‘Why,’ says Almaviva to Figaro, ‘is there always something louche about everything you do?’
- The Figaro Plays by Pierre de Beaumarchais, translated by John Wells
Dent, 290 pp, £20.00, December 1997, ISBN 0 460 87923 5
Was the creator of Figaro on the side of the angels or simply president of Beaumarchais Enterprises? In his lifetime, he was an upstart in the eyes of the great and the good, and governments suspected his motives. The middle classes envied his wealth and rejoiced at his failures, but saw him as the embodiment of successful enterprise and the defender of their cause. Popular opinion, which he manipulated expertly, hailed him as a hero, at least until 1789, when the adoring crowd spotted feet of clay and turned on him.
Ambiguity has gone on clinging to him since his death in 1799. His abilities are not in doubt. He was a man of infinite resource whose versatility was all-encompassing. Yet he practised his many trades – watchmaker, musician, international go-between, entrepreneur, secret agent, pamphleteer, self-appointed diplomat, publisher and gunrunner – with brash, self-serving zeal. Even his literary reputation seems rather shopsoiled. His fame rests on Le Barbier de Séville (1775) and Le Mariage de Figaro (1784), the only French plays which his stage-struck century bequeathed to the international repertoire. But his achievement has been adulterated, for ‘Beaumarchais’ has long been the brand-name of a product variously reprocessed by Mozart, Rossini and the score or so librettists and musicians who have perpetuated his plots, his characters and his name. The most intriguing question of all has centred on his role as catalyst of the Revolution. Was his impertinent barber the Sweeney Todd of the Ancien Régime, the true begetter of the guillotine? ‘Figaro killed off the nobility,’ remarked Danton, while Napoleon saw in Le Mariage ‘the Revolution in action’ and would have done what Louis XVI did not dare to: locked him up for everybody’s good.
His origins were humble. Born Pierre-Augustin Caron in Paris in 1732, he was the son of a clockmaker. In one sense, it was an excellent choice of parent, for his century had discovered that the cosmos itself was a clock and its Creator the Great Clockmaker. A man could not have been better placed to pierce the mysteries of the Universe. But in the sense that counted, it was a bad career move. The Philosophes were doubtless more right than wrong, but they were also more left than right, and grace and favour were distributed by a different kind of machine, one which had served caste, kings and God for centuries. A lower-class clockmaker was at most upper-case Trade. Besides, Beaumarchais never showed the slightest interest in the mysteries of the Universe, nor did he worry much about God. He was far more interested in money, and in winning.
He was given some schooling but at 13 was apprenticed to his father. He was good with his hands, and in 1753 he invented a new escapement mechanism, which was appropriated by one of his father’s associates. Beaumarchais wrote precociously clever letters of protest to the Académic des Sciences and France’s leading cultural review, the Mercure de France, which found in his favour. The affair attracted attention at Court and his future as a watchmaker was assured. It was hardly enough for him.