Beaumarchais: A Biography, by Maurice Lever, translated by Susan Emanuel
Although his name is not a particularly famous one, fans of opera will likely have heard of Beaumarchais’ justly famous plays “The Barber Of Seville” and “The Marriage Of Figaro” , both of which have endured through the centuries as comic masterpieces and as culturally important in setting the stage for the French Revolution. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a very Nathanish sort of man and this biography is a great one. This is a life that is worthy of having an epic series of films or a lengthy television series made out of it. Beaumarchais was the ambitious son of a Protestant watchmaker who was not only a notable playwright but a military contractor, spy, diplomat, well-known gallant ladies’ man, and even an occasional prisoner. He had a sangfroid of which it is almost impossible to do justice, pursuing a case of rifles for the French army even while he faced denunciation at home at the height of the Terror, spying and working on behalf of a corrupt government that sought to take his life if he returned to France. His life was full of complexity and ambiguity and he had a nearly impossible appetite for work, intrigue, and information over the course of nearly his entire life.
This particular biography is a one-volume abridged translation of what was originally a three-volume biography in French. Given the sheer entertainment value of this particular book it is to be regretted that about 2/3 of it is missing. The biography itself is fairly conventional, in that it takes a generally chronological approach to the life of Beaumarchais, beginning with his childhood and ending with his death and the final posthumous settlement of the claim his heirs had against the United States for our unpaid debts of that brave Frenchman during the Revolutionary War . In between, in almost 400 pages, the author shows us the witty and sometimes passionate letters written by Beaumarchais to various women, the complicated political situation that Beaumarchais struggled with through the course of the second half of the 18th century as he was first too much of a parvenu to be comfortable in the ancient regime but too polished and aristocratic to be comfortable during the austere and brutal days of the French Revolution. The man simply could not fit in to save his life, nor could he keep his mouth silent or keep his pen from getting him in trouble. Truly, the man was a gentleman after my own dark heart. The book is full of intrigue and excitement and demonstrates just how essential an understanding of Beaumarchais is to seeing how things got done in France during the days of Louis XV, XVI, and the early French Republic.
This biography is likely to be of particular interest to those who are students of the American Revolution, 18th century French history, or the history of drama. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his impossible complexity, Beaumarchais managed to do everything from chaperon crossdressing French nobles back from exile to start the first playwright’s union in order to defend the intellectual property of writers, while also arming the American Revolution before France officially allied with the United States after Saratoga, this biography reads particularly well. While one can lament that so many cuts were necessary for the effort to be translated and published for American audiences, this is a book well worth reading, and if you have a taste for dramatic accounts of the lives of dramatic Frenchmen, this book is an immensely worthwhile one that at least allows its reader to repay some of the debt of honor owed by our nation to one of its most important early friends, by remembering the bravery of the plucky figure who managed to be a world-famous playwright in his spare time in the midst of many other concerns.
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