“The more I see of the French theater,” wrote Arthur Young in 1788, “the more I am forced to acknowledge its superiority to our own, in the number of its good performers, … in the quality of dancers, singers, and persons on whom the business of the theater depends, all established on a grand scale.”108 At the Théâtre-Français, rebuilt in 1782, and in many provincial theaters, performances were given every night, including Sundays. In acting there was now an interregnum: Lekain died, and Sophie Arnould retired, in 1778; Talma, future favorite of Napoleon, made his debut with the Comédie-Française in 1787, and earned his first triumph in Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Charles IX in 1789. The most popular playwright of the time was Michel-Jean Sedaine, who wrote sentimental comedies that kept the French stage for a century. We salute him and pass on to the man who, with the help of Mozart and Rossini, gave life to Figaro, and (as he saw it) freedom to America.
Pierre-Augustin Caron, like Voltaire, lived twenty-four years without knowing his historic name. His father was a watchmaker in the St.-Denis suburb of Paris. After some rebellion he resigned himself to follow the paternal trade. At the age of twenty-one he invented a new type of escapement which enabled him to make “excellent watches as flat and as small as may be thought fit.”109 He pleased Louis XV with a sample, and for Mme. de Pompadour made one so small that it fitted into her ring; this, he claimed, was the smallest watch ever constructed. In 1755 he bought from its aging holder, M. Franquet, a place among the “controllers of the royal pantry,” who waited upon the King at his meals; it was no very exalted post, but it gave Pierre entry to the court. A year later Franquet died; Pierre married the widow (1756), six years older than himself; and, as she owned a small fief, Pierre added its name to his own, and became Beaumarchais. When his wife died (1757) he inherited her property.
He had never received any secondary education, but everyone—even the aristocrats who resented his agile climb—recognized the alertness of his mind and the quickness of his wit. In the salons and the cafés he met Diderot, d’Alembert, and otherphilosophes,and imbibed the Enlightenment. An improvement that he had made in the pedal arrangement of the harp caught the attention of Louis XV’s unmarried daughters; in 1759 he began to give them lessons on the harp. The banker Joseph Paris-Duverney asked Beaumarchais to enlist the aid of Mesdames Royales in securing the support of Louis XV for the École Militaire, of which the financier was a director; Pierre succeeded in this, and Paris-Duverney gave him stocks worth sixty thousand francs. “He initiated me,” said Beaumarchais, “into the secrets of finance.... I commenced making my fortune under his direction; by his advice I undertook several speculations, in some of which he assisted me with his money or his name.”110 So Beaumarchais, following in this as in so many other ways the precedents set by Voltaire, became a millionaire philosopher. By 1871 he was rich enough to buy one of the titular secretaryships to the king, which brought him a title of nobility. He took a fine house in the Rue de Condé, and installed in it his proud father and sisters.
Two other sisters were living in Madrid—one married, the other, Lisette, engaged to José Clavigo y Fajardo, editor and author, who for six years repeatedly postponed the marriage. In May, 1764, Beaumarchais began a long ride by stagecoach, day and night, to the Spanish capital. He found Clavigo, who promised to marry Lisette soon, but then eluded Beaumarchais by moving from place to place. Pierre finally caught up with him, and demanded his signature for a contract of marriage; José excused himself on the ground that he had just taken a purgative, and Spanish law held invalid any contract signed by a person in such a condition. Beaumarchais threatened him; Clavigo set the forces of government against him; the clever Frenchman was defeated by mañana.Abandoning that chase, he took up the pursuit of business and organized several companies, one for supplying Negro slaves to Spanish colonies. (He forgot that only a year earlier he had written a poem condemning slavery.111) All these plans foundered on the Spanish gift for procrastination. Meanwhile, however, Pierre enjoyed good company and a titled mistress, and learned enough about Spanish manners to write his plays about a barber of Seville. Lisette found another lover, and Beaumarchais returned to France with nothing gained but experience. He composed fascinating memoirs of his trip, from which, as we have seen, Goethe made a drama, Clavigo (1775).
