Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Definition

Theater

  • (Pierre-Augustin Caron; 1732 - 99) The last brilliant playwrightof the French theater before the Revolution of 1789. He is often creditedwith hastening that event with his two irreverent plays The Barberof Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784).Both are better known today in their operatic versions, Rossini'sIl Barbiere di Siviglia (1816) and Mozart's Le Nozze diFigaro (1786). Although Beaumarchais's later works were failures,his writing influenced such subsequent playwrights as EugèneScribe and Georges Feydeau.

    An early campaigner for authors' rights, he battled the Comédie-Françaiseto secure royalty payments and regularized the practice throughthe Société des Auteurs, which he founded in 1777. Healso won the right for authors to have a say in casting and was thefirst dramatist to add detailed stage directions to his scripts.

    Beaumarchais was born in Paris, the son of a clockmaker. Atthe age of 19 he invented the escapement watch mechanism still usedtoday. The Beaumarchais name was taken from the estate of the firstof his three wives. He bought a judgeship in 1763 but lost it whenhis financial dealings led to a court case.

    After several theatrical failures, Beaumarchais found successwith his first comedy of intrigue, The Barber of Seville.The Comédie-Italienne rejected it because their leading actorwas a former barber. The Comédie-Française acceptedit in 1772 but the work's criticism of the aristocracy led to a banon performances. However, Beaumarchais earned permission to stagethe provocative play in 1775, having recently undertaken a secretmission to Vienna for Louis XVI, which ended in his imprisonment.In 1775 he was sent to London to recover secret French plans to invadeEngland and during the American War of Independence he was involvedin sending volunteers and provisions to the colonists.

    Beaumarchais had further trouble producing The Marriageof Figaro, sometimes called the most subversive play ever written.Its attacks on the decadent nobility led to a banning order from theking. Public opinion, however, demanded its performance and it openedin 1784 at the Comédie-Française. Shortly afterwards,the naive Marie Antoinette played Rosina in The Barber of Sevillein her Court Theatre, inviting Beaumarchais to attend.

    Following the Revolution Beaumarchais was imprisoned and narrowlyescaped the guillotine. His mistress obtained his release and he escapedto Hamburg. He returned to France in 1796 but died three years later,still writing furiously in an attempt to regain his fortune.

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