Short biography - Pierre Augustin Caron, ennobled by Louis XV takes the name of Beaumarchais at the age of twenty-five. Known for his theatrical works such as the Barber of Seville and the Marriage of Figaro, at the origin of the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers, he is an emblematic figure of the Enlightenment. Secret agent in the service of the king, his life was quite chaotic because of his unfortunate speculations, his financial setbacks and his rallying to the Revolution. Beaumarchais died in Paris on May 18, 1799.
Beaumarchais invites himself to the Court
Pierre Augustin Caron, seventh child and only boy in the family, was born on January 24, 1732 in Paris. First enrolled in the Alfort School of Trades, then working with his watchmaker father, he developed at the age of twenty, a shaft escapement system for pocket watches: a system preventing the watch from moving forward. as the spring unwinds. Lepaute, the king's watchmaker, appropriated this invention, which the Académie des Sciences nevertheless attributed to Caron. He thus obtained his first order from the king: a watch for him, one for Madame de Pompadour, a clock for Madame Victoire!
In 1757, he took the name of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, following a marriage with the widow Franquet, then bought a position of "controller clerk of the king's household". At court, he gave harp lessons to the king's daughters and made the acquaintance of the banker Le Normand d´Etiolles (husband of Mme de Pompadour) as well as his uncle Paris-Duverney. He joined forces with them to engage in commercial speculation: purchase and resale of loads (great masters of water and forests, lieutenant general of hunting), then in 1766 a logging operation in Chinon. In the meantime, he writes farces for the theater and following the death of his first wife, he remarries the widow of Lévèque who suddenly disappears at the age of thirty-nine… leaving a large fortune in life!
Financial woes and glory in the theater
First accused of embezzling an inheritance, then summoned during the trial concerning the adjudication of the forest in Chinon, he then got into trouble with the Comte de La Blache, against whom he lost: it was ruin! The Barber of Seville, well received in 1773 at the Comédie Française, could not be presented in 1774, Beaumarchais still having legal disputes, this time with the Duke of Chaulnes.
Trying to redeem himself, he is sent as a spy to England for a few missions: destroying a libel concerning Madame du Barry "Secret Memories of a Public Woman"; prevent the publication of the "Notice to the Spanish Branch on its Rights to the Crown of France in Default of Heirs" pamphlet concerning Louis XVI ... who would have the needle tied; recover the secret papers of the plan to invade England by France, held by the knight of Eon ... who is at odds with the king; after a visit to the Netherlands, then to Austria, he was imprisoned for espionage. When he returned to France, he had good news: the Barber of Seville obtained the printing rights at the beginning of 1775… but the first performance in February was a complete failure. He shuffles it, makes cuts, deletes an act and finally it's a triumph.
Engaging in the matter of the American Insurgents, he is in constant contact with Arthur Lee and Mr. de Vergennes, Minister of Foreign Affairs; he secretly participated in the sale of gunpowder and ammunition for the Americans in 1776 ... but it did not go so well with the Comédie Française for its copyright. He then founded the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers, responsible for protecting authors' rights, guaranteeing economic and moral rights, a company which would be recognized during the Revolution.
Le Mariage de Figaro, written in 1778, was accepted two years later by the Comédie Française. Beaumarchais produced at the same time the first edition of the works of Voltaire, printed from 1783 to 1790 in Germany where he spent astronomical sums. Always interested and attracted by speculation, in 1781 he took out a loan in the Compagnie des Eaux, then became its main shareholder and administrator, thus being able to grant a loan to the Duke of Choiseul of one hundred and sixty three thousand pounds. Still in the financial field, he launched a subscription for the reconstitution of the French fleet and received compensation from the king of five hundred and seventy thousand pounds for losses suffered at sea in the case of the American insurgents.
Le Mariage de Figaro, a play censored for three years, was finally accepted by the king and it was a triumph when it premiered in April 1784. Despite everything, Beaumarchais spent a week in prison following the publication by the Journal de Paris in 1785 quarrels between Beaumarchais and the king. Freed, he tries to defend his play, but it is considered as an attack on the nobility and especially as the beginnings of the Revolution. To make matters worse, the Council of State suppressed some of the volumes from the edition of Voltaire's works. The year 1785 ended with lawsuits between Beaumarchais and Mirabeau concerning the Compagnie des Eaux.
During the French Revolution
With the money received (eight hundred thousand pounds) to close the insurgent affair, Beaumarchais had a new home built near the Bastille. After the performance of the Barber of Seville in 1788, he was invited to court and celebrated there… but the Revolution was underway: on July 15, 1789, he entered the Bastille at the head of eighty men. Belonging to the Assembly of Representatives, he is excluded for a few days following a denunciation. Reconciling with Mirabeau in 1790, he was appointed a provisional member of the Paris Commune, while writing La Mère Coupable and modifying Tarare's outcome. But the lure of profit still very present, Beaumarchais launches into new speculations: purchase of weapons (France in shortage) and it is the beginning of the business of the rifles of Holland in March 1792.
Denounced in June, after a search of his house and an arrest in August, he left France in September to go to England and then Holland. But the case is not over: he is imprisoned in London for debt. Asking for help from the Convention, he appears before the Committee of Public Safety which recognizes him innocent, he can return to his house. He then revived in the purchase of these weapons, but had to remain bedridden for three months in Ostend. The Committee of Public Safety considers him in 1794 as an emigrant. After the fall of Robespierre and his divorce, Beaumarchais went into exile in Hamburg. Meanwhile, England seizes the rifles from Holland ... the case is definitely lost.
Beaumarchais' return to France
Loved by a large part of the people, a petition was launched in April 1795 asking the Committee to quash the emigrant arrest. His ex-wife struggles to such an extent that Beaumarchais was struck off the list of emigrants and could return to Paris in July 1796. The Holland rifle affair resurfaced in 1798 when the State declared him a creditor. Having lost in his speculations, then in his various lawsuits, he is on the verge of bankruptcy. He then wrote his Mémoires ... but did not have time to take advantage of the glory reserved for him by the presentation of La Mère Coupable at the theater: he died of apoplexy on the night of May 17 to 18, 1799.
Let us leave the last words to F. Gendron, in the dictionary of the Revolution: "far from being a political head, Beaumarchais was a privileged person of his time. Rather than the Ancien Régime, he denounces the obstacles which personally hampered his life as an upstart: authority, justice, censorship, corruption of morals. Beaumarchais is therefore a long way from a popular agitator, and the Revolution made him see it: he found himself ruined, suspected and emigrated. Ultimately, the sling of Figaro, the alter-ego of Beaumarchais, is that of the man of spirit against the powers ".
- The Marriage of Figaro (1778), adapted by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1786.
- The barber of Seville 1775
- The Other Tartuffe, or the Guilty Mother (1792)
- Beaumarchais, biography of Christian Wasselin. Folio pocket, 2015.
- Beaumarchais: the Voltigeur des Lumières of JP de Beaumarchais. Flammarion, 1996.