Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (French: [pjɛʁ bomaʁʃɛ]; 24 January 1732 – 18 May 1799) was a French playwright, watchmaker, inventor, musician, diplomat, fugitive, spy, publisher, horticulturalist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary (both French and American).
Born a provincial watchmaker's son, Beaumarchais rose in French society and became influential in the court of Louis XV as an inventor and music teacher. He made a number of important business and social contacts, played various roles as a diplomat and spy, and had earned a considerable fortune before a series of costly court battles jeopardized his reputation.
An early French supporter of American independence, Beaumarchais lobbied the French government on behalf of the American rebels during the American War of Independence. Beaumarchais oversaw covert aid from the French and Spanish governments to supply arms and financial assistance to the rebels in the years before France's formal entry into the war in 1778. He later struggled to recover money he had personally invested in the scheme. Beaumarchais was also a participant in the early stages of the French Revolution. He is probably best known, however, for his theatrical works, especially the three Figaro plays.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Rise to influence
- 3 Playwright
- 4 Court battles
- 5 American Revolution
- 6 The Voltaire revival
- 7 More court battles and the French Revolution
- 8 Exile and death
- 9 Operas
- 10 Private life
- 11 List of works
- 12 List of related works
- 13 References
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
Beaumarchais was born Pierre-Augustin Caron in the Rue Saint-Denis, Paris on 24 January 1732. He was the only boy among the six surviving children of André-Charles Caron, a watchmaker from Meaux. The family had previously been Huguenots, but had converted to Roman Catholicism in the wake of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the increased persecution of Protestants that followed. The family was comfortably middle-class and Beaumarchais had a peaceful and happy childhood. As the only son, he was spoiled by his parents and sisters. He took an interest in music and played several instruments. Though born a Catholic, Beaumarchais retained a sympathy for Protestants and would campaign throughout his life for their civil rights.
From the age of ten, Beaumarchais had some schooling at a "country school" where he learned some Latin. Two years later, Beaumarchais left school at twelve to work as an apprentice under his father and learn the art of watchmaking. He may have used his own experiences during these years as the inspiration for the character of Cherubino when he wrote the Marriage of Figaro. He generally neglected his work, and at one point was evicted by his father, only to be later allowed back after apologising for his poor behaviour.
At the time, pocket watches were commonly unreliable for timekeeping and were worn more as fashion accessories. In response to this, Beaumarchais spent nearly a year researching improvements. In July 1753, at the age of twenty one, he invented an escapement for watches that allowed them to be made substantially more accurate and compact. The first man to take an interest in this new invention was Jean-André Lepaute, the royal clockmaker in France. If there was a clock chiming in the wealthy homes of Paris, you can bet Lepaute built it himself. Lepaute had been a mentor to Beaumarchais after discovering the boy’s talent in a chance encounter. He encouraged him as he worked on the new invention, earned his trust, and promptly stole the idea for himself. You can imagine Beaumarchais’ surprise when he read in the September issue of Le Mercure de France that M. Lepaute had just invented the most wonderful mechanism for a more portable clock. Beaumarchais was enraged. “C’est normal,” said his father, “C’est comme ca.” It’s normal for the upper class to step on those beneath them. Well, Beaumarchais did not want any of that life. He wrote a strongly worded letter to that same newspaper defending the invention as his own and urging the Royal Academy of Sciences to see the proof for themselves. “In the interests of truth and my reputation,” he says, “I cannot let such an infidelity go by in silence and must claim as mine the invention of this device." After further examination, the Academy indeed ruled that the mechanism was his and not Lepaute’s. The public had just watched this young nobody take down the biggest clockmaker in Europe. Beaumarchais had become a celebrity overnight. One of his greatest feats was a watch mounted on a ring, made for Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV. The affair first brought Beaumarchais to national attention and introduced him to the royal court at Versailles Louis XV was impressed with Beaumarchais’s skill and audacity, and hastily hired him as the court's royal watchmaker.
Rise to influence
Marriage and new name
In 1755 Beaumarchais met Madeleine-Catherine Aubertin, a widow, and married her the following year. She helped Beaumarchais secure a royal office, and he gave up watchmaking. Shortly after his marriage, he adopted the name "Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais", which he derived from "le Bois Marchais", the name of a piece of land belonging to his new wife. He believed the name sounded grander and more aristocratic and adopted at the same time an elaborate coat of arms. His wife died less than a year later, which plunged him into financial problems, and he ran up large debts.
