The French playwright Pierre August Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was an outstanding dramatist of his day. His plays wittily satirized the privileged classes, the professions, and the court.
Beaumarchais was born Pierre August Caron in Paris on Jan. 24, 1732. His father, André Charles Caron, was a respected watchmaker. Pierre was the only boy among five adoring sisters and grew up lively, witty, and self-assured. Entering his father's profession, Pierre invented a mechanism which brought him the honor of becoming royal watchmaker to King Louis XV.
In 1755 Pierre made the acquaintance of Marie Madeleine Franquet, the wife of an elderly man who was clerk-comptroller in the royal household. Franquet was persuaded to yield his office to Pierre, and it was then Pierre's duty to escort the royal meat to table. So noble a calling prompted him to ennoble his name; it was at this time that he added the "de Beaumarchais." A few months later, on the death of Franquet, Beaumarchais married his widow. She died 10 months later, and in 1768 he married another wealthy widow, Geneviève Leveque, who died after 2 years of marriage and the birth of a son. Later he met Marie Thérèse Willermaula, with whom he lived for 12 years. She bore him a daughter, Eugénie.
The rapid rise of the young watchmaker into royal society, plus his sharp wit and cocksure attitude, aroused much antagonism. There were numerous attempts to humiliate Beaumarchais before the royal family; and later he repeatedly became an object of public calumny. Though friends and family adored him, he was surrounded by bitter enemies most of his life.
Beaumarchais gained the friendship of Pâris-Duverny, one of the great financiers of Paris, and under his guidance amassed a small fortune from speculation. Shortly before his death the financier acknowledged a debt to Beaumarchais of 15, 000 francs, but since the transaction had never been legalized, Pâris-Duverny's heir refused to pay the debt. In the ensuing legal action Beaumarchais was subject to being labeled a forger if the judgment went against him. This was the first of a series of vicious court battles in which Beaumarchais was involved.
Meanwhile Beaumarchais was thrown into prison as the result of a quarrel over an actress at the Comédie Italienne. At this point Beaumarchais became immersed in yet another legal struggle. The wife of his lawyer, Goezman, had demanded a bribe. Beaumarchais had publicized this, and Goezman retaliated by bringing an action for libel. The case was the scandal of Paris. Beaumarchais wrote hundreds of pamphlets, which were distributed throughout Paris. He pleaded his case with such ingenuity and with that he was able to turn a desperate state of affairs into a great popular success. He escaped severe punishment but suffered a loss of civil rights. Though all the judgments against him were eventually reversed, it seemed that his career as a courtier was ended. But Louis XV needed a man as shrewd as Beaumarchais and made the former watchmaker a secret agent, sending him off on wild exploits in pursuit of blackmailers throughout Europe.
Beaumarchais's career as a playwright began with two dramas: Eugénie (1765), based on a trip Beaumarchais had taken to Spain to chastise a young Spaniard who had jilted his sister; and Les Deux amis (1769; The Two Friends), which was a failure. With his two comedies, Le Barbier de Séville (1775; The Barber of Seville) and Le Marriage de Figaro (1784; The Marriage of Figaro), Beaumarchais achieved overwhelming success. They inspired operas by Mozart and Rossini and spread Beaumarchais's fame throughout Europe.
Both plays center on the barber, Figaro, and his master, Count Almaviva; Beaumarchais's own resemblance to Figaro is striking. Figaro is a master of intrigue; he is a rogue, an adventurer, a charmer, a heartbreaker, a smooth talker, and a delightful wit. But his antics expose the avarice of the age, and he is sensitive to its injustices.
In The Barber of Seville Figaro helps Almaviva win the hand of the young heiress, Rosine, from under the nose of her guardian, old Dr. Bartolo, who has secret plans to marry her himself. This play was the last of the private theatricals held in the Petit Trianon; Marie Antoinette played the part of Rosine.
In The Marriage of Figaro Figaro is about to be married to Suzanne, maid to Countess Almaviva (the Rosine of the earlier play). The intricate plots and counterplots of this dynamic masterpiece center on Figaro's attempts to foil his master's efforts to profit from the traditional right, as supreme lord, to preempt the husband's right with the bride before her wedding night. Several of the most charming subplots center on the erotic dreams and schemes of the teen-aged page, Chérubin. Louis XVI prohibited the play, but Beaumarchais stirred up public curiosity by constant readings. Many members of the court defended the play until the King relented, and it was at last produced, meeting a glorious reception.
Irony, verbal wit, and symmetrical plots as carefully balanced as the wheels of a watch raise these comedies far above the level of farce. Among 18th-century writers only Marivaux surpasses Beaumarchais and does so by the fertility of his imagination rather than by dramatic ability.
Once Beaumarchais had gained success as a playwright, he plunged into new financial operations. For many years he equipped a fleet that supplied arms to the American colonies in the Revolutionary War. This venture, as well as his attempt to publish the banned works of Voltaire, was largely a financial failure.
Although the social satire of his two great plays seemed to anticipate the changes that were about to take place in French society, Beaumarchais found himself singularly unprepared for the Revolution. In fact, he had just finished building an enormous mansion across from the Bastille prison, and twice the mobs came in search of him.
Beaumarchais was denounced by the revolutionist Jean Marat and thrown into prison in 1792, but by an extraordinary quirk of fate he was released just before the September massacres began. He was outside France during the worst part of the Reign of Terror, carrying out an arms mission which took him to England and Holland. When he returned to France, he was impoverished, and he died suddenly of a stroke in 1799.
The best biography of Beaumarchais is Cynthia Cox, The Real Figaro: The Extraordinary Career of Caron de Beaumarchais (1962). See also Elizabeth S. Kite, Beaumarchais and the War of American Independence (2 vols., 1918); Paul Frischauer, Beaumarchais, Adventurer in the Century of Women (trans. 1935); and Georges E. Lemaitre, Beaumarchais (1949). The outstanding critical study is in French: Jacques Scherer, La Dramaturgie de Beaumarchais (1954). In English the best critical work is J. B. Ratermanis and W. R. Irwin, The Comic Style of Beaumarchais (1961).