Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3397
Perhaps because he was already in his middle thirties when his literary career began, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais showed little of the ambitious originality or inventiveness of youth in his plays—most of his plots and character-types were quite consciously derived from the work of others—but he exhibited, from the first,...
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Perhaps because he was already in his middle thirties when his literary career began, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais showed little of the ambitious originality or inventiveness of youth in his plays—most of his plots and character-types were quite consciously derived from the work of others—but he exhibited, from the first, an exceptional understanding of the real world, which he approached with high moral seriousness. Whether somber or lighthearted in tone, whether contemporary or historical in setting, whether traditional or modern in form, the plays of Beaumarchais are all, without exception, centrally concerned with some abuse or injustice in his own society. It is true that all of his plays, even the most somber, end happily and may in that sense be called romantic comedies; yet each play, including the most cheerfully frivolous of them, has an underlying seriousness of theme which is unmistakable. Although he quickly mastered the trick of entertaining the sophisticated Paris public, Beaumarchais never allowed his moralist’s impulse to be obscured by theatrical technique. In his art as in his life, he remained always the passionate and vocal opponent of injustice and fraud: His open advocacy of moral positions was perhaps his most distinctive trait as a playwright.
Through two of his plays, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais redefined the art of theatrical comedy in France, making moral seriousness an acceptable main ingredient of the genre, and gave future generations one of the great character-types in literature with the invention of Figaro. He has had a significant and durable influence on all subsequent theatrical writing in France.
The School of Rakes
Beaumarchais’s outspoken advocacy of moral positions was already fully in evidence with his very first play, The School of Rakes. The focus of the play is a crisis in the life of a young and innocent English lady, Eugénie, who believes herself to be married to a prominent aristocrat, Lord Clarendon, only to learn, by chance, that her “husband” is about to marry someone else. The announcement of that impending marriage reveals to Eugénie that she has been deceived by Lord Clarendon, who staged a false wedding ceremony with the complicity of servants and friends in order to make her his mistress. To make her sense of shame truly complete, Eugénie finds herself newly pregnant just when the crushing truth of her plight emerges. The result is a crisis of despair, followed by a tense confrontation scene with Lord Clarendon as the play’s dramatic climax. The play ends with a genuine marriage between a contrite Lord Clarendon and a forgiving Eugénie, but Beaumarchais’s thrust is plain: His purpose is to attack the immoral cynicism of the powerful nobility, who prey on the innocence of decent young ladies. Surprisingly modern in its viewpoint, The School of Rakes is a protest against high society’s double standard of sexual morality.
The theme of the social victimization of women was probably “borrowed” by Beaumarchais from Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse (1796; The Nun, 1797), which had been written in 1760 and had made the subject popular. Beaumarchais openly claimed Diderot as his inspiration for the form of his play, at any rate, noting in his preface that he admired Diderot’s invention of a new theatrical genre called le drame sérieux— a play neither tragic nor comic but occupying the intermediate ground between the two. It was that middle ground Beaumarchais sought to occupy with The School of Rakes, portraying scenes of great emotional anguish arising out of common human events, rather than events of heroic dimension, and showing the amusing side of human behavior as well, without employing the devices of excess and exaggeration that make up classic comedy. For Diderot, and for his admirer Beaumarchais, the new order of theater, le drame sérieux, was to be above all human, and therefore touching, rather than awe-inspiring as the classic theater had been, because it dealt with human behavior at its extreme limits.
The Two Friends
These theories of Diderot were even more fully put into practice in Beaumarchais’s second play, The Two Friends—more fully because, whereas The School of Rakes had concerned privileged members of the English aristocracy, albeit with very ordinary problems of human relationships, The Two Friends concerns members of the urban middle class, men engaged in commerce and finance, and a drama of bankruptcy and the sense of honor in the world of business. Diderot had advocated a focus on middle-class values in order to make the theater accessible to an increasingly middle-class audience—Diderot’s preferred term was le drame bourgeois —but it proved difficult, after all, to find themes of compellingly high drama among the daily passions of the bourgeoisie. Diderot himself never wrote a successful play, in spite of the persuasiveness of his theory about the imperatives of a truly modern theater, and Beaumarchais had the worst disaster of his career with the play in which Diderot’s theories were most faithfully followed. The Two Friends failed both with the public and with the critics and had to be withdrawn after a few performances in 1770. With characteristic resilience, however, Beaumarchais abandoned le drame sérieux, devised a play with a more frankly comic action reminiscent of Molière, and in early 1775 was represented on the Paris stage with his first genuine success, the play that made him famous, The Barber of Seville.