Beaumarchais' problems were eased when he was appointed to teach Louis XV's four daughters the harp. His role soon grew and he became a musical advisor for the royal family. In 1759, Caron met Joseph Paris Duverney, an older and wealthy entrepreneur. Beaumarchais assisted him in gaining the King's approval for the new military academy he was building, the École Royale Militaire, and in turn Duverney promised to help make him rich. The two became very close friends and collaborated on many business ventures. Assisted by Duverney, Beaumarchais acquired the title of Secretary-Councillor to the King in 1760–61, thereby gaining access to French nobility. This was followed by the purchase in 1763 of a second title, the office of Lieutenant General of Hunting, a position which oversaw the royal parks. Around this time, he became engaged to Pauline Le Breton, who came from a plantation-owning family from Saint-Domingue, but broke it off when he discovered she was not as wealthy as he had been led to believe.
Visit to Madrid
In April 1764, Beaumarchais began a ten-month sojourn in Madrid, ostensibly to help his sister, Lisette, who had been abandoned by her fiancé, Clavijo, an official at the Ministry of War. While in Spain, he was mostly concerned with striking business deals for Duverney. They sought exclusive contracts for the newly acquired Spanish colony of Louisiana and attempted to gain the right to import slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Beaumarchais went to Madrid with a letter of introduction from the Duc de Choiseul, who was now his political patron. Hoping to secure Clavijo's support for his business deals by binding him by marriage, Beaumarchais initially shamed Clavijo into agreeing to marry Lisette, but when further details emerged about Clavijo's conduct, the marriage was called off.
Beaumarchais's business deals dragged on, and he spent much of his time soaking up the atmosphere of Spain, which would become a major influence on his later writings. Although he befriended important figures such as the foreign minister Grimaldi, his attempts to secure the contracts for Duverney eventually came to nothing and he went home in March 1765. Although Beaumarchais returned to France with little profit, he had managed to acquire new experience, musical ideas, and ideas for theatrical characters. Beaumarchais considered turning the affair into a play, but decided to leave it to others—including Goethe, who wrote Clavigo in 1774.
Beaumarchais hoped to be made consul to Spain, but his application was rejected. Instead he concentrated on developing his business affairs and began to show an interest in writing plays. He had already experimented in writing short farces for private audiences, but he now had ambitions to write for the theatre.
The Figaro plays
Beaumarchais's Figaro plays are Le Barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro, and La Mère coupable. Figaro and Count Almaviva, the two characters Beaumarchais most likely conceived in his travels in Spain, were (with Rosine, later the Countess Almaviva) the only ones present in all three plays. They are indicative of the change in social attitudes before, during, and after the French Revolution. Figaro and Almaviva first appeared in Le Sacristain, which he wrote around 1765 and dubbed "an interlude, imitating the Spanish style." Naturally, this thinly veiled government criticism did not go without opposition. Upon first reading a manuscript of Beaumarchais’s play, King Louis XVI stated that “this man mocks everything that must be respected in a government” and refused to let it be performed. To a lesser degree, the Figaro plays are semi-autobiographical. Don Guzman Brid'oison (Le Mariage) and Bégearss (La Mère) were caricatures of two of Beaumarchais's real-life adversaries, Goezman and Bergasse. The page Chérubin (Le Mariage) resembled the youthful Beaumarchais, who did contemplate suicide when his love was to marry another. Suzanne, the heroine of Le Mariage and La Mère, was modelled after Beaumarchais's third wife, Marie-Thérèse de Willer-Mawlaz. Meanwhile, some of the Count monologues reflect on the playwright's remorse over his numerous sexual exploits.
Le Barbier premiered in 1775. Its sequel, Le Mariage, was initially passed by the censor in 1781, but was soon banned from being performed by Louis XVI after a private reading. Queen Marie-Antoinette lamented the ban, as did various influential members of her entourage. Nonetheless, the King was unhappy with the play's satire on the aristocracy and overruled the Queen's entreaties to allow its performance. Over the next three years, Beaumarchais gave many private readings of the play, as well as making revisions to try to pass the censor. The King finally relented and lifted the ban in 1784. The play premiered that year and was enormously popular even with aristocratic audiences. Mozart's opera premiered just two years later. Beaumarchais's final play, La Mère, premiered in 1792 in Paris.
In homage to the great French playwright Molière, Beaumarchais also dubbed La Mère "The Other Tartuffe". All three Figaro plays enjoyed great success, and are still frequently performed today in theatres and opera houses.
