Figaro: I may truly be called both a Chance Child, and a Child of Chance. By Chance was I begot, by Chance brought into the World, by Chance was I stole, by Chance am I found, by Chance have I lived, and by Chance I shall die. Chance is Nature’s Sovereign, and must be mine.
Suzanne: Yes, and by Chance thou mayst come to be hang’d.
(Act IV, Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais)
As with any role he had played throughout his tempestuous life—watchmaker, inventor, courtier, musician, king’s agent, litigant, international spy, dramatist, lover, polemicist—Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) took on the character of Monsieur Durand, undercover arms smuggler, with fearlessness and unbridled enthusiasm. We know him best as the author of the Figaro trilogy, three plays known for their wit and their revolutionary results. But for a period, Beaumarchais put his love of liberty into action as a gunrunner, assisting the American colonists in their fight for independence from England.
However sincere his democratic impulses may have been, as a confidence man, Beaumarchais was an abject failure. In December 1777, he arrived at the French port city of Le Havre as Monsieur Durand to supervise the covert loading of arms and supplies destined for the American colonies. Within days, however, everyone from the local police to Le Havre’s high society and even its theatrical troupe knew his real identity. How did Beaumarchais go from secret agent to open secret in a matter of days?
Beaumarchais: International Man of Mystery
Although Beaumarchais was an ardent proponent of democracy, he couldn’t singlehandedly launch an operation to aid a faraway rebellion against France’s archenemy unless he had some high level backing. France’s role in America’s independence is well known, but it was not exactly disinterested. Capitalizing on Benjamin Franklin’s success in Paris, Beaumarchais and his American partner Silas Deane finally persuaded the French government to sanction the arms deal with several arguments: First, aiding the colonists would anger the British and possibly precipitate a war, allowing the French to avenge their loss in the Seven Years’ War; next, arming the colonists would be a way to unload the surplus of outdated weapons created when the French army was refitted; and last, but not least, for Beaumarchais’ sense of égalité, sending guns would give the Americans the help they needed to throw off the tyranny of the British king.
On paper, Beaumarchais’ clandestine business, what we today would call a “shell company,” dealt in Spanish and Portuguese coins, a hot commodity in the trans-Atlantic trade, but its real purpose was gunrunning in exchange for American cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo and other trade goods. With its ships also stopping at West Indies ports where sugar was available, the business venture looked most promising for Beaumarchais who loved a profitable adventure as well as an idealistic cause.
First, he had first to think of a name for his company, one mysterious yet commanding. Remembering his Madrid sojourn in 1764—where he had investigated business opportunities in the Spanish colony of Louisiana and tried to avenge the honor of his jilted sister (the latter the inspiration for his play Eugénie)—Beaumarchais chose to name his fictional company after its fictional president Roderigue Hortalez. (This name has a strong affinity with the French phrase hors-la-loi, meaning outside the law, as well as horloger, or watchmaker.)
So far, so good. Next, Beaumarchais needed imposing premises in which to house such a business concern. With the arrival of the French government’s promised loan of one million livres as well as a second million from the Bourbon government in Madrid, Hortalez et Cie could open its doors in style. Beaumarchais selected one of Paris’ most luxurious residences, the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande in the Marais district as headquarters. The former Dutch embassy was large enough to accommodate offices on the ground floor and to house Beaumarchais’ family upstairs. The embassy was grand as only a baroque Parisian townhouse can be with ornate appointments, floor-to-ceiling murals, and long resounding galleries.
Once installed in the hôtel, Beaumarchais threw himself into his performance. Every day, he made a grand entrance, nodding and smiling at those waiting in the salons before passing solemnly through the door marked “Sr. Roderigue Hortalez.” As his friend and biographer Gudin has recorded, only a handful of people supposedly knew his identity, among them Gudin’s brother, who served as the firm’s cashier, and Beaumarchais’ pregnant Swiss mistress, Mademoiselle Marie-Thérèse Willermaulez. No one ever had the honor of meeting directly with M. Hortalez, but Beaumarchais, who was understood to be the great man’s private secretary, could be heard at times behind closed doors imitating, first, the heavily-accented Spanish of his superior and then responding as himself, “Oui, Monsieur! Tout de suite, Monsieur!”