The Barber of Seville
The basic plot of The Barber of Seville derives from the ancient traditions of farce, and had its most notably successful incarnation, before Beaumarchais, in Molière’s witty comedy L’École des femmes (1662; The School for Wives, 1732). The ingredients of the plot are simple. An apparently innocent young girl is the ward of a tyrannical older man who keeps her strictly isolated from the company of potential young suitors because he intends to marry her himself. In spite of the guardian’s vigilance, however, the not-so-innocent young girl finds a way to make contact with a suitable young man and so defeat the guardian’s evil scheme. Beaumarchais’s distinctive contribution to this ancient plot is the invention of a clever and resourceful character of the servant class—Figaro—who conducts the intrigue by which the young suitor successfully wins the girl. Moreover, as one might expect, the playwright found in the simple comic plot an underlying serious theme to which he proposed to give some prominence: the abuse of the powers of guardianship and the consequent oppression of women.
Perhaps because he feared that such criticism of the social customs of his day might run afoul of the royal censor, Beaumarchais decided to set his play in the Spain of the seventeenth century rather than in the Paris of the eighteenth. To mask the seriousness of his theme, he adopted a tone of cheerful cynicism that pervaded all the dialogue and characterized the attitudes and actions of all the principal players. This tone is precisely established in the very first scene, in which Count Almaviva, in disguise, waits in a Seville street to catch a glimpse of Rosine at her window and sees coming toward him his former valet, Figaro, now a barber and general handyman for anyone who will pay him. The dialogue which ensues is witty, disrespectful, even impudent, but always lighthearted. For example, when the Count reminds Figaro that, as a servant, he had been rather a bad lot, lazy and careless about his responsibilities, Figaro immediately replies: “Yes, my lord, but only in comparison to what is demanded of servant. . . . Considering the virtues expected of a domestic, does Your Excellence know very many Masters who have the qualifications to be Valets?”
Not only is the tone for the whole play set by this witty dialogue, but also the work of exposition is skillfully accomplished; in short order, the reader learns why the Count has followed Rosine from Madrid to Seville, why Doctor Bartholo is keeping her so carefully sequestered, and how Figaro can use his position as barber to the Bartholo household to arrange for the Count to have a private talk with Rosine. The scene that follows completes the exposition, showing Rosine in hostile conversation with Dr. Bartholo, while contriving to drop a written message from her window to the Count in the street below without allowing her guardian to grasp what is happening. As Figaro laughingly remarks of Rosine’s maneuver: “If you want to bring out the skill of even the most innocent young girl, you have only to imprison her.” The rest of the play, which is constructed in four acts, simply treats the audience to the step-by-step working out of the conspiracy among Count Almaviva, Rosine, and Figaro adumbrated in the two expository scenes that begin the play.
Such a simple plot, in which Dr. Bartholo’s selfish designs are thwarted and Count Almaviva wins the hand of Rosine, has the great virtue of giving the play constant clarity of direction and aesthetically satisfying unity of action, but it carries the concomitant risk of boring the audience: The outcome is predictable from the opening moments. Beaumarchais uses two devices to overcome this predictability and intensify the sense of dramatic excitement as the action unfolds. First, he tightens the time frame by having Bartholo learn, early in the second act, from Rosine’s music teacher Don Bazile, that Count Almaviva is in Seville, disguised and determined to make contact with Rosine. This news causes Bartholo to make hasty arrangements to marry his ward the very next day, leaving the conspirators only a few hours in which to achieve their goal. Then, Beaumarchais contrives a series of incidents, in the second, third, and fourth acts, in which Rosine, the Count, Figaro, or all three together find themselves in danger of having their plan found out by Bartholo. Each such scene causes the tension to mount until the danger passes, at the same time forestalling any tendency on the spectator’s part to become bored, since the outcome is thus repeatedly put in doubt.
