The life of playwright and entrepreneur Beaumarchais offers a window into the transformation that brought France to revolution.
Ask the question, “Who was Beaumarchais?” and it’s likely that opera buffs would answer: “He’s the author of the play upon which Mozart based his opera, The Marriage of Figaro.” And someone might add that he also wrote The Barber of Seville – the basis for Rossini’s opera. But Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the subject of Beaumarchais, a new biography by French scholar, Maurice Lever, was much more than that.
Born at the heart of working-class Paris in 1732, he was the son of a watchmaker, and accordingly learned his father’s trade – making his name by perfecting an escapement which revolutionized the time-keeping mechanism, making it reliable for the first time. But he was also a musician of some note and rose to the position of harp-master to King Louis XV’s daughters.
From this point forward, it’s as if Beaumarchais’s life sprang from the combined pens of Alexandre Dumas and John Grisham. He acquired a title, a fortune, a knack for international espionage, the ear and trust of the king’s ministers, and a reputation as a lady’s man – a necessary virtue in 18th-century Paris. He was imprisoned in the Bastille by means of an infamous lettre de cachet, and his legal battles were legendary with the whole of Paris serving as judge and jury through means of his vitriolic pamphleteering.
Still, Beaumarchais’s most significant and enduring contribution to the fate of nations was his devotion to the cause of American independence, and in this he produced far more than mere words of encouragement. In truth, his actions were less an endorsement of American democracy than a cold-blooded cold-war-style effort to sabotage Britain’s economic and global interests.
Nevertheless, through patient and tenacious petitioning of Louis XVI, Beaumarchais gained the right to set up a proxy company which would channel French funds, uniforms, equipment, food, and even French troops to the American rebels. Indeed, without France’s covert intervention and supplies, the American cause could not have succeeded. By 1778, Congress acknowledged his claims of 5 million livres worth of goods and supplies, as well as a further 24 million which Congress would receive in credit.
But his open-handedness, his tireless efforts to ensure that the supply ships evaded the ubiquitous British Navy, brought him to the verge of bankruptcy and breakdown. In addition, successive presidents and Congresses of the new nation repudiated the debt which had bought their freedoms. It was not until 1835 that any of the debt was paid to Beaumarchais’s heirs, and then it was not the 2,280,000 livres owed, but less than a third of that.
And what of the plays? France was already a battleground of ideas in the 18th century. The philosophers were on the one hand spouting the rights and equalities of man, even as the aristocracy was becoming more entrenched in its attempts to fend off any curtailment of their traditional rights and the encroachment of men of new money.
Figaro, the hero of both plays is a barber, not an aristocrat. The aristocrats are hardly laudable in their proclivities, but through his wit, Figaro outsmarts them and triumphs. Thus, these two plays electrified the stage of 18th-century Europe, turning the accepted social order and modes of conduct upside down. And while Louis XVI was dragging his feet – and several other body parts – about granting them the licence of performance, they were being read and informally acted as far away as Catherine the Great’s Russia.
Yet any insight into Beaumarchais’s character, his wit, his world, or any real emotion is buried under the excess of Lever’s bloated prose. Laying aside the biographer’s arts in favor of the mannered affectations of a pseudo-18th century novelist, Lever is miserly with both fact and historical context, and cloaks these deficiencies with a smokescreen of grandiloquent literary froufrou.
In place of facts or genuine psychological insight, we get coy rhetorical questions, the vocabulary of a 1930’s swashbuckler, and passages of stagy exclamations: “In four days! Such haste! Such a judge! Was it solely bad luck? Was some machination at work? ... What to do?”
Thus, Lever’s “Beaumarchais” is a weird and unsatisfying hybrid: it’s not quite biography, but it’s not historical fiction either. And with the exception of the chapters containing Louis XVI’s lengthy letters about the American rebellion – some of which are translated here into English for the first time and therefore of incalculable value to the scholar – it may leave readers determined to avoid Beaumarchais at all costs in the future.
Which would be a shame, because he was such a great, though flawed, entrepreneur, thinker, and playwright, and his life provides a most fascinating window into the transformations that took France from the glittering and corrupt politics of Louis XV’s court into the mob-directed violence of the French Revolution.
M.M. Bennetts is a freelance writer living in England.