In 1770 Paris-Duverney died, after making a will acknowledging that he owed Beaumarchais fifteen thousand francs. The chief heir, the Comte de La Blache, contested this clause as a forgery. The matter was referred to the Paris Parlement, which appointed Councilor Louis-Valentin Goëzman to pass on it. At this juncture Beaumarchais was in jail as a result of a violent fracas with the Duc de Chaulnes about a mistress. Temporarily released, he sent a “present” of a hundred louis d’or, and a diamond-studded watch, to Mme. Goëzman as inducements to get him a hearing before her husband; she asked an additional fifteen louis d’or for a “secretary”; he sent them. He secured the interview; the Councilor decided against him; Mme. Goëzman returned all but the fifteen louis d’or; Beaumarchais insisted on her returning these too; Goëzman charged him with bribery. Pierre put the matter before the public in a series of Memoirs so vivacious and witty that they won him wide acclaim as a brilliant debater if not quite an honest man. Voltaire said of them: “I have never seen anything stronger, bolder, funnier, more interesting, more humiliating for his foes. He fights a dozen of them at a time, and mows them down.”112 The Parlement ruled against his claim to the inheritance (April 6, 1773), in effect charged him with forgery, and condemned him to pay 56,300 livres in damages and debts.
Released from jail (May 8, 1773), Beaumarchais engaged himself to Louis XV as a secret agent on a mission to England to prevent the circulation of a scandalous pamphlet against Mme. du Barry. He succeeded, and continued in secret service under Louis XVI, who commissioned him to return to London and bribe Guglielmo Angelucci to refrain from publishing a pamphlet against Marie Antoinette. Angelucci surrendered the manuscript for 35,000 francs and departed for Nuremberg; Beaumarchais, suspecting him to have another copy, pursued him through Germany, caught up with him near Neustadt, and forced him to surrender the copy. Two brigands attacked him; he fought them off, was wounded, made his way to Vienna, was arrested as a spy, spent a month in jail, was freed, and rode back to France.
His next exploit has more right to a place in history. In 1775 Vergennes sent him to London to report on the growing crisis between England and America. In September Beaumarchais dispatched to Louis XVI a report predicting the success of the American revolt, and emphasizing the pro-American minority in England. On February 29, 1776, he addressed to the King another letter, recommending secret French aid to America, on the ground that France could protect herself from subjection only by weakening England.113 Vergennes concurred with this view, and, as we have seen, arranged to finance Beaumarchais in providing war materials to the English colonies. Beaumarchais gave himself wholeheartedly to the enterprise. He organized the firm of Rodrigue Hortalez and Company, and went from one French port to another, buying and equipping ships, loading them with provisions and weapons, recruiting experienced French officers for the American army, and spending (he claimed) several million livres of his own in addition to the two million supplied him by the French and Spanish governments. Silas Deane reported to the American Congress (November 29, 1776) : “I should never have completed my mission but for the generous, indefatigable, and intelligent exertion of M. de Beaumarchais, to whom the United States are, on every account, more indebted than to any other person on this side of the ocean.”114 At the end of the war Silas Deane calculated that America owed Beaumarchais 3,600,000 francs. The Congress, having assumed that all the material was a gift from allies, rejected the claim, but in 1835 it paid 800,000 livres to Beaumarchais’ heirs.
During this feverish activity he found time to write more memorials, addressed to the public, protesting the decree of Parlement of April 6, 1773. On September 6, 1776, that decree was annulled, and all of Beaumarchais’ civil rights were restored. In July, 1778, a court at Aix-en-Provence ruled in his favor in the matter of Paris-Duverney’s will, and Beaumarchais could feel that at last he had cleared his name.
