Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7878
On 27 April 1784, the most successful play of eighteenth-century France opened at the Comédie-Française: Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais's Mariage de Figaro. Although the play had been accepted for performance by the theater's actors nearly three years earlier (September 1781), only after reports by six official censors, interdiction, a vigorous campaign of letters and readings by Beaumarchais, and finally approval by Louis XVI, could it at last be staged publicly. Friedrich Melchior Grimm's celebrated description of opening night, in the Correspondance littéraire, captures the public's enthusiasm for this controversial play:
Never has a play attracted such crowds to the Théâtre-Français; all Paris wanted to see this famous Wedding, and the theater was filled almost at the moment when the doors were opened to the public; barely half of those who had been waiting since eight in the morning were able to find seats; most entered by force, throwing their money to the porters . . . more than one duchess considered herself too lucky, on that day, to find in the balconies, where proper women rarely sit, a wretched little stool.
Finally the public itself was allowed to judge Beaumarchais's play for themselves rather than accept the king's judgment that it must be suppressed. Finally their desire to watch this infamous entertainment could be satisfied.
Of course all playwrights want their works to be staged successfully. But for Beaumarchais, this opening night was the culmination of a campaign to have his play performed during which he appealed to the public, and to the abstract notion of a public, in a struggle to overturn the king's prohibition. What makes this appeal to the public in a struggle against the king particularly fascinating is that it is also the subject of the Mariage de Figaro itself. Within the play, too, characters appeal to public opinion and public pressure to force an authority figure to modify his behavior. Thus both as a text and as an event, the Mariage de Figaro is about the relationships between the individual, the State, and a new kind of public that is invoked to challenge the authority of the State.
Le Mariage de Figaro is the second play in a trilogy, preceded by Le barbier de Séville (1775) and followed by La mère coupable (1792). In the Barbier de Séville Beaumarchais shows how his heroine, Rosine, becomes a self-determining subject by "freely" choosing a husband, the Count Almaviva, thereby subverting the commands of a despotic parental figure, Bartholo. Rosine's preference for Almaviva takes her outside the bounds of Bartholo's authority, which he has abused by trying to force her to marry him. Rosine repeatedly makes it clear that she loves the Count simply because he will liberate her from her prison in Bartholo's house (‘‘I will give my heart and my hand to whoever can rescue me from this horrible prison’’); the very act of choosing her own marriage partner symbolizes her accession to the status of self-willed individual.
In the second play of the trilogy, Le Mariage de Figaro, Beaumarchais situates several desiring subjects within a larger social context and shows how they create what Jürgen Habermas might term an authentic public sphere in order to critique and control an abusive state authority. Rosine and the Count are now three years into their marriage, but the Count has become promiscuous and neglects his wife. Most seriously, he hopes to obtain sexual favors from Suzanne, the fiancée of Figaro, who had been the Barber of Seville and is now the Count's concierge. In his official capacity as corregidor, or first magistrate, of Andalusia, the Count wants to reinstate a former seigneurial right, the droit de cuissage or the right to sleep with any woman in his domain on her wedding night. The Count's status as state authority and representative of the king is most apparent in act III, when he serves as judge for his domain in a "throne room'' with a portrait of the king above the judge's seat. Although the Count had renounced the droit de cuissage on marrying Rosine, he now hopes to buy it back secretly through a generous wedding gift to Suzanne (note the transition from a system based on noble privilege toward a monetary economy). Figaro and Suzanne are acutely sensitive to the injustice of this intrusion of the Count's authority into their private lives, so during the course of the play they mobilize what could be called public opinion. By the play's final scene, the Count has been humiliated and forced to renounce publicly and officially both his seigneurial rights and his attempt to buy Suzanne (though Figaro and Suzanne still pocket the money). As Jean Goldzink writes, "The central conflict of the Mariage concerns the status of private space under a seigneurial regime. . . . In order to defend this private space, that is, his right . . . Figaro has double recourse to the public order. . . . Thus the play mobilizes two authoritative bodies for appeals against the abuses of power: the law . . . [and] opinion." Or, to use Habermas's terminology, Figaro appeals to the law and to the public sphere to attack and modify the will-based state authority of the Count. (It is worth noting, however, that Almaviva remains in power; there is no Revolution.)
The play opens with a spatial emblem of the intimate sphere: the room in the château that is to be Suzanne and Figaro's bedroom following their marriage. Figaro is happily measuring the dimensions of his property, his private sphere, until Suzanne warns him that the Count intends to penetrate regularly into that private domain and into the body of Suzanne. Part of what Figaro and Suzanne are seeking, then, is what we now call the right to privacy: their sexuality should be their own affair and not the province of state authority and intrusion.
But Figaro and Suzanne have larger aims too, for they also want to force the Count to rein in his own wayward desires and return to his devoted wife (whose bedroom is the setting for act II). The Count learns that he must exercise his mastery not over his subjects' sexuality, but over his own. As Figaro comments to the enraged Count in act V, "You are in command of everything here, except yourself." Le mariage de Figaro suggests that society functions best when individuals not only have the right to use their own reason and desire to make sexual choices but also assume the responsibility for doing so. In addition, the play suggests that the rights and responsibilities of sexuality are best negotiated through ongoing public exchange, involving both sexes and all classes, from the noble Countess, through bourgeois Figaro, to the gardener Antonio and his daughter Fanchette. After the bedrooms of acts I and II and the public spaces of judgment and ceremony of acts III and IV, the final scenes of the play take place in a third kind of spatial setting: in act IV, the characters circulate in the darkened garden of the château, from a "room of chestnut trees'' to two bedroom-like pavilions to a wood in the back. Since we never see the interior of the pavilions, it is as if the characters have succeeded in creating a private space protected from public view, whether that of the State or that of the theater audience. By contrast, the Count's attempted rendezvous with Suzanne takes place center stage, where it is submitted to the scrutiny and judgment of all the other characters.
Because one of the central problems of the play is the Count's uncontrolled desire, critics have often read Le mariage de Figaro as a parable about the need to regulate sexuality with laws; as Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais—not to be confused with Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais!—writes, "But this freedom, the freedom to take pleasure undisturbed both from and in one's own domain, presupposes that everyone recognize henceforth the power of the law as regulating principle of individual appetites." This interpretation seems to me to miss one of the play's most important and original insights, that individual appetite should not be regulated only by law, but by the individual him- or herself, who must learn to recognize and shape his or her own desires. In fact, the one point in the play where the State tries to legislate desire skirts disaster, for the trial on Figaro's contractual agreement to marry Marceline if he can't reimburse the money she has lent him ends in the Count's decision that they should indeed marry; yet the characters then discover that Marceline is Figaro's mother, so that the law's intervention would have resulted, inadvertently of course, in incest; as Figaro exclaims, "It was going to make me do a splendid stupidity, justice was!". Just as in Le barbier de Séville Rosine becomes a public-sphere-ready individual by choosing her own love object, so in Le Mariage de Figaro all of the characters' identities depend on their recognizing their own desires and regulating those desires themselves.
This link between desire and identity becomes most apparent in Figaro's famous monologue of act V, when he reflects on his whole past in an effort to understand who he is. Figaro's fear of Suzanne's infidelity, his failure to control events as he had in the previous play, and his newly discovered parentage have destabilized his sense of who he is. His confusion reaches a kind of paroxysm at the end of the speech, when he exclaims,
One struggles, it's you, it's him, it's me, it's you, no, it's not us; ah! but who then? . . . Oh bizarre series of events! How did this happen to me? . . . and still I say my gaiety without knowing if it is mine more than the rest, nor even what is this "me" with which I'm concerned: an unformed assemblage of unknown parts . . . a young man ardent in pursuit of pleasure . . . master here, valet there. . . . I have seen everything, done everything, used up everything. . . . This is the moment of crisis.
