Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

Beaumarchais first completed The Marriage of Figaro in 1780. Although the Comédie Française accepted it for production in September 1781, the play took several years to gain the approval of the official censors because of its theme of rebellion. During this period, however, it was played in salons and at court, where it brought out conflicting opinions among the audience. Madame Campan reported in her Mémoires that King Louis XVI denounced the play, proclaiming: "It is hateful, it will never be played. . . . That man mocks everything that is to be respected in government.’’ After a private performance of the play was given in honor of his brother, the king relented. Beaumarchais also had made several edits to the play, including changing the location of the play from contemporary France to old Spain, which made the comedy less objectionable.

The premiere of The Marriage of Figaro finally took place in April 1784 at the Comédie Française, though the struggle to get the play produced was not quite over. Suard, one of the censors who refused to give his approval, continued to attack Beaumarchais. When Beaumarchais made it known that he planned to ignore Suard, having had to fight "lions and tigers'' in order to win the play's approval, the king, believing that Beaumarchais included him in this characterization, sent him to prison. However, Beaumarchais was freed on the fifth day with the king's apologies.

The Marriage of Figaro was an immediate, resounding success among its aristocratic audience. In French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century, Geoffrey Brereton sums up the play upon its opening as having ‘‘quite enough dynamite . . . to make this appear a dangerously, or excitingly, revolutionary play.’’ Despite its criticism of the class order, the play enjoyed a record run at the theatre. However, as Joseph Sungolowsky writes in Beaumarchais, "Eighteenth-century audiences did not fail to see the far-reaching social and political implications of the Mariage amid its joyfulness.’’ Baronne d'Oberkirch was one aristocrat who went to see the play and was angry at herself for laughing at it. Cynthia Cox quotes the Baronne in The Real Figaro as writing that the "nobility showed a great want of tact in applauding it, which was nothing less than giving themselves a slap in the face. They laughed at their own expense. . . . They will repent it yet. . . . "

Despite its popularity, the play and its author still drew criticism based on the astonishing themes that ran through this long play. After it had been running for a year, Beaumarchais wrote a lengthy preface to the work in which he defended its morality. Among other declarations, Beaumarchais asserted that he never intended to criticize the French aristocracy, justices, or military.

One of the most shocking ideas that the play raised was that a nobleman and a commoner could come into a conflict that was eventually won by the member of the lower class. Critics over the years have considered the play's illustration of class struggle. Annie Ubersfeld notes in her introduction to Le Mariage de Figaro Napoleon Bonaparte's opinion of the play: it portrayed ‘‘the Revolution in action.’’ However, Sungolowsky notes that while "[C]ritics have carefully weighed the theory of Beaumarchais as a revolutionary . . . most of them discard it.''

While Beaumarchais has consistently enjoyed a high critical stature in France, where he is seen as instrumental in transforming the comedic play, his work is far less known in the English-speaking world. Although Thomas Holcroft first translated Le Mariage de Figaro into English at the time the play appeared in France, no modern English edition appeared until 1961, when Jacques Barzun published a new translation. Since then, several other editions have been published, but there is still little English criticism of Beaumarchais's work. Those critics who do exist, however, praise The Marriage of Figaro robustly. Sungolowsky calls it a "sublime masterpiece'' whose message about the rights of the individual ''remains eternally universal.''

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism