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In the year 1784, Beaumarchais first produced his “ Marriage of Figaro.” The success of the “ Barber of Seville" prompted him to go on with the piece, notwithstanding that it had been forbidden by the court. This remarkable man, born in 1732, was the son of a watchmaker, in which trade he invented a peculiar species of escapement, which was disputed with him. He pleaded his own cause before the Academy of Sciences, and gained his first laurels. He obtained an intimate acquaintance with the daughters of Louis XV., by whose means he was able to influence the king to many benevolent actions, among the rest that of visiting and approving the Ecole Militaire, which had been founded by Paris Duverney, the patron of the future dramatist. Beaumarchais entered into several large speculations as a merchant, one of which, the supplying the North American colonies, at that time in rerolt, with arms and provisions, brought to him a considerable fortune. His first essay in the dramatic art was crowned with success. Up to his time, from that of Molière, there had been no author, as we said before, of more than mediocre talent. It would be useless to repeat the list of those who essayed French comedy during that period; their names are too numerous, and their works too little worth noticing. Suffice it to say that the taste of the public had becoine completely degenerate, as were their manners. Absurdity and extravagance had possession of the stage, as well as of the salons, in which a witty word with a double entendre was never to be heard Beaumarchais undertook to do away with the false customs and the servile spirit of the age. He commenced with the piece of " Eugénie," which, however, must be said to be somewhat improper in its plot, wherein a young lady, who believes that she is yielding herself to a legitimate husband, finds that she has fallen into the snares of an artful seducer.
Of a different character was his second piece, “ Les Deux Amis," in which he depicts the mutual affection of a youthful pair who had been brought up together from their infancy; and the joy of the parents of each at the happiness of their children. Neither of these plays, however, were calculated to produce any great effect, being rather of a serious and afflicting kind. He was engaged besides in some lawsuits, which brought out his talent before the public, and showed his power of comedy. This induced him to turn his attention to the laughable side of the drama, and he prepared the “ Barber of Seville," at first a comic opera, in which several pretty Spanish and Italian airs were introduced. The Comédie Italienne, to which it was offered, refused to bring it out, so that he found himself obliged to retrench the arias, cut it down to four, instead of five, acts, and hand it over to the Comédie Français, where it obtained very considerable success. It has been pretended that Beaumarchais intended, by the character of Figaro, to depict much of his own manner, and some of the incidents of his life, yet it can scarcely be supposed that he would personify himself by a personage so gross and full of effrontery.
As we said before, Beaumarchais brought out his comedy of the “Marriage of Figaro," in the year 1784. The manners and fashions of this age, in Paris, were monstrously ridiculous. “Young girls in hoops, married ladies in frocks, fashions à la Marlborough, scarlet coats with black buttons, little hats, enormous masses of frizzled hair, and pictorial waistcoats (gillet de grands hommes covered with the portraits of Destaing, Broglie, Condé, and La Fayette)." The curés even turned marchands de modes, and established bazaars to sell millinery. All these things were fair objects of satire; while the taste of the public in comedy became completely effeminate; incapable of appreciating the manly plays of Molière, or even Regnard." The “ Marriage of Figaro" was first read at the house of the Duchesse de Villeroi, but the king refused his consent to its performance. It had been, however, attempted to produce it at the Theatre of the Menus Plaisirs ; Malle. Contat was consulted on the cast of the characters, when the king's order again arrived, prohibiting its being played. Five or six hundred carriages were turned away from the door of the Theatre, and Beaumarchais was obliged to pay the expenses, 10, or 12,000 livres, out of his own pocket. M. de Vaudreuil obtained permission to have it acted at his country residence at Genevilliers, after a revision by M. Gaillard, of the French Academy. The Queen, the Comte d'Artois, and other court personages, were present. The Baron de Breteuil, Minister of the Interior, had been the great opponent of the piece, but Beaumarchais managed to get round him, by reading the play to him, adopting some of his bon mots,
and taking the colour of a page's ribbon from Mme. de Matignon. It was announced at length in the bills, the 27th of February, 1784, and half Paris flocked to obtain tickets. Titled ladies descended from their carriages, and begged the crowd to allow them to pass. Many dined in the boxes they had hired; the house being nearly transformed into a restaurant. Preville, Malle. Sainval, Molé, Dagincourt, and Malle. Olivier, supported the acting ably, but the great success was due to Malle. Contat, who played Suzanne, the soubrette, and so enchanted Preville, that when the play ended, he ran up and embraced her, crying: “This is my first infidelity to Malle. Dangueville."
The first twenty nights of the run brought into the treasury of the Comédie Français, 100,000 francs, and the rage for it scarcely abated during eighty more representations.