Uncertain of Suzanne's love, Figaro cannot make his beliefs and experiences add up to a coherent identity, a "me.'' It is of course not an accident that this speech is followed by a series of scenes of confused identity: Suzanne and the Countess disguised as one another, Figaro receiving a blow meant for Chérubin, the Count receiving a kiss meant for the Countess, who is dressed as Suzanne, and several moments when the characters' feelings overlap to such an extent that they repeat each other's words (as the Count observes, "There is an echo here, let's speak more quietly''. Only when all the characters' desires have been sorted out can they also recognize their own identities and the identities of the others.
If the play as a whole stages a crisis in identity linked to a crisis of desire, Chérubin, the Count's page, is the very emblem of these interrelated crises. For Chérubin, aged thirteen, is poised between childhood and adulthood and just learning to recognize both his desires and his identity. As he explains to Suzanne:
I no longer know what I am; but for some time my chest has been agitated; my heart palpitates at the very appearance of a woman. . . . Finally the need to say to someone "I love you," has become so pressing to me, that I say it all alone, as I run in the park, to your mistress, to you, to the trees, to the clouds, to the wind that blows them away with my lost words.
He is not sure who he is because he is not sure who he desires, but expressing his desire in language, saying "I love you,’’ is crucial to the process of self-discovery. At this stage in the construction of his identity, Chérubin is both female and male, or perhaps more accurately, he is not fully either, since he is an adolescent: he desires the female characters (or nature!) rather than the males; he is ostensibly of the male sex, but Beaumarchais insisted that the part be played by a woman; twice during the play Chérubin dresses in women's clothes, once even passing himself off as a peasant girl; and the women make much of his beauty (soft white skin, long eyelashes, and so forth). This transitional identity is expressed spatially by Chérubin's suspension between two places, the château and the army; in the first act the Count sends him away, but although throughout the remainder of the play he is always supposed to have left, he never has. In a sense he is nowhere, or in a space between spaces. His status in the social hierarchy is equally suspended, since he is young enough to be called "tu'' by Figaro, but of a rank to merit "vous" when he grows up. One can explain the ambiguity of his character by asserting that he represents adolescence, the age when a person creates or recognizes his or her identity, notably in the process of orienting (or recognizing the orientation of) his or her sexual desires. As Beaumarchais writes in his description of the character, "He is rushing into puberty." Chérubin's combination of masculine and feminine traits and his spatial suspension between château and army can thus be explained as a phase, part of the passage from childhood to adulthood that enables people to become individual subjects and enter into the public sphere. At the end of the play he will leave for the army and become an adult, and central to becoming adult will be becoming definitively male.
However, the Chérubin of the Mariage never completes this transition to adulthood; the play shows him in perpetual transition. Thus Beaumarchais stages a subject in the process of becoming a subject. And Chérubin bears out Judith Butler's argument, in Bodies That Matter, that subjects become subjects by assuming a sex; as she explains, "'Sex' is, thus, not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the 'one' becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility." According to Butler, then, "The subject, the speaking 'I,' is formed by virtue of having gone through such a process of assuming a sex" ("the process by which a bodily norm is assumed, appropriated, taken on"). Chérubin, in the Mariage de Figaro, is in the process of assuming the bodily norm of (male) heterosexuality and becoming a subject. But because Beaumarchais focuses his gaze, and ours, on the process rather than its presumed outcome, on the phase when Chérubin is "appropriating" and identifying with both female and male norms, rather than the time when he has fully assumed his male sex, he draws our attention to what is destabilizing about the construction of identity. Chérubin fascinates and repels the characters within the play as well as the audience outside it because he reveals the threat to heterosexual norms, and more broadly to the social order, in the very process by which subjects are constituted. The male characters in the play, especially the Count, want nothing better than to eliminate the danger Chérubin represents to their social world by inserting him securely into a masculine role as soldier; the female characters, conversely, find his freely circulating, cross-dressing desire fascinating. Apparently the audience repeated this differential reaction, men objecting to Chérubin as immoral, and women falling in love with him (even though the part was played by a woman). Beaumarchais captures the ambiguous erotics of the audience's reaction to Chérubin when he writes in his preface, which was published with the first edition (1785): "He's a child, nothing more. Didn't I see our ladies, in the boxes, love my page madly? What did they want with him? Alas! nothing: it was interest, too; but, like that of the Countess, a pure, naive interest . . . an interest . . . without interest." Conversely, Chérubin may fascinate and repel some of us in the 1990s because he (she?) also exposes the power of the "regulatory apparatus of heterosexuality" working to suppress the threat he represents. Those who know the third play in Beaumarchais's trilogy, La mère coupable, know that this liberty cannot last, that Chérubin will get a name, a baby by the Countess, and death in battle, thus acceding to a norm of masculinity.
In both Le barbier de Séville and Le mariage de Figaro, the characters' explorations of the connections between desire and identity are conjoined by explicit discussion of the value of freedom of expression. In each case the protagonists struggle for the right not only to regulate their own desire but also to choose their own readings; they are as against the intrusion of state authority into what they can write and read as into whom they can love and marry. Beaumarchais suggests that the fight against censorship and the fight against Bartholo's despotic control over Rosine's sexuality, or against the Count's despotic intervention into Figaro and Suzanne's sexuality, are the same, a fight for freedom of expression in the broadest sense. For in Le barbier de Séville, it is the same character, Bartholo, who both attempts to control Rosine's desire and speaks out against freedom of the press; his efforts to block Rosine' s love for the Count are predominantly efforts to block the circulation of letters between them. And in Le mariage de Figaro, Figaro's monologue about his desire and identity also becomes the occasion for overt attacks on abusive acts of state authority, especially censorship. ‘‘How I would like to get hold of one of these men who are powerful for four days,'' exclaims Figaro, "I would tell him . . . that printed stupidities are only important in places where their circulation is blocked; that, without the freedom to blame, there can be no flattering praise; and that only small men are afraid of small writings." These attacks were supposedly what most aroused the king's wrath and led him to ban the play. According to Mme Campan's (probably apocryphal) account in her 1822 Mémoires, Louis XVI leapt up during the reading of this scene and exclaimed, ‘‘It would be necessary to destroy the Bastille for the performance of this play not to be a dangerous contradiction.’’
Beaumarchais communicated this conception of individual freedom of expression as much through the relationship he created between the play and its readers or viewers as through the play's plot and themes. For Beaumarchais wanted to incite in his audience both a desire to see his play and a sense that they had a right to judge it for themselves. This dual purpose shaped his campaign to get the play performed. He had to struggle for three years for the king's permission to have the play staged publicly; one of his principal claims to all the court and government officials to whom he pleaded his case is that the public should be allowed to judge the play for themselves, rather than submit to the authority of the king's or the censor's interpretation. As Beaumarchais explains to the Lieutenant de Police, "This trifle only became important to me because of the tenacity with which it was treated as a public wrong of mine, without the public being allowed to judge it for themselves.'' Similarly, to the Baron de Breteuil (minister of the Maison du roi) he writes, "I persisted in asking that the public be judge of that which I had destined for the public's entertainment." Beaumarchais even urges the king to judge for himself rather than be swayed by others' opinions. In the prefatory material accompanying the publication of both the Barbier and the Mariage, Beaumarchais stresses the public's role of judging his work. "You must be my judge absolutely, whether you want to or not, for you are my reader'' he warns in the Lettre modérée; "You cannot avoid judging me except by becoming null, negative, annihilated, by ceasing to exist in your capacity as my reader." And in the epistle dedicated "to the people mistaken about my play [Mariage de Figaro] and who have refused to see it'', he reminds readers "that one knows men and works poorly when one has faith in other people's judgments'', and that the only pure basis for judgments is "the advice . . . of their own enlightenment.''
In order to counteract the king's state authority and give people the right to judge his play for themselves, Beaumarchais mobilized public opinion by giving many private readings of the play in salon and court circles. Beaumarchais tried to use even the royal censors to help garner support for his play. Before he would allow a private, court performance at Gennevilliers, for example, he writes that first he "wished absolutely to fix public opinion with this new examination [by another censor]", and later he explains to the king that he had hoped to justify his play by forming a kind of public tribunal that would include the royal censors but also people of letters, men of the world, and court personages:
Wishing more and more to justify a work so unjustly attacked, the author begged M. the Baron of Breteuil to agree to form a kind of tribunal composed of members of the French Academy, censors, people of letters, men of the world, and persons of the Court, both just and enlightened, who would discuss in the presence of this minister the basis, the content, the form and the diction of this play.