The death of Duverney on 17 July 1770, triggered a decade of turmoil for Beaumarchais. A few months earlier, the two had signed a statement cancelling all debts that Beaumarchais owed Duverney (about 75,000 pounds), and granting Beaumarchais the modest sum of 15,000 pounds. Duverney's sole heir, Count de la Blache, took Beaumarchais to court, claiming the signed statement was a forgery. Although the 1772 verdict favoured Beaumarchais, it was overturned on appeal the following year by a judge, a magistrate named Goezman, whom Beaumarchais tried in vain to bribe. At the same time, Beaumarchais was also involved in a dispute with the Duke de Chaulnes over the Duke's mistress, which resulted in Beaumarchais being thrown into jail from February to May 1773. La Blache took advantage of Beaumarchais' court absence and persuaded Goezman to order Beaumarchais to repay all his debts to Duverney, plus interest and all legal expenses.
To garner public support, Beaumarchais published a four-part pamphlet entitled Mémoires contre Goezman. The action made Beaumarchais an instant celebrity, for the public at the time saw Beaumarchais as a champion for social justice and liberty. Goezman countered Beaumarchais's accusations by launching a lawsuit of his own. The verdict was equivocal. On 26 February 1774, both Beaumarchais and Mme. Goezman (who had taken the bribe from Beaumarchais) were sentenced to "blâme" meaning they were nominally deprived of their civil rights. Naturally, Beaumarchais followed few of the restrictions placed upon him. Magistrate Goezman was removed from his post. At the same time, Goezman's verdict in the La Blache case was overturned. The Goezman case was so sensational that the judges left the courtroom through a back door to avoid the large, angry mob waiting in front of the court house.
Before France officially entered the war in 1778, Beaumarchais played a major role in delivering French munitions, money and supplies to the American army. In order to secretly funnel aid to the rebels, he helped set up a fictitious business called Roderigue Hortalez and Company.
To restore his civil rights, Beaumarchais pledged his services to Louis XV. He traveled to London, Amsterdam and Vienna on various secret missions. His first mission was to travel to London to destroy a pamphlet, Les mémoires secrets d'une femme publique, which Louis XV considered a libel of one of his mistresses, Madame du Barry. Beaumarchais was sent to London to persuade the French spy Chevalier D'Eon to return home, but while there he began gathering information on British politics and society. Britain's colonial situation was deteriorating and in 1775 fighting broke out between British troops and American rebels. Beaumarchais became a major source of information about the rebellion for the French government and sent a regular stream of reports with exaggerated rumours of the size of the success of the rebel forces blockading Boston.
Once back in France, Beaumarchais began work on a new operation. Louis XVI, who did not want to break openly with Britain, allowed Beaumarchais to found a commercial enterprise, Roderigue Hortalez and Company, supported by the French and Spanish crowns, that supplied the American rebels with weapons, munitions, clothes and provisions, all of which would never be paid for. This policy came to fruition in 1777 when John Burgoyne's army capitulated at Saratoga to a rebel force largely clothed and armed by the supplies Beaumarchais had been sending; it marked a personal triumph for him. Beaumarchais was injured in a carriage accident while racing into Paris with news of Saratoga.
Beaumarchais had dealt with Silas Deane, an acting member of the Committee of Secret Correspondence in the Second Continental Congress. For these services, the French Parliament reinstated Beaumarchais's civil rights in 1776. In 1778, Beaumarchais' hopes were fulfilled when French government agreed the Treaty of Alliance and entered the American War of Independence followed by Spain in 1779 and the Dutch Republic in 1780.
The Voltaire revival
Shortly after the death of Voltaire in 1778, Beaumarchais set out to publish Voltaire's complete works, many of which were banned in France. He bought the rights to most of Voltaire's many manuscripts from the publisher Charles-Joseph Panckouck in February 1779. To evade French censorship, he set up printing presses in Kehl, Germany. He bought the complete foundry of the famous English type designer John Baskerville from his widow and also purchased three paper mills. Seventy volumes were published between 1783 to 1790. While the venture proved a financial failure, Beaumarchais was instrumental in preserving many of Voltaire's later works which otherwise might have been lost.
More court battles and the French Revolution
It was not long before Beaumarchais crossed paths again with the French legal system. In 1787, he became acquainted with Mme. Korman, who was implicated and imprisoned in an adultery suit, which was filed by her husband to expropriate her dowry. The matter went to court, with Beaumarchais siding with Mme. Korman, and M. Korman assisted by a celebrity lawyer, Nicolas Bergasse. On 2 April 1790, M. Korman and Bergasse were found guilty of calumny (slander), but Beaumarchais's reputation was also tarnished.
