Americans who know something of our founding history are aware of the contribution of the Marquis de Lafayette to the Revolutionary War, but few remember the similarly pivotal role of the Frenchman with the sonorous, adopted name Beaumarchais. If he is recalled at all, it is as the author of “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” But, by expediting the sale of French arms to American patriots, he engaged in real-life intrigues worthy of his fictional Figaro.
In his new biography “Improbable Patriot,” Harlow Giles Unger captures the innovative, joyous spirit of “Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais,” just as he communicated the different, but similarly indomitable, character of the great patriot Patrick Henry in the splendid “Lion of Liberty.”
As in “Lion,” Unger spins out the tale of his protagonist while keeping the broader historical context in clear perspective. Though critically relying upon Beaumarchais’ nineteenth-century biographer Louis de Lomenie—who had access to documents now gone—Unger also freshens his account with pertinent, often lively, documents he has retranslated from the French. Period illustrations further enliven his narrative.
Beaumarchais was a brilliant, ambitious artist, a commoner wily enough to thrive when fortune depended not just upon talent and work but on finding favor among nobles and the royal court in steeply hierarchical pre-Revolutionary France. It was a slope he successfully negotiated with both King Louis XV and his son, the also corrupt Louis XVI, whose own rule was toppled after the American Revolution.
Beaumarchais’ success is all the more remarkable considering it was achieved while producing high-profile plays that fueled rationalist and even revolutionary fervor in France. “Although political satire was a dangerous art form under the absolute French monarchy,” Unger writes, “news of political unrest in America had combined with the writings of enlightened French philosophers—Rousseau and others—to provoke widespread dissent and criticism of the social order in France. Beaumarchais laced Figaro’s words and actions with biting wit and intelligent defiance of the ruling class that made the barber one of the most beloved characters in theater history.”
Unger later adds that it was not as if Beaumarchais was hiding anything: “‘A tiny gust that extinguishes a candle,’ Figaro reminds his audience, ‘can ignite an inferno.’”
At the time he approached the king about helping the American patriots through the offices of the king’s foreign minister, Beaumarchais had plenty of detractors among the nobles (as well as having been successfully jailed by one in retaliation for Beaumarchais having previously bested him). One count said of Beaumarchais: “I hate that man like a lover loves his mistress.”
Beaumarchais’ complex arms scheme involving grants and loans and money-laundering found favor with the king because Beaumarchais was savvy enough to satisfy the crown’s desire to undermine the competing British empire without exposing itself to outright war. In establishing his own “bona fides,” Beaumarchais even feigned chasing a would-be antagonist of the crown across Europe.
A further remarkable aspect of this schemer, if not sometime charlatan, was his enduring love of his family, and they for him, as well as his generosity to friends and those less successful than he. He experienced the untimely loss of his first true love, only to find yet another powerful soul mate.
Numerous passages here testify to Beaumarchais’ large spirit. “Song and laughter reigned every moment of the day, as Beaumarchais, his father, his sisters, or friends gathered regularly to regale each other singing in harmony or in boisterous rounds at the dining room table. Standing apart discreetly were the smiling domestics he continually rescued from hardships and untold cruelties in and about the theater neighborhoods and nursed back to health.”
Read, laugh and weep with Unger’s unlikely and always surprising patriot. (Martin Northway)
“Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution”
By Harlow Giles Unger
University Press of New England, 254 pages, $27