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*Seville. Though a real Spanish city, Seville is never portrayed as a real place. However, it provides a pretext for Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais to mention stereotypical Spanish customs, such as singing to the accompaniment of a guitar, an instrument regarded as exotic in France in the 1770’s, and to include spurious supporting color by naming other real places in Spain, such as Madrid, the provinces of Extremadura and Andalucía, and the mountains of Sierra Morena.
Bartholo’s house. Street scene set outside Bartholo’s house enables Beaumarchais to have the count and Figaro meet by chance and to have the count’s hat pulled down low because of the rain, so that he is not immediately recognized. The street decor emphasizes Rosina’s window, later to be seen from inside, through which a note is thrown and through which the conspirators, having stolen the key, will enter.
Rosina’s apartment. With its locked window, this is where Bartholo keeps his ward away from outside contacts, athough Figaro and the count gain access to the apartment. Bartholo’s removal of the ladder from outside the window constitutes the useless precaution which, by preventing the count’s escape, ironically ensures his triumph by trapping him in the apartment with Rosina, the notary, and enough witnesses to have their marriage legally registered.
*Madrid. Spain’s capital city is mentioned several times, partly to emphasize that the action is not taking place in France and partly because it is here that the count first glimpses Rosina. Seville is far from Madrid, and the count’s determination to pursue her so far emphasizes the strength of his passion.
*France. France merits a single ironic mention, when Bartholo contrasts French courtesy toward women, unfavorably as he sees it, with less liberal social attitudes in Spain.
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France on the Brink of Revolution
Though France was the largest and most powerful nation in Europe during the 1700s, it experienced serious domestic discord by the middle of the century. French society had long been stratified. French people belonged to one of three legal, social, and political classes, called estates. The First Estate consisted of members of the Roman Catholic clergy, who made up less than one percent of the population. The Second Estate consisted of members of French nobility, who made up less than two percent of the population. People were born into the Second Estate, but they also could purchase titles, as did Beaumarchais. The Third Estate consisted of everyone else in France, from the peasants to the bourgeoisie, and constituted about ninety-seven percent of the French population. Neither the First nor the Second Estate paid any significant taxes, thrusting France’s growing financial burden upon those who could least afford it.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), France was left with huge debts. King Louis XV, who ruled France from 1715 to 1774, raised taxes, borrowed money from bankers, and refused to economize. Under his successor, Louis XVI, France’s debts continued to rise as the country aided the colonists in the American Revolution. While Louis’s financial advisers advocated taxing the First and Second Estates, the nobles protested, refused to cooperate, and even rioted when such taxes were proposed.
Throughout this period, France’s Third Estate also experienced growing discontent. Peasants were forced to pay higher rents, and laborers’ wages did not match the rising cost of food. The bourgeoisie— the urban middle-class—wanted a rise in their status equal to their economic strength. They wanted greater political power, less governmental interference in business dealings, and important positions in the church, government, and army for their sons. The Third Estate also resented being the only group to pay taxes. All these factors forced France to the edge of financial ruin in 1787, when bankers refused to lend the government any more money.
Having little choice, Louis XVI called representatives of all three estates to the Estates General, a meeting at the Palace of Versailles in May 1789. He hoped that the group would approve his new plan of imposing taxes upon the wealthy. However, the Third Estate refused to follow the old custom that called for each of the three representative bodies to cast a single collective vote. This custom had long allowed the top two estates to outvote the Third Estate. When the king closed the meeting with no action being taken, the Third Estate, on July 17, 1789, declared itself the National Assembly. This action began the French Revolution, which brought an end to the French monarchy.
The French Theater
French drama developed greatly in the 1600s. France’s neoclassical period dominated the seventeenth century. Pierre Corneille wrote more than thirty plays. While most of his plays followed Aristotle’s precept of unity of time, place, and action, Jean Racine introduced a simpler style with more realistic characters and plot structures. Molière, a comic genius, explored social, psychological, and metaphysical questions. The works of these playwrights remain mainstays of French and world theater. Other playwrights who contributed to the development of French drama during this period include the romantic playwright Pierre Marivaux and the absurd comic Paul Scarron. Beaumarchais drew his subtitle for The Barber of Seville from a Scarron short story.
The 1700s ushered in fewer great developments; however, Beaumarchais introduced exciting changes into French comedy, such as social discourse, rapid action, lively dialogue, and complex intrigue. While his plays were explicitly comedies, with fun-filled plots and schemes, they implicitly underscored and critiqued social abuses of contemporary society.
