Beaumarchais, Pierre Augustin Caron de
From Enlightenment Revolution
Beaumarchais, Pierre Augustin Caron de (1732-1799): French Playwright.
Pierre Augustin Caron became eighteenth century France’s most controversial and revolutionary playwright under the name of Beaumarchais. He was born on 24 January 1732 in Paris, and grew up working in his father’s clock shop. His talent for devising new watch mechanisms caught the eye of King Louis XV, who appointed him royal clockmaker. Also an able musician and songwriter, Pierre later became the music teacher of Louis XVI’s daughters. Success at court was not easy, however, for a non-noble. Always ambitious, Pierre began an affair with the wife of a government financial comptroller named Francquet in 1755. When Francquet conveniently died the next year, Pierre married the widow, who lived only one more year herself. Inheriting Francquet’s business, Pierre used the money to buy the title of Secretary to the King. At that point, in 1757, he began calling himself Pierre de Beaumarchais.
Now considered a nobleman, Beaumarchais embarked on a career of high adventure as a secret agent and diplomat. Following a spying mission in Spain, Beaumarchais married second wife Geneviève Lévêque, but she too would die young. Next, Beaumarchais played an important role in the creation of the United States of America by smuggling arms to the rebellious colonies before the French government even officially endorsed the American Revolution. At various times, Beaumarchais engaged in such enterprises as the shipping business, engineering, architecture, jurisprudence, and journalism. Beaumarchais found himself always in trouble, and frequently in jail, thanks to his political pamphleteering and his activism in forming a sort of union, the Dramatic Authors Society.
Beaumarchais wrote a number of plays, two of them considered great: The Barber of Seville (1775) and its sequel The Marriage of Figaro (1782). Both plays were held up for two years before gaining government sanction, whereupon both became highly successful. Figaro caused such a sensation that three women were reportedly crushed to death at the premiere.
Subsequently, during the French Revolution, Beaumarchais was denounced for having served the monarchy. Briefly arrested, then freed, he fared better than most former courtiers because his plays were judged to contain revolutionary ideas. However, his third wife, daughter, and sister were all given a sentence of death by a revolutionary tribunal. Beaumarchais’s one outstanding contribution during the Revolution, before fleeing to Holland, was his 1791 Petition to the National Assembly against the usurpation of authors’ property rights by theater directors, which inspired something akin to copyright. Beaumarchais settled in Hamburg, but later returned to France in 1796. He died of apoplexy on 18 May 1799.
Beaumarchais is remembered for his plays conveying a strong social satire attacking the corruption and unfairness rampant in the Old Régime. Servants are depicted by lust. The most famous protagonist, the barber Figaro, is decidedly brilliant, talented, and well educated, but unable to rise in the world as high as he might otherwise because of the class system that keeps beating him down. Beaumarchais’s message, attacking a social structure based on birthright, is so subversive that Louis XVI did, at first, ban Figaro after reading the author’s manuscript and declaring it to be disrespectful of everything the government stood for. But the king’s wife, Marie-Antoinette, was so enchanted by the comedy’s sparkling wit and charm that she evidently missed the hidden meaning and insisted on having the work performed. Figaro is today widely credited with launching the Revolution that beheaded her and the king.
In 1786, Mozart made The Marriage of Figaro into one of his most famous operas, Le Nozze di Figaro, which Beaumarchais first heard in 1793. And in 1816, Gioacchino Rossini wrote the opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Throughout much of the world, Beaumarchais is best known for having inspired these operas. However, his own musical compositions are largely forgotten.
Beaumarchais summed up his career in his famous quotation, “As long as I do not write about government, religion, politics, and other institutions, I am free to print anything.” Such witticisms, conveying revolutionary attitudes with humorous verve, make Beaumarchais’s comedies among the most often performed of all the classics in France.
W.D. Howarth, Beaumarchais, 1995.
Kenneth T. Rivers