‘Why,’ says Almaviva to Figaro, ‘is there always something louche about everything you do?’

David Coward

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.

He was taken up by the King’s spinsterish daughters, improved his accent, read indispensable classics and jotted down quotable Latin tags in a little book. By 1759, having acquired an estate and the widow who went with it, he cut a small dash as Caron de Beaumarchais, despised by blue blood and old money, but already noticed by leaders of the new mercantile aristocracy. One of them, the immensely wealthy Pâris-Duverney, bought him office at Court and funded a visit to Spain in 1764, where he convinced no one with his plans for supplying the Spanish Army, irrigating the Sierra Morena and founding a French company to trade with Louisiana. But at least he had acquired walk-on experience on the international stage of finance and diplomacy.

His next move was an assault on the Paris stage, which ambitious young men regularly used as a route to fame and fortune. Eugénie was respectfully received in 1767. It was, like Les Deux Amis (1770), an earnest drame bourgeois, written to show that middle-class hearts, too, could bleed. Beaumarchais disagreed with Rousseau about the theatre being a school for vice; instead he saw it as a means of educating society in civic and moral values. Earnest sentiments make stodgy literature, however, and Eugénie and Les Deux Amis have a stagy, sentimental humanitarianism which has dated badly. For a new venture, he returned to the spirit of the parades, the mildly crude farces he had performed in private houses in the late 1750s and early 1760s. The result would be Le Barbier de Séville.

His budding theatrical career was temporarily halted by the death of Pâris-Duverney and the legal battle he became involved in with his heir, the vindictive Comte de la Blache, who was determined to keep the upstart’s fingers out of his uncle’s pie. When he failed to obtain satisfaction through the courts, Beaumarchais resorted to his pen. Four witty memoirs ridiculing the judge in the case, Goëzman, sold in huge numbers but failed to clear his name. However, his long-running law-suit encapsulated attitudes to the much-resented parlements, which were taken to symbolise corporate privilege; and by 1774, Beaumarchais had turned into a popular hero.

He was less fondly regarded at Court, for which, to ingratiate himself, he undertook secret missions to London, Amsterdam and Vienna, where he was briefly jailed. His orders were to buy off expatriate journalists who were threatening to make damaging revelations about the royal family, and to silence the man-woman Chevalier d’Eon, who possessed potentially damaging information about French foreign policy. He was rehabilitated at Court in 1776, even if Louis XVI still did not trust him. By this time, however, Beaumarchais had developed political views which greatly interested the new Foreign Minister, Vergennes.

He had visited Birmingham in 1775, but saw little future in industry: for him, Britain was a trading power which sucked wealth from its colonies. When the American War of Independence broke out in 1776, he stopped being a minor emissary and began thinking like a statesman. If Britain lost the colonies, her economic power would be reduced; if the Americans won their freedom, with French help, France stood to gain what Britain lost. The prospect tempted Louis and Vergennes. To avoid provoking open war, they resolved to supply practical help in return for imported goods. Implementation of the policy was left to Beaumarchais, in his capacity as a private citizen. It was thus that he furnished five million livres’ worth of arms to the insurgents, including the guns which sealed Burgoyne’s fate at Saratoga.

He was only partly funded by the French and he failed to obtain the ratification of the rebel government, which accepted his supplies but did not pay for them. When the war ended, Congress refused to reimburse him, although no Frenchman had done more for their cause: according to one estimate, the Americans still owe him nine million dollars. Louis made good most of his losses and Beaumarchais emerged from his politico-business venture with a small profit. It was scant reward for his courage, efforts and investment – which themselves are testimony to his idealism.

During the war, he virtually dictated French foreign policy, while also finding time to shape political opinion. He was a major investor in the Courier de l’Europe, a periodical which reported House of Commons debates and informed Europe about Britain’s war thinking. This alarmed His Majesty’s Government but delighted Vergennes, who learned more from reading it than he did from his ambassador and his London spies.

The Courier also puffed Beaumarchais’s plays and publicised his liberal political stance. More influential, though, was the detailed sight the paper gave of the workings of the British Parliamentary system, which, although admired by Voltaire and Montesquieu, was little known in practice. Through the Courier, the French learned new concepts, such as that of an Opposition, and, by picking up terms like amendement, motion and popularité acquired a lethal new weapon – a vocabulary with which to fight the old regime. It was not the least of the hurts which Beaumarchais inflicted on the political establishment.

Throughout the war, he was indefatigable. In addition to his political and commercial activities, he finally saw off La Blache, founded the Society of Dramatic Authors, and began a labour of love, the 70-volume Kehl edition of the complete works of Voltaire. He helped struggling authors, defended the rights of Protestants, completed Le Mariage de Figaro and fought for five years against political opposition to the play before it was finally staged in 1784.

