Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais: Le Mariage de Figaro [The Marriage of Figaro] (2209 words)

Context

Beaumarchais’s La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro, most commonly known as Le Mariage de Figaro, is the author’s best-known and most successful play. It stands as a monument to the playwright’s talent and perseverance. Indeed, it has been described as “by far the most important dramatic work produced in France in the eighteenth century” (Howarth, 3).

Despite being written in 1778, it was first performed publicly at the Comédie-Française on 27 April 1784, and there were 68 performances during its initial run. Three years later, it had reached an unprecedented 100 performances, testimony to its immediate success. It is said that the first performance lasted five hours instead of the normal three and a half hours due to the persistent audience applause, an audience which had queued for five hours to be able to be among the first spectators. What caused such commotion and popularity, in addition to the play’s literary and theatrical qualities, was also the fact that the public had endured a six-year wait to get to see it performed due to censorship. The play was translated into English, Russian, French and Polish almost immediately. Its enduring appeal has no doubt been helped by Mozart’s operatic adaptation, performed as early as 1786.

It was at the suggestion of the Prince de Conti in 1775 that Beaumarchais wrote a sequel to Le Barbier de Séville. The prince died the following year, but Beaumarchais continued with his creation and it is thought to have been finished in 1778. It was then read to the actors of the Comédie-Française, who enthusiastically endorsed the play. It was passed by the censor Coqueley de Chaussepierre and then sent to the royal Court. Marie Antoinette was so enthused with the play that she had Madame de Campan read it to Louis XVI. It is reported in Madame de Campan’s Mémoires that, after the private reading of the play, Louis was so shocked that he said: “It is detestable, it will never be played. The Bastille would have to be destroyed in order that a performance of this play would not be dangerously irresponsible.” The version this reaction was based on was set in France, and contained more virulent attacks than the final version on the clergy and censorship. Beaumarchais thus set about revising the work, moving the action and the setting to Spain. The censorship allowed the author to garner both public and private support. With the support of the Count d’Artois, a special private performance was held on 26 September 1783 where it was granted official approval by three censors. This convoluted path to the stage helps to explain its staggering success. The play’s success has also earned it some vociferous detractors and some astounding praise.

Napoléon declared that “Le Mariage de Figaro is the French Revolution already in action” and that Beaumarchais would have been locked up in a mental asylum under his reign to protect the public. The revolutionary Danton claimed that “Figaro killed the nobility”, meaning that consciousness of social conditions and the possibility of their overthrow was raised by Beaumarchais.

The political radicalism of the play has caused much debate among critics. Some critics, such as Howarth, claim that the subversive and revolutionary aspects of the play have been over-emphasized (Howarth, 4). The two parts of the title point to the dichotomy of these aspects, and the plurality of interpretations which can be derived from the play. Whereas Levy, for example, sees the play as a political manifesto, it has been argued as long ago as 1862 that “it would be foolish to go as far as to include Le Mariage de Figaro among the causes of the Revolution” (Hallays-Dabot, v). The combination of art forms, the character studies, the range of simultaneous plots and the sentimental aspects of the play lead to this multiplicity of readings.

In the preface to Le Mariage de Figaro, Beaumarchais railed against the affectations of high art and its normative effects on comedy, claiming that such discourse “has destroyed the frank and true playfulness (gaieté) which distinguished the comedy of our nation from all others”. This claim can be seen in two ways. Either we can take Beaumarchais at his word and see him as a purveyor of playful theatre, characterized as it is by its eclectic use of dance, song, play, disguise and ruse; or we can see that Beaumarchais is attempting to disguise the radicalism of the social and political challenges to authority embedded within his theatre.

The play must also be considered within the wider context of French comic drama. Lintilhac especially has considered the various plays which can be seen as influences for Le Mariage de Figaro, finding Rochon de Chabannes’s Heureusement a particularly strong source. Other sources include Scarron’s La Précaution inutile, Sedaine’s La Gageure imprévue and Il était temps by Vadé. Considering the genesis of the play, we should note that the setting of the play, Spain, whilst a retrospective decision, is influenced by Beaumarchais’s travels to Madrid in 1764, and Beaumarchais’s own duplicitous and philandering activities there. The action takes place at the chateau of Aguas-Frescas which belongs to the Count Almaviva, a central figure from Le Barbier de Séville. We find the count now married to Rosine, the object of his desire in Le Barbier, and three years have passed.

Le Mariage de Figaro opens with a new character, Suzanne, and Figaro discussing their upcoming marriage. The first act serves to explain the fears of the couple that the count will invoke his droit du seigneur, the supposed right of the lord of the manor to sleep with women who live on his dependencies. No such right is thought to have truly existed, though its notoriety was revived by Voltaire some years before Beaumarchais’s play. In fact, because Almaviva was himself now married, he would have no way of exercising his supposed “right”. The droit du seigneur thus stands as a symbol for the injustices and excesses of the feudal system, excesses which the lower social orders constantly come up against. The artifice of the source of injustice at once allows Beaumarchais to disguise the wider target of the French ancien régime and to create an impediment to the marriage which rests on a socio-political conflict.

