Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527
At age twenty-three, Pierre-Augustin Caron abandoned the clockmaking trade to take up a minor office he had purchased in the court of French king Louis XV. He rapidly became a favorite of the royal princesses, rose to the position of secretary to the king, and added “Beaumarchais” to his name. During the 1760’s, Beaumarchais acquainted himself with classical and French literature and began writing plays. His Eugénie, an attack on social privilege, was licensed in 1767, after its setting was changed from Paris to London; and his Two Friends, a melodrama about a silk-merchant and a tax-collector, had its first performance in January, 1770. Neither play was a commercial success, however.
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In January, 1773, Beaumarchais finished a preliminary version of his first major work, The Barber of Seville. The play was passed by the government censor in February, 1773, but the license to stage the play was withdrawn when the sentence of blâme, which entailed a deprivation of all civil rights, was pronounced against Beaumarchais for his part in a brawl. Beaumarchais’ defense of his case in four pamphlets won him wide sympathy, including Voltaire’s, but failed to reverse the official judgment against him: by order of the Parliament of Paris, the pamphlets were burned in March, 1774. In the hope of rehabilitating himself, Beaumarchais traveled under the name of “Le Chevalier de Ronac” to London in the king’s service in April, 1774, to negotiate terms with exile Théveneau de Morande, who threatened to distribute an exposé of the life of Mme du Barry. A payment of 32,000 livres was agreed to, and Beaumarchais oversaw the burning of all copies of Morande’s Memoires secrets d’une femme publique. Two months later, Beaumarchais arranged for the destruction of a pamphlet that attacked the character of Marie- Antoinette and her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Authorization to perform The Barber of Seville was granted in February, 1775. Full civil rights were restored to Beaumarchais in September, 1776, in recognition of his service in supplying arms to the revolutionaries against the English crown in America.
The lifting of blâme from Beaumarchais, however, did not assure royal approval of his next play, The Marriage of Figaro, which he originally completed in 1778, on “the ignorance and the baseness of the great.” In 1782, after Louis XVI read The Marriage of Figaro in manuscript, he forbade its performance on the stage. “The author,” he observed, “mocks everything which ought to be respected in a Government.” However, the championing of Beaumarchais’ cause by Marie-Antoinette and the Comte d’Artois persuaded the king to allow a private performance of The Marriage of Figaro in 1783. Approval by five of the six censors who reviewed the play within the months that followed led to the granting of a license for its public performance. In March, 1784, The Marriage of Figaro opened at the Comédie- Française, where it ran for one hundred performances. In 1785 Marie-Antoinette herself played the part of Rosine and the Comte d’Artois played Figaro in a performance of The Barber of Seville with the king and Beaumarchais in attendance. Beaumarchais’ Tarare, a play representing the overthrow of tyranny by the common man, was first staged in 1787.
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