Like Figaro, Beaumarchais was here, there and everywhere, but he was beginning to lose his touch. He set up a company to provide Paris with clean drinking water and in the process crossed swords with Mirabeau, who attacked the scheme. Quixotically, he defended a Mme Kornmann who had been abused by her husband, whose lawyer, Bergasse, painted Beaumarchais as an agent of debauchery, a disrupter of families and a symbol of domestic oppression. Bergasse emerged as a champion of freedom, while Beaumarchais was insulted in the street and entered the years of revolution as a ‘suspect’.

It was a status he compounded by moving into a palace of looking-glass and marble opposite the Bastille, a symbolic juxtaposition which was read as evidence of his anti-Revolutionary sympathies. When Tarare (1787), his ‘drama with music’, was revived in 1790, he added cautionary lines – ‘liberty means obeying the law’ – which clearly branded him as a moderate and made him fair game for both Right and Left. He had hopes of La Mère coupable (1792), the last of the three Figaro plays, but it was politically very incorrect and was in any case quickly overtaken by a venture which would cost him dear.

He accepted a mission to the Netherlands, to acquire 60,000 rifles laid down by combatants in the Brabant revolt, which had been crushed by Austria. The affair lasted for years, during which time Beaumarchais was accused of profiteering, had his house ransacked by the mob, narrowly escaped the September Massacres, was denounced as an émigré, and saw the inside of jails in Paris and London. He fled to Hamburg, published new memoirs setting out his defence and returned to Paris in 1796, fat, deaf, but still game. He offered his services to the new government, but no one wanted him. He died in his sleep in 1799, still being dunned by the French authorities for their Dutch gun money.

Beaumarchais’s plays have often seemed to need the same shoring up as his reputation, as though they couldn’t stand on their own without a scaffolding of good tunes. Yet, as John Wells’s lively and splendidly speakable translations of the Barber, the Marriage and A Mother’s Guilt demonstrate, they need assistance from no one.

Beaumarchais never broke with the drame, which looms large in La Mère coupable, nor did he stop believing in the didactic function of the theatre. But in his first Figaro play, drawing on the earthier reality of the parades and his own combative personality, he turned the most hackneyed of plots (young love, helped by the servant, foils marriage plans of elderly guardian) into a dazzling and exuberant celebration of youth and energy. Le Barbier is unstoppable, all pace and twists, and studded with one-liners. Behind the good humour and skittishness of the Mariage, however, lie darker moods of self-doubt and a new element of provocative social criticism. Even the melodramatic Mère coupable, which revisits the same characters twenty years on, can still engage one’s sympathies and generate that sense of danger which lies at the heart of Beaumarchais’s world.

He thought of the three plays as a trilogy, and these translations by Wells were broadcast back to back on Radio 3 in 1984. Taken together, they reflect, as John Leigh’s commentaries make clear, the Ancien Régime’s uncontrollable slide into revolution. The change is evident in the way Figaro develops. In Le Barbier, all his plans work;in Le Mariage, he discovers that chance works against him; in La Mère coupable, he is outmanoeuvred and needs a great deal of authorial help to see off Bégearss, a savage caricature of the lawyer who had successfully turned the tables on Beaumarchais in 1789.

In one sense, Figaro, whose decline mirrors his creator’s, is an autobiographical figure, though he is not Beaumarchais entire. John Wells sees his barber as ‘a man of the people’, and his creator more as a patriot and idealist than a profiteer and gun-runner. Yet Beaumarchais was not as democratically inclined as this suggests. His drames are much less politically outspoken than those of, say, Mercier; the Goëzman memoirs state the case for Beaumarchais, not for justice; and Figaro clearly depends on the social and political system he has been accused of demolishing. He admits that he fares badly when he is his own master and, his philandering apart, he has no real criticism of Almaviva, who is a just magistrate, a sound estate manager and a pillar of a political system which is never openly challenged. The castle of Aguas Frescas is a hierarchical, liberal, constitutional, family-based but also well-heeled community, and Figaro’s role is to ensure that it stays that way. He puts spokes in wheels but never stops the traffic. It seems likely that Beaumarchais himself was just such an anti-authoritarian, radical but essentially bourgeois individualist who hated the tyranny of the people as much as the oppression of kings.

Even so, many have thought him dangerous. Until 1870, and the end of monarchy and Empire in France, Le Mariage was regarded as a decidedly subversive play. During the Occupation, the Germans refused to allow it to be staged in Paris and Mussolini banned it in Italy. Beaumarchais’s liberal credentials seem unimpeachable. He defended freedom, fought for American independence, used the Courier to promote parliamentary principles, championed a liberal conception of the nation-state – but ensured that he turned a profit Doubt always remains. ‘Why,’ says Almaviva to Figaro, ‘is there always something louche about everything you do?’