Revolutionary Writers: Beaumarchais and Da Ponte
From the playbill for The Marriage of Figaro
by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg
“Because you are a great lord, you believe that you are a great genius! You took the trouble to be born, no more. You remain an ordinary enough man!”
The social architecture of the 18th century put many obstacles in the path of an ambitious young man like Pierre Augustin Caron (1732–1799); at the same time, it served as the scaffolding for his climb. The playwright who gave us Figaro, the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, lived a life bursting with adventures and accomplishments, as did the Italian poet who would adapt his Le Mariage de Figaro into one of our most beloved operas.
The son of a watchmaker, the man who would later adopt the title Beaumarchais applied himself to his father’s trade and at 21 invented a new system that made smaller, more accurate timepieces possible. After a public spat over intellectual property rights, in which none other than the royal clockmaker attempted to claim the invention for his own, the young man was not only vindicated, he became a minor celebrity. He advanced another rung after creating a watch mounted on a ring for Madame de Pompadour. A brief marriage in 1755 led him to adopt a new title (de Beaumarchais) and a new coat of arms.
After an assortment of ultimately unfruitful ventures, Beaumarchais turned his attention to playwriting. Eugénie, an early effort, appeared at the Comédie-Française in 1767 and was followed by others, but today we chiefly remember Beaumarchais for his three “Figaro” plays—Le Barbier de Séville (1775), Le Mariage de Figaro (1781), and La Mère coupable (1792). The plays were a source of irritation to Louis XVI, not only for Figaro’s explicit denunciations of the undeserving nobility but also for the criticism implicit in the less-than-noble behavior Beaumarchais assigned to his aristocratic characters.
At the same time as Beaumarchais was finding his footing in France, the man christened Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) was making his own way in the world. Born Emanuele Conegliano, his conversion to Roman Catholicism bought him a new name, a ticket out of the Jewish ghetto, and an education at the Ceneda seminary.
The young Da Ponte was ordained a priest in 1773 and moved to Venice the same year. His vows did not prevent him from enjoying the pleasures to be offered in the city, and he was eventually exiled for his licentious behavior. He crisscrossed the continent—teaching, translating and writing—finally arriving in Vienna in 1781. There, with the help of the composer Antonio Salieri, Da Ponte obtained the post of librettist to the Italian Theatre, where he worked with with Salieri, Martín y Soler, and Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro was the first of three collaborations for Da Ponte and Mozart, who would do some of their finest work with each other. (Figaro was followed by Don Giovanni in 1787 and Così fan tutte in 1790.)
Both Beaumarchais and Da Ponte eventually found themselves involved with the bold democratic experiment gathering shape across the Atlantic. In 1775, Beaumarchais organized a commercial enterprise, Roderigue Hortalez and Company, that sent supplies to the American rebels; his assistance was largely responsible for the defeat of the British forces in Saratoga in 1777. His pride over this accomplishment would have to suffice as compensation, as he never recouped his financial investment.
Just after the turn of the century, the newly independent states made an attractive destination for Da Ponte, who fled accumulating debts and to create a new life for himself. He initially supported himself by working as a grocer and general merchant, but his interest in Italian literature never waned; he dealt in Italian books on the side, and later served as Professor of Italian at Columbia College. Da Ponte’s little-patronized Italian bookshop was often ignored in favor of the confectionary next door; in his Memoirs, the poet writes, “…I am thinking of placing a placard in my window with the words: ‘Italian sweets and pastry for sale.’ Then if that jest chance to bring some one or other to my shop, I will show him a Petrarch or some other of our poets, and hold that ours are the sweetest of sweets for such as have teeth to chew them.”