A Capacity for Impudence

Beaumarchais, the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, did not think of himself primarily as a writer, but rather as an entrepreneur and a man of action—if possible a man of destiny. Moreover, why these two plays of his are familiar to us is because of Rossini and Mozart. By this I do not mean that they, and especially the Marriage, are not brilliant works in themselves. For what comes home to one is how essentially faithful Mozart and Da Ponte were to Beaumarchais’s text. It is often said that the original stage version of the Marriage was harsher, more potentially revolutionary, than Mozart’s opera, and people like to quote Danton’s assertion “Figaro killed off the nobility” and Napoleon’s “It was the Revolution already in action.”

But I think there is some delusion here. Admittedly, in the opera Figaro does not have his great Act V soliloquy, in which he tells the Count, “You have given yourself the trouble of being born, but nothing more. Otherwise, a very ordinary man.” But then, after all, it is only a soliloquy; and the end of the play leaves the Count, despite all his humiliations, in very good humor, highly delighted that the cheek which received his violent slap in the dark turned out to be Figaro’s, not Cherubino’s. Part of the play’s appeal for Beaumarchais’s original audience lay in thinking that by enjoying it, they were acting politically, but this was an illusion. To make people, the enlightened nobility included, laugh indulgently at the mad injustices of the ancien régime was not a revolutionary act.

In the case of Beaumarchais’s only other really considerable literary achievement there was no Mozart to spread its fame and influence, and it remains unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. I am speaking of the four Mémoires that he wrote in his own defense in 1773 and early 1774 when accused of trying to corrupt a judge (the “Goëzman affair”). These were hugely and deservedly successful in the France of his day (some, at a loss how to praise them, likened them to Pascal’s Provincial Letters), and they have an important bearing on the present book, though this will require a little patience to explain.

Beaumarchais (or rather, Pierre-Augustin Caron, for “Beaumarchais” was an assumed name) was born in Paris in 1732, the youngest child of a highly successful clock- and watch-maker. He was the idol and fun-maker of his five sisters and came equally to be idolized by his father, whom he early on supplanted as paterfamilias. This is significant, for one of his leading traits would always be an imperious demand for admiration. However much he might labor for the public good, personal praise had to be a large part of the bargain.

He was apprenticed to his father’s trade and in 1753 developed an improved “escapement” for watches, defeating—by an astute publicity campaign—an attempt by the royal clockmaker Lepaute to claim the invention as his own. As a consequence he began…

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