Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais 1732–-1799
French playwright and essayist.
Beaumarchais is considered one of the greatest playwrights of eighteenth-century France. Working in a period of stylistic transition, he effectively synthesized elements of Molière's comedy of manners, Italian commedia dell' arte, and the ideas of Denis Diderot concerning the drame bourgeois. Although such early plays as Eugénie (1767; The School forRakes) and Les Deux amis; ou, Le Négociant de Lyon (1770; The Two Friends; or, the Liverpool Merchant), both derivative of Diderot's dramas, are rarely performed, Le Barbier de Séville; ou, La Précaution inutile (1775; The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution) and, above all, La Folle Journée; ou, Le mariage de Figaro (1784; The Follies of a Day; or, The Marriage of Figaro) are considered masterpieces of the comedic genre and are frequently produced. Renowned for their ingenious plot construction, assured pacing, and clever dialogue, both are presided over by the celebrated comic persona of Figaro, whose penetrating intelligence epitomized the critical spirit of the age.
Beaumarchais was born Pierre-Augustin Caron in Paris on January 24, 1732, the son of a clockmaker. He was educated at the Ecole d'Alfort to age thirteen, then apprenticed to his father. He was presented at court in 1754 and consolidated his position at Versailles in 1755 when he bought an annuity from a retiring court official. The following year, he married the official's widow, who died in 1757, leaving him a small property from which he derived the name Beaumarchais. An increasingly influential figure at court, he became the music instructor to the daughters of the King. During this period he befriended Joseph Paris-Duverney, a powerful banker who invited Beaumarchais into the world of finance. Through Duverney's assistance, in 1761 Beaumarchais purchased the title of Secretaire du Roi, which conferred legal status of hereditary nobility. Beaumarchais visited Spain from 1764 to 1766, where he attended court and pursued financial negotiations on behalf of Duverney.
Capitalizing on his well-received skill at writing parades, short comic sketches, for friends, Beaumarchais began writing a full-length drama. For almost a decade he planned his play Eugénie before concluding it upon his return from Spain; it was first performed by the Comedie Français, the national theatre, in 1767. His next play, The Two Friends, was performed first in January 1770 although it was not well received, closing after ten performances. Beaumarchais was involved in a series of highly controversial court cases in the 1770s, and consequently his influence at Versailles in the final years of Louis XV greatly diminished. With the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, however, his fortunes rapidly improved; he even served as a government agent in 1774-75, providing aid to American forces during the early phases of the Revolutionary War. Also in 1775 he produced The Barber of Seville, and in 1784 his masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, which enjoyed an extraordinary success at the Théâtre de la Comédie Française. The third Figaro play, L'Autre Tartuffe; ou, La Mère coupable (Frailty and Hypocrisy), was less popular when it was produced in 1792. Throughout this period, Beaumarchais continued to revise his plays to increase their popular appeal and to conform with the censors' demands. Although Beaumarchais initially welcomed the meeting of the Estates-General in Paris in 1789, the increasingly radical course of the French Revolution made his position extremely precarious, and he was arrested in 1792, narrowly escaping the September massacres. Beaumarchais subsequently fled to England and Holland before settling in Germany as an émigré; meanwhile his family was imprisoned and his properties alienated to the Jacobin regime. Beaumarchais returned to France in 1796, but his appeals for the restoration of his property were unheeded, and he was left destitute. He died of a stroke in Paris on May 18, 1799.
Beaumarchais's earliest dramas were short, frivolous pieces known as parades, a popular genre that drew its romantic repertoire from French and Italian comedy and Parisian street entertainments. They were performed privately for the circle of Charles Lenormant d'Étoiles, husband of Madame de Pompadour, and contain the themes, situations, and stylistic attributes of Beaumarchais's later dramas. Beaumarchais was also interested in dramatic theory, particularly that of Diderot, which called for a drame bourgeois—serious and moving drama in simple prose that emphasizes moral instruction in modern social contexts. His Un essai sur le drame sérieux (1767) critiques the precepts of French seventeenth-century classical tragedy and argues for the necessity of modern plays written in simple language unrestricted by rules of decorum. These concerns inform Beaumarchais's first full-length drama, Eugénie, which was based on his sister's seduction and subsequent betrayal by the Spanish nobleman Don José Clabijo y Fajardo. In his next play, The Two Friends, Beaumarchais's subject—the complicated financial affairs of two businessmen—exemplifies Diderot's concept of generating conflict from social conditions, though the inclusion of the traditional device of a romantic subplot reveals the weakness of this formula. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais's supreme theatrical achievements, reveal his gift for complex, sophisticated intrigue, original interpretation of character types, and brilliant, sustained dialogue. The Barber of Seville deploys a constellation of characters in elaborate and sometimes farcical romantic intrigues, culminating in the marriage of Rosina and her youthful suitor, Count Almaviva, who outmaneuvers his rival, Dr. Bartholo, with the assistance of Figaro, Bartholo's clever barber. The Marriage of Figaro reunites the characters of The Barber of Seville three years later. Count Almaviva now has designs on Suzanne, maid of Countess Almaviva and the betrothed of Figaro, who again cleverly outwits his opponents and finally marries her with the Count's approval. The dramatic action consists of a complicated series of intrigues that result in unexpected turns of plot and hilarious character revelations. In the play's famous monologue in the fifth act, Figaro ironically comments on the abuses of the privileged classes against the common people, interpreted by many critics as a forecast of the impending revolution and demise of the French aristocracy. Both of the Figaro plays were transformed into operas, the first by Rossini and the second by Mozart. In La Mère coupable the main characters of the The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro are revisited twenty years later in an attempt to portray Count Almaviva as a virtuous man. Considered by some critics a competent exercise in the sentimental style of Diderot, La Mère coupable has been attacked by many others as overly moralizing or practically unperformable.
The plays of Beaumarchais have been viewed as the culmination of many varied trends within eighteenth-century French literature, and critics have examined the influence of earlier writers such as Rabelais, Molière, Marivaux, Diderot, and Voltaire on Beaumarchais's writing. Scholars agree that as he incorporated these various influences into his work, Beaumarchais transformed classical French comedy by emphasizing its social discourse rather than its formal stylistic properties. Written at the advent of the French Revolution, the Figaro plays are critical of aristocratic privilege, create an unflattering picture of judges and justice, and celebrate the common man. Figaro, a highly resourceful and moral valet, reflects the ideals of Enlightenment thinking, judged for his intelligence and not his rank. Although The Barber of Seville has continued to be performed and well received, critics are united in their praise of The Marriage of Figaro, citing it as the best of his works. Noted Beaumarchias scholar W. D. Howarth has called The Marraige of Figaro “a brilliant synthesis of all that is best in the comic writing of its century.”