Apparently such a meeting did take place, following the favorable report of the sixth censor, but this passage could also be taken as a broader characterization of Beaumarchais's way of manipulating court and salon social circles as well as various administrative authorities. And challenged by this "public sphere," Louis XVI’s prerogative authority succumbed.
In order to mobilize the public in favor of his play, Beaumarchais needed to arouse their desire to see the play performed. Gifted publicist that he was, Beaumarchais succeeded in seducing large sectors of the court and salon public, and evidently, given the ultimate success of the play, the lower sectors of society as well. He gave many private readings, but never so many as to satiate his audience; as Félix Gaiffe remarks, "He wasn't slow to give in, though with some coquetry, to the numerous demands for private readings which came to him from all sides; there was general curiosity about this work that had had the gift of exciting the actors and scandalizing the king." The sexual component in this coquettish seduction of the public is blatant in the statement with which Beaumarchais prefaced his salon readings of the play:
A young author supping in a house was asked to read one of his works . . . he resisted. Someone became angry and said to him: You resemble, Monsieur, the clever coquette, refusing to each that which underneath you are burning to grant to all.
—Coquette aside, replied the author, your comparison is apter than you think, beauties and authors often having the same fate of being forgotten after sacrificing ourselves. The lively and pressing curiosity a heralded work inspires resembles in a way the ardent desires of love. Once you have obtained the desired object, you force us to blush for having had too few charms to make you settle down.
. . . but (added the young author), in order that nothing be lacking in the parallelism, having foreseen the result of my action, inconsistent and weak as beauties are, I give in to your entreaties and will read you my work.
He read it, people criticized it; I am going to do the same, and so are you.
In this prefatory image, Beaumarchais and his text become a blushing young woman, wildly desired by the public but perhaps insufficiently attractive to hold their interest once sexual favors have been granted. Thus Beaumarchais had to manage his public, to awaken and sustain their lust. He was so successful that when the first scheduled private performance, at the Salle des menus plaisirs at court, was canceled by the king literally at the last minute, the desiring spectators were outraged; as Mme Campan describes it in her Mémoires, "The King's interdiction seemed an attack on public liberty. All the disappointed hopes excited so much discontent that the words oppression and tyranny were never spoken, in the days preceding the fall of the throne, with more passion and vehemence." Surely Campan, writing after the Revolution, exaggerates, but her description shows how powerfully Beaumarchais had inflamed his public. Finally the king gave in to the desires of court and city, and on the night of the premiere, as I have already described, the play's success was spectacular.
But Beaumarchais's publicity campaign continued even after his play had reached the stage. On the night of the fifth performance, printed epigrams were thrown from the fourth loges; the verses criticized the immorality of the characters and attributed all of their vices to the author. From the start, it was suspected that Beaumarchais himself had written the verses to attract further publicity for his play. In celebration of the play's success, and to bolster lagging attendance, Beaumarchais also arranged that the proceeds of the fiftieth performance would be donated to nursing mothers. As the playwright explained to the actors of the Comédie-Française, "If no advantageous marriage is made without opposition, so too none lasts happily without a celebration of its fiftieth: this is what I am proposing today." This charitable scheme was announced in the Journal de Paris and on the night of the performance several couplets alluding to it were added to the play's final vaudeville. By the following day more epigrams were circulating, of which the following is a malicious example: "Nothing good comes from the evil, / Their good deeds are imaginary; / Thus Beaumarchais at our expense / Performs murderous charity: / He buys milk for babies / And gives poison to the mothers." The play might help feed babies, but their mothers, in the audience, are being corrupted by it. All of Beaumarchais's advertising paid off; in the year following the opening, the play was performed an unprecedented sixty-seven times.
Beaumarchais never forgets the role of desire in the relationship of reader to text or performance. Readers and viewers must feel an almost sexual lust for his work if they are to be willing and able to judge it for themselves. Two of the most fascinating images Beaumarchais uses to characterize the performance of his play reveal his awareness of the centrality of the body in literary reception. In a letter to M. de La Porte, Beaumarchais characterizes the process of producing the play as childbirth, with the actors as midwives and the public as onlookers:
When the time has come to give birth to a play before the public, one must, in faith, classify this operation as a serious matter. . . . So are the actors, my midwives, all ready? A censor who felt my stomach in Paris said that my pregnancy was going well. Several practitioners from Versailles have since claimed that the baby was coming out wrong: it has been turned around.
The play, like a baby, is conceived in physical desire: "It's a matter of life and death for the child conceived in pleasure." And several times in his correspondence and in the preface to the play Beaumarchais refers to the process of getting the play performed as a marriage; as he writes to Breteuil early in 1784, "And if it is true that no marriage takes place in this country without great opposition, in reading this description you will admit that if one judges the quality of a marriage by its obstacles, none has experienced so many of them as the Marriage of Figaro." In a letter inviting the abbé de Calonne (brother of the minister) to dinner on opening night, Beaumarchais combines the images of marriage and childbirth into one:
attend, attend, my andalusian barber does not want to celebrate his marriage without your official support. Like a sovereign, he will use placards to invite one hundred and twenty thousand people to his wedding. Will it be gay? That I don't know, I conceived this child in joy, may it please the gods that I give birth to it without suffering; I already feel some pains, and my pregnancy has not been happy.
If a play is a marriage between audience and actors or actors and text, as well as a child conceived in pleasure, it would be wrong to describe the audience's role as one of abstract, purely rational judgment. The public is expected to judge, but that judgment is inextricably intertwined with pleasure and desire. Beaumarchais's theatrical exploration of individual desire in its relation to the public sphere and the State, and his three-year struggle to ensure the performance and success of his work, reveal his recognition that the individual reader or spectator is constituted precisely by the interdependent abilities to judge and to desire for him- or herself.
In Beaumarchais's play the construction of the public sphere depends on the bodies as well as the minds of its participants (if any such rigorous distinction were even possible). Yet the notion of the public sphere has come under considerable attack recently, and the attacks tend to share the assumption that the public sphere requires subjects to become abstracted or disembodied. Because the public sphere does not grant a place to the body, it favors one particular social group: white males. This radical perspective is perhaps most intelligently argued by Michael Warner in his brilliant book on the public sphere in eighteenth-century America, The Letters of the Republic. Warner sees the public sphere as an outgrowth of "print capitalism," in which public discourse and the market are mutually articulated. For Warner, the private subject "finds his relation to both the public and the market only by negating the given reality of himself, thereby considering himself the abstract subject of the universal (political or economic) discourse." And not only must the subject negate his particularity, especially his body, in order to participate in this abstract, universal discourse but also some subjects have a privileged relation to what is supposedly universal. Educated white males may experience print culture as universal, but women, blacks, or illiterate men do not, and even those elite white males experience print differently if they are communicating with someone more powerful than themselves. As Warner explains, "No one had a relation to linguistic technologies—speaking, reading, writing, and printing—unmediated by such forms of domination as race, gender, and status." To reduce Warner's subtle and elegant argument to its bare outlines, then, one could say that he attacks the public sphere because, in his view, it requires people to become disembodied minds, and some people are in a better position than others to carry out this self-disembodiment.
It is indisputable that originally the public sphere did privilege educated white males, and that there will always be individuals with more cultural capital to facilitate their own participation. But even some of Warner's own examples belie his claim that people had to negate their bodies in order to communicate publicly about public issues. This claim rests on a belief that all language is alien to the body, that written language is further from the body than spoken language, and that printed language is further still than written. It is as if Warner were yearning for a time before we became alienated from ourselves through technologies of language—a yearning that in light of recent scholarship seems a nostalgic attempt to separate language from the body and get back to the "given reality'' of ourselves. Our bodily experiences cannot be disentangled from the language through which we have access to them and which helps make us sexed and raced human beings; language can never be purged of the body and transformed into an abstract, rational instrument. Warner also risks essentialism by suggesting that women and blacks are closer to their bodies and more alienated from language than men. Education, family background, and societal pressures certainly made and continue to make it more difficult for some social groups to have their writings published, or even master standard grammar, and thus to gain access to the public sphere, but these problems of access are contingent rather than constitutive.
