The Barber Of Seville, by Pierre Agustin Caron de Beaumarchais, translated and adapted by Bernard Sahlins
Although before today I had never read any material by Beaumarchais, it is perhaps a bit predictable that I would find him and his chief character, Figaro, to be more than a little bit Nathanish. It ought not to be a surprise at this point that such a worthwhile farce, with acting directions that include playing the farcical elements with a straight face and with a maximum amount of irony, would be written by someone who enjoyed fantastic swings of reputation in his own life and who was almost impossibly interested in a wide variety of fields. Among the more remarkable achievements of this remarkable play  is the way that it manages to transcend its origins in late ancien regime French drama and be the sort of work that can be enjoyed and appreciated by contemporary audiences with minimal changes. The same things that made this play alarming to aristocratic and royal French audiences make this play refreshing and enjoyable to more egalitarian but still cultured contemporary audiences, and the play has long been a part of the established canon of plays.
In terms of its materials, this book is pretty short at about 80 pages or so of dramatic material. The translator has included some material about how the play was received originally, with a long period of being banned and a disastrous first impression that was changed by a quick rewrite after its premiere. Whatever had to be rewritten, the play has stood the test of time. In terms of its action, this is a romantic comedy in five acts, where Figaro, the titular barber, uses his wits and cleverness to help the count court a young lady who is about to be pressured into marriage with the vastly older physician who holds her wardship. The action is somewhat madcap but manages to preserve the expected unities, taking place over the course of a single day in a single location, in and around the house that Figaro rents from the aged Bartholo. The plot is not a particularly unique one, but all the same it works here in large part thanks to the appealing nature of Figaro as a clever and irreverent mastermind overcoming the strength of his social superiors through his wiles. Figaro is a worthwhile underdog, and as such has managed to amass a great deal of sympathy since this play’s creation, even given the unoriginality of the plot.
The extent to which you appreciate this play will depend largely on how sympathetic of a character you find Figaro to be. There are a few other characters who make a large impression–Rosine is an appealing young woman striving to escape the threat of an intolerable marriage, and Count Almaviva is a suitably passionate lover. The cast is small and the action is pretty madcap and there is some humorous dialogue, including one painful and lengthy discourse on the efficacy of slander. This is a play that rewards both those who will laugh at the wit of the dialogue and enjoy the frenzied activity of the action, but at the same time it is one that rewards diligent study on a deeper level, although the pleasures of deeper study are mixed as well with a bit of gloomy reflection on the cynicism of the play’s moral universe. The audiences who viewed this play with some sense of alarm were right to be concerned, but this play can be enjoyed even if one has some questions about the decency of the playwright.
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