Tuesday, April 7, 2009

FIGARO'S Fathers and Films: Beaumarchais

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be reviewing the contributions of Marriage of Figaro’s three great fathers: Beaumarchais, who wrote the play; Da Ponte, who wrote the libretto; and Mozart, who wrote the music. I’d also like to draw your attention to some films which may help you enter the worlds of these three amazing men.

Today, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais--the original Figaro. Monsieur de Beaumarchais was the son of a middle-class watchmaker named “Caron”, and when he was a teenage apprentice in his father’s workshop they called him “fils Caron,” or “Son of Caron.” The nickname stuck, and eventually became the name of his fictional alter-ego, Figaro.

Beaumarchais wrote three plays about this character: first, The Barber of Seville, a high-energy comedy based on ancient models, in which the wily servant Figaro helps the young and dashing Count Almaviva rescue the beautiful Rosina from the clutches of her tyrannical guardian, the old and foolish Dr. Bartolo. Beaumarchais’ second Figaro play—-The Marriage of Figaro, first performed in 1784—-was the most popular (if not the most important) play of the eighteenth century. According to theatrical legend, the king of France, who feared a public uprising, had held up the performance; but he relented when his wife, Marie Antoinette, championed Beaumarchais’ work. Three people were then trampled to death in the line to buy tickets, the crush was so great. Beaumarchais’s third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother, is a sentimental tragedy which has never become widely popular outside of France.

Like his Figaro, Beaumarchais was a jack-of-all-trades, a guy who tried a little of everything, constantly got himself in over his head, and somehow managed to come out on top nevertheless. He started as a watchmaker but went on to become a writer of pamphlets and a publisher, a courtier, a teacher, a financier and philanthropist, a famous litigant, an untrustworthy member of the French Secret Service, a playwright who established the idea of author's copyright, and an important figure in the American Revolution.

In his comic plays Beaumarchais satirized characters like the unbelievably pompous Dr. Bartolo, who becomes even more hilariously insufferable in Mozart’s musical portrait:

Fernando Corena, with Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic, Decca "Legends" 466 369-2

...or the slimy, sycophantic toady Don Basilio, who I’ve always thought was Figaro/Beaumarchais’s arch-nemesis because there but for the grace of his extraordinary pride would go Figaro/Beaumarchais himself.

You can find lots more information about Beaumarchais in books and on the web; but let me recommend the 1996 movie Beaumarchais l’insolent, one of my all-time favorite bio-pics. This terrific French film, directed by Edouard Molinaro, has all the gorgeous eighteenth-century costumes, locations, and music an opera-lover could possibly want, plus it stars the great Fabrice Luchini as the mercurial Beaumarchais, Sandrine Kiberlain as his adorable muse, Manuel Blanc as his loveable amanuensis, and such familiar French actors as Jean Yanne, Jacques Weber, and Michel Serrault as Beaumarchais’s many friends, enemies, and contemporaries. I’m sorry to say it’s not yet available as a Region 1 DVD, but you should be able to find it in US video rental stores on VHS.

There’s a trailer (sorry, no titles) of the film available here:

And one of my favorite scenes (alas, also untitled) is uploaded below. To set it up, Beaumarchais has just achieved huge fame in Paris by defending himself in court in such a way as to expose the hypocrisy and venality of most of the French aristocracy. Furious, King Louis XV summons him to a tense meeting, and as Beaumarchais is walking through Versailles (about a minute into this clip), an aristocrat approaches him and asks him to fix his watch: “On dit, M. de Beaumarchais, que vous étiez horlogier, il n’y a guère...” (M. Beaumarchais, they say that, not long ago, you were a watchmaker...) Beaumarchais attempts to sidestep this insulting reminder of his humble origins, but when the man insists, Beaumarchais responds with the wit that made him so famous and so despised:


  1. Have you seen Manuel Blank as Puchkine in Journal Secret staged in Paris in 2006?
    See poster http://www.mipco.com/Dossier%20de%20presse%20-%20Pouchkine%20Le%20Journal%20Secret%20-.pdf

  2. Thanks for posting, no, I hadn't heard of that. He does such a fine job as the young wanna-be pre-Romantic writer as Gudin, in the Beaumarchais film, I'd be very curious to see him as Pushkin.