How Comedy is Used to Raise Social Issues
The subtitle of The Marriage of Figaro, ‘‘A Single Mad Day,'' indicates the complexity of the intrigue that faces Figaro and the other characters on the day of his proposed marriage. What neither the title nor the subtitle indicate, however, are the more serious issues that Beaumarchais raises in his play. One of the most significant messages, and the one that led to the play's initial censorship, is that the lower classes should be given the opportunity to resist and even compete with the upper classes. Writes Joseph Sungolowsky in Beaumarchais, ‘‘Insofar as it [the play] claims the rights of the illegitimate child, of women, and of the individual to enjoy his freedom and to obtain a fair trial, it remains eternally universal.’’
On one level, despite the ever-changing plot machinations, the intrigue is very simple: Figaro, servant to the Count, wants to marry the woman he loves, Suzanne, who is the Countess's maid. The Count, however, is determined to seduce Suzanne. These two men come into conflict as each strives to thwart the other and achieve his desire. The Countess, upon learning of her husband's faithlessness, decides to teach him a lesson and plans with Suzanne to trap him. Meanwhile, Suzanne, who knows that Figaro is busy trying to foil the Count, does not alert him to the Countess's plans. Thus, deception is crucial to the plot. The ways the characters deceive each other, and the extents to which they go, render the play comic. Despite the frivolity, the play does not lose sight of the crucial social issues it raises. Most shocking to the eighteenth-century audience, writes Brereton in French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, was the
struggle between two males for a desirable woman . . . [and] however it . . . is surrounded with gaiety, spectacle and song, there is no question that it is won by the better man, who is a commoner.
The physical act of hiding is most pronounced in act I as Suzanne receives many unwanted male visitors in her room. Not wanting to be seen by the Count, Cherubino hides behind the armchair. When the Count fears discovery by Basil, he throws himself behind the armchair, and Cherubino throws himself atop the armchair while Suzanne hides him under a dress. This series of movements is carried out gracefully yet is still largely comic because the Count is completely unaware of the page's presence. Additionally, the Count is ridiculed as he is forced to hide, crouching, in his own domain. In a further bit of comic irony, his ignominious position comes at the heels of his using his social position as leverage to demand that Suzanne sleep with him. The comic tension in the scene is further heightened when the Count, having revealed himself, reenacts how he earlier discovered Cherubino hiding in Fanchette's room.
I grow suspicious while I talk to her and as I do so I case an eye about. Behind the door there was a curtain of sorts, a wardrobe, something for old clothes. Without seeming to I gently, slowly lift the curtain . . .
He illustrates by lifting the dress off the armchair.
And I see . . .
He catches sight of Cherubino.
. . . I say!
In this scene, the literal act of hiding provides comic release for the audience along with the opportunity to learn about the dynamics of the castle's inhabitants. At the same time, however, the scene alludes to the social relationship between the upper and lower classes. Suzanne, as a servant in the Count's household, is subject to his desires. The Count touches Suzanne and pressures her to meet him that evening. She also sees her wedding plans grind to a halt at the Count's whim. Thus, she, as well as Figaro, is hardly able to assert individual will. Any amount of liberty they can attain must come through trickery, even when their own behavior is deserving of such liberty.
Act II mixes physical deception with an idea that is key to the success of both Figaro's and the Countess's plans to unmask the Count: taking another's place. The Count...
(The entire section is 15,647 words.)