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William Howarth points out that the first hint of Beaumarchais’s desire to write Le Mariage can be found in the “Lettre modérée to Le Barbier de Séville (1775), where a continuation of its plot is humourously sketched out” (157). Gérard Kahn confirms this in his erudite critical edition of Le Mariage, writing that “Dans la Préface du Mariage, publiée avec la pièce en 1785, Beaumarchais affirme avoir rédigé cette suite du Barbier de Séville déjà envisagée par lui dans la Lettre modérée sur la chute et la critique du Barbier de Séville parue en juillet 1775, pour répondre au ‘défi public’ du prince de Conti et que ce dernier, mort le 2 août 1776, ‘daigna la voir le premier’” (11).
precondition his audience before the premiere of L’Ecossaise with pamphlets like À Messieurs les parisiens and a published version of the play itself. And like in Voltaire’s case, Beaumarchais’ attempt at audience persuasion is both exterior and interior to his
In Le Mariage de Figaro, the character Figaro must overcome adversity to vanquish a Royal force, personified in Count Almaviva and a group of scheming nobles. What is most interesting is that the playwright presents his real-life battle with Louis XVI over censorship at a microcosmic level in Figaro’s fight with the Count Almaviva over the latter’s “droit du seigneur” (primae noctis)—or, legal capacity to steal Suzanne, Figaro’s wife, away from him for one night of pleasure.
Beaumarchais, like his character Figaro, emerges as a “meneur du jeu” in convincing the court around him to support his cause and disapprove of royal injustice.218 For the playwright, this meant a decade long campaign of public and private readings of different drafts of his play, and a series of letters and pamphlets to various Parisian politicos with the sole aim of getting Le Mariage staged at the Comédie-Française.219 In his detailed analysis of the play’s genesis, Gérard Kahn provides an account of
For Beaumarchais, this meant overcoming strict censorship laws and a litany of financial and political problems with the crown.
One pre-conditioning pamphlet in circulation during the early 1780s was La Romance, a fragment of romantic dialogue between the characters Figaro and Suzanne (Kahn 23).
Il y en eut, entre autres, [les lectures] chez l’auteur, en présence de Grimm, le 5 avril 1782 ; chez la princesse de Lamballe, à la demande répétée du duc de Fronsac ; devant le grand-duc et la grande-duchesse de Russie, de passage à Paris, le 26 mai 1782, grâce à l’entremise de Grimm, en présence de la baronne d’Oberkirch ; chez la maréchale de Richelieu, le 30 mai 1782, ‘devant les évêques et archevêques’ ; chez la duchesse de Villeroi, en présence du comte de Lauraguais et de l’acteur Fleury, au milieu d’une foule considérable. (19) By effectively trying to “sell” his product (the play) to some of France’s most distinguished politicians (Richelieu), critics (Grimm), nobility (Lauraguais, Fronsac) and artists (Fleury), Beaumarchais sought to cause so much of a stir that Louis would be forced by public opinion to acquiesce and allow Le Mariage to hit the boards of the Comédie Française. According to contemporary reports, Beaumarchais read excerpts of his play whenever it was possible and to whoever was willing to listen—and by a certain point in the early 1780s, readings of Le Mariage had become veritable social events.
Jeanne-Louise Campan, a contemporary of Beaumarchais and lady-in-waiting to MarieAntoinette, attests in her Mémoires that “les lectures de Figaro se multiplièrent à tel point, par la complaisance calculée de l’auteur, que chaque jour, on entendait dire: j’ai assisté ou j’assisterai à la lecture de la pièce de Beaumarchais’” (qtd. by Kahn 19).
