Perhaps because he was already in his middle thirties when his literary career began, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais showed little of the ambitious originality or inventiveness of youth in his plays—most of his plots and character-types were quite consciously derived from the work of others—but he exhibited, from the first, an exceptional understanding of the real world, which he approached with high moral seriousness. Whether somber or lighthearted in tone, whether contemporary or historical in setting, whether traditional or modern in form, the plays of Beaumarchais are all, without exception, centrally concerned with some abuse or injustice in his own society. It is true that all of his plays, even the most somber, end happily and may in that sense be called romantic comedies; yet each play, including the most cheerfully frivolous of them, has an underlying seriousness of theme which is unmistakable. Although he quickly mastered the trick of entertaining the sophisticated Paris public, Beaumarchais never allowed his moralist’s impulse to be obscured by theatrical technique. In his art as in his life, he remained always the passionate and vocal opponent of injustice and fraud: His open advocacy of moral positions was perhaps his most distinctive trait as a playwright.

Through two of his plays, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais redefined the art of theatrical comedy in France, making moral seriousness an acceptable main ingredient of the genre, and gave future generations one of the great character-types in literature with the invention of Figaro. He has had a significant and durable influence on all subsequent theatrical writing in France.

The School of Rakes

Beaumarchais’s outspoken advocacy of moral positions was already fully in evidence with his very first play, The School of Rakes. The focus of the play is a crisis in the life of a young and innocent English lady, Eugénie, who believes herself to be married to a prominent aristocrat, Lord Clarendon, only to learn, by chance, that her “husband” is about to marry someone else. The announcement of that impending marriage reveals to Eugénie that she has been deceived by Lord Clarendon, who staged a false wedding ceremony with the complicity of servants and friends in order to make her his mistress. To make her sense of shame truly complete, Eugénie finds herself newly pregnant just when the crushing truth of her plight emerges. The result is a crisis of despair, followed by a tense confrontation scene with Lord Clarendon as the play’s dramatic climax. The play ends with a genuine marriage between a contrite Lord Clarendon and a forgiving Eugénie, but Beaumarchais’s thrust is plain: His purpose is to attack the immoral cynicism of the powerful nobility, who prey on the innocence of decent young ladies. Surprisingly modern in its viewpoint, The School of Rakes is a protest against high society’s double standard of sexual morality.

The theme of the social victimization of women was probably “borrowed” by Beaumarchais from Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse (1796; The Nun, 1797), which had been written in 1760 and had made the subject popular. Beaumarchais openly claimed Diderot as his inspiration for the form of his play, at any rate, noting in his preface that he admired Diderot’s invention of a new theatrical genre called le drame sérieux— a play neither tragic nor comic but occupying the intermediate ground between the two. It was that middle ground Beaumarchais sought to occupy with The School of Rakes, portraying scenes of great emotional anguish arising out of common human events, rather than events of heroic dimension, and showing the amusing side of human behavior as well, without employing the devices of excess and exaggeration that make up classic comedy. For Diderot, and for his admirer Beaumarchais, the new order of theater, le drame sérieux, was to be above all human, and therefore touching, rather than awe-inspiring as the classic theater had been, because it dealt with human behavior at its extreme limits.

The Two Friends

These theories of Diderot were even more fully put into practice in Beaumarchais’s second play, The Two Friends—more fully because, whereas The School of Rakes had concerned privileged members of the English aristocracy, albeit with very ordinary problems of human relationships, The Two Friends concerns members of the urban middle class, men engaged in commerce and finance, and a drama of bankruptcy and the sense of honor in the world of business. Diderot had advocated a focus on middle-class values in order to make the theater accessible to an increasingly middle-class audience—Diderot’s preferred term was le drame bourgeois —but it proved difficult, after all, to find themes of compellingly high drama among the daily passions of the bourgeoisie. Diderot himself never wrote a successful play, in spite of the persuasiveness of his theory about the imperatives of a truly modern theater, and Beaumarchais had the worst disaster of his career with the play in which Diderot’s theories were most faithfully followed. The Two Friends failed both with the public and with the critics and had to be withdrawn after a few performances in 1770. With characteristic resilience, however, Beaumarchais abandoned le drame sérieux, devised a play with a more frankly comic action reminiscent of Molière, and in early 1775 was represented on the Paris stage with his first genuine success, the play that made him famous, The Barber of Seville.

The Barber of Seville

The basic plot of The Barber of Seville derives from the ancient traditions of farce, and had its most notably successful incarnation, before Beaumarchais, in Molière’s witty comedy L’École des femmes (1662; The School for Wives, 1732). The ingredients of the plot are simple. An apparently innocent young girl is the ward of a tyrannical older man who keeps her strictly isolated from the company of potential young suitors because he intends to marry her himself. In spite of the guardian’s vigilance, however, the not-so-innocent young girl finds a way to make contact with a suitable young man and so defeat the guardian’s evil scheme. Beaumarchais’s distinctive contribution to this ancient plot is the invention of a clever and resourceful character of the servant class—Figaro—who conducts the intrigue by which the young suitor successfully wins the girl. Moreover, as one might expect, the playwright found in the simple comic plot an underlying serious theme to which he proposed to give some prominence: the abuse of the powers of guardianship and the consequent oppression of women.

Perhaps because he feared that such criticism of the social customs of his day might run afoul of the royal censor, Beaumarchais decided to set his play in the Spain of the seventeenth century rather than in the Paris of the eighteenth. To mask the seriousness of his theme, he adopted a tone of cheerful cynicism that pervaded all the dialogue and characterized the attitudes and actions of all the principal players. This tone is precisely established in the very first scene, in which Count Almaviva, in disguise, waits in a Seville street to catch a glimpse of Rosine at her window and sees coming toward him his former valet, Figaro, now a barber and general handyman for anyone who will pay him. The dialogue which ensues is witty, disrespectful, even impudent, but always lighthearted. For example, when the Count reminds Figaro that, as a servant, he had been rather a bad lot, lazy and careless about his responsibilities, Figaro immediately replies: “Yes, my lord, but only in comparison to what is demanded of servant. . . . Considering the virtues expected of a domestic, does Your Excellence know very many Masters who have the qualifications to be Valets?”

Not only is the tone for the whole play set by this witty dialogue, but also the work of exposition is skillfully accomplished; in short order, the reader learns why the Count has followed Rosine from Madrid to Seville, why Doctor Bartholo is keeping her so carefully sequestered, and...

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