Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais is known as a literary figure only for his plays, which were the only fictional works he published during his lifetime. Although he also wrote poetry, some of which was published posthumously, none of it proved to be of enduring value. His early, unpublished works for the theater were in the form of short curtain raisers or sidewalk shows, which the French call parades, some of which have also been posthumously published. Beaumarchais also published mémoires, or legal arguments, to defend his own position in several notorious lawsuits in which he was involved, and wrote prefaces for all but one of his plays, which describe the theoretical basis of his dramaturgy and exemplify his work as a critic. A considerable amount of Beaumarchais’s correspondence has also been published, most of it merely of documentary value but some of it marked by a passion for ideas and a sparkling of style that elevate it to the status of literature.
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais is that rarity among literary figures: a famous writer who also has solid achievements to his credit in other, nonliterary, domains. For example, at the age of only twenty-one, Beaumarchais invented a new mechanical device for pocket watches that permitted the construction of small, flat timepieces in place of the bulky, spherical ones then current. The invention made him famous in the scientific community, earned for him the title of “Watchmaker to the King,” and assured the prosperity of his father’s watchmaking business for years to come. Later, in his forties, Beaumarchais made significant contributions to the French monarch as a diplomat on foreign missions, his most notable achievement being his creation of a shipping company that helped the American colonists arm themselves during the American Revolution. Beaumarchais managed to supply the arms without implicating the French crown, earning the gratitude of his own government and a permanent niche in U.S. history as well. During that same period, Beaumarchais, by then a published playwright, was instrumental in founding the Société des Auteurs and was elected its first president, thus assuring for himself a place of honor in the history of playwriting as a profession in France. Yet all of these extra literary achievements, taken together, are not the equal of his achievement as the author of the finest French comedy of the eighteenth century, The Marriage of Figaro, and as the creator of the modern, postclassical theater in France, which managed to take many liberties with the rigid rules of classical tradition without losing any of the aesthetic and philosophical power inherent in the nature of drama. Beaumarchais’s greatest achievement was accomplished by example: He demonstrated how a play could be freed of the constraints of a prescribed form and yet be a work of art.
Cox, Cynthia. The Real Figaro: The Extraordinary Career of Caron de Beaumarchais. New York: Coward-McCann, 1962. A reliable biography.
Dunkley, John. Beaumarchais: “Le Barbier de Séville.” Critical Guides to French Texts 86. London: Grant and Cutler, 1991. A critical appraisal of Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville. Includes a bibliography.
Grendel, Frédéric. Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro. New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1977. An examination of the life and work of Beaumarchais. Includes a bibliography and index.
Howarth, W. D. Beaumarchais and the Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1995. Howarth examines six of Beaumarchais’s plays and their reception by audiences, placing them within the context of pre-revolutionary France. He traces the dramatist’s legacy in nineteenth century vaudeville and twentieth century comic drama. Includes a bibliography and index.
Kite, Elizabeth S. Beaumarchais and the War of American Independence. 2 vols. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1918. Describes Beaumarchais’s contribution to the American Revolution. Includes a foreword by James M. Beck.
Lever, Maurice. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Vol. 1. Paris: Fayard, 1999. In French. This volume, titled L’irrésistible ascension (1732-1774), covers Beaumarchais’s early years and his career leading up to The Barber of Seville.
Niklaus, Robert. Beaumarchias: “Le Mariage de Figaro.” Critical Guides to French Texts 21. London: Grant and Cutler, 1995. Niklaus provides a critical examination of Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro. Includes a bibliography
Ratermanis, J. B., and W. R. Irwin. The Comic Style of Beaumarchais. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. Examines the literary style and technique of Beaumarchais.
Sungolowsky, Joseph. Beaumarchais. New York: Twayne, 1974. Remains an excellent general introduction. Also contains an annotated bibliography of important critical studies.