Beaumarchais’ intense marketing campaign converged with a more psychological preconditioning element: the author’s sordid romantic and financial histories. By the time Le Mariage hit the boards of the Comédie-Française, Beaumarchais had already moved on to his third wife and was implicated by authorities in the untimely deaths of the previous two. In addition, he was on trial for forgery and fresh from an arms deal with the Americans during their war for Independence.220 Parisian theatergoers were not ignorant of these steamy pieces of information: this combination of theatrical, marketing, and biographical elements resulted in an unrivaled night at the Comédie Française and the highest grossing play up until that point in the history of French theater.221 Beaumarchais, a self-proclaimed “worshiper” of Voltaire,222 seems to have taken some strategies out of the old master’s bag of tricks and published pamphlets to help construct his “theatrical event.” Beaumarchais’s tactics, though, did not end with his censorship victory over Louis XVI and the premiere of Le Mariage. William Howarth identifies an interesting literal and figurative clash between written text and audio-visual
event during the fifth performance of Beaumarchais’ comedy:
The audience [was] showered from the gods with printed leaflets containing the text of a scurrilous verse, which, reviewing the unsavoury
personalities of the other characters, ended with this reference to Figaro:
For more information on Beaumarchais’s interesting biography see René Pomeau’s Beaumarchais ou la bizarre destinée or Howarth’s Beaumarchais and the Theater (especially chapter 3, “Diplomat and Secret Agent,” pp. 28-37.
Petitfrère points out that Le Mariage grossed 6,511 “livres de rente,” a record “dans l’histoire du théâtre” (9).
For more information on Beaumarchais’s relationship with Voltaire, see Jack Undank’s article, “Beaumarchais’ Transformations,” pp. 829-831.
We will never know if somebody actually threw slanderous papers down to audience members in late August 1784. But the apocryphal bent of this anecdote is not as important as the fact that Beaumarchais was—at the very least—viewed by contemporaries as capable of interrupting his own performance with self-denigrating pamphlets.
In the case of Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise, Charles Palissot’s previous theatrical critique of philosophes served as (unplanned) publicity for Voltaire’s play. Spectators at the July performance of L’Ecossaise were probably eager to see how the great “Patriarch of Ferney” would respond to Counter-Enlightenment attacks against his encyclopedic colleagues. With Le Mariage de Figaro, Beaumarchais raises the bar, realizes the effect of texts on his spectators’ “horizons of expectations,” and purposefully alters the way by which audience members viewed his play—even during the performance! In his staging of Le Mariage de Figaro, Beaumarchais capitalizes on certain strategies from the Palissot/Voltaire debate, illustrates his ability to grasp consciously the importance of a theatrical marketing campaign, shows that he relies on himself alone rather than on a cohort of friends, and uses every preconditioning tool to its fullest capacity.
The public reactions to Le Mariage de Figaro will forever be attached to the precise moment of the play’s premiere and the concerted effort by Beaumarchais to precondition his theatrical spectator. This historical specificity has convinced some critics to downplay the theatrical, narrative, and performative elements in Le Mariage de Figaro. But we have to keep in mind that Beaumarchais’s play is neither a mere act of political propaganda, nor does it invite us to ask questions such as “Juge-t-on ici une œuvre dramatique ou un pamphlet politique?” (Levy 14). The play is a timeless love story and a masterful balance between seriousness and gaieté that explores complicated political, theatrical, and emotional questions. At present, drama censures no longer exist and the Revolution has come and gone, yet theaters continue to stage Le Mariage all over the world—an irrefutable fact and living proof of Beaumarchais’ dramatic excellence.
But no longer do crowds wait outside the theater in a state of “ebullition” for ten hours before a performance of Le Mariage, nor do stampeding deaths occur as soon as the doors open (Petitfrère 9).223 Violence in the Theater: The Case of Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Charles IX In Le Théâtre et la Révolution. La lutte des classes au théâtre en 1789 et en 1793, the famous Marxist historian Daniel Hamiche was the first to reverse the idea that the “[H]istoire du théâtre en France semble s’assoupir au Mariage de Figaro pour se réveiller dans le tumulte d’Hernani. Rien ne semble s’être passé entretemps” (15). Hamiche goes on to paint an interesting picture of theater during the French Revolution; and over the last twenty years, scholars have further debunked the notion that between Le Mariage and Hernani, good theater played a back seat to more pressing issues such as political representation and violent outrage at the established orders.
