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Pierre Beaumarchais Biography

Pierre Beaumarchais Image

BEAUMARCHAIS, A name assumed by Pierre Augustin Caron (1732-99), the most important French dramatist of the eighteenth century, though he wrote but two really successful plays, Le barbier de Séville (1775) and Le mariage de Figaro (1784). He was born in Paris, the son of a watchmaker, and was educated to his father's trade. He early developed a marked taste for music and sufficient proficiency to become music master to the daughters of Louis XV. He turned this position to good account in speculations. In 1764 he made a journey to Spain to protect or vindicate his sister, who had been abandoned by her betrothed, Clavigo. His account of this mission in his Mémoires suggested the drama Clavigo to Goethe. He brought from Madrid a knowledge of things Spanish that was later of much use to him. He now turned to the drama, wrote Eugénie (1767), a fairly successful domestic drama, and Les deux amis, a decided failure in the pathetic vein. Meantime he had become engaged in financial speculations that led to lawsuits, and these to a series of Mémoires, appeals to the public that are among the most vigorous, audacious, clever, and witty polemics in literature. Their attack on judicial injustice gave them a universal interest. They were eagerly read and deepened the discontent with the existing state of society that was to culminate in the Revolution. Beaumarchais thus became a political personality. He was confidentially employed by Louis XV and later by Louis XVI; but before this he had snatched a sensational dramatic triumph out of failure by rearranging a comic opera into a five-act comedy-his Barbier de Séville (1775), Spanish in scene, but essentially French at the heart; the most famous comedy of the century, save only its sequel from the same hand. It is simple, lively, ingenious, effective, and it contains one of the strongest-drawn characters of dramatic literature-Figaro, an incarnation of the new democracy, now engaged in furnishing the American revolted Colonists with supplies and acquired a pecuniary claim against the United States that remained long unsettled. His restless spirit also projected a complete edition of Voltaire, and he prepared a sequel to the Barbier, Le mariage de Figaro, so daringly democratic and revolutionary that it received the advertisement of a legal prohibition. This so whetted public curiosity that when at last it was licensed, three persons were crushed to death in seeking entrance to the National Theatre (Théâtre Français, 1784). Here the wit is keener, the action swifter, the social satire more mordant than in the Barbier. Figaro, the light-hearted, versatile, shrewd scapegrace, was furnishing a social solvent that would disintegrate society and invite the Revolution. Beaumarchais had probably no more serious purpose than delight in his own wit. "He wished to fire a squib and he exploded a magazine." These comedies mark, in dialogue, construction, and intrigue, the high-water mark of the century. If they err, it is in the monotony of their brilliancy. The tradition of their unparalleled success gave models to Hugo and Dumas and inspired the operas of Rossini and Mozart. Beaumarchais did nothing more of significance. An opera libretto, Tarare (1777), is a trifle. A heavy melodrama, La mère coupable (1790), vainly seeks to recall Figaro. Soon Beaumarchais fled from the Terror to Holland. He returned in 1796 and left at death a comfortable fortune that he had managed to save from the wreck of the Revolution. Beaumarchais' works are edited by Gudin (7 vols., 1809), by Furne (6 vols., 1827), and by Moland (1874). Consult also: Loménie, Beaumarchais et son temps (4th ed., trans. by Edwards, London, 1856) ; Lintilhac, Beaumarchais et ses œuvres (Paris, 1887) ; Gudin de la Brenellerie, Histoire de Beaumarchais (ed. Tourneaux, Paris, 1886) ; Lescure, Eloge de Beaumarchais (Paris, 1887); Bonnefou, Etude sur Beaumarchais (Paris, 1887); Hallays, Beaumarchais (Paris, 1897).

The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. III (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 20-21.