The Beaumarchais Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro were phenomena in their time.
They called for social equality in the years leading up to the French Revolution. They espoused feminism during an age when common women had no rights. They caricatured the aristocracy and championed the intelligence of ordinary citizens.
And these plays were only two of many achievements from the remarkable man named Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
In our last article, we wrote about how the man behind the original Barber of Seville play was first a famous watchmaker. He defended his invention of a new form of watch escapement before riding that success to a position as the watchmaker to King Louis XV—the previous royal watchmaker, as you may remember, had initially stolen Beaumarchais’ idea.
There Was More To That Watch Story . . .
What we didn’t mention was that once Beaumarchais assumed the previous watchmaker’s role at the palace, he proceeded to marry the guy’s widow. That was cold. Whether the young Beaumarchais intended the marriage as revenge or not, his act was the stuff of legend.
He also inherited his new wife’s considerable wealth, but that was soon lost to their divorce. The marriage failed quickly as “power marriages” often do.
Pierre Beaumarchais, Meet Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
Beaumarchais’ ascent up the noble ladder was only just beginning when he was charged with repairing the royal watches. During the brief amount of time he spent married to the former royal watchmaker’s widow, young Pierre changed his name to a more suitable title: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
In 1759, Beaumarchais began teaching harp lessons to the daughters of Louis XV, and after a successful business venture (in which he became rich), he purchased a noble office in 1761. He was now a full member of the nobility.
He was only 30 years old.
Before the Beaumarchais Barber of Seville: His First Drama, Eugénie
Beaumarchais’ first play (to be shown at the Comédie Française anyway), Eugénie, premiered in Paris in 1767. The audience enjoyed the comedy but it was too long, so he spent the next couple of days cutting it down; the second performance was a rousing success. More interesting than the play might be Beaumarchais’ inspiration though.
You see, Beaumarchais had a sister living in Spain, and she had fallen in love with a writer named Clavijo. To make a long story short, Clavijo didn’t treat her very well. Beaumarchais traveled to Spain to intervene.
Beaumarchais engaged in a public dispute, was falsely accused of threatening Clavijo at gunpoint, and ultimately caused an international tabloid incident. He also succeeded in having Clavijo fired from his job—but he saved the name of his sister. By the time Beaumarchais left Spain, the unhappy Clavijo was being prosecuted by Spanish authorities, and the famous writer Goethe was writing a play about the story.
This dramatic episode served as the inspiration for Beaumarchais’ Eugénie.
Beaumarchais The Barber of Seville: Legal Turmoil and a Delayed Debut
Shortly after his premiere of Eugenie, Beaumarchais completed the work that would crown him as a theater great: The Barber of Seville. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t see it performed until 1775.
Beaumarchais had earned a substantial list of enemies by this point, due in part to his rapid rise to fame, fortune, and nobility. Those enemies wanted to see him fail—the legal complications that essentially held him hostage in the early 1750s went something like this.
- Beaumarchais’ business partner, Joseph Paris-Duverney, died.
- The executor of his partner’s estate snubbed Beaumarchais of his due inheritance.
- The authorities went so far as to pin certain debts on Beaumarchais.
- The judge, a man named Goezman, hated Beaumarchais and ruled against him.
- Beaumarchais and Goezman spent several years publicly involved in a bitter struggle.
- Our protagonist eventually won the battle, but not until after he had served a stint in jail and lost his fortune.
All that to say, The Barber of Seville was supposed to premiere in 1773. Nobody in good social standing wanted to be associated with Beaumarchais at that time, but when he was eventually exonerated of wrongdoing, the fair-weather theaters once again performed his plays. That was 1775.
His play found rapid European success—a famous composer named Paisiello loved the comedy so much that he recreated it as an opera in 1780. Rossini followed suit in 1816.
Beaumarchais The Marriage of Figaro
Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, a loose sequel to The Barber of Seville, had a rousing effect at the initial reading session at Versailles:
Louis XVI declared it unfit for the stage.
Beaumarchais had initially submitted his politically caustic sequel to the theatre censors in 1861 and they approved it, but their ruling gave way to Louis XVI’s mandate. Not even Louis’ queen, Marie Antoinette, could persuade him to let the play be performed. Unfortunately for the king, his disapproval instantly made the rest of France ravenous—they wanted to see the play.
While Beaumarchais still needed to revise the play in the interest of self preservation, he did indulge his French fans with private showings until the king finally lifted the ban in 1784. Beaumarchais instantly became a playwriting celebrity as soon as The Marriage of Figaro was released. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro followed in Vienna in 1786.
Later on, Napoleon would even weigh in on Beaumarchais’ crowning achievement by declaring that the playwright should have been put in jail and kept there.
That sounds like a stamp of approval to us.
Beaumarchais’ La Mere Coupable: “The Guilty Mother”
At last we come to the third installment of the Figaro play series. The Guilty Mother premiered in 1792, fittingly revised to reflect revolutionary ideals. Despite Beaumarchais’ long-standing views on personal liberty and equal rights, he couldn’t be too sure—the French were beheading people in the streets.
Believe it or not, Beaumarchais still had to remain in Germany from 1794-1796 because of false accusations against his sympathies.
La Mere Coupable didn’t earn quite the same “box office sales” as its predecessors, namely because a handful of other European playwrights had already taken it upon themselves to write sequels to the Figaro legacy. M-N Delon, for instance, wrote Le Mariage de Cherubin in 1785 as a spin-off to one of Beaumarchais’ characters.
It wasn’t classy, but it was how things went in the 19th century. In proper Beaumarchais form though, he did take some stabs at his former enemies in the play; he parodied Goezman, the judge who had ruled against him earlier, and Bergasse, a lawyer.
Without Beaumarchais, we wouldn’t have three operas from three of the most successful composers in history—Paisiello, Mozart, and Rossini. Why doesn’t anyone remember Beaumarchais?
We didn’t even discuss his influence on Vaudeville or his participation in the American Revolution—we’ll save that for next time.
Beaumarchais The Marriage of Figaro Play—Sources
Beaumarchais in Seville: An Intermezzo by Hugh Thomas
The Barber of Seville and the Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais, Trans. John Wood