Editor’s Note: This installment of Sunday Arts reproduces a portion of a blog post originally published on May 10, 2010.
The reference to Michael Lewis’s Vanity Fair article reminded me that a copy of his latest book, The Big Short, is languishing unread on my bookshelf. Rather than reading yet another account of our dysfunctional financial system, I have been distracted by Maurice Lever’s excellent biography of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
Beaumarchais is now remembered mostly for having written The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, though ironically he wrote those works essentially as a diversion from his many other hyperkinetic activities. Beaumarchais was a watchmaker’s son who managed to leverage music lessons provided to Louis XV’s daughters into court contacts and business opportunities from which he achieved wealth, notoriety and a life so full it almost can’t be summarized.
Variously an entrepreneur, inventor, author, royal agent, diplomat, spy, labor organizer, publisher and printer, arms merchant, and revolutionary, and throughout it all a tireless and effective self-promoter and compulsive litigant, Beaumarchais was at the center of many of the critical events in the events leading up to the French Revolution.
The vast sweep of Beaumarchais’s life encompasses enough to have filled several lifetimes. If we now remember him most for his plays, we should at least recognize how provocative and even seditious his plays were at the time. One excerpt from Figaro is particularly illustrative in that regard, and worth reproducing here. Though Figaro speaks the words, it is not too hard to imagine these same sentiments come from the mouth of one as talented and ambitious as Beaumarchais, chaffing against the unfairness of a system of aristocracy that delimited the upward range of his achievement:
Just because you’re a great nobleman, you think you’re a great genius! Being an aristocrat, having money, a position in society, holding public office – all that makes a man so arrogant! What have you ever done for all this wealth? You took the trouble to be born and nothing else! Apart from that you’re rather an ordinary man. And me, God damn it, a nobody, one of the crowd, and I’ve had to use more skill and ingenuity simply to stay alive than they’ve expended in a hundred years governing the whole of Spain! And you dare challenge me!