Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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In 1772, Beaumarchais wrote his first version of The Barber of Seville as a comic opera, complete with Spanish airs, or melodies, he had collected on his trip to Spain. When the play was rejected by the Comédie-Italienne, a group of Italian actors playing in France, Beaumarchais decided to transform it into a play for the Comédie Français, France’s national theater. The play was set to be staged in early 1774 when rumors started that it included allusions to earlier legal run-ins Beaumarchais had had with a French judge. The production was forbidden. Finally, in February 1775, the play was mounted as a comedy in five acts. To the delight of Beaumarchais’s numerous enemies, the French audience found the play too long and drawn out. Beaumarchais’s friend Gudin de la Brunellerie (quoted in John Richetti’s ‘‘Pierre- Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’’) explained part of the problem: ‘‘The comedy that enchanted us when we read it was too long for the theater. Its superabundance of wit surfeited and fatigued the audience.’’ Beaumarchais revamped his play swiftly, editing it down to four acts and producing it again a scant two days later. This abbreviated play enjoyed instant success. Madame du Deffand was at both performances and recalled (quoted in Richetti’s ‘‘Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’’), ‘‘At first it was hissed, yesterday it had an extravagant success. It was exalted to the clouds, and applauded beyond all bounds.’’

Within a year, The Barber of Seville had been translated into English and performed on stage in England; over time, it was translated into most European languages. In 1785, the royal court at France’s Palace of Versailles even performed the play, with Marie Antoinette acting the role of Rosine and the Comte d’Artois, King Louis XVI’s brother, acting the role of Figaro. Today, along with The Marriage of Figaro, it remains one of the only French eighteenth-century comedies to survive as part of the modern comedic theater.

Despite its great success, some critics nevertheless attacked the play, along with the stylistic devices employed by its creator. Some of Beaumarchais’s contemporaries disliked his manner of allowing his characters to speak directly and without affectation. These critics believed that by allowing his characters to attack French mores he violated the overruling decorum that prevailed upon the French stage. The critic for the Journal de Bouillon lodged numerous criticisms against the play, which he found to be ‘‘low comedy,’’ alleging that it had no plot, that its action was implausible, and that Rosine was a ‘‘badly brought-up daughter’’ (as quoted by John Wells in an introduction to Beaumarchais’s The Figaro Plays). One of Beaumarchais’s main impetuses for writing the foreword to his play was to contradict such public statements.

Beaumarchais has consistently enjoyed a high critical reputation in France, where he is seen as instrumental in transforming comedy by emphasizing social discourse over formal style. However, his writings have received far less attention in the English-speaking world.

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