Business was brisk and M. Hortalez’s presence was required at army bases and ports all over France. Beaumarchais, who had learned the tricks of costume and makeup in the theatre, appeared in various guises, sometimes as Hortalez or one sieur de Ronac, sometimes as Durand. In spite of all the cloak and dagger trappings, the work was actually quite dangerous for Beaumarchais. He had put himself in harm’s way before, placating would-be royal blackmailers or ending libelous pamphlet campaigns against the queen, but stockpiling huge quantities of weapons on the docks of French port could be construed in only one way: as a build up to war with England.
Beaumarchais, however, was enjoying himself too much to be overly concerned with absolute secrecy. With the wheels of French bureaucracy turning at last, a steady supply of arms, powder, uniforms and other supplies began to flow toward the ports of Brest, Bordeaux, Rochefort and Le Havre. Hortalez et Cie purchased ships and began provisioning them. By the end of the year, Beaumarchais had collected, according to the 1993 unclassified CIA report on his activities, “200 field pieces, 300,000 muskets, 100 tons of powder, 3,000 tents and large amounts of ammunition. He also had a blanket, a pair of shoes and two pairs of wool stockings for each of 30,000 men along with such miscellaneous items as buttons, buckles, needles, thread, pocket knives and bolts of wool and silk for uniforms.”
Another unexpected surplus were French volunteers who flooded the dock offices, eager to enlist in the cause of liberty. These volunteers insisted on being commissioned as officers in Washington’s army even though they spoke no English and understood very little about conditions in America or what would expected of them as American soldiers. In Paris, hundreds of idealistic young men clamored to join up—it is true that many were also trying to escape debts or romantic entanglements. So many officers began appearing on American shores, in fact, that Congress sent urgent appeals to Silas Deane to curtail the number of commissions.
The case of one particular volunteer especially interested Beaumarchais. While French gentlemen of means such as Lafayette could afford to accept a commission as an unpaid private, impoverished noblemen like Baron von Steuben, on the other hand, required a little more assistance. Unable to accept a commission without pay, von Steuben waited at the Hortalez offices for weeks for an opportunity to be of service. At last, Beaumarchais came up with a plan. Putting von Steuben in the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant general, Beaumarchais sent him into Paris society with an aide and a secretary, both paid for by the playwright. After making the rounds, von Steuben came to the attention of Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. In due course, von Steuben was sent on a diplomatic mission conveying a letter to Washington. He soon joined the Colonial Army, fighting with distinction at Valley Forge, Monmouth and Yorktown.
The Le Havre Distraction
And so with a top secret mission at hand, Beaumarchais as M. Durand planned a trip to Le Havre in December 1777 to oversee the preparation of the first three ships bound for America, the Seine, the Romain and the Amphitrite. Maintaining his disguise was crucial to avoid tipping off British spies. The loading of the ships took place at night with a hundred men moving a massive volume of arms and ammunition as well as axes, pickaxes, spades, blankets and, of all things, some 15,000 pocket handkerchiefs. Fearful of an explosion, the men nervously loaded 12 tons of gunpowder on the Amphitrite. Goods ended up on the wrong ships and bills of lading were filled with errors. The confusion and bustle on the docks must have been obvious even under cover of night.
How then, if Beaumarchais had been traveled incognito as M. Durand, had a report been issued by the Le Havre police, stating “The arrival of Dr. Franklin in Nantes has caused a sensation, and the departure of M. de Beaumarchais, who is said to have gone to Le Havre, no less so.” Apparently, Beaumarchais’ movements and his alias were well known!
Bored with waiting for orders to set sail, it seems that Beaumarchais had begun frequenting the salons of Le Havre during which he must have been a tad indiscreet—not only had he been inconsistent in using the name Durand, he must also have given or at least acknowledged his own. André Limozin, an English-speaking agent at Le Havre, received a letter for Beaumarchais from Deane and sent a clerk to give it to Durand: “[he] remitted it into Mr. De Baumarchaiss own hands. [B]ut I have been informed that he hath not been pleased that my Clarke called him by his name. I did not know that he had taken Durand…[E]very Body knows that he is here, and there are more than 100 Gentlemen in the Town who know him personally.”