All his enterprises in love, war, business, and law were not enough for Beaumarchais. There was a world of words, ideas, and print not yet quite conquered. In 1767 he offered to the Comédie-Française his first play, Eugénie; it was presented on January 29, 1769, was well received by the audience, but was rejected by the critics. Another play, Les Deux Amis (January 13, 1770), failed despite the customary preparation; “I had filled the pit with the most excellent workers, with hands like paddles, but the efforts of the cabal” prevailed against him.115 The literary confraternity, led by Fréron, opposed him as an intruder, a jailbird turned dramatist, just as the court at Versailles was against him as a watchmaker turned noble. So, in his next play, he made Figaro describe “the republic of letters” as “the republic of wolves, continually at one another’s throats; … all the insects, gnats, mosquitoes, and critics, all the envious journalists, booksellers, censors.”116
On the stage, as in life, Beaumarchais encountered a swarm of enemies, and defeated them all. In the most creative moment of his multiform genius he conceived Figaro: barber, surgeon, philosopher, dressed in satin vest and breeches, his guitar slung over his shoulder, his quick mind ready to resolve any difficulty, his wit piercing the cant, pretenses, and injustices of his time. In one sense Figaro was not a creation, being a new name and form for the stock figure of the clever servant in Greek and Roman comedy, in the Commedia dell’ Arte of Italy, in Molière’s Sganarelle; but as we know him all but the music is Beaumarchais’. Even the music was originally his; he first composed Le Barbier de Seville as a comic opera, which he presented to the Comédie-Italienne in 1772; it was rejected, but Mozart became acquainted with this music while he was in Paris.117 Beaumarchais remodeled the opera into a comedy; this was accepted by the Comédie-Française, and was scheduled for production when the author’s imprisonment (February 24, 1773) compelled a postponement. On his release it was again prepared for presentation, but was adjourned because the author was under indictment by the Parlement. The success of Beaumarchais’ public self-defense in his Memoirs led the theater again to plan the production; it was announced for February 12, 1774; “all the boxes,” Grimm reported, “were sold up to the fifth performance.”118 At the last moment the government forbade the play on the ground that it might prejudice the case still pending in the Parlement.
Another year passed; a new King came, whom Beaumarchais served valiantly at the repeated risk of his life; permission was given; and on February 23, 1775, The Barber of Seville finally reached the stage. It did not go well; it was too long; and the preliminary excitement had led the audience to expect too much. In one day Beaumarchais revised and shortened it in a chef-d’oeuvre of surgery; the comedy was cleared from confusing complications, the wit was freed from excessive discourse; as Beaumarchais put it, he removed the fifth wheel from the carriage. On the second evening the play was a triumph. Mme. du Deffand, who was there, described it as “an extravagant success, … applauded beyond all bounds.”119
The Prince de Conti challenged Beaumarchais to write a continuation play which would show Figaro as a more developed character. The author was now absorbed in his role as savior of America, but when that had been accomplished he returned to the stage and produced a comedy that made more dramatic history than even the Tartuffe of Molière. In The Marriage of Figaro the Count Almaviva and the Rosina of The Barber of Seville have lived through several years of marriage; he has already tired of the charms that lured him through so many complications; his present enterprise is to seduce Suzanne, maid to his Countess and affianced to Figaro, who has become premier valet to the Count and major-domo of the château. Chérubin, a thirteen-year-old page, provides a graceful obbligato to the central theme by his calf love for the Countess, who is twice his age. Figaro has become a philosopher; Beaumarchais describes him as “la raison assaisonnée de gaiété et de saillies”— reason seasoned with gaiety and sallies120—which is almost a definition of the esprit gaulois, and of the Enlightenment.
“I was born to be a courtier,” he tells Suzanne; and when she supposes this “is a difficult art,” he replies, “Not át all. To receive, to take, to ask—behold the secret in three words.”121 And in the soliloquy which Rossini has made to resound throughout the world, he addresses the nobles of Spain (and France) with almost revolutionary scorn: “What have you done for so much good fortune? You gave yourselves the trouble to be born, and nothing more; for the rest you are sufficiently ordinary! While I, lost in the common crowd, have had to use more science and calculation merely to subsist than have gone into governing all Spain these hundred years past.”122 He laughs at soldiers who “kill and get themselves killed for interests quite unknown to them. As for me, I want to knowwhy I am furious.”123 Even the human race gets its comeuppance: “To drink without being thirsty, and to make love at all seasons—this alone distinguishes us from other animals.”124 There were miscellaneous strokes against the sale of public offices, the arbitrary power of ministers, the miscarriages of justice, the condition of prisons, the censorship and persecution of thought. “Provided in my writings I mention neither the authorities nor the state religion, nor politics, nor morals, nor the officials, nor finances, nor the opera, nor … any person of consequence, I may print whatever I like, subject to inspection by two or three censors.”125 A passage which the actors deleted, perhaps as coming too close to their own recreations, accused the male sex as responsible for prostitution: men by their demands create the supply, and by their laws punish the women who meet the demand.126 The plot itself did not merely show the servant cleverer than his master—this was too traditional to offend—but it revealed the noble count as an arrant adulterer.
