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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–1799)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Brander Matthews (1852–1929)
PIERRE AUGUSTIN CARON was born in Paris, January 24th, 1732. He was the son of a watchmaker, and learned his father’s trade. He invented a new escapement, and was allowed to call himself “Clockmaker to the King”—Louis XV. At twenty-four he married a widow, and took the name of Beaumarchais from a small fief belonging to her. Within a year his wife died. Being a fine musician, he was appointed instructor of the King’s daughters; and he was quick to turn to good account the influence thus acquired. In 1764 he made a sudden trip to Spain to vindicate a sister of his, who had been betrothed to a man called Clavijo and whom this Spaniard had refused to marry. He succeeded in his mission, and his own brilliant account of this characteristic episode in his career suggested to Goethe the play of ‘Clavigo.’ Beaumarchais himself brought back from Madrid a liking for things Spanish and a knowledge of Iberian customs and character.  1
  He had been a watchmaker, a musician, a court official, a speculator, and it was only when he was thirty-five that he turned dramatist. Various French authors, Diderot especially, weary of confinement to tragedy and comedy, the only two forms then admitted on the French stage, were seeking a new dramatic formula in which they might treat pathetic situations of modern life; and it is due largely to their efforts that the modern “play” or “drama,” the story of everyday existence, has been evolved. The first dramatic attempt of Beaumarchais was a drama called ‘Eugénie,’ acted at the Théâtre Français in 1767, and succeeding just enough to encourage him to try again. The second, ‘The Two Friends,’ acted in 1770, was a frank failure. For the pathetic, Beaumarchais had little aptitude; and these two serious efforts were of use to him only so far as their performance may have helped him to master the many technical difficulties of the theatre.  2
  Beaumarchais had married a second time in 1768, and he had been engaged in various speculations with the financier Pâris-Duverney. In 1770 his wife died, and so did his associate; and he found himself soon involved in lawsuits, into the details of which it is needless to go, but in the course of which he published a series of memoirs, or statements of his case for the public at large. These memoirs are among the most vigorous of all polemical writings; they were very clever and very witty; they were vivacious and audacious; they were unfailingly interesting; and they were read as eagerly as the ‘Letters of Junius.’ Personal at first, the suits soon became political; and part of the public approval given to the attack of Beaumarchais on judicial injustice was due no doubt to the general discontent with the existing order in France. His daring conduct of his own cause made him a personality. He was intrusted with one secret mission by Louis XV.; and when Louis XVI. came to the throne, he managed to get him again employed confidentially.  3
  Not long after his two attempts at the serious drama, he had tried to turn to account his musical faculty by writing both the book and the score of a comic opera, which had, however, been rejected by the Comédie-Italienne (the predecessor of the present Opéra Comique). After a while Beaumarchais cut out his music and worked over his plot into a five-act comedy in prose, ‘The Barber of Seville.’ It was produced by the Théâtre Français in 1775, and like the contemporary ‘Rivals’ of Sheridan,—the one English author with whom Beaumarchais must always be compared,—it was a failure on the first night and a lasting success after the author had reduced it and rearranged it. ‘The Barber of Seville’ was like the ‘Gil Blas’ of Lesage in that, while it was seemingly Spanish in its scenes, it was in reality essentially French. It contained one of the strongest characters in literature,—Figaro, a reincarnation of the intriguing servant of Menander and Plautus and Molière. Simple in plot, ingenious in incident, brisk in dialogue, broadly effective in character-drawing, ‘The Barber of Seville’ is the most famous French comedy of the eighteenth century, with the single exception of its successor from the same pen, which appeared nine years later.  4
  During those years Beaumarchais was not idle. Like Defoe, he was always devising projects for money-making. A few months after ‘The Barber of Seville’ had been acted, the American Revolution began, and Beaumarchais was a chief agent in supplying the Americans with arms, ammunition, and supplies. He had a cruiser of his own, Le Fier Roderigue, which was in D’Estaing’s fleet. When the independence of the United States was recognized at last, Beaumarchais had a pecuniary claim against the young nation which long remained unsettled.  5
  Not content with making war on his own account almost, Beaumarchais also undertook the immense task of publishing a complete edition of Voltaire. He also prepared a sequel to the ‘Barber,’ in which Figaro should be even more important, and should serve as a mouthpiece for declamatory criticism of the social order. But his ‘Marriage of Figaro’ was so full of the revolutionary ferment that its performance was forbidden. Following the example of Molière under the similar interdiction of ‘Tartuffe,’ Beaumarchais was untiring in arousing interest in his unacted play, reading it himself in the houses of the great. Finally it was authorized, and when the first performance took place at the Théâtre Français in 1784, the crush to see it was so great that three persons were stifled to death. The new comedy was as amusing and as adroit as its predecessor, and the hits at the times were sharper and swifter and more frequent. How demoralized society was then may be gauged by the fact that this disintegrating satire was soon acted by the amateurs of the court, a chief character being impersonated by Marie Antoinette herself.  6
  The career of Beaumarchais reached its climax with the production of the second of the Figaro plays. Afterward he wrote the libretto for an opera, ‘Tarare,’ produced with Salieri’s music in 1787; the year before he had married for the third time. In a heavy play called ‘The Guilty Mother,’ acted with slight success in 1790, he brought in Figaro yet once more. During the Terror he emigrated to Holland, returning to Paris in 1796 to find his sumptuous mansion despoiled. May 18th, 1799, he died, leaving a fortune of $200,000, besides numerous claims against the French nation and the United States.  7
  An interesting parallel could be drawn between ‘The Rivals’ and the ‘School for Scandal’ on the one side, and on the other ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘The Marriage of Figaro’; and there are also piquant points of likeness between Sheridan and Beaumarchais. But Sheridan, with all his failings, was of sterner stuff than Beaumarchais. He had a loftier political morality, and he served the State more loyally. Yet the two comedies of Beaumarchais are like the two comedies of Sheridan in their incessant wit, in their dramaturgic effectiveness, and in the histrionic opportunities they afford. Indeed, the French comedies have had a wider audience than the English, thanks to an Italian and a German,—to Rossini who set ‘The Barber of Seville’ to music, and to Mozart who did a like service for ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’  8

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