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BARBIER DE SEVILLE
LA PRÉCAUTION INUTILE
COMÉDIE EN QUATRE ACTES
PIERRE AUGUSTIN CARON DE BEAUMARCHAIS
Edited, With Introduction And Notes, By
I. H. B. SPIERS
Senior Assistant Master William Penn Charter School
D. C. HEATH & CO., PUBLISHERS
I. LIFE OF BEAUMARCHAIS.
Few lives have been more varied than that of Pierre AugusTin Caron De Beaumarchais, and none illustrates more forcibly what dazzling success can be achieved by indomitable energy at the service of great talents.
Born in a watchmaker's shop at Paris, in the year 1732, Beaumarchais, before he was twenty-one years of age, had invented a new escapement, for which he had peremptorily obtained recognition from the Académie des Sciences in spite of the pretensions of a rival; soon he could style himself horloger du roi. Shortly afterwards, to relieve a temporary pecuniary embarrassment, he turned to account the musical ability of his family, and was before long promoted to the position of teacher of the harp to the ladies of the royal house of France. He took a brief journey to Madrid, and speedily obtained full reparation from a recreant suitor who had declined to fulfill his engagement to one of Beaumarchais1 sisters. Amid the leisure afforded by various court sinecures, Beaumarchais launched into authorship, produced two drames, or "serious comedies" after the fashion preached and practised by Diderot, and failed signally (17671770): only to reappear on the stage, and silence forever his detractors, with the overwhelming triumph of Le Barbier de Seville (1775) and Le Mariage de Figaro (1784).
Meanwhile he had made a fortune in successful speculation with the court financier, Pâris-Duverney. He had also wrested victory from defeat in a series of law-suits. At first condemned for fraud on flagrantly false charges, then thrown into the prison of Vincennes for being the victim of a personal assault at the hands of the Duc de Chaulnes, Beaumarchais, with unbroken spirit and unabated vigor proceeded to turn a private grievance relating to the return of a paltry bribe of fifteen louis, into a public grievance against the newly-formed and unpopular parliament to which his enemy belonged. By a succession of impassioned Mémoires, or pleadings, masterly in their command of every resource of audacity, ingenuity, eloquence and invective, he won for himself, in spite of the law courts, which condemned him to blâme — or loss of civil rights, — the most enthusiastic of popular successes. "A year ago," wrote Grimm in 1774, "he was the horror of Paris. Now, all the world is raving about him." Before very long, both judgments against him were definitively reversed. The success of his comedies was now rivalled by that of his financial operations: he amassed millions by contracting to supply la jeune Amérique with arms. He conducted to a successful issue several delicate missions with which he was entrusted by the king, and his fortunes reached their zenith.
After the year 1785, he engaged in a last successful law-suit, but wrote nothing more that won popular favor. An army contract with the French Government involved him in endless difficulties. The outbreak of the French Revolution drove him from France. On his return to Paris, a disappointed and impoverished man, he found his sumptuous house and gardens wrecked. After a few more years miserably spent in pressing his claims against the United States and the French Government, he died in 1799, proving by his life how powerless in themselves are the greatest talents to make a truly great man.
II. BEAUMARCHAIS IN LITERATURE.
Although Beaumarchais gave to letters but a relatively small part of his life, he has nevertheless left his mark upon no less than three distinct branches of literature.
His famous Mémoires contre les sieurs de Goezman, La Blache, et Marin d'Arnaud (1774-1775) have been mentioned above. These impassioned pleadings entitle him, as a polemical writer, to the name of the French Junius: a Junius, however, moved to eloquence not by political hatred, but by his own personal interests.
His three drames, Eugénie (1769), Les Deux Amis (1770), and La Mire Coupable (1792), although unattended by popular success, are noteworthy as aiding to establish the new form of tragedy initiated in the middle of the 18th century. The drame, or tragédie bourgeoise, or comédie sérieuse, as it was indifferently called, arose as a substitute for the formal tragédie classique of Corneille and Racine. It claimed all the earnestness and elevation of purpose of the latter, but without its artificiality; it dealt with real men and women of the day, and not with heroes and heroines of distant times and distant lands. The drames of Beaumarchais show an advance upon those of Diderot and Sedaine, his two most distinguished predecessors, in the qualities of style, in a language more direct and precise, better adapted to its purpose. They undoubtedly helped to prepare improved material for the hand of a Hugo, an Augier, and a Sardou in the following century.
But it is neither as a polemical writer, nor as a writer of serious plays that Beaumarchais will live longest in literature. It is as the author of the two comedies Le Barbier de Seville (1775) and Le Mariage de Figaro (1784).
Beaumarchais was the first to take a place, if not by the side, at any rate within measurable distance, of Molière, and this he