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Pierre de Beaumarchais (1732-1799)

 

French playwright and adventurer, whose best known comedies are The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784). The plays inspired two famous operas, the first composed by Gioachhino Rossini, and the second by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beaumarchais was one of the most colorful characters of the old Regime, who earned and lost fortunes, served as a secret agent in Britain, and supplied guns to the American revolutionaries. Although he supported the French Revolution, he was forced to go into exile.

"No, Monsieur le Comte, you shan't have her! You shan't have her. Because you are a great noble, you think you are a great genius! Nobility, a fortune, a rank, appointments to office: all this makes a man so proud! What did you do to earn all this? You took the trouble to get born - nothing more. Moreover, you're really a pretty ordinary fellow. While as for me, lost in the crowd, I've had to use more knowledge, more brains, just to keep alive than your likes have to spend on governing Spain and the Empire for a century. And you want to contest with me - ..." (from The Marriage of Figaro)

Pierre de Beaumarchais was born Pierre Augustin Caron in Paris, one of ten children by André-Charles Caron, a watchemaker, and the former Louise-Nicole Pichon. In his childhood he learned to play violin, flute and harp. He attended a trade school in Alfortville, where he learned some Latin, and then worked as a clockmaker in his father's shop. He had fine fine fingers and good manual dexterity, which was a requirement for working with very small watches.

After many legal actions, Beaumarchais earned in 1754 a patent from the French Academy of Sciences for his invention, a new form of escapement mechanism, which became a standard part of new improved watches. In 1756 Beaumarchais married Madeleine Francquet, a widow and a wealthy customer of his father's shop. Francquel, like her husband, was a gifted harpist. She encouraged him to redesign the pedals; this arrangement remains in use on harps today. Francquel died from typhoid fever in 1757 and left him a small property, from which he took the name Beaumarchais.

A crucial but necessary step in Beaumarchais's life was when he presented himself at court in 1754. After selling a watch to Mme de Pompadour, he gained the attention of the King. For a period, he had a post in Versailles as a music teacher to the daughters of Louis XV, but soon plunged into a series of political and financial intrigues, adventures – and lawsuits. In one case he believed that his opponent had won the courts by bribing the judge more generously than he himself had. The financier and adviser to Mme Pompadour, Joseph Paris-Duverney sent him to missions to England and Spain to secure a monopoly of the slave trade. Although he did not gain success, due to his contact with Duverney and business skills he managed to make a fortune and buy the post of King's Secretary. In 1768 he married another wealthy widow, Geneviève-Madeleine Wettebled Lévêque. She also died after a short marriage, in 1770. His third wife was Marie-Thérèse Willermanulas, whom he married in 1786.

In 1776 , after the remnants of George Washington's American army had crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania in 1776, and British troops prepared to seize the rebel capital of Philadelphia, Beaumarchais wrote to French foreign minister Vergennes: "The Americans will triump, but they must be assisted in their struggle. We must . . . send secret assistance in a prudent manner to the Americans." France joined the American War of Independence against Britain officially in 1778, but Beaumarchais had already supplied arms to the American colonies. He also organized a fleet of merchant ships to carry cannons, ammunition and other equipment and assist the Continental Congress. In exchange for the war supplies the agent of Congress promised to send back produce, chiefly tobacco, as compensation of the debt. 40 years later Beaumarchais's daughter still waited for the compensation, which was about 2 million francs. Congress replied: "Take one third or nothing."

When the French writer Charles Théveneau de Morande threatened to publish in London a biography of the King's mistress, Mme du Barry, the King sent Beaumarchais to purchase the manuscript. Groundwork for the negotiations had been made by Chevalier d'Eon, who was living at that time in exile in England. D'Eon was a diplomat, spy, and a member of the elite Dragoons. Later Beaumarchais also negotiated with d'Eon over the latter's political rehabilitation. At that time rumors were spreading that Monsieur d'Eon was a woman, and in London Beaumarchais laid a wager on his sex. D'Eon expressed his disgust on Beaumarchais's attitude toward women, writing to him: "Why, during your last trip to London, did you contract a venereal disease, which was probably given to everyone in Paris; while, in order to amuse yourself certainly at my expense, or to make me look ridiculous, you let it be known in circles of your elegant women that you were supposed to marry me after I spent several months in the Abbaye des Dames de Sainte-Antoine?" Beaumarchais defended himself:. "I noted your announcement in the newspaper, whose goal, according to you, was to discourage bets on your sex, was so strangely worded as to seem written solely to stimulate such speculations and thus so contrary to the ostentatious disinterestedness that you affect..." (from Monsierur d'Eon is a Woman by Gary Kates, 1995)

In 1777, Beaumarchais founded one of the first organizations to protect authors' rights, La Société des Auterus Dramatiques. After Voltaire's death Beaumarchais bought his banned books. To publish them, he opened a printing shop in Kehl, out of the reach of the French censors, and brought out the first complete edition of Voltaire (1784-90). This 70-volume edition was a financial disaster.