Meanwhile, the French Revolution broke out. Beaumarchais was no longer the idol he had been a few years before. He was financially successful, mainly from supplying drinking water to Paris, and had acquired ranks[clarification needed] in the French nobility. In 1791, he took up a lavish residence across from where the Bastille once stood. He spent under a week in prison during August 1792, and was released only three days before a massacre took place in the prison where he had been detained.
Nevertheless, he pledged his services to the new republic. He attempted to purchase 60,000 rifles for the French Revolutionary army from Holland, but was unable to complete the deal.
Exile and death
While he was out of the country, Beaumarchais was declared an émigré (a loyalist of the old regime) by his enemies. He spent two and a half years in exile, mostly in Germany, before his name was removed from the list of proscribed émigrés. He returned to Paris in 1796, where he lived out the remainder of his life in relative peace. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed an opera, Le Nozze di Figaro, based on The Marriage of Figaro, with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte based on the play. Several composers including Paisiello wrote operas based on The Barber of Seville. Rossini's 1816 version is his most successful work and still often performed.
Beaumarchais married three times. His first wife was Madeleine-Catherine Franquet (née Aubertin), whom he married on 22 November 1756; she died under mysterious circumstances only 10 months later. He married Geneviève-Madeleine Lévêque (née Wattebled) in 1768. Again, the second Mme. de Beaumarchais died under mysterious circumstances two years later, though most scholars believed she actually suffered from tuberculosis. Before her death in 1770, she bore a son, Augustin, but he died in 1772. Beaumarchais lived with his lover, Marie-Thérèse de Willer-Mawlaz, for 12 years before she became his third wife in 1786. Together they had a daughter, Eugénie.
Beaumarchais was accused by his enemies of poisoning his first two wives in order to lay claim to their family inheritance. Beaumarchais, though having no shortage of lovers throughout his life, was known to care deeply for both his family and close friends. However, Beaumarchais also had a reputation of marrying for financial gain, and both Franquet and Lévêque had previously married into wealthy families. While there was insufficient evidence to support the accusations, whether or not the poisonings took place is still the subject of debate.
List of works
- 1760s – Various one-act comedies (parades) for private staging.
- Les Député de la Halle et du Gros-Caillou
- Colin et Colette
- Les Bottes de sept lieues
- Jean Bête à la foire
- Œil pour œil
- 1765(?) – Le Sacristain, interlude (precursor to Le Barbier de Séville)
- 1767 – Eugénie, drama, premiered at the Comédie Française.
- 1767 – L'Essai sur le genre dramatique sérieux.
- 1770 – Les Deux amis ou le Négociant de Lyon, drama, premiered at the Comédie Française
- 1773 – Le Barbier de Séville ou la Précaution inutile, comedy, premiered on 3 January 1775 at the Comédie Française
- 1774 – Mémoires contre Goezman
- 1775 – La Lettre modérée sur la chute et la critique du "Barbier de Sérville"
- 1778 – La Folle journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro, comedy, premiered on 27 April 1784 at the Comédie Française
- 1784 – Préface du mariage de Figaro
- 1787 – Tarare, opera with music by Antonio Salieri, premiered at the Opéra de Paris (full-text)
- 1792 – La Mère coupable ou L'Autre Tartuffe, drama, premiered on 26 June at the Théâtre du Marais
- 1799 – Voltaire et Jésus-Christ, in two articles.
- Clavigo (1774), a tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe based on Beaumarchais's experiences in Spain
- Il barbiere di Siviglia, ovvero La precauzione inutile (1782), music by Giovanni Paisiello, revised in 1787
- Le nozze di Figaro (1786), an opera based on the title play, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Ta veseli dan ali Matiček se ženi (1790) by Anton Tomaž Linhart, a play adapted from Le Mariage de Figaro
- Il barbiere di Siviglia (1796), an opera based on the title play, music by Nicolas Isouard
- La pazza giornata, ovvero Il matrimonio di Figaro (1799), an opera based on the title play, libretto by Gaetano Rossi, and music by Marcos Portugal
- Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816), an opera based on the title play, libretto by Cesare Sterbini, and music by Gioachino Rossini
- I due Figaro o sia Il soggetto di una commedia (1820), an opera based on the play Les deux Figaro ou Le sujet de comédie by Honoré-Antoine Richaud Martelly, libretto by Felice Romani, and music by Michele Carafa
- I due Figaro o sia Il soggetto di una commedia (1835), an opera based on the play Les deux Figaro ou Le sujet de comédie by Honoré-Antoine Richaud Martelly, libretto by Felice Romani, and music by Saverio Mercadante
- Chérubin (1905), an opera based on the title role, music by Jules Massenet, libretto by Francis de Croisset and Henri Cain
- Beaumarchais (1950), a comedy written by Sacha Guitry
- La mère coupable (1966), opera based on the title play, music and libretto by Darius Milhaud
- The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), opera based loosely on La Mère coupable, music by John Corigliano, libretto by William M. Hoffman
- Den brottsliga modern (1991), opera based on La Mère coupable, music by Inger Wikström, libretto by Inger Wikström and Mikaael Hylin.