In the 1700s, many educated Europeans began to question traditional rules and mores that had long guided society and politics. This change of ideas and attitudes was known as the Enlightenment, and its great thinkers were called philosophes (French for philosophers). The philosophes wanted to perfect themselves and society, and, to this end, they inspired a growing sense of individualism and personal freedom. Significantly, they also believed in the basic equality of all people, which stood at odds with governmental and social systems throughout Europe.
France was an important location for the development of Enlightenment thinking. Many political ideas that are still current today, such as separation of powers and popular sovereignty, came from French Enlightenment thinkers. The Baron de Montesquieu published The Spirit of Laws in 1748, in which he defined the perfect government as one in which powers are separated among different branches to prevent any single branch from becoming too powerful. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in the inherent goodness of all humans; he thought that society was what corrupted people. In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau described his perfect society as one composed of free citizens who created their own government, according to their will.
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In his two earliest plays, Beaumarchais tried to uphold the dramatic theory known as the bourgeois drama, which was an attempt to replace the neoclassical forms of drama with subject matter and method more suited to contemporary times. Bourgeois drama was serious drama written in simple prose that emphasized moral instruction in modern social contexts. However, Beaumarchais’s bourgeois dramas were generally critical failures, and, with The Barber of Seville, Beaumarchais abandoned the bourgeois drama and embraced pure comedy. The essential plot derives from comedies stretching back to the Greek New Comedy circa 300 B.C.E. However, as John Richetti writes in European Writers, ‘‘what made his [Beaumarchais’s] play much more than popular farce is . . . the irrepressible wit and cascading linguistic vivacity.’’ The comic tone of the play is embodied in Figaro, who, Beaumarchais writes in his foreword to the play, is ‘‘a comic, happy-go-lucky fellow who laughs equally at the success and failure of his enterprises.’’
The characters in The Barber of Seville are stock characters; they represent archetypes dating back to ancient Greek drama. Figaro derives from the wily slave or servant; the Count and Rosine represent the young lovers; Bartholo is the aging man who attempts to thwart the relationship; Bazile is the fool who possesses hardly an ounce of common sense. Beaumarchais also makes use of two character types popular in Spanish entremeses, which were after-dinner entertainments held in private homes: the itinerant Spanish barber, represented by Figaro, and the comic sacristan, whom Beaumarchais has transformed into Bazile.
Many critics have pointed out the parallels between Figaro’s adventures and those of his creator, Beaumarchais. John Wells writes in his introduction to The Figaro Plays, ‘‘Figaro became Beaumarchais’s spokesman on stage, and the three plays represent a kind of autobiography.’’ Both Figaro and Beaumarchais began their careers as dramatists in Spain. Both men dreamed of a more liberal future, in which a person’s social class mattered less than his personal ability.
Figaro is introduced to the audience while he is composing a comic opera. It is in his monologues, however, that the resemblance is more substantial, as Figaro refers to life experiences that often match those of Beaumarchais. For example, like Beaumarchais, Figaro has become an author, one of those ‘‘beset by . . . their critics, their booksellers, their censors, the people who envied them, and the people who imitated them.’’ Figaro’s recitation of traveling ‘‘philosophically through the two Castiles, La Mancha, Estremadura, Sierra Morena, and the Andalusia, being acclaimed in one town, jailed in another, but always on top of events; praised by these people, denounced by those people . . . laughing at my misfortune’’ evokes Beaumarchais’s own travels around Europe. While today’s audiences generally are ignorant of such allusions, Beaumarchais’s audience understood the subtle attacks on those who attempted to stand in the dramatist’s way.
Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and A Mother’s Guilt, make up a trilogy. The Barber of Seville, the first play, focuses on Figaro’s successful plan to win the hand of Rosine for the Count. The Marriage of Figaro places former conspirators Count Almaviva and Figaro at odds, as Figaro must use his resourcefulness to protect his fiancée from the amorous yearnings of the Count. The final play in the trilogy, A Mother’s Guilt, finds the Count and Countess and their loyal servants, Figaro and his wife, living in France.
Although the plays form a trilogy, several inconsistencies appear among them. Notable is the shift in the Count’s character. In The Barber of Seville, he is a smitten young lover devoted to Rosine, but in The Marriage of Figaro, he is a lecherous husband who attempts to exercise his legal rights as lord of the manor to deflower his vassal’s wife on her wedding night. Another signifi- cant inconsistency is the setting. The first two plays of the trilogy take place in Old Spain, while A Mother’s Guilt takes place in Revolutionary France.
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1770s: France is a monarchy ruled by King Louis XVI, who holds absolute power. Throughout the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophers increasingly call for new governmental institutions.
Today: France is a republic headed by a president who is elected by popular vote to a sevenyear term.
1770s: Only about one-third of the population is literate, and the vast majority of those who can read are male. Outside the aristocratic and upper bourgeoisie classes, few women can read and write.