Beaumarchais supported the French Revolution but his position at the royal court threw suspicion on him. In 1792 he lost money in attempting to sell muskets to the revolutionary armies; he also spent some time in the Abbaye Prison. After release, Beaumarchais fled through England and Holland to Hamburg. His property in Paris was confiscated and his family imprisoned. In 1796 he returned to France. Beaumarchais died of a stroke in Paris on May 18, 1799 in relative poverty.

THE COUNT: I do believe it's that rascal Figaro.
FIGARO: Himself. My Lord!
THE COUNT: Miserable scoundrel! If you utter a single word...
FIGARO: Yes, I recognize you - and the familiar epithets you always condescended to bestow upon me.
THE COUNT: I shouldn't have recognized you. You are so fat and sleek...
FIGARO: Well, what do you expect, Sir - it's poverty.

(from The Barber of Seville)

Beaumarchais's early plays were performed privately at the salon of his friend, Charles Lenormand d'Étoiles, husband of Mme de Pompadour. The full-length drama Eugénie (1767), produced by Comédie-Française, was about false marriage promises, and the shame of women who are deceived by members of the nobility. Too controversial for the audience, the play was closed the same night it was opened. One critic said that the writer "will never achieve anything, not even mediocrity." The story was set in London, but based on the experiences of Beaumarchais's sister. She had followed a penniless Spanish grandee to Spain, where he broke the engagement. Also Goethe's melodrama Clavigo was partly based on this contemporary scandal. Mémoires (1773-1774) was born from complicated lawsuits. Beaumarchais had sued the heir of Paris-Duverney for the money the estate owed him, but lost the suit. However, he won a small victory when the polemic work about the unfair decision against him brought the public opinion to his side.

The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro showed Beaumarchais sympathy for the lot of the under-privileged people and the lower classes. In both plays the hero is a valet, Figaro, who is more clever than his noble employers, especially his master Almavira. In these class-conscious plays Beaumarchais mocked aristocracy although he was well-aware of his dependance on its favour. This also created a constant tension in his dramas – much is said and much is written between the lines. The Marriage of Figaro was written in 1775-78, but it was not until 1783 when it received the king's permission for a stage production. "If censorship reigns there cannot be sincere flattery, and only small men are afraid of small writings," Beaumarchais taunted. In his famous monologue Figaro condemned his aristocratic employer and tormentor, forecasting with his protest the coming revolution. Figaro has become one of the most famous French fictional characters, who has epitomized a number of characteristics that the Frenchmen see in themselves.

Mozart's opera version of the play was based on the libretto written by Lorenzo da Ponte. It gained a huge popularity. "Here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro," wrote Mozart to a friend from Prague. Paisiello's opera on Beaumarchais's The Barber of Seville had become popular before Rossini introduced his own work. The audience reacted first hostile to the new version, performed in 1816, but soon all resistance was swept away. Beaumarhais wrote also an opera libretto, Tarare (1787), which was set to music by Antonio Salieri and performed at the Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique.

For further reading: Beaumarchais and His Times by L. de Loménie (1857); Beaumarchais en Allemagne by P. Huot (1869); Beaumarchais et son temps by L. de Loménie (1856, 1873, 1888); Beaumarchais by A. Hallay (1897); Beaumarchais: Eine Biographie by A. Bettelheim (1911); Beaumarchais and the War of American Indepencence by E.S. Kite (1918); The Life of Beaumarchais by J. Rivers (1922); La vie de Beaumarchais by R. Dalsème (1928); Beaumarchais: Adventurer in the Century of Women by P. Frischauer (1935); Beaumarchais and His Opponents by M.L. Johnson (1936); Beaumarchais by G.E. Lemaître (1949); Beaumarchais by S. Guitry (1950); Le mariage de Figaro by Jean Meyer (1953); Beaumarchais, l'homme et l'oeuvre by René Pomeau (1956); Beaumarchais: Le père de Figaro by M. Pollitzer (1957); The Comic Style of Beaumarchais by J.B. Batermanis and W.R. Irwin (1961); The Real Figaro by C. Cox (1962); Figaro, ou la vie de Beaumarchais by Duc de Castries (1972); Les grands rôles du théâtre de Beaumarchais (1974); Beaumarchais: The Man Who Was Figaro by Frédéric Grendel (1977); Beaumarchais, le Parisien universel by Patrice Boussel (1983); Beaumarchais and the Theatre by William D. Howarth (1995); Beaumarchais and the American Revolution by Brian N. Morton, Donald C. Spinelli (2003); Figaro’s Fleet by Raymond Reagan Butler (2008); Beaumarchais: A Biography by Maurice Lever (2009); Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution by Joel Richard Paul (2009); Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French playwright Who Saved the American Revolution by Harlow Giles Unger (2011) 