The Marriage of Figaro was accepted by the Comédie-Française in 1781, but it could not be produced till 1784. When it was read to Louis XVI he bore with tolerant humor the incidental satire, but when he heard the soliloquy, with derision of the nobility and the censorship, he felt that he could not allow these basic institutions to be publicly abused. “This is detestable,” he exclaimed; “it must never be played. To allow its representation would be equivalent to destroying the Bastille. This man laughs at everything that ought to be respected in a government.”127 He forbade the staging of the piece.
Beaumarchais read parts of the play in private homes. Curiosity was aroused. Some courtiers arranged that it be performed before the court; but at the last minute this too was prohibited. At last the King yielded to protests and requests, and agreed to sanction public performances after careful expurgation of the text by censors. The première (April 27, 1784) was an historic event. All Paris seemed bent on attending the first night. Nobles fought with commoners for admission; iron gates were broken down, doors were smashed, three persons were suffocated. Beaumarchais was there, happy in the fracas. The success was so great that the play was performed sixty times running, nearly always to a full house. The receipts were unprecedented. Beaumarchais gave all of his share—41,999 livres—to charity.128
History has thought of The Marriage of Figaro as a harbinger of revolution; Napoleon described it as “the Revolution already in action.”129 Some of its lines entered into the ferment of the time. In the preface later attached to the published play Beaumarchais denied any revolutionary intent, and he quoted from his writings passages in defense of monarchy and aristocracy. He asked not for the destruction of existing institutions but for the removal of abuses attached to them; for equal justice to all classes, for greater freedom of thought and press, for protection of the individual against lettres de cachet and other excesses of monarchical power. Like his idol, Voltaire, he rejected revolution as an invitation to chaos and the mob.
Through all the varied turbulence that enveloped him he continued to study the works of Voltaire. He recognized the similarities, though perhaps not the distance, between himself and the patriarch: the same combination of feverish intellectual activity with canny financial skill, the same scorn of scruples and of moral delicacy, the same courage in fighting injustice and adversity. He resolved to preserve and disseminate the works of Voltaire in a collected and complete edition. He knew that this could not be done in France, where many of Voltaire’s writings were prohibited. He went to Maurepas and told him that Catherine II had proposed to bring out a French edition in St. Petersburg; he argued that this would be a disgrace to France; the minister saw the point, and promised to allow the circulation of a complete edition. Charles-Joseph Pancoucke, a Paris bookseller, had secured the rights to Voltaire’s unpublished manuscripts; Beaumarchais bought these for 160,000 francs. He collected all the published works of Voltaire that he could find. He imported Baskerville type from England, and purchased paper mills in the Vosges. He secured Condorcet as an editor and biographer. He leased an old fort at Kehl, across the Rhine from Strasbourg, installed presses, and, despite a thousand tribulations, brought out two editions, one in seventy volumes octavo, the other in ninety-two volumes duodecimo (1783-90). This was the largest publishing enterprise yet attempted in Europe, not excepting the Encyclopédic. Expecting a ready sale, Beaumarchais printed fifteen thousand sets; he sold only two thousand, partly because of campaigns against the enterprise by the Parlement and the clergy,130 partly because of the political turmoil of 1788-90, and partly because the instability of personal fortunes deterred individuals from buying so expensive a set. Beaumarchais claimed to have lost a million livres in the venture. However, he produced also an edition of Rousseau.
The Revolution which he had helped to prepare proved a misfortune for him. In 1789 he built for himself and his third wife a costly mansion opposite the Bastille; he filled it with fine furniture and art, and surrounded it with two acres of land. The mobs that repeatedly rioted in the area looked askance at such luxury; twice his house was invaded, and Beaumarchais, now deaf and prematurely old, was threatened as an aristocrat. He sent a petition to the Commune of Paris professing his faith in the Revolution; nevertheless he was arrested (August 23, 1792); though soon set free, he lived in daily fear of assassination. Then the wheel of fortune turned, and he was commissioned by the Revolutionary government (1792) to go to Holland and buy guns for the republic. The negotiations failed; and during his absence his property was seized, and his wife and daughter were arrested (July 5, 1794). He rushed back to Paris, secured their release, and was allowed to recover his property. He lived three years more, broken in body but not in spirit, and hailed the rise of Napoleon. He died on May 18, 1799, of an apoplectic stroke, at the age of sixty-seven. Seldom even in French history had a man led so full and varied and adventurous a life.