It is not only critics of liberalism, however, who associate the public sphere with disembodiment; most twentieth-century liberals make the same association. The liberal position might be epitomized by Ronald Dworkin in his review of Catharine MacKinnon's 1993 book on pornography, Only Words. Although Dworkin argues that pornographic expression should be protected by the First Amendment, he wants to make his own abhorrence of pornography absolutely indubitable. In his critique of MacKinnon's antipornography position, he explains that we must grant everyone, even Nazis and pornographers, an equal right to attempt to influence the nation's policies and "moral environment." But Dworkin takes pains to distance himself from pornography ("almost all men, I think, are as disgusted by it as almost all women''), and above all he asserts that pornography can never actually contribute to public debate:
The conventional explanation of why freedom of speech is important is Mill's theory that truth is most likely to emerge from a "marketplace'' of ideas freely exchanged and debated. But most pornography makes no contribution at all to political or intellectual debate: it is preposterous to think that we are more likely to reach truth about anything at all because pornographic videos are available.
Thus Dworkin implies that the body and its desires cannot possibly have a role in the public sphere.
My analysis of Beaumarchais's Mariage de Figaro suggests that, contrary to the claims of both today's liberals and their critics, people become public-sphere subjects through a process of assuming their corporality, especially their sexuality. Habermas's theory in fact implies a crucial role for the body because of the importance it grants to the conjugal family as site for the formation of individuals ready to enter into public sphere discussion. For, as the example of Beaumarchais suggests, the public sphere can only come into being at times and places when people believe they are individuals, and the construction of individual subjects is inextricably bound up with sexuality. Free speech and liberalism were made possible in part, then, by the changes in marriage practices during the eighteenth century, whereby people increasingly chose their own love objects rather than obey parental authority. Choosing a marriage partner symbolizes the larger process of becoming aware of one's position in various networks of heterosexual and homosexual interaction and ultimately in the social order as a whole. Paradoxically, this apparent freedom to choose one's identity is also linked to an emptying out of identity. As J. G. A. Pocock has noted, "The citizen of the modern commercial republic enjoys unrivalled opportunities to diversify, to emancipate, to criticize, to transform his-and-her-self, but pays the price of not knowing what that self is or whether one has a self at all."
At the same time that sexuality began to be a domain of individualizing choices, analogous changes occurred in reading practices: increasingly, people decided for themselves what and how to read and questioned the authority of books. Roger Chartier, Rolf Engelsing, and others have argued that in Europe during the eighteenth century reading became more mobile and individualistic, less communal and obedient, as increasing numbers of less durable texts were produced. According to Roger Chartier, "A communitarian and respectful relation to the book, made up of reverence and obedience, gave way to a freer, more casual, and more critical way of reading . . . a new relationship between reader and text was forged; it was disrespectful of authorities, in turn seduced and disillusioned by novelty, and, above all, little inclined to belief and adherence." Once readers had many books to choose from, books, like lovers, needed to seduce readers, to arouse their readerly desire. Thus reading (or watching a play) contributed to the formation of individual subjects in several ways, as people chose what to read, made reading a pleasurable and solitary activity, fell in love with fictional characters, or identified with fictional feelings and situations. Although Chartier does not mention Beaumarchais, the relationship Beaumarchais encourages with readers and viewers, as I have described it above, exemplifies the new position of books and plays in late-eighteenth-century culture.
Beaumarchais's mobilization of public opinion reveals not only the resemblance between literary and sexual desire but also a disturbing connection between the public sphere and publicity or advertising. Readers and viewers desired Beaumarchais's play and demanded that it be performed partly because Beaumarchais had seduced and manipulated them into desiring it. One of the inevitable consequences of the new relationship in the eighteenth century between books and readers—as well as between lovers—was this need to mobilize desire: in short, to advertise. Nevertheless, although this hint of a similarity between Beaumarchais's publicity campaign and twentieth-century advertising may threaten any attempt to idealize the Enlightenment, it need not invalidate Beaumarchais's contribution to the public sphere. Whatever Beaumarchais's ideological or financial motives, his play still incited the desires and judgments of viewers and thereby helped engender public sphere subjects.
Paradoxically, while radical critics of today such as Michael Warner attack the public sphere for its alleged disembodiment, some eighteenth-century radical critics of Beaumarchais accused him of granting too large a role to the body. From what might be termed a republican perspective, the linguistic playfulness and eroticism in Beaumarchais's plays and other writings rendered him politically suspect. Such criticism might be seen to confirm the connection between liberalism and the body even while it complicates our understanding of Beaumarchais's political position. In his wonderful book Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, Thomas Crow accepts the judgment of the eighteenth-century critics whom he studies, when he characterizes Beaumarchais as hopelessly mired in obsolete aristocratic values, such as sensuality, ambiguity, and stylishness. Again like the critics he cites, Crow admires the painter Jacques-Louis David, who becomes the book's hero and telos, for expressing the new values that were to produce the Revolution, such as virtue, truth, and severe rejection of the erotic. Crow criticizes Beaumarchais for favoring Mme Kornmann's liaison with an aristocrat rather than supporting the claims of her bourgeois husband and for writing a play that celebrated sexual immorality and linguistic playfulness, thereby losing touch with what the public wanted. As Crow explains,
Play with meaning, the nuanced terrain of humor and sexuality, "les tons variés," no longer appealed to a public which had arrived at a precarious political consciousness attending to the dour single note sounded by Kornmann's defenders. The politically-aware element of the Parisian populace now indeed believed that [to cite Jean-Louis Carra] "the language of virtue cannot allow, in the direct construction of its sentences, any vague and uncertain nuance."
David's paintings, exemplified by the Oath of the Horatii, appeal to that "largely bourgeois" public by rejecting "sensual appeal and emotional nuance", so that "everything is abstracted; no form calls on the complex, learned routines stored in our bodily memories", and "the effect of the [Oath of the] Horatii is to deny freedom to the play of the imagination, a play which . . . always has an erotic component." During the Revolution David's paintings become even more explicitly representative of the will of his audience, now the nation as a whole; he is commissioned to paint the Oath of the Tennis Court, and later his Death of Marat becomes a cult object. For Crow, then, Beaumarchais represents the corrupt aristocrat unable to bring about any political change, the villain playing opposite the heroic and revolutionary David.
But surely the playwright of the Mariage de Figaro, who pleaded for the rights of authors, provided arms to the American revolutionaries, and schemed to make money from every situation, is not best understood as an aristocrat. The values expressed in both his life and his most celebrated play are surely those of the exchange economy that was becoming increasingly pervasive in Europe by the 1780s. As Suzanne Pucci argues in a fascinating recent article, "The Currency of Exchange in Beaumarchais's Mariage de Figaro," the play portrays a monetary, exchange economy in which values are arbitrary and fluctuating. This fluctuation disrupts "the symbolic and representational system coextensive with the ancien regime.’’ For Pucci, Beaumarchais's play is "innovative and subversive" precisely to the extent that it shows how individual identity is emptied out and rendered unstable by this exchange economy. As she concludes, "To signify promiscuously is not solely a trait of a decadent aristocratic culture but can be, as I believe it is in this case, a function of a different system at work that empties older structures of their value in favor of a new economy of signification.''
