Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais

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An ambitious activist by nature, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, born Pierre-Augustin Caron, led a far more eventful life than is customary for a man of letters. The ups and downs of his often agitated existence, however, were seldom directly related to the literary life, resulting rather from his determined pursuit of wealth, preferment, and pleasure, from his involvement in legal wrangles, and, most honorably, from Beaumarchais’s disinterested struggles against injustice.

The son of a watchmaker, Beaumarchais was apprenticed at an early age to his father’s craft and mastered it so thoroughly that, when only twenty-one, he worked out a solution to one of the craft’s most difficult problems in mechanics: the contrivance of a radically simplified escapement, the device that transfers the energy of a watch’s spring to the network of interlocking wheels that make up its movement. The naïve young watchmaker made the mistake of showing his device to an older colleague, who promptly published a description of it as his own invention. The younger Caron complained to the Academy of Sciences, won public vindication and recognition thereby, and from that notoriety was able to establish himself as a personage of consequence at the court of Louis XV, even becoming music teacher to the king’s daughters. Thus launched into the social whirl, Beaumarchais went on to a series of other activities and enterprises over the next fifteen years, increasing his fortune and prestige, while marrying and acquiring the title that enabled him to call himself Caron de Beaumarchais. In those years, he continued to encounter envy and injustice and continued to fight against those evils with courage and energy, at the same time learning valuable lessons about the human heart.

Those lessons came to fruition when Beaumarchais began his career as a playwright in 1767, at the age of thirty-five, with a tearful family drama about a young and innocent girl seduced and deceived by an aristocrat. The play, The School of Rakes (Eugénie in the original French, after its heroine-victim), enjoyed only a brief and modest success with the public. With characteristic determination, Beaumarchais tried for public success in the theater three years later, with his second play The Two Friends, which fared even worse with the public and was withdrawn after a very few performances. Beaumarchais was disappointed in the public failure to understand his theme of the virtues of the merchant class but was still undeterred from his theatrical ambitions. Meanwhile, he found himself embroiled in a lawsuit over an inheritance and discovered that the judge in the case had been corrupted. Again injustice brought out his best, and he turned the evil to his own advantage by publishing a brilliant mémoire in which he revealed the judge’s corrupt dealings, thereby winning public support and acclaim. Eventually he even won his lawsuit, though it took four more years. Meanwhile, he had his first unalloyed success in the theater in 1775 with his Molièresque comedy, The Barber of Seville, in which the public delighted. A year later, aided by secret government funding, Beaumarchais found himself energetically assisting the American rebels in their war against the British by procuring and shipping armaments to them, having recruited a veritable fleet of ships for the purpose, from all over Europe.

Beaumarchais attained the pinnacle of his career even while engaged with his enterprise to aid the Americans. He had written a sequel to The Barber of Seville, called The Marriage of Figaro , which was ready for production in 1778 but was denied permission for public performance, by decree of the royal censor, because some of...

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its themes struck the censor as disrespectful toward the ruling aristocracy. Not until 1784 were the objections overcome, but when the play was finally performed, it proved to be Beaumarchais’s greatest triumph and one of the most successful plays of the entire century. Because the play was thought by some to be frankly revolutionary in its implications, Beaumarchais found himself in relatively good standing with the revolutionary government when it took over a few years later. Nevertheless, his last play,Frailty and Hypocrisy, a rather solemn sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, was coolly received by the public in 1792 when it was first presented. Moreover, the envy and injustice that had dogged his entire life soon emerged again, in his relations with the revolutionary government. Falsely accused of counterrevolutionary activity, he was forced into exile for several years, and all his property was confiscated. In failing health, Beaumarchais was permitted to return to Paris in 1796; he died of a stroke in the spring of 1799.