The reason of the success of this piece, is that which gave éclat to Molière’s and others, that it lashed the morals of the time, and spoke in unrestrained freedom of the government, bastile, press, police, and censorship. It was subsequently performed privately before the king, by the queen and the Comte d'Artois, who acted Figaro with considerable talent. Beaumarchais has been since considered the
precursor of the great French revolution. He afterwards produced “ La Mére Coupable," a continuation of the former Spanish subjects, and an imitation of “ Tartuffe ;" also **Tarare," a comic opera of very little note. He lost his fortune by an endeavour to publish a magnificent edition of Voltaire's works, and by other speculations during the Revolution, which all but took away his life, with that of many other remarkable men. He died suddenly in 1799, without any previous illness.
Francois de Neufchateau, the author of the celebrated comedy • Pamela,” had been originally brought up to the law. He was, however, so unfortunate as to marry the niece of an actor, and consequently being obliged to give up his profession, contented himself with an appointment of ballage in the provinces, which he purchased. His wife relieved him shortly after of her sinister influence by dying ; on which he went to Paris to seek his fortune. This came to him very soon in the shape of a young lady, for whom he proposed and was accepted. On the day of his marriage, when the bridal feast was ready, his father brought him
into the garden for a short stroll, and, producing a pistol, gravely announced that that should be the last day of his own life, as he had fallen in love with the young lady to whom Francois was about to be married. This so horrified the young man, that he fled from the scene, and could not to be heard of for many years.
He was supposed dead, and an edition of his works about being brought out by the Abbé Geoffroy, when he reappeared, and offered himself as a member of the Legislative Assembly, for which he was elected. He shared the imprisonment of the French comedians in the Luxembourg, and being afterwards raised to the Imperial Senate by Napoleon, became one of the principal persons who assisted in reviving the French drama, after it had been crushed and disgraced by the barbarities and terrors of the Revolution.
Préville and his wife, Brizard, and Malle. Fanier, all retired from the Theatre together. The first two removed to a small estate near Senlis, and had a box in the private Theatre of the Prince de Condé. Here they once received the royal honors of an obeisance from the actors in a piece, with the prince at their head, in the same manner as if the king were present. Brizard set himself about collecting a large library, binding the books with his own hand. He invented a curious system of paying himself every Saturday evening, for his labour during the week, and handing over the proceeds to the poor.
At this time a very good inoral comedy, “l'Ecole des Pères," by M. Peyre, was brought out by the company, and so pleased the court, that it was ordered to be played at the private royal Theatre, a magnificent sword presented to the author, and a splendid dress coat sent to Fleury, to be used in his part. Unfortunately this required a plain one, but the king expressed a wish that some play should be performed, in which it might be shown to advantage. Fleury chose“ Turcaret,” in which he performed the Marquis, a drunken character, and so much to the life, that the Count d'Artois exclaimed : “ I have seen Molé in the Marquis de Lauret, but he seemed to have got drunk only on piquette; Fleury's drunkenness was the drunkenness of champagne.”
A strange incident occurred to Mulle. Contat one day. She was driving over the Pont Neuf in her whisky, a species of gig then the rage, and ran against a gentleman, who er.deavoured to apologise for being in the way. She, however, resisted the apology, saying that she had cried out “gare” and he had never looked round. He retorted" Truly, Madame, you have more need to say gare now, when I do look round. The danger is in looking at you." This compliment produced some curiosity in the actress to find out her admirer, who sent her a note a few days afterwards, signed " Henry," and requesting her to attend a rehearsal of a small piece at the Comédie Italienne. She discovered subsequently that the personage was no less than Prince Henry of Prussia. The piece, afterwards brought out under the auspices of Malle. Contat and Fleury, was entitled “Les Deux Pages," founded on an incident in the life of Frederick the Great, where he placed a rouleau of ducats in the pocket of a page, while sleeping, who had been in the habit of sending his pension home to his aged mother. It produced a very favourable impression in Paris at the time, notwithstanding the publication of a book, by Mirabeau, containing many scandalous and libellous matters concerning the court at Berlin. Prince Henry caused a gold snuff; box to be presented to Fleury on the occasion, surmounted with the portrait of the great Frederick, surrounded by brilliants; assuring him at the same time, that he had completely fulfilled a saying of the illustrious captain; "feeling is the mainspring of every great effort."
During the severe winter of 1783-4 the Comédie Française brought out “ Coriolanus,” by La Harpe, for the benefit of the poor. There was a full house, although the play met but a very cold reception, and gave rise to a witty epigram by M. de Champcenetz :
“ Pour les pauvres, la comédie
De l'applaudir en charité. A fête was also got up for the same benevolent purpose at the winter Vauxhall, where all Paris, and all grades of society evinced great liberality. La Harpe met his enemy, M. de Champcenetz, there, when a laughable incident occurred. At one of the lottery tables the Marquis de Malseigne, an officer of carabiniers, won a small china