The Reading Room
Beaumarchais and “The Barber of Seville”
If people today have heard of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, it’s usually as the author of the source material for two famous operas, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. He deserves to be far better remembered, and not just for these two plays. He was a prime example of the spirit which led to the French Revolution and a friend of the American Revolution.
Some have said that without Beaumarchais, the Americans could not have won their independence. Working with Silas Deane of Connecticut, he persuaded the French government to let him covertly ship armaments to the colonists. These weapons enabled the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. The operation laid the groundwork for the Marquis de Lafayette’s journey to America to provide his support. Beaumarchais continued his operations even when it became clear that the Continental Congress wouldn’t reimburse him.
His 1775 play, The Barber of Seville, reflects his spirit. While it doesn’t go as far as its sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, its presentation of the relationship between the nobility and the common people must have made many of the former uncomfortable.
The play would have been presented in 1773 except for a series of events that forced its author into a struggle against his enemies. He was targeted by a slander campaign, imprisoned on dubious grounds, forced to give up his home, and deprived by judicial decree of his rights as a citizen.
He fought back with a series of satirical pamphlets called Memoires. The puppet judicial body known as the Maupeou Parlement ordered them burned, but the decree only made him a celebrity.
Beaumarchais appealed to Louis XV, but the king died in May 1774. Fortunately, his successor Louis XVI found the playwright useful for some undercover work in England and Holland. Ironically, this work included burning all the copies of a pamphlet that offended the king. His service led to his rehabilitation and made the play’s premiere possible.
The plot of The Barber of Seville by itself is conventional, even clichéd. Count Almaviva is in love with a young woman named Rosine, and he disguises himself as a poor student to try to win her without relying on his rank and wealth. She is the ward of Doctor Bartholo, who would like to marry her himself. The Count’s chances of even talking to her are poor till he encounters his former servant Figaro, who is now in Bartholo’s employ. Taking charge, Figaro devises stratagems that let the Count meet with Rosine under Bartholo’s nose. Rosine, discovering part of the truth, thinks her suitor is an agent of the Count and spurns him. The Count reveals his true identity; Rosine swoons into his arms. They get married by the very notary whom Bartholo had engaged to marry himself to Rosine. When Bartholo arrives, the officer accompanying him says that the law is on the Count’s side, and Bartholo has to concede.
What brings the play to brilliant life is the characters. Figaro is Beaumarchais’s representation of himself. He is more clever than the Count and at one point makes him adopt the embarrassing disguise of a drunken soldier. His remarks to the Count stay respectful but raise important questions. “On the basis of the virtues commonly required in a servant,” he asks, “does Your Excellency know many masters who would pass muster as valets?” When the Count flatters him, he responds, “How friendly people do become when they find they’ve a use for you.”
Bartholo personifies anti-Enlightenment values. He despises “liberty of thought, universal toleration, inoculation, quinine, the Encyclopedia, and the new-fangled Drama.” While he is descended from Pantaloon in the Italian commedia dell’arte, he is no fool, and Figaro and the Count are barely able to stay ahead of him. His henchman Bazile recommends slander as the solution to all of Bartholo’s problems, and he’ll do anything if offered a sufficient bribe. He is clearly drawn from Beaumarchais’s experience.
Rosine is no mere prize to be won; she keeps up her end of the plotting and is never afraid to speak her mind to Bartholo. In her first appearance, she gets a message out to the disguised Count in spite of Bartholo’s watchfulness.
The dialogue is straightforward prose, letting the characters speak as they might have in real life. To preserve this sense, play is best seen or read in a modern translation such as John Wood’s.
The first performance of The Barber in 1775 wasn’t well received. According to some accounts, Beaumarchais had overloaded it with references to his personal situation. After some hasty rewriting, the play became an enduring hit.
Soon afterward, he found himself in a legal battle over The Barber. The Théâtre Français claimed that when the receipts for a play fell below a certain level, the author was no longer entitled to royalties, even if receipts went back up. Beaumarchais challenged this claim and won a victory not just for himself but for playwrights in general.
The play’s popularity led to adaptations. In 1780 Giovanni Paisiello turned it into an opera, which was well-regarded until Rossini’s 1816 treatment of the play eclipsed it. Both operas stay close to the play. Rossini’s famous aria, “Largo al factotum,” perfectly captures Figaro’s spirit.
Beaumarchais’s creation lives on in the name of one of France’s leading newspapers, Le Figaro. His legacy is also found in the United States’ independence and its long, if sometimes strained, friendship with France. He may even have helped to precipitate the French Revolution, though that matter is best left for a discussion of his next play, The Marriage of Figaro.