The Reading Room
The Marriage of Figaro: Banned in France
“So it will never be performed?” said the queen. “Certainly not,” said Louis XVI. “You may be sure of that.”
Thus reported Mme. Caspan, the principal lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette, after reading Beaumarchais’s new play, The Marriage of Figaro, to the king in 1781. The play, the sequel to The Barber of Seville, mocks the aristocracy. Count Almaviva, whom Figaro helped in the first play, is now his adversary. He wants to get Suzanne, Figaro’s fiancée, into his bed without Figaro’s knowledge. Suzanne warns Figaro of the Count’s intentions. The servants devise a scheme that exposes the Count to ridicule, and he has to beg for forgiveness. Joining them is Rosine, whom the Count won in the earlier play and who is now Countess Almaviva.
Talk about the play never stopped, and Beaumarchais continued to do readings of it. A private performance was scheduled for June 13, 1783, but two hours before curtain time a direct order came from the king banning it.
Pressure from the playwright’s friends continued, and a performance was scheduled for September 26. He had a censor review it for his own safety, and the performance took place at the Château de Gennevilliers. A private performance was an important step, but getting a play approved for the general public was much harder. Beaumarchais lobbied energetically until he secured permission for a public performance at the Théâtre Français on April 27, 1784. The play opened to a standing-room-only audience and ended with thunderous applause. Lever’s biography of Beaumarchais declares, “That date merits being inscribed among the great moments of French history.”
The play was presented 68 times in the next eight months. It got international attention; In February 1785, Johann Rautenstrauch announced a German-language performance in Vienna. Emperor Joseph II allowed the publication of the translation but banned its performance. However, in 1786 Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte ensured the play would go down in international history, turning it into one of the best-loved operas of all time. The opera was mostly faithful to the play’s content and spirit, but it toned down many parts to escape censorship.
For those portions, we need to go back to Beaumarchais. In Act V of the play, Figaro makes a lengthy speech that goes beyond his frustration when he thinks Suzanne has deceived him; it is clearly Beaumarchais taking the stage to reply to the censors. He declares:
How I would like to have hold of one of those Jacks in office — so indifferent to the evils that they cause — when disaster had extinguished his pride! I’d tell him that stupidities that appear in print acquire importance only in so far as their circulation is restricted, that unless there is liberty to criticize, praise has no value, and that only trivial minds are apprehensive of trivial scribbling.
Lever tells us that the first version of the speech was “much more provocative,” mentioning the Bastille by name. In the original version of the play, Almaviva and his entourage had moved from Seville to France. Changing the locale to Spain may have been a bow to the censors, but it provided better continuity with The Barber of Seville.
Feminist issues also figure in. Earlier in the play, Figaro’s mother declares:
Even in the more exalted walks of life, you accord a woman no more than a derisory consideration. In a state of servitude behind the alluring pretenses of respect, treating us as children where our possessions are concerned, we are punished as responsible adults where our faults are in question!
Women play an important role. Figaro’s fiancée Suzanne is a full partner with Figaro in their scheme, and at times she is a step ahead of him. The Countess is equally capable; she has to deal with her husband’s fits of jealous suspicion but manages to turn them against him, exposing him to ridicule.
During the play’s successful run, Beaumarchais feuded verbally with his enemies. In March 1785, he was imprisoned for five days under the king’s order. Adding to his humiliation, he was sent to a prison normally used for juveniles. The sentence angered Beaumarchais’s supporters and increased resentment of Louis XVI.
Louis was an indecisive king, sometimes insisting on absolute power and sometimes expanding liberties. His vacillation made him both unpopular and vulnerable. Four years later the French Revolution broke out, eventually leading to the execution of Louis.
In 1792, after the king had lost most of his power, the Paris Opéra produced a remarkable version of Mozart's opera. It retained most of the music but replaced the recitatives (sung dialogue) with spoken text from the play, including some of the most provocative passages. Beaumarchais was involved in the planning and approved the choices.
The same year saw the premiere of Beaumarchais’s third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother. It was unsuccessful and is rarely revived. The familiar characters are older and have to deal with the consequences of the bad choices they made years before. This wasn’t what the audience wanted.
When the curtain went up for The Marriage of Figaro, it went up for the Revolution as well. In banning it in 1783, Louis XVI made a remark which is often mistranslated: “La représentation ne pourrait qu'être une inconséquence fâcheuse, sauf si la Bastille était détruite.” After getting input from native French speakers, the best translation I can offer is “The performance can’t be more than a nuisance as long as the Bastille isn’t destroyed.” His complacency came to an end when the Bastille was conquered a few years later and the monarchy fell.