If Beaumarchais's values were subversive of aristocratic culture, why then were Antoine-Joseph Gorsas, Jean-Louis Carra, and Jacques-Pierre Brissot so eager to label him as tainted by the aristocracy? In order to grasp Beaumarchais's position, both subversive of the Old Regime and threatening to radicals, it is useful to bracket the labels "bourgeois" and "aristocrat." The two sets of values represented by David and Beaumarchais might better be termed classical republican and liberal. Neither of these categories aligns simply with the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy. In Virtue, Commerce, and History, J. G. A. Pocock argues that classical republicans, or civic humanists, privilege virtue, land as guarantor of personal liberty, and each citizen's participation in government (think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as David); liberals, on the other hand, privilege exchange, property that is mobile or even purely speculative, people's rights, and manners. While Beaumarchais eludes the distinction between bourgeois and aristocratic, he can be quite fairly described by the term liberal. Pocock's terms in fact help explain what is otherwise obscure in Beaumarchais: the combination of claims to political rights with linguistic ambiguity and erotic sensuality. As Pocock writes,
Economic man as masculine conquering hero is a fantasy of nineteenth-century industrialisation. . . . His eighteenth-century predecessor was seen as on the whole a feminised, even an effeminate being, still wrestling with his own passions and hysterias and with interior and exterior forces let loose by his fantasies and appetites, and symbolised by such archetypically female goddesses of disorder as Fortune, Luxury, and most recently Credit herself. Pandora came before Prometheus: first, because to pursue passions and be victimised by them was traditionally seen as a female role, or as one which subjected masculine virtù to feminine fortuna; and second, because the new speculative image of economic man was opposed to the essentially paternal and Roman figure of the citizen patriot. Therefore, in the eighteenth-century debate over the new relations of polity to economy, production and exchange are regularly equated with the ascendancy of the passions and the female principle. They are given a new role in history, which is to refine the passions; but there is a danger that they may render societies effeminate.
Republican values are seen as male and ascetic: masculine virtù, the paternal citizen patriot; the new liberal values, in contrast, are seen as female and sexualized: passion, luck, imagination. Although David's revolutionary republic requires disembodiment, liberal democracy was from its beginnings associated with sexuality and the body. Yet, as becomes clear during the French Revolution, both liberalism and republicanism were to have their part in challenging the Old Regime. Perhaps one could say that while David comes closer than Beaumarchais to expressing the national will in its most revolutionary phase, between 1792 and 1794, Beaumarchais may be closer to expressing the sexualized, pluralistic liberal ideology that came to dominate in France once the revolutions were over. Beaumarchais's appeal to individual rights, which disturbed the king, and his staging of sexuality, which disturbed the Left, should not be detached from each other. It is their perhaps surprising conjunction that enables us to see the centrality of embodiment to the liberal public sphere. If the Marriage of Figaro was censored by the king, considered revolutionary by its author and by Napoleon, and disdained by radicals, it was as much because of the relationship Beaumarchais developed with his audience as because of the content of the play; and within the play, as much because of the valorization of individual desire as because of the critiques of political authority.
It is my contention, then, not just that the body and its desires should contribute to the public sphere, but that in fact they always have. To return to my quotation from Ronald Dworkin, it may very well be the case that individuals in the twentieth-century United States are better able to constitute themselves as individuals and thus participate in public sphere debate because pornographic videos are available. Think, notably, of how gay and lesbian pornography might help individuals recognize and validate their own desires and thus take new political positions in the public sphere. In response to radical-left critiques of the public sphere, I have argued that the public sphere subject was never disembodied, and that it is precisely the presence of the body that made almost inevitable the historical changes we have been witnessing, whereby people of color, women, and now gays and lesbians fight for and obtain a place in the public sphere dialogue. The example of Chérubin reveals with particular explicitness the potential for change built into the way public sphere subjects are constructed. Chérubin ends up conforming to the sexual norms of his society once the play is over, but for the space of the play he threatens those norms and thus disturbs both characters and audience. Beaumarchais's prolonged gaze at the process by which subjects are constituted shows us the likelihood that the process will destabilize the norms even as subjects are assuming them. The arrival of every Chérubin and every Figaro in the public sphere means a potential disruption and modification of the public sphere, as their bodies and words enter the dialogue.
But Beaumarchais's play does not just portray the subject's entry into the public sphere, it also incites desire and language in viewers, and thus helps construct public sphere subjects in the external world. His text deliberately solicits an erotic reading. If David's paintings, as described by Crow, block all bodily and imaginative response through rigorous abstraction and univocality, Beaumarchais's play encourages such response through ambiguity and sensuality. His very language speaks to our bodies as well as our minds. The play itself and all the documents surrounding it, from the dedication and preface to letters written to actors and government officials, make clear that Beaumarchais worked hard to ensure this dual address. Thus Le mariage de Figaro demonstrates how body and language are mutually imbricated in the process of the desiring subject's entry into the public sphere and at the same time encourages practices of reading and viewing that embody that mutual imbrication. For the space of the play, every reader or spectator becomes Chérubin, choosing what to desire and who to be, suspended in the moment of assuming social norms.
Source: Elizabeth J. MacArthur, "Embodying the Public Sphere: Censorship and the Reading Subject in Beaumarchais's Mariage de Figaro," in Representations, Vol. 61, Winter 1998, pp. 57-72.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5830
Beaumarchais' Mariage de Figaro is a mixture of ingredients so perfectly combined, it would be almost perverse to strain out any single element and call it the essence. The play is everything at once: situation comedy, farce, comic opera, parade, comedy of manners, erotic comedy, social satire, drame bourgeois, comédie larmoyante, revolutionary indictment of the system, plea for unwed mothers and women's liberation, and so on. The action shifts focus constantly, and each time a new strand comes by the audience must catch on as best it can. If we look behind the play to its literary "sources" we find likewise a pleasantly heterogeneous jumble of overlapping fragments. Behind the character of Figaro stands a virtually endless line of impudent theatrical valets stretching from the plays of Marivaux, Dancourt, Regnard, and Molière all the way back to the comedies of Terence and Plautus. Count Almaviva, that jealous thwarter of young lovers, also falls heir to an abundant theatrical ancestry, going back at least to those hindering and slightly ridiculous fathers of ancient Roman times. Jacques Scherer reminds us that in the character of Suzanne we find something of the innumerable Dorines and Lisettes of Molière, Marivaux, and how many others in the eighteenth century. Plays by Vadé and Rochon de Chabannes may have suggested, in germ, the scenes between Chérubin and the Countess; the trial scene may look back to the Wasps of Aristophanes, or to Rabelais, or to Les Plaideurs of Racine, among other possibilities. When Chérubin hides in the Countess' cabinet, is he not reenacting the same situation we find in Scarron's La Précaution inutile and in Sedaine's La Gageure imprévue? The scene in which the Count makes love to his own wife, believing her to be someone else, may be borrowed from Dufresny's Le Double veuvage (1702) or Vadé's Trompeur trompé. As for the main plot of Figaro, W. D. Howarth has found records of no fewer than five plays antedating Figaro, all bearing the title "Le Droit du seigneur." One of them is by Voltaire.
Certainly it is helpful to know about literary antecedents such as these. Yet, when one gets through reviewing the "sources" of Figaro, perhaps the most striking conclusion one reaches is how far short they fall of Beaumarchais. Voltaire's Droit du seigneur resembles the plot of Figaro only in the most general and mechanical way, with innumerable differences of detail. There may be other plays in which a young page or écuyer makes love to an older woman during the absence of her husband; yet, in their cheapness, they only make us appreciate still more the gracious subtlety and discretion we find in Beaumarchais. Put all the valets of theatrical tradition together, even adding the Picaro progeny into the bargain, and how close are we to Figaro in his great monologue? Perhaps such a chasm between the "sources" and the emergent work is to be expected when one is dealing with a truly original author. Certainly the gap exists with Molière, as many scholars have observed.
We note, too, that for other plays by Beaumarchais literary sources are strikingly more important than they are for Figaro. La Mère coupable (1792), the last play of the Figaro trilogy, is literally dominated by Molière's Tartuffe, and Beaumarchais reminds us of this in the play's subtitle, L'Autre Tartuffe. Le Barbier de Séville (1775), the earliest of the Figaro trilogy, clearly looks back to the long line of comedies typified in Molière's Ecole desfemmes. It is a conventional play in the best sense, bringing to a new perfection données that are quite traditional. In short, whereas the two other plays of the Figaro cycle fall rather neatly into recognizable literary traditions, Figaro would appear rather as an exception.