Selected works:

  • Parades, 1760-65?
  • Eugénie, 1767 (prod.)
    - The School for Rakes (tr. 1769)
  • Les deux amis, ou Le négociant de Lyon, 1770 (prod.)
    - The Two Friends (tr. 1800)
  • Mémoires, 1773 / 1774 (edited by C.A. de Sainte-Beuve, 1878)
  • Mémoires contre M. Goëzman, 1775
  • Le barbier de Séville, ou La précaution inutile, 1775 (prod.)
    - The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution (tr. 1776) / The Barber of Seville; A Comedy in Four Acts (translated from the French by Stewart Robb, 1939) / The Barber of Seville, and The Marriage of Figaro (translated from the French and with an introd. by Vincent Luciani, 1964) / The Barber of Seville (in a new translation and adaptation by Bernard Sahlins, 1994) / The Barber of Seville, or, The Futile Precaution: A New English Translation (translated by Gilbert Pestureau, Ann Wakefield, Gavin Witt, 1997) /  The Barber of Seville (in a new translation and adaptation by Bernard Sahlins, 199) 
  • La folle journée ou Le mariage de Figaro, 1784 (produced in 1784 by Comédie-Française, pub. in 1785)
    - The Follies of a Day; or, the Marriage of Figaro (tr. 1785) / The Barber of Seville, and The Marriage of Figaro (translated from the French and with an introd. by Vincent Luciani, 1964) / A Mad Day’s Work; or, The Marriage of Figaro (translated and edited by Brobury Pearce Ellis, 1966) / The Figaro Trilogy (translated with an introduction and notes by David Coward, 2003) / The Figaro Plays (translated by John Wells; edited by John Leigh, 2010) 
  • Tarare, 1787 (prod., music by Antonio Salieri, rev. version prod. 1790)
    - Axur, King of Ormus (tr. 1813)
  • La mère coupable, ou L'autre Tartuffe, 1792 (prod.)
    - Frailty and Hypocrisy (tr. 1804) / The Other Tartuffe, or The Guilty Mother / A Mother's Guilt (in The Complete Figaro Plays, 1983)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1809 (7 vols., edited by P.P. Gudin de la Brenellerie)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1828 (6 vols.)
  • Mémoires, 1830 (4 vols., edited by J. Ravenal)
  • Théâtre, 1846
  • Théâtre, 1861
  • Théâtre, 1866
  • Théâtre, 1872 (2 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1876 (edited by Edouard Fournier)
  • Lettres de jeunesse, 1745-1775, 1923 (edited by L. Thomas)
  • Lettres inédites, 1929 (edited by Gilbert Chinard)
  • Théâtre complet et Lettres relatives à son thèâtre, 1934 (edited by M. Allem)
  • Théâtre, 1949
  • Théâtre complet, 1952 (edited by R. d'Hermies)
  • The Barber of Seville and the Marriage of Figaro, 1964 (translated by J. Wood)
  • The Marriage of Figaro; The Barber of Seville, 1965 (translated by V. Luciani)
  • Theatre, 1966
  • Théâtre complet de Beaumarchais, 1967 (4 vols.)
  • Correspondance, 1969- (edited by Brian N. Morton)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1973 (edited Albert Demazière)
  • Théâtre, 1980 (edited by Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais)
  • For the Good of Mankind: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais Political Correspondence Relative to the American Revolution, 1987 (compiled, edited, and translated by Antoinette Shewmake)
  • Œuvres, 1988 (edited by Pierre Larthomas and Jacqueline
  • Larthomas)
  • Lettres galantes à Mme de Godeville: 1777-1779, 2004 (edited by Maurice Lever)
  • Lettres de combat, 2005 (edited by Gunnar von Proschwitz)
  • Lettres d’amour / Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais et Amélie Houret de La Morinaie, 2007 (edited by Évelyne and Maurice Lever)

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