Studies by Graham Rodmell, Paul Friedland, and Susan Maslan on the Anglophone side; as well as French-language studies by Marie-Hélène Huet, Jean-Marie Apostolidès, and Martial Poirson have changed our perception of theater from the Revolutionary years.224 These critical inquiries into the Revolutionary era reveal—along with the sheer explosion in the number of theaters during the period—a desire by Petitfrère writes that the day after Le Mariage’s premiere, “On racontera…que trois personnes sont mortes étouffées” (7).
See “Works Cited” for complete bibliographic information.
Revolutionaries to use theater as an important tool in forming a national identity (Rodmell 10).225 If we follow the themes of pre-conditioning through publication and the reporting of spectator reactions to performance by critics into the Revolutionary years, one play
stands out from the rest as a natural successor to Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro:
Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Charles IX ou l’école des Rois. Written in 1787 and not performed at the Comédie-Française (which had then been baptized the Théâtre-National) until the Royal Censure was eliminated in 1789, Chénier’s tragedy echoes Beaumarchais’ effort in a variety of ways.226 In a recent article on the genesis of Chénier’s tragedy, Charles Walton highlights this connection between Le Mariage and Charles IX by pointing out that Charles IX attracted “audiences in sizes unseen since Pierre-Augustin Caron Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro five years earlier” (127).
In French Drama of the Revolutionary Years, Graham Rodmell makes an even
more explicit link between Chénier’s Charles IX and Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage:
It addition to Rodmell’s study, the articles in Martial Poirson’s edited volume on theaters and troupes show a distinct theatromania during the Revolutionary years. For specific information on theaters, see Maud Pouradier’s “Le débat sur la liberté des théâtres” (65-77); and on actors, see most notably, Florence Filippi’s “Les comédiens contre le texte: acteurs en quête d’autorité dans le répertoire révolutionnaire” (155-169).
It is interesting to note that the original title of Chénier’s tragedy was Charles IX, ou la St. Barthélemy. By the time the tragedy found its way to the stage, Parisians had already stormed the Bastille, and Chénier changed its name to the more apropos, Charles IX, ou l’école des Rois.
Beaumarchais’ play is a relatively light-hearted comedy with a happy ending, whereas Chénier’s tragedy explores how the Medici family and the Papacy manipulated King Charles IX during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French protestants in 1572.
But once again, it is more fruitful, as I see it, to link the two plays in terms of their processes—their respective abilities to “faire date” and create a “theatrical event”—rather than show an explicit connection in their content.
First, it is a historical fact that Beaumarchais and Chénier read theoretical texts and plays by philosophes such as Diderot and Voltaire. Both late eighteenth-century playwrights recognized the paramount importance of theater as an educative, persuasive tool and sought to precondition audience members before the premieres of their respective plays. In the preface to his tragedy, Chénier provides an example of this desire, writing that “le théâtre est d’une influence immense sur les mœurs générales…il faut faire une école de vertu et de liberté” (qtd. by Walton, 137). Although he would agree that all Enlightenment literary output should seek to promote change and teach citizens important lessons about society, Chénier distinguishes between theater and other creative
Chénier’s evocation of Voltaire is no mere accident. The playwright’s recognition of an “électricité du théâtre”—a powerful energy that surpasses that of a mere literary work— ties together some of these plays with intense audience reactions during the second half of the eighteenth century.
Chénier’s 1788 Discours préliminaire indicates that the playwright thought he was carrying the torch of Enlightenment—a flame of knowledge originally lit by philosophes like Chénier’s idol, Voltaire. The author of Charles IX evokes the polemic between philosophes and anti-philosophes and chooses to unyieldingly side with Voltaire’s clan. With language reminiscent of the intellectual wars from three decades earlier, Chénier warns those who critique philosophy by equating this group with enemies
of the state: