unable to deny the passion for each other. But Marguerite is haunted by guilt that she can only harm Armand and remembering her promise to his father -- she abandons him yet again as he sleeps.

Armand is incensed when he wakes. Finding Marguerite at a grand ball with all society around, he approaches her and hands her an envelope stuffed full of money "Here! Payment for your services. She collapses as he walks out.

Abandoned by all her friends from the humiliation of Armand act, exposed publicly for what she really is, she dies penniless, painfully and alone -- cast off by all the men that used her.

In prologue, Armand is given Marguerite's diary in which he finally learns of her illness and her undying love for him along with the extent of anguish that he caused.


The play was performed for years by the the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Then later, equally, though differently, portrayed by the italian actress Eleanore Duse. Both were women in Sarent's world.

Greta Garbo played the part in the 1937 movie called "Camille".

Most recently, the story was loosely retold in the 2001 movie musical "Moulin Rouge" with Nicole Kidman in the lead.

For more on french courtesans, see Henri Gervex's "Rolla"