We reach curiously similar conclusions if we compare Figaro and Le Barbier from the standpoint of the unities: whereas in Le Barbier the traditional unities of time, place and action are observed to perfection, forming an integral part of the play's structure and actually intensifying the comedy, in Figaro they really are not. Even though the play conforms to the letter of the rules, aesthetically Figaro never achieves unity, at least not in the way Le Barbier does. The locus of the play actually shifts, from the bedroom at the beginning, to increasingly larger rooms in the château, and finally into the parc, impelled as it were by the gathering energy and excitement of a plot that simply will not be contained within four walls. In a sense, the play is breaking out of the unity of place. The same is true of the action: though the theme of Figaro's marriage may provide a pivot around which most of the incidents revolve, aesthetically one is hardly aware of any unity. The plot unfolds as an endless series of surprises, adventures, novelties, and incredible happenings, worlds apart from the centered harmony one experiences in a play by Molière. And then, the character of Chérubin—unless one goes to desperate lengths to allegorize him as Eros—does not really belong anywhere in the main plot, though he is probably the author's most inspired creation and a frequent object of our concern and delight. The unity of time is also stretched beyond the point of credibility on this frantically crowded day. In short, whereas knowledge of both literary sources and structural conventions is quite helpful in enabling us to enjoy some of the finer and more original qualities of the two other plays in the trilogy, with Figaro, on the other hand, such knowledge really has little to do with the play's unique qualities, and sometimes it may actually hinder us from enjoying them: if one embarked on a determined search for the unities in Figaro, in the same way one finds them in a play by Dancourt, one might be forced to conclude—quite wrongly—that Beaumarchais was a less successful author.
The truth is, rather, that we have not been looking in the right direction. For, despite Beaumarchais' worship of Diderot and Molière, literary traditions are not the key to this particular play. The unique comic spirit of Figaro is not literary; it is something far less learned and more spontaneous. What actually gives the play its special qualities, while at the same time underpinning much of its structure and provoking most of its laughter, is a whole series of children's games. Of course, Le Mariage de Figaro observes the unity of place: it just moves from playroom at the beginning, to playground at the end. It observes the unity of action also, largely because, throughout the plot, the Count is "it."
The "game element'' in Figaro makes it virtually unique not only in Beaumarchais' trilogy but in the tradition of the French theatre before him. In this connection, it is useful to observe as a point of contrast that in an author such as Molière laughter is usually associated with some insight the audience has into character: the blind infatuation we see in Orgon, for example, gives a sense of rightness, almost of inevitability, to the absurd line "Le pauvre homme!’’ Dorine's earthy directness, as against the vulnerable sensibilities of Mariane, is what makes ‘‘Vous serez, ma foi! tartuffiée’’ such a choice moment in the play. This is to say that Molière, in his great comedies, usually engages our maturity and our understanding while making us laugh: we are mirthful—in part at least—because we are wise about human character.
But let us now consider the first act of Le Mariage de Figaro, with Chérubin rushing to hide behind the chair as the Count comes in, and then the Count hiding behind the chair while Chérubin crouches on the seat underneath Suzanne's dress, and then the Count getting "caught" when he forgets to hide, and finally Chérubin getting "caught'' too in the most droll and surprising way. Such terms as "comédie d'intrigue," or even "lazzi," are really quite inadequate to describe this situation, because the tension and laughter of this scene are the tension and laughter peculiar to a game of hide-and-seek: the suddenness of the movements, the daring and completely unexpected improvisations of hiding places, the complete seriousness of the players' efforts to escape the person who is "it," the near-discoveries, even the ironic feeling of inevitability connected with the catch at the end—all these things belong specifically to children's games. In contrast to Molière, the identity of the players, or the individual qualities they may possess, are of relatively minor importance. Indeed, the same person can completely change character during the game, as the Count does when, having been the "seeker," he turns suddenly into a "hider" and crouches in a rather undignified manner behind the chair, just as Chérubin had done, and for once actually gains a measure of sympathy from the audience. Nor are we here in the traditions of the farce: the coups de bâton, in fact all the punishments that bring on laughter when performed by clowns, have little to do with the universe of hide-and-seek. What causes the laughter in this scene of Figaro is simply the suspense connected with being caught, and when, finally, Chérubin is caught, the tension is broken and a new round can begin. Coups de bâton are not really the point of the game.
For Chérubin the game of hide-and-seek goes on throughout the entire play; he seems to be endlessly turning up in new and unpredictable hiding places: fleeing into the Countess' cabinet, disappearing into the pavillon, disguising himself as a girl, or even jumping out the window when all else fails. Occasionally, he becomes a chaser himself, running after Suzanne to snatch the Countess' ribbon, or to make her give him a kiss. No one else is a game player to this literal degree in the play, but then, no one else, except his partner Fanchette, is so young.
The games Figaro plays with the Count are more sophisticated and slightly more adult. They are mainly verbal, whereas Chérubin's are not. For example, in act II, scene XXI, the Count backs Figaro into a corner with question after question concerning the incriminating officer's brevet that Chérubin had dropped while falling from the window. Figaro runs out of inventions and seems to be on the verge of revealing the truth, when, in the nick of time, whispered help is relayed from the other members of the team; Figaro learns the magic phrase "le cachet manque'' and is made safe. Or again, in act III, scene V, the Count attempts to find out whether Figaro knows of his designs on Suzanne. This time, not only do his thrusts fail to hit home, but, in a series of "turnabouts," they leave him wide open to half-disguised insults from Figaro . . .
Whenever the situation is reduced to a sort of verbal guessing game, the symmetry of the game tends to make the players equal, and, just so long as Figaro is able to invent responses that literally satisfy convention, the Count has no choice but to accept them. In fact, merely by asking the question the Count has tacitly agreed to let Figaro go free if he can come up with an answer to his devinette. In the world of children's games both the hiders and the seekers obey the rules as law.
This is the reason the trial scene fits so perfectly into the general ambience of the play, although to critics looking for the conventional unities or for vraisemblance this part of the action has proved something of an embarrassment. It is true that the scene fits awkwardly into the main plot; moreover, it is entirely legitimate to wonder, as critics have done, why a person as familiar with real courts as Beaumarchais should deliberately create a "tribunal de fantaisie'' quite unrelated to actual judicial procedure. The answer may be that, from the start, the audience never takes the trial seriously as a trial. Realistic details would only impede our enjoyment of such marvels as the legal wrangle over the copulative conjunction "et." It is a mock trial, of course, the merest game of "courts of law,'' with a pasteboard Brid'oison as judge, and everyone enjoying Figaro's inventiveness as he talks his way around the absurd evidence. There are occasional political overtones of a very serious nature in this scene, as there are in many other parts of the play; yet, precisely because they are held in suspension, diffused, so to speak, in the atmosphere of the games being played, they may deepen the tone, but they never become obtrusive. Johan Huizinga has pointed out that even real court procedures involve many "play elements," and in the trial scene of Figaro, play simply becomes the essence.
