1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beaumarchais, Pierre Augustin Caron de
BEAUMARCHAIS, PIERRE AUGUSTIN CARON DE (1732-1799), French dramatist, was born in Paris on the 24th of January 1732. His father, a watchmaker named Caron, brought him up to the same trade. He was an unusually precocious and lively boy, shrewd, sagacious, passionately fond of music and imbued with a strong desire for rising in the world. At the age of twenty-one he invented a new escapement for watches, which was pirated by a rival maker. Young Caron at once published his grievance in the Mercure, and had the matter referred to the Academy of Sciences, which decided in his favour. This affair brought him into notice at court; he was appointed, or at least called himself, watchmaker to the king, who ordered from him a watch similar to one he had made for Mme de Pompadour. His handsome figure and cool assurance enabled him to make his way at court. Mme Franquet, the wife of an old court official, persuaded her husband to make over his office to young Caron, and, on her husband’s death, a few months later, married the handsome watchmaker. Caron at the same time assumed the name Beaumarchais; and four years later, by purchasing the office of secretary to the king obtained a patent of nobility.
At court his musical talents brought him under the notice of the king’s sisters, who engaged him to teach them the harp. This position enabled him to confer a slight favour on the great banker Joseph Duverney, who testified his gratitude by giving Beaumarchais a share in his speculations. The latter turned the opportunity to good account, and soon realized a handsome fortune. In 1764 he took a journey to Spain, partly with commercial objects in view, but principally on account of the Clavijo affair. José Clavijo y Fajardo had twice promised to marry the sister of Beaumarchais, and had failed to keep his word. The adventure had not the tragic ending of Goethe’s Clavigo, for Beaumarchais did not pursue his vengeance beyond words. Beaumarchais made his first essay as a writer for the stage with the sentimental drama Eugénie (1767), in which he drew largely on the Clavijo incident. This was followed after an interval of two years by Les Deux Amis, but neither play had more than moderate success. His first wife had died within a year of the marriage and in 1768 Beaumarchais married Mme Lévêque. Her death in 1771 was the signal for unfounded rumours of poisoning. Duverney died in 1770; but some time before his death a duplicate settlement of the affairs between him and Beaumarchais had been drawn up, in which the banker acknowledged himself debtor to Beaumarchais for 15,000 francs. Duverney’s heir, the comte de La Blache, denied the validity of the document though without directly stigmatizing it as a forgery. The matter was put to trial. Beaumarchais gained his cause, but his adversary at once carried the case before the parlement. In the meantime the duc de Chaulnes forced Beaumarchais into a quarrel over Mdlle Menard, an actress at the Comédie Italienne, which resulted in the imprisonment of both parties. This moment was chosen by La Blache to demand judgment from the parlement in the matter of the Duverney agreement. Beaumarchais was released from prison for three or four days to see his judges. He was, however, unable to obtain an interview with Goezman, the member of the parlement appointed to report on his case. At last, just before the day on which the report was to be given in, he was informed privately that, by presenting 200 louis to Mme Goezman and 15 to her secretary, the desired interview might take place, if the result should prove unfavourable the money would be refunded. The money was sent and the interview obtained; but the decision was adverse, and 200 louis were returned, the 15 going as business expenses to the secretary. Beaumarchais, who had learned that there was no secretary save Mme Goezman herself, insisted on restitution of the 15 louis, but the lady denied all knowledge of the affair. Her husband, who was probably not cognisant of the details of the transaction at first, doubtless thought the defeated litigant would be easily put down, and at once brought an accusation against him for an attempt to corrupt justice. The battle was fought chiefly through the Mémoires, or reports published by the adverse parties, and in it Beaumarchais’s success was complete. For vivacity of style, fine satire and broad humour, his famous Mémoires have never been surpassed. Even Voltaire was constrained to envy them. Beaumarchais was skilful enough to make his particular case of universal application. He was attacking the parlement through one of its members, and the parlement was the universally detested body formed by the chancellor Maupeou. The Mémoires were, therefore, hailed with general delight; and the author, from being perhaps the most unpopular man in France, became at once the idol of the people. The decision went against Beaumarchais. The parlement condemned both him and Mme Goezman au blâme, i.e. to civic degradation, while the husband was obliged to abandon his position. Beaumarchais was reduced to great straits, but he obtained restitution of his rights within two years, and finally triumphed over his adversary La Blache.
During the next few years he was engaged in the king’s secret service. One of his missions was to England to destroy the Mémoires secrets d’une femme publique in which Charles Theveneau de Morande made an attack on Mme Du Barry. Beaumarchais secured this pamphlet, and burnt the whole impression in London. Another expedition to England and Holland to seize a pamphlet attacking Marie Antoinette led to a series of incidents more amazing than the intrigues in Beaumarchais’s own plays, but his own account must be received with caution. Beaumarchais pursued the libeller to Germany and overtook him in a wood near Neustadt. After a struggle he had gained possession of the document when he was attacked by brigands. Unfortunately the wound alleged to have been received in this fight was proved to be self-inflicted. The Austrian government regarded Beaumarchais with a suspicion justified by the circumstances. He was imprisoned for some time in Vienna, and only released on the receipt of explanations from Paris.