The conflict manifests itself in the division of characters into two sides. Suzannne, anxious not to have her marriage destroyed by the count’s desire to invoke his “right”, informs the countess, who herself is busy flirting with the young page, Chérubin. When Almaviva arrives, the first act’s theatricality reaches its climax in the games and hiding which take place, with Chérubin hiding in a chair to evade the count, who himself subsequently hides behind the chair in order not to be caught by Bazile propositioning Suzanne. Beaumarchais’s innovative use of space on and off the stage has led one critic to theorize the play as using a “third space” (Scherer, 172). The first act thus serves to introduce the characters (new and old) to the audience, a task which Beaumarchais aided by the detailed descriptions of their personalities and costumes in the print version. Suzanne and Figaro are supported by the countess and Chérubin, whereas the count has the support of Bazile, Bartholo, and the gardener Antonio. Some other characters are perhaps more difficult to characterize in terms of their allegiance. Antonio’s daughter Fanchette, for example, is having an affair with Almaviva, yet seeks for Chérubin, one of her other lovers, to be spared punishment. The new character of Chérubin, we are told, is thirteen years old, and one who is seen as a loveable rascal entering into puberty. Although a boy, Beaumarchais stipulated that the role must have the physique of a girl but be strong enough to jump out of windows. His playfulness, modelled on a young version of the count, is clarified in La Mère coupable, where his libertine tendencies are made explicit in the admission of his (subsequent) adulterous behaviour with the Countess.

Figaro has thus by this time evolved and no longer represents the traditional valet, but is an emancipated character. Acts I and II serve to outwit and undermine the count who thus wants to seek revenge for his humiliation. This revenge comes in Act III, which moves the action to the realm of justice. Marceline, an older woman, has previously given a loan to Figaro. As Figaro is unable to meet this financial obligation, Marceline chooses to invoke the loan contract’s secondary stipulation that Figaro marry her instead. The situation is of course absurd. Figaro is to be forced into marriage to a woman twice his age. The dispute places Almaviva into his feudal role of chief justice, and brings to the stage the stammering, blundering judge, Don Guzman Brid’oison. Named after Rabelais’s Bridoie and Beaumarchais’s nemesis Goëzman, Brid’oison incarnates the caricature of the legal profession as clueless and antiquated. He stammers and snores. The trial satirizes the justice system’s apparently petty and pedantic focus on the minutiae of written contracts, on commas and the ambiguous meanings of the word “ou” (or/and/where). Injustice is done when the final decision obliges Figaro to marry Marceline. Figaro then explains his life story, claiming that he was an orphan who was found as a baby. The details he recounts lead Marceline to realise that she is Figaro’s mother, and in turn reveal Bartholo to be Figaro’s father. This recognition scene, a leitmotif of Beaumarchais’s theatre, is a strangely emotional moment which, needless to say, prevents the marriage of Figaro to Marceline taking place. It would have been perfectly possible for this discovery to be made before rather than after the ludicrous trial scene, which indicates Beaumarchais’s determination to include the parody of the ancien régime’s judicial system in his play.

Figaro’s relief turns to fear in act IV when he discovers a note, which unbeknown to him, was written by Suzanne and the countess in an attempt to trick count Almaviva. Figaro is thus outwitted by the women’s plot, with the “ruse féminine” seen as indicative of the wider feminism in Beaumarchais’s plays (Francis, 177). This proto-feminism sees Suzanne in control from act IV onwards, following on from a feminist tirade by Marceline in Act III. Beaumarchais’s female characters have elsewhere been labelled as “negative or accessory” roles (Scherer, 229). Marceline’s very sudden transition from a grotesque character, willing to collaborate with Bartholo in mutual gain, into to a sympathetic character is so abrupt as to be of critical interest. She is initially a figure of ridicule, given her age, in her pursuit of Figaro. The ardency of her feminism was at one point suppressed by Beaumarchais, only to be restored in the print version.

Almaviva turns up for his rendez-vous, thinking he is meeting Suzanne, only to be deceived, and thus revealing his own adulterous intentions. It is his own countess, disguised as Suzanne, who witnesses his protestations of affection. Thus his character, overbearing, authoritarian, and above all libertine, is on display for all – a shock which seemingly triggers the moral reformation of his character having seen the error of his ways. Act V’s principal interest, however, undoubtedly lies in the fifteen-minute soliloquy by Figaro which is a wide-ranging political speech. This is where the revolutionary aspects of the play are concretized. The bastard outsider Figaro takes aim at the aristocracy and all those who hold their position only because they “gave themselves the trouble of being born” (V, 3). The monologue seemingly has several absent interlocutors, and features anger and bitterness from Figaro. It is truly exceptional and a breathtaking piece of theatre, coming as it does near the end of two hours of fast-paced, comic repartee. The debates about its political position have long given rise to different interpretations. Francine Levy (1978) has argued forcefully for an interpretation of the play as a political manifesto of radical intent. It has also been argued that Beaumarchais is merely “an individualist bent on preserving his independence” (Niklaus, 70). Howarth (p.224) and Petitfrère, for example, have claimed that Figaro, and by extension Beaumarchais, only argue against particular abuses of power, and when these are corrected, everything goes back to normal, with existing power structures left unaffected. It is hard to conceive that Figaro or Suzanne would consider the execution of the count, still less the countess, as a satisfactory outcome of their attempts to safeguard their personal integrity.

After the soliloquy, the play concludes with a carnival-like scene of music, dancing and singing. This conclusion brings us back to the comedy, potentially downplaying the subversive effects of the political struggle. The comedy – achieved through innuendo, farce, asides, misunderstandings, changing identities, games, contradiction, incoherence and the absurd – makes Le Mariage de Figaro a truly outstanding masterpiece of eighteenth-century comic theatre.

Works cited

Francis, Richard, “La Ruse féminine dans le théâtre de Beaumarchais”, in Philip Robinson (ed.), Beaumarchais : homme de lettres, homme de société. Bern, 2000, pp. 177-190.
Howarth, William D. Beaumarchais and the Theatre. London and New York, 1995.
Pomeau, René. Beaumarchais. Paris, 1962.

Citation: Treuherz, Nick. "Le Mariage de Figaro". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 16 November 2015 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=4077, accessed 30 September 2022.]

4077 Le Mariage de Figaro 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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