Beaumarchais: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary Playwright
By Dramaturg Kelley Rourke
Watchmaker, harp teacher, playwright, spy—Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (pictured) was something of a general factotum himself. Today operagoers know him as the man who gave us Figaro (and friends) in a trilogy of plays. Le Barbier de Séville (“The Barber of Seville”), the first, is a light-hearted comedy in which two young people, inspired by love, conspire against those who would prevent them from being together. In the second, La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (“The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro”), the high-spirited conspirators of Barber have lost their common cause—and are in danger of losing their youthful affection and regard for one another. This play has more of a political edge, which is even more pronounced in the work that follows: L’Autre Tartuffe, ou La Mère Coupable (“The Other Tartuffe, or The Guilty Mother”).
1732 Pierre-Augustin Caron is born in Paris.
1751 The first volumes of the Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot, are produced in France; its stated aim was to “change the way people think.”
1753 Caron invents a new escapement for watches; the following year he is commissioned by Louis XV to create a watch mounted on a ring for Madame de Pompadour.
1756 Mozart is born.
1757 Caron takes the name Beaumarchais from property belonging to his wife.
1759 Beaumarchais becomes music teacher to the daughters of Louis XV; Voltaire writes Candide.
1761 Beaumarchais buys a royal title.
1762 Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, the first of his “reform” operas, premieres in Vienna; the Paris premiere will follow twelve years later.
1767 Beaumarchais’s first dramatic play, Eugénie, premieres at the Comédie Francaise.
1773 Boston Tea Party
1774 Beaumarchais works as a secret agent in London.
1775 The Barber of Seville premieres as a five-act play and is not well received; the four-act version that follows is a success. The American Revolution begins.
1776 Beaumarchais is entrusted by the government to send aid to the American rebels against the English; Volume I of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is published.
1778 Voltaire dies.
1779 Beaumarchais purchases rights to publish the complete works of Voltaire, putting out 70 volumes between 1783-1790.
1782 Paisiello and Petrosello’s opera based on The Barber of Seville premieres in St. Petersburg.
1784 The first performance of The Marriage of Figaro (play) is given at the Comedi Francaise; with the proceeds, Beaumarchais creates an institution for poor nursing mothers.
1786 Mozart and Da Ponte produce an opera based on The Marriage of Figaro.
1787 Beaumarchais and Salieri’s opera Tarare premieres in Paris.
1789 Fall of the Bastille
1791 Mozart dies.
1792 A Mother’s Guilt is first produced; Beaumarchais is entrusted with the purchase and transfer of 60,000 muskets stored in Holland, but arms suppliers have him arrested and imprisoned. Once he is freed, he flees to London, where he is jailed for debt; Rossini is born.
1793 Louis XVI is executed and the Reign of Terror begins.
1799 Beaumarchais dies and is buried in the garden of his home.
1816 Rossini’s Almaviva premieres; later that year, after Paisiello dies, it is retitled The Barber of Seville.
1822 Remains of Beaumarchais are transferred to Père Lachaise cemetery.
“To appear always deeply concerned for the good of the State, yet to be concerned with nothing but self-interest; to assemble and say nothing; to pretend vast secrecy where there is nothing to conceal; to shut yourself up in your quarters, and mend your pen or pick your teeth while your servants inform the waiting crowd you are too busy to be approached—this, with the art of intercepting letters and excusing the poverty of means by the importance of the ends—this is the whole mystery of politics, or I am an idiot.”