It is, however, probably not the plot so much as the characters that attract and hold the interest of spectators and readers alike. Almaviva’s insouciance and Rosine’s native shrewdness make them an engaging couple, and their common enemy, Bartholo, is so absurdly self-centered and so maliciously jealous as a guardian that it affords the audience a positive pleasure to see his villainous intentions circumvented. The frank cynicism of Don Bazile, always ready to serve the highest bidder, is well calculated to amuse, and nowhere more so than in his brilliant and memorable speech, in the second act, explaining the virtues of calumny as the best weapon available against one’s enemies. The finest creation in the play, however, is unquestionably the character of Figaro, with his ready wit and indomitable good humor, his resourcefulness and amoral pleasure in every kind of intrigue, and above all his impudence in the face of power and his generous capacity for indignation against injustice. Nothing contributed more to the popular success of The Barber of Seville than the invention of this novel personality, so appealingly sympathique to the middle-class theater audiences of the 1770’s. Beaumarchais understood, instinctively, the source of his sudden popularity, as he demonstrated by producing, almost immediately, a sequel to The Barber of Seville in which Figaro was even more prominently the main character. This was the sparkling masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, universally regarded as the crown jewel of Beaumarchais’s theater.
The Marriage of Figaro
Having successfully slipped his rather strong social criticism in The Barber of Seville past the censor by burying it unobtrusively beneath a barrage of witty and irreverent dialogue, Beaumarchais set out, with perhaps understandable overconfidence, to make his sequel a much more explicit attack on the injustices of his time. By 1778, he was ready to present his new play, but the royal censor found it unacceptable. It took Beaumarchais six full years to overcome all the official objections and to see his new play, at last, on the boards. When it was finally performed, in 1784, it was to enthusiastic acclaim, both from the public and from the critics—not only Beaumarchais’s greatest success but also probably the most successful work of the century in the theater.
The plot of The Marriage of Figaro is as intricate and convoluted as that of The Barber of Seville is simple and unilinear. It is true that, despite the complex interweaving of plots and subplots, the action of The Marriage of Figaro takes place within the space of a single day—but it is, as the subtitle in the original French indicates, a “mad day,” full of unexpected twists and turns, arrivals and departures, disguises and deceptions, all of which transform Count Almaviva’s palace into a daylong carnival. However complicated, the action is nevertheless coherently organized around one central event that lends a certain unity to the whole: the promised marriage of Figaro, now in the full-time service of Almaviva as valet and concierge, to Suzanne, first chambermaid of the former Rosine, now Countess Almaviva. What complicates the plot is that the impending marriage faces threats from several quarters: Almaviva himself, who has granted permission for the marriage, is nevertheless scheming to seduce Suzanne and make her his convenient in-house mistress, using the threat to refuse permission for the wedding if Suzanne will not cooperate; Marceline, the former mistress of Dr. Bartholo, is bent on forcing Figaro to live up to a promise he made her in writing to marry her if he failed to repay a loan by a specific date; and the Countess, suffering in the role of abandoned wife, seeks to thwart her husband’s efforts to seduce Suzanne, which in turn angers Almaviva and makes him prone to go back on his promise to Figaro. Further complexities are added by the intersecting subplots involving the adolescent page, Chérubin, and the gardener’s adolescent daughter, Fanchette; the old affair between Bartholo and Marceline, which turns out to have had surprising consequences when it is revealed that Figaro is their long-lost son; and the active plotting of the Countess, who suddenly decides to play an inopportune trick on her husband in an effort to win back his love. This multiplicity of events imparts to the play a magical air of movement, merriment, and surprise that keeps the reader constantly amused and attentive, as though observing the action of a new and complicated mechanical toy. It is this interlocking of so many diverse elements that has led some critics to see, in the structure of The Marriage of Figaro, the influence of Beaumarchais’s training as a watchmaker. Certainly that intricate structure has much to do with the enchantment that the play produces in its audiences. When well staged, The Marriage of Figaro is a delightful kaleidoscopic spectacle.