Today: France has a literacy rate of 99 percent.
1770s: French women lack the rights afforded to men. For instance, the father is the absolute authority of the family, and males usually supersede females in inheritance rights.
Today: Laws guarantee women political, economic, and social rights equal to those of men. However, French women still earn less money than men and hold fewer high-level jobs and, at home, they complete about 80 percent of the domestic tasks.
1770s: The nobility, who make up less than two percent of the population, enjoy special privileges such as the right to collect feudal dues from peasants. Nobles hold the highest positions in the army and government. Members of the Third Estate, however, may purchase titles and thus enter the aristocratic class.
Today: A French aristocratic class still exists, but many members of this class work for a living. Class distinctions are generally accepted in France, and many class divisions remain rigid, even though children of all classes attend state schools.
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The Barber of Seville was adapted to a fouract opera, Il barbiere de Saviglia, in 1782. Giovanni Paisiello wrote the music, and Giuseppe Petrosellini wrote the libretto. A three-act comica opera, also entitled Il barbiere de Saviglia, was performed in 1816, with music composed by Gioacchino Rossini and a libretto written by Cesare Sterbine. While it was initially unfavorably received, partially because Paisiello’s opera was so popular, it has since been recognized as one of Rossini’s masterpieces. Numerous recordings of it are available. By the early twentieth century, at least nine more operatic versions of The Barber of Seville were written and performed.
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Brereton, Geoffrey, French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, Metheun & Co. Ltd., 1977, pp. 237–55.
Dunkley, John, ‘‘The Barber of Seville: Overview’’ in Reference Guide to World Literature, 2d ed., edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.
Grendel, Frédéric, ‘‘The Barber of Seville,’’ in Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro, translated by Roger Greaves, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1977, pp. 134–45.
Reish, Joseph G., ‘‘Revolution: Three Changing Faces of Figaro,’’ in the Michigan Academician, Vol. IX, No. 2, Fall 1976, pp. 135–46.
Richetti, John, ‘‘Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais,’’ in European Writers, Vol. 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984, pp. 563–85.
Wells, John, ‘‘Introduction (I),’’ in The Figaro Plays, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, translated by John Wells and edited by John Leigh, J. M. Dent, 1997, pp. xvii– xxii.
Hayes, Julie C., The Age of Theatre in France, edited by David Trott and Nicole Boursier, Academic Printing & Publishing, 1988. This volume collects essays about the French theater in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Howarth, William D., Beaumarchais and the Theatre, Routledge, 1995. Howarth analyzes Beaumarchais’s plays and their critical reception in the context of the political and theatrical events of the period.
McDonald, Christie, ‘‘The Anxiety of Change: Reconfiguring Family Relations in Beaumarchais’s Trilogy,’’ in Modern Language Quarterly, March 1994, p. 47. McDonald discusses the depiction of familial relations in The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and A Mother’s Guilt.
Sungolowsky, Joseph, Beaumarchais, Twayne, 1974. Sungolowsky presents a good overview of Beaumarchais’s life and literary accomplishments.
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Cox, Cynthia. The Real Figaro: The Extraordinary Career of Caron de Beaumarchais. London: Longmans, 1962. Focuses mostly on Beaumarchais’ many other activities, particularly diplomacy. Places The Barber of Seville in the context of Beaumarchais’ traumatic trial. Provides much information on early performances, such as the one in which Marie-Antoinette played Rosine. Illustrations and bibliography.
Grendel, Frédéric. Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro. Translated by Roger Greaves. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977. Interprets the figure of Figaro as Beaumarchais’ complete alter ego, the two having a similar ability to keep reinventing themselves for new situations. The complicated plot of The Barber of Seville demonstrates this ability at its best. Illustrations and selected bibliography.
Ratermanis, J. B., and W. R. Irwin. The Comic Style of Beaumarchais. New York: Greenwood Press, 1961. Interesting scene-by-scene analysis of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro and discussion of what makes the comedy work on stage. Stresses that Figaro, as the central character, sets the plot of The Barber of Seville in motion without being affected by the consequences himself, unlike the situation in The Marriage of Figaro.
Sungolowsky, Joseph. Beaumarchais. New York: Twayne, 1974. Concise biography, including an account of the development of The Barber of Seville from a parade (brief comic sketches) through an opera comique to its present form. Stresses Beaumarchais’ honing of his playwriting skills and his ability to reinvent comic traditions and character types.
Wood, John. Introduction to “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” London: Penguin, 1964. Excellent concise discussion of the plays and their social context. Sees The Barber of Seville as more concise and “manageable” than The Marriage of Figaro. Edition includes Beaumarchais’ own notes on the characters and their costumes.