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Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (24 January 1732 – 18 May 1799) had recruited men who fought in the American Revolutionary War  and had also supplied arms to American revolutionaries.

One of his recruits was Pierre-Charles L’Enfant (9 August 1754 – 14 June 1825), an architect and engineer who designed the Washington National Mall. L’Enfant was dismissed and replaced by Andrew Ellicott (24 January 1754 – 28 August 1820) who criticized L’Enfant Plan and Pierre-Charles L’Enfant. In 1902, the McMillan Commission did away with Andrew Ellicott’s revisions. The Washington Mall was redesigned using L’Enfant Plan.

The Figaro Trilogy

The Barber of Seville (1773; 1775)
The Marriage of Figaro (written in 1778, performed in 1784, published in 1785)
The Guilty Mother (1791; 1966[opera])
The Marriage of Figaro as the centrepiece of Beaumarchais’ “Figaro trilogy” 
Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (K 492) (1786)

The Marriage of Figaro (1784)

At an early point in his life, Beaumarchais did recruit men willing to join the Americans in their struggle for independence, but he is known mainly as the author of the Figaro trilogy, which consists of three plays: The Barber of Seville (1775), The Marriage of Figaro  (1784), and The Guilty Mother (1791).

A problematical comedy

the second instalment in the Figaro trilogy
Accepted for production in 1778 (Comédie-Française)
Vilification of French aristocracy: condemned by Louis XVI
Revised: change of location
Performed in France in 1784
Published in France in 1785

The Marriage of Figaro is the second instalment in Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, but constitutes the centrepiece of Beaumarchais’ trilogy. It was written in 1778 and accepted for production by the Comédie-Française in 1781. However, as first written, it vilified French aristocracy and so shocked Louis XVI that he banned the production of the play.

The play was problematical because Count Almaviva, who marries Rosina in The Barber of Seville, or the Futile Precaution (1778), wants to consummate Figaro’s marriage to Susanna, Figaro’s bride. Beaumarchais revised the play and moved the action to Spain. Ironically, Count Almaviva wanted to avail himself of a right he had abolished: “the feudal droit du seigneur, the right of the lord of the manor to sleep with his servant’s bride on her wedding night.”[I]  

The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy inspired by the commedia dell’arte. Given the conventions of comedy, the Count’s plans will therefore be foiled. The innmorati will be helped not only by clever zanni and other servants, but also by Rosina, Almaviva’s wife, whose marriage to the Count, a philanderer, did not end altogether “well.” The play also features a redeeming discovery. The Count wants Figaro to marry Marcellina, Bartolo’s housekeeper, but it turns out that Figaro is the love child of Marcellina and Bartolo. One does not marry one’s mother. Bartolo therefore proposes marriage to Marcellina. There will be two weddings, which is not uncommon in comedy.


The Marriage of Figaro’s Cherubino,[II] a character reminiscent of Cupid, the mythological god of desire, could be called a zanni. He is forever in love and gets into trouble. However, he also provides comic relief as do zanni in the commedia dell’arte. Zanni are stand-up comics. In Passion Plays, comic interludes were inserted between the acts. The same stratagem can also be used inside comedy. Some “comic” is always at the ready not only to “fill in,” but also to support zanni (servants, one of whom is clever, but the second, clumsy).

As part of the props, we have incriminating letters and, in the case of the Barber of Seville, the Count, disguised as Lindoro, a name borrowed from the commedia dell’arte, we have musicians serenading Rosina. Guitars are inextricably linked with the commedia dell’arte. They are a prop that Watteau and Picasso, Picasso especially, depicted abundantly.

Moreover, to fool the Count, the Countess dresses as Susanna, Figaro’s bride-to-be, while Susanna dresses as the Countess. Therefore, when the Count court Susanna, he is in fact courting his wife. He reveas his plans to seduce Susanna, but find Rosina attractive. It is quite normal in comedies for the alazôn, the Count to undo himself, except that comedy is kind. Cross-dressing is also a frequent device in the comic text and it is rooted in the topsy-turvy world of the Roman Saturnalia, not to mention the last days of l’ancien régime

Beaumarchais and the Revolution  

After Beaumarchais relocated The Marriage of Figaro, “[t]he feudal droit du seigneurbecame a distant right and wrong. Louis XVI lifted the ban on the production of The Marriage of Figaro and the play was performed by the Comédiens français ordinaires du Roi, on Tuesday, 27 April 1784, and the text was published in 1785. Yet the play remained problematical. Although The Marriage of Figaro is a Shakespearean “all’s well that ends well,” the conventional ending, or dénouement, of comedies, in the Marriage of Figaro, this ending seems a little theatrical.

First, the Barber of Seville‘s Rosina has married a philanderer. Second, Georges Danton  commented that Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro had “killed off the nobility.” (See The Marriage of Figaro, play, Wikipedia). Jesus of Nazareth might have said “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 1:5-7) Georges Danton voted in favour of the execution of Louis XVI. (See Georges Danton, Wikipedia.)

Mozart’s Le nozze de Figaro (1786)

Beaumarchais or Pierre de Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro was made famous by Mozart‘s (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791) Nozze di Figaro, a four-act opera buffa, or comic opera composed in 1785 on a libretto (the text) by Lorenzo da Ponte (10 March 1749 – 17 August 1838). Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) premiered in Vienna at the Burgtheater, on 1 May 1786. It has remained a favourite opera often associated with Mozart only, not Pierre de Beaumarchais.