However, the enticements of Le Havre’s social scene were not entirely to blame for Beaumarchais’ faux pas. Having learned that M. Durand was none other than the author of the play everyone in Paris was talking about, the actors in the local theater decided to put on a production of Le Barbier de Séville. It was reportedly a “dreary production,” and when Beaumarchais saw the violence being done to his work, he raced to the theater and began rehearsing the actors, giving direction and generally making a nuisance of himself. Of course, by now, having completely blown his cover, Beaumarchais could do little more than bask in the audience’s laughter and pat himself on the back for the theater’s brisk ticket sales. No doubt, he enjoyed the pleasure of introducing the provincials to sophisticated theater, but he must surely have been aware that his indiscretion almost brought England and France to the brink of war.
For the next six years, Beaumarchais continued to engage in weapons smuggling, barely avoiding bankruptcy and constantly petitioning the U.S. Congress to hold up their end of the bargain. Even though Beaumarchais’ support of American independence changed the fortunes of war, his own affairs were in a perilous state. With France’s official recognition of the United States in 1778 and the open outbreak of war with England, the efforts of Hortalez et Cie grew less significant in the overall movement of men and materiel across the Atlantic. All the same, over the course of its existence, from 1776 to 1783, Beaumarchais’ firm is said to have engaged in transactions totaling more than 42 million livres or about $420 million. Beaumarchais spent the remainder of his life attempting to convince the United States to fulfill its contract with him. Due to various delays and political machinations, that did not happen in his lifetime. The debt was finally settled in 1835 when Congress offered Beaumarchais’ heirs 800,000 francs ($4,160,000) or nothing; they chose the money.
The Trials and Tribulations of The Barber of Seville
As if assisting at the birth of the United States and helping set the groundwork for another upheaval closer to home were not enough, Beaumarchais decided to write a sequel to his 1775 hit The Barber of Seville. He had learned much from his experience writing Barber, which in its original form had been a complete failure. The last scene had too many allusions to the playwright’s personal life and seemed labored and dull. Indeed, the years leading up to the first staging of Barber were some of the most eventful—and devastating—of Beaumarchais’ life. In addition to forfeiting his civil rights after an ugly court battle involving a settlement after the death of his second wife, Beaumarchais worked as the king’s agent in England, Vienna, and Germany foiling blackmail plots, one of which involved Chevalier d’Eon, who has been described as “a celebrity of uncertain sex.” Back in France, Beaumarchais landed in prison after he and the Duc de Chaulnes fought over an actress at the Comédie Italienne. In the meantime, the suit over the settlement from the playwright’s second wife turned into an accusation of attempting to corrupt a judge. Beaumarchais chronicled the twists and turns of these latest developments in his famous Mémoires, establishing a reputation for wit and style, if not exactly good sense when it came to the fair sex.
When he finally completed Barber, the royal censor suppressed the play claiming that its notoriety cast Beaumarchais in a sympathetic light at the expense of magistrates and the courts. In any case, the first appearance of the play was a disaster, but Beaumarchais rewrote it in a matter of days, and the revised version became a hit that remains in the repertoire of the Comédie Française to the present day. In fact, by 1785, the tide had turned completely and a production was staged at Versailles with Marie Antoinette as Rosine (renamed Rosina in Rossini’s Italian-language opera) and the King’s brother, the Count of Artois, as Figaro.
The Rebirth of Figaro
With his Hortalez adventure behind him, Beaumarchais set about finishing The Marriage of Figaro, a work he may have begun as early as 1778. This time, Beaumarchais ran into difficulties not, for once, due to scandals in his private life, but because of the play’s perceived threats to an increasingly fragile French state. The play was reviewed six times by the royal censor before being approved by the king in 1784. After years of anticipation, public expectations on opening night were high. The theater doors opened at 5:30 and the performance ended almost five hours later to wild acclaim.