Reading the book on children's games by Iona and Peter Opie, one is tempted to conclude that the tension between the seeker and the hiders, between the one who is "it'' and the others who are not, has a good deal of the tension between the old and the young about it: what is being played out by children in these games may be the fundamental contest between the parent and the child. In hide-and-seek the game's playful tone and the deliberately limited scope of the action imply that there can be no true heroes, or villains, among the players—even though the hiders have all our sympathies, since they are the ones who are vulnerable to being caught, while there is something almost inherently distasteful about the role of "it." Likewise, in Figaro there is no truly heroic character, nor does the Count qualify as a truly unpardonable villain, even though he is certainly unpopular enough: feared by Chérubin, taunted and jeered at by Figaro, mocked by Suzanne, and deceived even by the Countess. The audience enjoys all this because it disapproves of both the Count's determination to press an unfair advantage and the promiscuity of his marital infidelities. Yet this is surely not the whole explanation, for in his own way Chérubin is quite promiscuous also, and when we learn in La Mère coupable that eventually the Countess is supposed to have a child by Chérubin, we may revise our feelings somewhat about the Count's suspicions of him in the earlier play. Pomeau remarks that Figaro is not really so innocent either, and, given the ambiguous character traits he inherits from Beaumarchais himself, we may conjecture that were he in the Count's place he would not behave any better than the Count does. However, we are willing to forgive Chérubin and Figaro for practically anything they do, partly because they are so young, partly because they have so little while the Count, the establishment personified, has so much, and—perhaps most of all—because as hiders they are vulnerable to being caught, and the Count is after them.
But then isn't the play in many ways a celebration of childhood—with gay songs to sing, a march to walk in step to, a "tableau vivant" to pose in, costumes to dress up in and disguises to wear, and even a kind of seesaw as Marceline and Suzanne curtsey back and forth to one another? At the end, during almost the whole of act V, there is a grand game of blindman's buff, held just as it is getting dark—the time when the best hiding games are always played—with several players exchanging clothes to deceive the "blindman," the way real children do.
Actually, this last game is the most elaborate, and the entire cast takes part; even Marceline and Brid'oison get into the act somehow. There are three main rounds, with darkness serving as a blindfold: first Chérubin plays with the Countess, thinking he has caught Suzanne; then Figaro plays with Suzanne, thinking he has caught the Countess; finally, the Count plays with his own wife, thinking her to be a mistress. Thus, in rapid succession each of the three principal masculine characters has been "it," and has managed in a very short time to flirt with the wrong lady. Once there is even an extra layer of confusion as Figaro discovers that the person he took for the Countess is really Suzanne, and then turns the tables on her by feigning to have designs on the lady whose costume she wears. In the world of children's hiding games such "turnabouts" may occur with almost magical speed, and in Figaro swift surprises such as these account for a good deal of the hilarity of the play's dizzy pace which gets faster and faster as it approaches the end. But with blindman's buff, to watch the person who is "it" mixing everyone up is only half the fun; almost the best part comes when at last the light of torches brightens the stage and, one by one, the characters emerge from the dark pavillons. Then the Count learns how blindfolded he really has been, while we, the audience, just like the other players, have the pleasure of watching his dumbfounded amazement when he learns the true identity of those he has been trying to catch. Virtually everywhere in Le Mariage de Figaro we find the unifying spirit of child's play.
Even in the play's eroticism childhood, or adolescence—and Beaumarchais does not clearly distinguish between them—seems especially important: the Countess' feelings for Chérubin are aroused precisely because he is a child as well as a man. On a more comical level, we find a mixture, too, in Marceline as her desire for Figaro gives way to feelings that are mostly maternal, and she embraces him in as motherly a fashion as she can. If Figaro sheds his first tears, it is because, though a grown man, he finds himself like a lost child brought home to his mother. How often the characters in the play fall momentarily into a kind of reverie: the Count and the Countess both experience this, the former for reasons of jealousy, the latter for reasons of love. Figaro's monologue is the most striking example, as we will see.
And yet, all this changes at the end, when the numerous pieces of the topsy-turvy plot return once and for all to their right places; the Count is beaten, the game is won, and the marriage really will take place. Meanwhile Chérubin, that timid little boy with his girlish complexion, has, almost miraculously, grown up and become a man. His game is ended too, and instead of running to hide, he now stands and faces the Count, even starting to draw his sword when he feels threatened by him. Seeing this gesture, one is tempted to infer that in the case of Chérubin, the beginning of manhood is symbolically a moment of revolution. One might say something similar about the character of Figaro and about the general spirit of this play, that in many senses ushers in a new age.
Cervantes, writing with poignant irony of the great analogy between the theater and life, has observed that the end of a play, too, has its counterpart in our existences—in death itself. Perhaps this explains the tinge of sadness one feels during the final vaudeville of Figaro: the falling curtain is bringing to an end the part of life, and the time in history, when one knew the joys of hide-and-seek. There are other reasons, too, as the second part of this chapter will suggest.
B. The Monologue
Though the character of Figaro may be seen as deriving from a variety of stock theatrical types, the single one he relates to most obviously is the "impudent valet" in the classic "guardian and ward'' plot—which is always the same: a beautiful girl is being held under lock and key by a ridiculous old man, a dragon, bent on matrimony. Enter a handsome young hero, who is smitten with love at the mere sight of her, and who then uses the devices of his ingenious valet to out-fox the old guardian, and get the girl for himself. This kind of play, as ancient as the Greeks and Romans, had crystalized into a sort of perfection in the modern Classical period, in Molière's hilarious farce, Les Fourberies de Scapin. When we first meet Figaro, in Beaumarchais' Barbier de Séville, he, too, is behaving rather like the wonderfully brash valet of Molière's comedy. Indeed, Beaumarchais' valet in the early play is so winningly clever he almost steals the first act of Le Barbier for himself. From then on, however, the Count comes more and more to dominate the action, and Figaro's function is reduced to the traditional one, that of conjuring away by his clever inventions the numerous impediments that keep the lovers apart. When Rosine's elderly guardian has been outsmarted, the play ends, naturally, in matrimony— an indispensable ingredient of the traditional plot. For in essence this play always celebrates the permanent triumph of love over the external hostilities that threatened it, even as youth wins out over old age. In one version of this ancient play, the impudent valet was actually a god in disguise.
If the valet's dominant trait was, typically, inventiveness, the lovers, by contrast, were at best characterized by near helplessness, and at worst by mental deficiency. The first pair of lovers in Molière's Scapin are a good example: their passion has apparently paralyzed their intellectual capacities, and their breeding has rendered them so exquisitely sensitive, so utterly lofty, that they can no longer cope with real life. This is why, in the classic situation, only a servant could help them, for by definition a servant is disengaged from true passion (a great help to his mental powers), and, theoretically at least, he has never done anything else in life but untangle its baser realities. The disparity between the elevation of the lovers and the dubious morality of the valet was translated also in the width of the social gap separating the two. Thus in Scapin the lowliness of the valet was counterbalanced by the wealthy bourgeois origins of his masters. In Beaumarchais' schema, such as we find it in Le Barbier de Séville, the gap was wider still, since the master was so pointedly a nobleman. And indeed, perhaps this plot, though it can exist in any period, was most at home in an aristocratic environment where the separation of functions, with feeling and nobility on one hand, and practicality and intelligence on the other, can be imagined most easily as reflecting the structure of society. No doubt this was why, having achieved such a lively perfection in the theatre of Molière and Beaumarchais, it became one of the temporary casualties of the French Revolution.
Le Mariage de Figaro is a far more complexly conceived play than Le Barbier de Séville; nevertheless it still features part of the classic plot: Figaro is still behaving very much like a traditional clever valet as he devises stratagems to bring off a marriage. Moreover, one of the results of his inventions is that, at the very end, the Count will be reunited in love with the Countess—no doubt a vestige of the classic situation. But of course the fact that the main matrimony Figaro is so busily improvising is his own completely upsets the original balance, leaving the traditional plot dangling in incompletion, in fact lacking the essential half that had always given it, morally, a sense of fulfilment: in the classic situation the audience gladly tolerated any amount of impudence, wiles and deceits on the part of Scapin, not merely because we all secretly envy someone who can so charmingly disregard the restrictive laws of society, but because his dubious activities at the same time are fully counterbalanced in the plot, indeed they actually help preserve the finer and more noble qualities we enjoy in the hero and heroine. Because he is so clever, they can remain pure. So it was absolutely inevitable that, despite all his fourberies, Scapin would finally be invited to join in the banquet at the end of Molière's play: everyone knew that it was only thanks to him and his dubious stratagems that virtue had won the day.