The Barber of Seville, or The Futile Precaution

The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Barber of Seville (1775)

The Barber of Seville; or, the Useless Precaution[III] was performed and published in 1775 as Le Barbier de Séville; ou, la précaution inutile. It is the first play in Beaumarchais Figaro’ trilogy. The play was written in 1773, but it was not performed until 23 February 1775, when it premiered at the Comédie-Française in the Tuileries. Although I have prepared a point by point description of the plot of The Barber of Seville, I am quoting Britannica’s summary. Simply add the name Lindoro, a guitar, and a few suspicious letters. The Count first dresses as a poor student named Lindoro.

“Rosine (known as Rosina in the opera), the ward of Dr. Bartholo, is kept locked in her room by Bartholo because he plans to marry her, though she despises him. Young Count Almaviva loves her from afar and uses various disguises, including one as Alonzo, a substitute music teacher, in his attempts to win her. Bartholo’s roguish barber Figaro is part of the plot against him. Indeed, it is Figaro who steals the key to Rosine’s room for Almaviva. Unfortunately, Almaviva is in his disguise as Alonzo when he meets Rosine. Though in love with “Alonzo,” Rosine is convinced by the suspicious Bartholo that Alonzo intends to steal her away and sell her to a wicked count. Disappointed, she agrees to wed Bartholo that very night. All of Figaro’s ingenuity is required to substitute Count Almaviva for Bartholo at the wedding ceremony.”[IV]
Portrait of Gioachino Rossini in 1820, International Museum and Library of Music, Bologna

Portrait of Gioachino Rossini in 1820, International Museum and Library of Music, Bologna (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816)

In 1816, Le Barbier de Séville; ou, la précaution inutile (four acts)[V] was made into a two-act opera by Giaochino Rossini on a libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The Barber of Seville, or the Futile Precaution or Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzione premiered on 20 February 1816 at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome.

Beaumarchais’ Guilty Mother (1792)

The Guilty Mother, subtitled The other Tartuffe (La Mère coupable ou l’autre Tartuffe), a play in five acts, is the final part of the Figaro trilogy. Tartuffe is a play by Molière. The character Tartuffe feigns devotion. The Guilty Mother was completed in 1791, but not performed until 1792 at the Théâtre du Marais. The French Revolution had gained impetus, which made it necessary for Beaumarchais to take away his title from Count Almaviva. The Guilty Mother   will be discussed in a later post.

Marius Milhaud‘s The Guilty mother or La Mère coupable (1966)

The Guilty Mother or The other Tartuffe was set to music: an opera in three acts (Op. 412), by Marius Milhaud, to a libretto by Madeleine Milhaud. It is the final instalment in Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy and was first performed at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, on 13 June 1966. (See La Mère coupable [The Guilty mother], Wikipedia.)

Jean-Antoine Watteau‘s Italian comedy.

The Rebirth of Brighella and the Birth of Figaro

Figaro is heir to the commedia dell’arte‘s Brighella, a zanni. He joins Pedrolino-Pierrot, Harlequin, Scapino, and other zanni. In fact, Figaro himself joins the rank of the zanni. As portrayed above, he looks like Harlequin, but he may disguised as Harlequin. Figaro is an iconic figure in France. To be precise, Figaro is an institution: a newspaper, founded in 1826 and published in Paris. Le Figaro is the second-largest paper in France. It takes its motto from Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy:

“Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.”
(“Without the freedom to criticise, there is no true praise.”)



The Commedia dell’arte
Bartolo is a dottore
Lindoro is one of the names innamorati used in the commedia dell’arte
Figaro is a Brighella (a zanni in the commedia dell’arte, who helps the innamorati overcome obstacles to their marriage)
The guitar is an essential prop
Letters are used all the time: false, anonymous, incriminating…
Sources and Resources
  • The Marriage of Figaro is an Online Library of Liberty, full text EN
  • Le Mariage de Figaro is a Gutenberg Project [EBook #20577] FR
  • Male innamorati are called: Arsenio, Aurielo, Cinthio, Fabrizio, Flavio, Fedelindo, Florindo, Leandro, Lelio, Lindoro, Mario, Ortensio, Ottavio, Sireno, often the son of Pantalone, Silvio, Tristano
  • Female innamorati are called: Angelica, Aurelia, Beatrice, Bianchetta, Celia, Clarice, Clori, Cinzio, Emilia, Eularia, Flaminia, Florinda, Filesia, Filli, often the daughter of Pantalone, Isabella, Lavinia, Lidia, Orazio, Ortensia, Silvia, Turchetta, Vittoria 
  • Brighella
  • Maurice Sand, Masques et bouffons (comédie italienne), 1860
Flûte de Brighella, Henrico Brunelleschi (Photo credit: Christi'e)

Flûte de Brighella, Enrico Brunelleschi
(Photo credit: Christie’s) (This image cannot be enlarged.)


[I] Watteau depicted Mezzetino, a zanni, playing the guitar. The guitar is also a major motif in Picasso’s art.

[II] See Commedia dell’arte, Wikipedia, under Subjects.
[III] “The Barber of Seville.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 13 Jul. 2014.
The Count also calls himself Lindoro.
[IV] Op. cit.
[V] Op. cit.
Gioachino Rossini : The Barber Of Seville – Overture 
My kindest regards to all of you. 
© Micheline Walker
13 July 2014

Figaro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)