- Beaumarchais l'insolent (1996), film based on Sacha Guitry's play, directed by Édouard Molinaro
- He died during the evening of 17–18 May ; the date 18 May is most frequently seen in sources.
- Lever p.3-4
- Lever p.4
- Lever p.5
- Lever p6
- Lever p.6
- Lever p.6-7
- Lever p.7
- Hugh, Thomas. Beaumarchais in Seville: in intermezzo. Yale University Press. 2007. pg 7
- Lever p.11
- Lever p.13-14
- Lever p.15-16
- Lever p.19-20 & p.30
- Beaumarchais: Le Mariage de Figaro – comédie, with preface, biography, and annotations by Pol Gillard, Bordas, 1970.
- Lever p.22
- Lever p.23-24
- Lever p.25-30
- Lever p.24-25
- Lever p.31-32
- Beaumarchais: The three Figaro plays, translation and notes by David Edney, Doverhouse, 2000.
- The Parlement (regional court) to which Goezman belonged was very impopular as an attempt of king Louis XV of France and chancellor Maupeou to modernise Justice and make it less corrupt, widely and vociferously denounced as tyranny by the noblesse de robe having lost some of their privileges and their political defender (the Parlement).
- Harlow Giles Unger, Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution (University Press of New England; 2011)
- Gaines p.40-42
- Brian N. Morton "Beaumarchais and the American Revolution"
- Schiff p.106-108
- Operabase lists 15 productions of the piece worldwide in 2011, and a similar number in 2012. See 2011 and 2012 listings in Operabase.
- Bass, Streeter. "Beaumarchais and the American Revolution." Studies in Intelligence 14 (1970): 1-1. [ online], CIA report
- Gaines, James R. For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and their Revolutions. Norton, 2007.
- Grendel, Frédéric. Beaumarchais: The man who was Figaro (MacDonald and Jane's, 1977)
- Howarth, William D. Beaumarchais and the Theatre (Routledge, 2008)
- Lever, Maurice. Beaumarchais: A biography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
- Kite, Elizabeth S. Beaumarchais and the War of American Independence (1918) online
- Morton, Brian N., and Donald C. Spinelli. Beaumarchais and the American Revolution (Lexington Books, 2003)
- Morton, Brian N. "'Roderigue Hortalez' to the Secret Committee: An Unpublished French Policy Statement of 1777." French Review (1977): 875-890. in JSTOR
- Paul, Joel Richard "Unlikely Allies, How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution" (Riverhead Books, Penguin Group)
- Ratermanis, Janis Bernhards, and William Robert Irwin. The comic style of Beaumarchais (Greenwood Press, 1961)
- Schiff, Stacy. Benjamin Franklin and the Birth of America (Bloomsbury, 2006)
- Stillé, Charles J. "Beaumarchais and" The Lost Million"." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1887) 11#1 pp: 1-36. in JSTOR
- Sungolowsky, Joseph. Beaumarchais (New York: Twayne, 1974)
- Unger, Harlow Giles. Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution (University Press of New England; 2011) 260 pages
- York, Neil L. "Clandestine Aid and the American Revolutionary War Effort: A Re-Examination." Military Affairs: The Journal of Military History, Including Theory and Technology (1979): 26-30. in JSTOR
- Lion Feuchtwanger, Proud destiny (1947, Viking) – a novel based mainly on Beaumarchais and Benjamin Franklin
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|Library resources about
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- Works by Pierre Beaumarchais at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Pierre Beaumarchais at Internet Archive
- Works by Pierre Beaumarchais at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Texts on Wikisource:
- "The Insolent"
- Pierre Beaumarchais at Find a Grave