What we find in the first four acts of Le Mariage de Figaro, on the other hand, is a great deal of impudence and devious devices by the valet, tricks and games of all sorts, but morally there is no counterpoise: instead of a noble hero we are given a corrupt Count, almost a villain. And the valet de chambre we are left with in these early acts clearly does not yet fill the bill as hero. Though he is constantly measuring himself against the Count, and sometimes besting him in their verbal fencing matches, he is still, in essence, behaving according to type, as the impudent valet. Moreover, these skirmishes are minor affairs, the main one, over the Count's attempts to seduce Suzanne, still remaining unresolved. Even the revolutionary implications of these contests may not, so far as we can tell, go beyond those we find in the first act of Le Barbier de Séville: for all we know, they may eventually fizzle out, submerged in some larger dramatic situation, just as they had done in the earlier play. Meanwhile, as we watch the progress of the action, our interest wanders almost at random from the romance between Figaro and Suzanne, to Chérubin's getting caught, to the Countess' unhappiness over her husband's negligence, to Figaro's lawsuit and the Marceline subplot, and so on. The play doesn' t have a dramatic centre, and in a sense the many scholars who have criticized it for not being unified were quite right. But then, one could hardly expect the action to have much focus so long as the play lacked such a key piece as its hero.
Le Mariage de Figaro gets a hero and finds its centre only in act V, during Figaro' s great monologue—a unique moment in eighteenth-century theatre, if only for its extraordinary length. No other monologue in a "regular" comedy even approaches its size. To find monologues so gargantuan in proportions, monologues that contained such astonishingly diverse elements they are virtually whole plays in themselves, as this one is, one has to look back to the pièces en monologue of Piron's time, and these, to be sure, since they were the direct result of a rather peculiar sort of theatrical oppression, were devised to serve other purposes and had a very different cast to them.
Figaro's monologue is outlandish in a way all its own. In this connection, it may be useful to report that in actual Parisian performances, the monologue sometimes becomes not merely an incidental mishap, but a general catastrophe that does in once and for all the entire production. The play is already so long—again breaking all eighteenth-century records for comedy in France—that to bring the action to a dead halt so near to (although it actually turns out to be so far from) the end, just so that this valet can indulge himself in streams of consciousness, rambling thoughts about one thing and another, broken by all those pauses, musings and vague ideas that finally decide not to go anywhere after all, leaving us with trois points de suspension . . . this is a strategy fit to strain the patience of even the mildest gods of retribution. It may be an act of self-preservation to grope for the exit without waiting for the end.
Obviously the monologue demands the kind of superlatively great actor that Dazincourt might have been, someone whose skill can make an audience oblivious to the midnight hour and charm them into finding him alone to be just as enthralling as a whole stageful of characters, someone worth breaking the momentum of the action for. And since there is, dramatically, so much at stake in Figaro's monologue, one can easily understand why it can lead to total déroute, as well as—I presume—to exhilarating success. For in this enormous scene the play either creates, or fails to create, its hero. That is the possibility—or the problem. There don't seem to be any other Classical comédies constructed in quite this way, although certain tragedies, notably the famous ones by Corneille, also have monologues, moments of deep reflection like this one, in which the budding hero determines whether he will, or will not, achieve his essence. In these plays by Corneille he always does; and, in retrospect, the right decision was inevitable, because, even though he did indeed have free choice, it was a question of remaining true to a nobility that was a birthright, and hence an inherent part of his character. With Figaro, in contrast, it is a question of turning a servant—someone often associated with clowns in theatrical tradition as we have seen, almost a sort of puppet in the eyes of his master—into a hero, even a man.
Sagacious Diderot once remarked that, in effect, the notion of identity in an individual depends totally on knowledge of the past (or memory): if we had no idea of who we had been, we wouldn't have any idea of the kind of person we are. Perhaps Beaumarchais was thinking along these lines as he composed his monologue, for, as he reinvents Figaro, refashioning him to be a three-dimensional human being, he endows him with a long and diverting past, full of drama and incident, and this serves first of all to deepen our sense of his identity. He also gives him a many-faceted personality, displaying him as someone capable of expressing a wide range of emotions, from impudence and good-humored defiance to deepest melancholy; someone whose picaresque life—in and out of jails, knocking about from pillar to post—takes on new seriousness as we realize Figaro's keen sense of social injustice.
Now, Figaro is recreated here, not merely as some vague reflection of the author's own personality, as so many critics have maintained, but according to strict principle, and one that illustrates the attraction of the contrary to a kind of perfection. It is as if the intensity of this historic moment on the eve of the Revolution had imbued the familiar phenomenon of contrariness with all the potential force it had been accumulating in so many authors during the century. In this play the dynamism of opposition generates, momentarily, something like an explosion.
We have already been aware of the long theatrical tradition that represented noblemen and their valets as opposites—sometimes even to the advantage of the latter—but now Beaumarchais pushes this classic opposition to its extreme limits, so that it becomes a true antithesis. Figaro is triumphantly reconstructed to be an anti-nobleman: quite precisely everything that, according to the traditional stereotype, noblemen never are. Since noblemen by definition have noble lineage, Figaro has no family background at all—his wit replaces his genealogy; since they—as their noble particles imply—always come from a given place and are geographically fixed, Figaro comes from nowhere, constantly changes location, and is all the freer and more effective for not being tied down; they were never gainfully employed, therefore Figaro masters a dozen skills and occupations—clear proof of his superiority; they were pillars of the Church, therefore Figaro devotes himself to attacking religious abuses; they were hostile to freedom of the press and economic reform, therefore Figaro champions both, and becomes everyone's hero; they were soft and decadent, therefore Figaro is strong—vitality and youth personified.
This is no minor matter, for Figaro's energetic negations of nobility amount to a liberation: simply by coming into being as an antithesis he has denied the old order, deliberately cancelled out the ancien régime, and, in the freshness of his strength and intelligence, he embodies all that is most joyous in the Enlightenment's idea of life's possibilities. Since this emergent hero in his monologue has succeeded in imposing the values he represents, now in his triumph he threatens to take on all the aristocratic prerogatives of the character he has supplanted. The tables are turning decisively, the renversement, the Revolution is on its way to completion. In short, Beaumarchais' Mariage de Figaro doesn't have a hero, it acquires one, and with him the play gains not only the shape and dramatic focus, but the revolutionary significance it lacked before.
Hopefully this interpretation will seem plausible and consistent, for it certainly is part of the message the author is seeking to convey. And yet, staggering thought, it is by no means the whole story. For in addition to all the taunting defiance and impudent self-assertiveness, this monologue also contains one moment of self-doubt so problematic as to bring all the rest, everything that has been asserted, into question. The fact is that just a few lines before the end of the monologue, we see our newly formed hero, his plumes barely dry, on the verge of losing confidence completely. The famous anti-aristocratic principle that, even a moment before, had given such zest to the recounting of his life, now wears so thin it just spins in the air, barely able to sputter, while the tale of his adventures, as it reaches the present, ends in something very much like meaninglessness. Coming down in his narration to the here and now, he discovers that his existence has no more illusions, that everything is worn out. Instead of achieving a new identity through his negative outbursts, he realizes he does not even know who he is . . .
The scandalous circumstances under which the play was originally put on, the incredible drama of Beaumarchais' efforts to get his comedy publicly performed in spite of, or because of, the King's interdiction, the mere fact that the great Revolution was only six years away, all this rightly politicizes our view of this work, for Beaumarchais was quite aware of how combustible the situation was in which he was so heedlessly striking sparks. Yet at the same time the exhilarating, giddy timeliness of Le Mariage de Figaro should not blind us to the strength of its ties to the past. This was the last great pre-Revolutionary, the last great Classical, comedy anyone would produce in France. And in the beautiful costumes so carefully indicated by the author, in the flirtations in the Countess' apartment, in the clever impudence of the valet, in all the things making up the lovely idleness that is the very stuff of Beaumarchais' play, we are enjoying the aristocratic pleasures of the social structure the author himself was helping to bring down.
Source: Walter E. Rex, "The Marriage of Figaro," in The Attraction of the Contrary, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 184-96.
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