His various visits to England led him to take a deep interest in the impending struggle between the American colonies and the mother-country. His sympathies were entirely with the former; and by his unwearied exertions he succeeded in inducing the French government to give ample, though private, assistance in money and arms to the Americans. He himself, partly on his own account, but chiefly as the agent of the French and Spanish governments, carried on an enormous traffic with America. Under the name of Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie, he employed a fleet of forty vessels to provide help for the insurgents.
During the same period he produced his two famous comedies. The earlier, Le Barbier de Seville, after a prohibition of two years, was put on the stage in 1775. The first representation was a complete failure. Beaumarchais had overloaded the last scene with allusions to the facts of his own case and the whole action of the piece was laboured and heavy. But he cut down and remodelled the piece in time for the second representation, when it achieved a complete success. The intrigues which were necessary in order to obtain a licence for the second and more famous comedy, Le Mariage de Figaro, are highly amusing, and throw much light on the unsettled state of public sentiment at the time. The play was completed in 1778, but the opposition of Louis XVI., who alone saw its dangerous tendencies, was not overcome till 1784. The comedy had an unprecedented success. The principal character in both plays, Figaro, is a completely original conception; in fact Beaumarchais drew a portrait of himself in the resourceful adventurer, who, for mingled wit, shrewdness, gaiety and philosophic reflection, may not unjustly be ranked with Tartuffe. To English readers the Figaro plays are generally known through the adaptations of them in the grand opera of Mozart and Rossini; but in France they long retained popularity as acting pieces. The success of Le Mariage de Figaro was helped on by the methods of self-advertisement so well understood by Beaumarchais. The proceeds of the fiftieth performance were devoted to a charity, the choice of which provoked numerous epigrams. Beaumarchais had the imprudence to retaliate by personalities that were reported by his enemies to be dedicated against the king and queen. Beaumarchais was imprisoned for a short time by royal order in the prison of St Lazare. Brilliant pamphleteer as he was, Beaumarchais was at last to meet more than his match. He undertook to defend the company of the “Eaux de Paris,” in which he had a large interest, against Mirabeau, and brought down on himself an invective to which he could offer no reply. His real influence was gone from that date (1785-1786). Shortly afterwards he was violently attacked by Nicolas Bergasse, whom he sued for defamation of character. He gained his case, but his reputation had suffered in the pamphlet war. Beaumarchais’s later productions, the bombastic opera Tarare (1787) and the drama La Mère coupable (1792), which was very popular, are in no way worthy of his genius.
By his writings Beaumarchais contributed greatly, though quite unconsciously, to hurry on the events that led to the Revolution. At heart he hardly seems to have been a republican, and the new state of affairs did not benefit him. The astonishing thing is that the society travestied in Le Mariage de Figaro was the most vehement in its applause. The court looked on at a play justly characterized by Napoleon as the “revolution already in action” apparently without a suspicion of its real character. His popularity had been destroyed by the Mirabeau and Bergasse affairs, and his great wealth exposed him to the enmity of the envious. A speculation into which he entered, to supply the Convention with muskets from Holland, proved a ruinous failure. He was accused of concealing arms and corn in his house, but when his house was searched nothing was discovered but some thousands of copies of the edition (1783-1790) of the works of Voltaire which he had had printed at his private press at Kehl, in Baden. He was charged with treason to the republic and was imprisoned in the Abbaye on the 20th of August 1792. A week later he was released at the intercession of Mme Houret de la Marinière, who had been his mistress. He took refuge in Holland and England. His memoirs entitled, Mes six époques, detailing his sufferings under the republic, are not unworthy of the Goezman period. His courage and happy disposition never deserted him, although he was hunted as an agent of the Convention in Holland and England, while in Paris he was proscribed as an émigré. He returned to Paris in 1796, and died there, suddenly, on the 18th of May 1799.
Gudin de la Brenellerie’s Histoire de Beaumarchais (1809) was edited by M. Maurice Tourneux in 1888. See also L. de Loménie, Beaumarchais et son temps (1855), Eng. trans. by H. S. Edwards, (4. vols., 1856); A. Hallay’s Beaumarchais (1897); M. de Lescure, Éloge de Beaumarchais (1886); and Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, vol. vi. Beaumarchais’s works have been edited by Gudin (7 vols., 1809); by Furne (6 vols., 1827); and by É. Fournier (1876). A variorum edition of his Théâtre complet was published by MM. d’Heylli and de Marescot (4 vols., 1869-1875); and a Bibliographie des œuvres de Beaumarchais, by H. Cordier in 1883.