The multiplicity of the action is matched by the variety of the comic devices used, the many rather daring shifts in tone from scene to scene, and the dizzyingly numerous reversals in fortune; the advantage seems to lie now with Figaro, now with the Count, over the matter of who will have his way. The Marriage of Figaro is a play that is constantly in motion: Not only are the actors required to move about a lot physically, but also they are required to exhibit a wide gamut of changing moods and emotions, and to time their entrances, exits, dialogue, and gestures with exceptional precision. Nothing is more distinctive about this play—especially in contrast to The Barber of Seville—than the breakneck pace at which it must be performed. There is nothing very original about the individual scenes, for as always with Beaumarchais, the dramatic ideas are quite derivative, but the intricate meshing of so many different types of scenes, without any loss of coherence or unity, is a tour de force of inventive ingenuity, the result of which was a style of comic theater that had never been seen before in France.
The Marriage of Figaro, however, is much more than a triumph of theatrical technique. For all its artificiality, which is obtrusive and undeniable, the play still manages to be memorably alive, by virtue both of the underlying truth of certain of its characters and situations and of the major themes to which it gives powerful expression. An unforgettable example of truth in characterization is the figure of Chérubin, who makes a kind of poetry out of the impulses of puberty, feeling impelled by instincts he does not understand to be constantly in the female presence and comporting himself with the strangest mixture of mischievous playfulness and exaggerated sentiment. Chérubin is not so much a realistic as an imaginative portrait of an adolescent, simultaneously child and man. Among the situations that delicately evoke emotions in the play is the daring moment, early in act 2, in which the Countess and Suzanne are trying out their scheme to disguise Chérubin as a girl so that he can be part of the wedding celebration, instead of going off to join a regiment as the Count has ordered. The situation is farcical in nature, but Beaumarchais is able to display a remarkable interplay of sensibilities as the two women react, each in a different way, to the ambiguous sexuality of the embarrassed adolescent.
The most pervasive of the play’s principal themes is that represented by the struggle between Figaro and the Count, which epitomizes the eternal clash between figures of authority and privilege and the common individual longing for dignity. The nature of that clash and its basic injustice are memorably articulated by Figaro in his famous monologue of act 5, in which he complains that all the Count had to do to have so much wealth, prestige, and power was “to give himself the trouble to be born.” Such words were daringly provocative to the Paris audiences of 1784, among whom the mood of revolution against aristocratic authority was already close to the surface. A second important theme is that of the systematic oppression of women, evident in the way the Count treats both the Countess and Suzanne, and the way Bartholo and Figaro deal with Marceline’s wish to be legally married. Again the theme is strikingly articulated in the famous words of Marceline in act 3, which read even today as a very enlightened manifesto of women’s rights. One might add that the theme of injustice is broached in a variety of forms in the play, but nowhere more pointedly than in the trial scenes of act 3, in which Beaumarchais brings off a hilarious satire of the legal system of the time. It seems inescapable that the true greatness and originality of The Marriage of Figaro must, in the final analysis, be defined as an extraordinary blend of technical energy in comic style and moral passion powerfully expressed. It is difficult to find its equal in that special combination of qualities.
Tarare and Frailty and Hypocrisy
Beaumarchais himself never again reached such heights in his career. The libretto he composed for the opera Tarare, a few years after The Marriage of Figaro, was excessively simplistic and sentimental in plot, and written in flat and unimaginative verse. Poetry was not one of his talents. When he tried to revive his flagging popularity among the new post-revolutionary audiences, he turned to the material that had brought him success in the past and composed a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, entitled Frailty and Hypocrisy, which was performed in 1792. The comic verve was gone, however, and the characters of Figaro, Suzanne, Almaviva, and the Countess had all lost their youthful sparkle; the play seemed a self-righteous sermon on the need for compassion between spouses for the sins of youth. There was little in that final play of Beaumarchais’s career to suggest the skillful theatrical technician of twenty years earlier. Only the passions of the committed moralist and the determined enemy of injustice were still in evidence, poignant reminders of past glory. Though Frailty and Hypocrisy was poorly received in 1792, it is interesting to note that a revival of the play in 1797 had a great success, and certainly eased the sorrow of Beaumarchais’s painful last years. Nevertheless, the reputation he left behind was a major one.