« ZurückWeiter »
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 blame — 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 Amériquewith 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 Goézman, 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, Eugenie (1769), Les Deux Amis (1770), and La Mère 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 achieved in two coups de maître, which were also his coups d'essai. Le Barbier de Seville and Le Mariage de Figaro were carried at once, by popular acclamation, to the front rank of comic literature: Il y a quelque chose de plus fou que ma pièce, writes Beaumarchais on the morrow of the production of Le Mariage, c'est son succès.
These comedies have not the deeper significance of those of Molière. They do not hold up to ridicule the eternal foibles of mankind; their laughter leaves manners as unchastened as it finds them. They live for a totally different reason. They live because they are endowed in the highest degree with that paramount requisite of all dramatic works: interest. In Dr. Johnson's words, " they have wit enough to keep them sweet." From the first line to the last, they are instinct with life and movement. While the plots, simple enough in their main outline, are so ingeniously complicated in detail as to become masterpieces of constructive skill, the dialogue, brilliant and incisive, further speeds the play with its own vivacity. Lines abound that Lave remained in the language as proverbs, being the fittest expression of the thought they convey: ye me hâte de rire de tout, de peur d'être obligé d'en pleurer. — La difficulté de réussir ne fait qu'ajouter à la nécessité d'entreprendre. — Qui est-ce donc qu'on trompe ici? etc. And throughout the plays, pervading them with a rare freshness and originality, the unique creation of Figaro himself, ever light-hearted and ready, witty and impertinent, always to the rescue wherever there is peril, and always managing, like a merry diabolus ex machina. to extricate his friends from the worst toils by the sheer force of his boldness and ingenuity. No other character in fiction, perhaps, has handed down to the present day so living a patronymic. Great musicians, Mozart, Rossini, have turned to him for their inspiration.
In addition to their excellence of construction and form, Le Barbier de Seville and Le Mariage de Figaro, the latter more especially, offer a peculiar interest for the signs of their times that can be read in them. The burning questions of the day are placed upon the stage, the privileged castes and professions, the noblesse, the law, the diplomatic service, are arraigned at the bar of ridicule; and that temper of the nation is faithfully reflected which in a few years will produce the great French Revolution. This gives the comedies of Beaumarchais a distinctive characteristic, which the French stage had unlearnt since the days of the sotte of the 16th century, and one scarcely to be found again before the fierce satire upon revolutionary democracy of Sardou's Rabagas (1871).
A last, marked characteristic of both Le Barbier de Seville and Le Mariage de Figaro is the strong, twofold impress they bear of their author's personality. On the one hand, the events of Beaumarchais1 life are transparently alluded to in many places — a novelty on the French stage :— his experiences as a watchmaker, musical instructor, game-warden, diplomatic envoy, playwright, contractor, etc., are mirrored in those of his hero, loué par ceux-ci, blâmé par ceux-là . . . partout supérieur aux événements. On the other hand, throughout the comedies appears that consummate skill which won him in real life his many successes; just as the absence of any characters on which genuine sympathy or sincere admiration can be bestowed, betrays in their author the lack of those higher qualities that alone command the warm and lasting regard of mankind. Here, in the broadest sense of the word, le style, c'est Vhomtne.
III. LE BARBIER DE SEVILLE.
In its original form, Le Barbier de Seville was a comic opera, of which the music as well as the words had been written by Beaumarchais. This opera having been refused by the Comédie Italienne, Beaumarchais transformed it into a five-act prosecomedy, which was acted for the first time at the Théâtre Français on Friday, Feb. 23, 1775. The first performance was a distinct failure. But, with characteristic promptness and energy, Beaumarchais at once remodelled his play, cut out such passages as had given offence and condensed the five acts into four, with the result that "he converted the failure of Friday into a triumph on Sunday."
The peculiar merit of the plot of Le Barbier de Seville lies in the skill with which the duel is conducted between Bartholo and his adversaries. It takes all Figaro's cunning and invention, at the back of Almaviva's dash, to get the better of Rosine's guardian. Bartholo is acuteness itself: nous serons bien heureux, remarks Figaro who knows him well, s'il ne vous reconnaît pas, vous qu'il n'a jamais vu! Not a move is made against him but he divines its motive and foils it at once. And in the end if he is overcome, we feel it is rather because he is on the wrong side of the fight than because he is over-matched. Hence the interest aroused by so equal a contest is not disappointed in its issue, and the final impression left by the play is eminently satisfactory.
The many scenes of delightful humor need not be enumerated here, but we may single out that in which Rosine so ingenuously betrays, in spite of herself, the interest with which her unknown suitor has inspired her, or that other, so often quoted, in which Bartholo, who has fallen asleep during the music lesson, is waked by the cessation of the music when the feelings of the singers get the better of their notes. And nowhere does Beaumarchais' skill as a playwright appear to better advantage than in the third Act, where, after the Count has passed himself off as the messenger and ally of Bazile, who should come in but Bazile himself? and exposure is seemingly inevitable. Had Beaumarchais never written anything but the ensuing scene, in