In Figaro, Beaumarchais retained the touch of light comedy and vivaciousness that had characterized Barber. The added charm in the sequel was that Figaro, about to be married to Suzanne (Susanna in Mozart’s opera), has more to do than simply extricate his betters from their amorous intrigues. Still a servant, the affianced Figaro wishes to protect Suzanne from Count Almaviva’s exercise of droit du seigneur, a feudal concept in which a nobleman supposedly had the right to sleep with subordinate women on their wedding night. This concept, one that essentially institutionalized abuse, served as a metaphor for social injustice at large, and Figaro as the playwright’s alter ego was speaking with Beaumarchais’ words. Figaro’s ripostes might, on the surface, gleefully satirize human nature and society, but to a government on shaky ground, these words cut deep into institutions in which the French state was heavily invested.
But Figaro was not really a revolutionary. He, or rather his type, had originated, not in Beaumarchais’ fertile imagination, but in the Italian commedia dell’arte form. Figaro and his cohorts were in fact stock characters easily recognizable to contemporary audiences. As Eric Blom has observed, “Beaumarchais, in truth, contrives nothing new beyond details of invention and worksmanship; in their broad outlines the comedies are completely traditional.” Figaro’s commedia origins are as the character Harlequin or Arlecchino, the lively and astute valet. Beaumarchais is certainly responsible for the name Figaro, believed to be derived from a contraction of his own name Fils Caron (son of Caron); the name may also have origins in the Spanish colloquialism picaro or ficaro, meaning “rascal.”
In addition to the quick-witted valet, 18th-century French audiences would have recognized other old friends: Suzanne was known in commedia dell’arte as Colombine, the world-wise serving maid, while Rosine represented Isabella, the emotional young ward and desirable ingénue. Chérubin was Pierrot, too young and naïve to be seriously considered as a lover.
(Chérubin has a more influential role 20 years later in the third play of the Figaro trilogy, La Mère coupable or The Guilty Mother, even though he is unseen on the stage. In this work, premiered in 1792 at the height of the French Revolution, tragic morality is the theme, with Chérubin the deceased father of Countess Almaviva’s illegitimate son Léon. The major plot elements of The Guilty Mother were adapted into John Corigliano’s 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles. The least successful of Beaumarchais’ Figaro plays, it also contributed to the playwright’s voluntary exile.)
Commedia dell’arte also called for male characters of varying degrees of ridiculousness such as Count Almaviva, who represents Lelio or Cinthio, the predatory lover of the much-younger girl. Dr. Bartolo is the old, asthmatic Bolognese doctor known in commedia as Graziano or Baloardo; unlike Molière and his old doctors, Beaumarchais spares us tiresome displays of learnedness.
Having reestablished the traditional characters, Beaumarchais proceeds to spin out a ludicrously complex plot that hangs on such thin contrivances as mistaken identity and disguises. In the place of weighty themes, he gives us comical complications or emotional revelations brought about by ordinary objects like a ribbon or a pin. In the original commedia dell’arte companies, improvisation, wit and repartee would have kept such well-worn scenarios and characters fresh and unpredictable.
Beaumarchais’ inspiration—one that struck fear in the hearts of those committed to the pre-revolutionary status quo—was to make Figaro, a servant, the intellectual master of his supposed betters. When he questions the idea of hereditary privilege, he does so in a disarmingly flippant manner. Beaumarchais had just spent several years running guns to support the American colonists’ cause against France’s enemy, and he was having a hard time receiving compensation for his efforts. That experience had to have reinforced the playwright’s sense of how absurdity often travels alongside idealism.
While the likes of Thomas Carlyle and Napoleon did hear a call for revolution in Figaro, Beaumarchais was looking a little deeper. He was preoccupied less with sedition than human circumstances and motivations—although we may be sure that he was pleased with the dramatic results of his play. He may perhaps have been pondering, as Figaro, the role of chance as “nature’s sovereign” and how it so often tends to rule our lives and shape our character.
In 1787, after having seen so many others profit by writing operas based on his plays, Beaumarchais staged Tarare, an opera in five acts. The work is forgotten today, but he seems to have had Figaro in mind when he wrote the work’s preface:
Mortal, whoever you may be,
Prince, Brahmin or soldier,
Man, your greatness on earth
Does not derive from your position,
But only from your character.
Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.