Comic Variations on the Unpredictability of Human Life: The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro

July 14, 2021 by Essay Writer

In both Le Barbier de Seville and Le Mariage de Figaro, Beaumarchais uses a variety of comic techniques, such as the parodying of existing forms, comedy of intrigue, satire and farce. However, Beaumarchais’ comedy is interweaved with more serious, and often tragic overtones, which often come through in revealing character monologues. In both plays, through character, plot and form, Beaumarchais demonstrates that human life is very much characterized by its unpredictable nature. Even with the strongest willpower, we are often not in control of our fate as chance, accidents, the interference of others and even the rigidity of society all act as obstacles that disrupt life’s path.

Figaro, as the protagonist who tends to thread the narratives of the three plays together more than any other, and who is indeed the eponymous ‘hero’ of the second and most famous play, is characterized more than anything else by his willpower. He is the one who thinks up the cunning plan for the Count to dress as a soldier and drunkenly asks Bartholo for lodging in order to get into his house, and displays an urgency more than the Count himself to carry out the plan; ‘Monseigneur, la difficulté de réussir ne fait qu’aujouter à la nécessité d’entreprendre’[1]. This marks the first of several complicated conspiracies and stratagems that dominate the plot of all three of the plays, introducing us to the Comedy of intrigue that Beaumarchais often seems to prefer over other comic variations. Indeed, this first ridiculous role-playing of the Count fits in with the genre’s definition that ‘the complex plots and subplots of such comedies are often based on ridiculous and contrived situations’[2]. Beaumarchais tells us a lot about Figaro’s willful character before we even reach half way through the first act. In a 19 line long sentence in Act I, Scene 2, he reveals to the Count the extent of the misfortunes he has experienced since they last saw each other in a semi-tragic monologue, speaking of ‘tous les insects, les moustiques, les cousins, les critiques… les deuillistes, les libraires, les censeurs, et tout ce qui s’attache à la peau des malheureux gens de lettres’[3]. However, he displays a resilient optimism in the face of so much misfortune and shows himself able to quickly adapt to changes going on around him, moving from town to town and almost characterized by perpetual change[4]. Although Figaro does admit implicitly from the outset the unpredictability of human life, saying ‘Je me presse de rire de tout, de d’être oblige d’en pleurer’[5], he remains willfully optimistic and continues to strive to affirm mastery over chance at each individual occasion, such as seizing the opportunity to help the Count. In a sense, the first time we see Figaro, when he is alone composing a song on his guitar, prefigures the plot of the Trilogy. Here, Figaro is completely in control of what he is composing; he is uninterrupted and is able to make undisturbed decisions about the direction in which the song is going, until a chance event comes along and stops him; that is, the improbability of seeing an old employed, the Count, in Seville. Therefore, from the outset of the first play of the Trilogy Beaumarchais reminds us that life does not always abide by the course we might wish it to, and also introduces the complexities of the Comedy of intrigue, which will continue to characterize his plays.

The plot of Le Mariage de Figaro is essentially a battle of wits[6] between Figaro, Suzanne and the Countess on one side, and the Count and his band of allies on the other. However, the main storyline is generally not driven by these main characters themselves, but by a number of incidents and accidents, as well as the actions of other characters such as the Cherubin. For example, the armchair scene in Act I shows the Cherubin as actually representing the unexpected[7], given we had never heard of him before and he is not involved with either of the schemes of the Count or Suzanne. The Cherubin was banished from the castle by the Count because he was found hiding in the kitchen, therefore supposedly the Count was surprised or disconcerted by him and wanted to banish the ‘unpredictability’ that seems to accompany the presence of the pageboy. However, the farcical scene that follows makes the Count look ridiculous in front of the Cherubin, who once again leaps out unexpectedly from his hiding place. Scherer marks how Beaumarchais makes use of ‘le troisième lieu’ here, a third ‘location’ on the stage related to hiding-places, surprise and disguise[8]. The result of the two unlikely hiding places on the almost-bare stage is the instability of the scene; the audience knows that the Cherubin cannot keep on hiding for long, and so the maximum comedic effect is achieved when he leaps out through the explosivity of the situation.

This use of the ‘troisième lieu’ is frequent in Beaumarchais’ plays and has the effect of showing the unstable nature of human life in a hyperbolic fashion, while making the audience laugh at the same time. What these surprises often lead to are plays that are characterized by an extreme volatility of plot; characters will be pursuing one plan of action, only to completely go back on their scheme or change their opinion based on one event. These are often presented through tricks of farce; techniques such as misunderstandings sometimes based on mistaken identity. The farcical comedy of Act V, where the Countess and Suzanne dupe their respective partners by dressing up as one another, is not only hilarious for the audience, but is used to emphasize the unpredictability of life. Figaro’s pained monologue in Act V, Scene 3 in which he believes that Suzanne, ‘créature faible et décevante’[9] has betrayed him, stands in stark contrast to the Figaro who says, ‘Cela est juste; à genoux, bien courbé, prosterné, ventre à terre’[10]. Beaumarchais cleverly demonstrates how life’s course can change so rapidly simply as a result of the misinformation of others; it seems to be a lesson on how we piece together information and draw conclusions often too quickly, as Marceline warns her son sarcastically, ‘Bien conclu!’[11]. However, these variations on the Comedy of intrigue are not without their tragic undertones; in Figaro’s monologue we see the mask of gaiety lifted as he recounts a rather tragic life story, albeit interspersed with satire (‘Il ne me restait plus qu’à voler; je me fais banquier du pharaon’[12]), about the censorship of the media and the unjustness of the class system. Arguably this detracts from Beaumarchais’ apparent mission to represent life as unpredictable, because this comment on the rigid class system in France shows that there is little mobility and the opportunities available are based largely on birth, as Figaro says sarcastically ‘vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus’[13]. Nevertheless, perhaps this is why the character of Figaro is so remarkable; he constantly tries to assert his mastery over both chance and the social restraints that have hindered him in the past. Therefore, Beaumarchais presents us with a character that has managed to get his revenge on the contrariness of life[14], and seems to suggest that optimism and resort to action are what is needed in a life that does not seek to accommodate our desires.

Beaumarchais’ style with regard to his use of language and the rhythm of his works is also crucial in creating the image of lives that fluctuate and change direction unexpectedly, often in a comedic manner. As Robert Niklaus argues, what characterizes his works is a ‘rhythm endiablé’[15], which is particularly well suited to the ‘folle journée’ of Le Mariage de Figaro. The term ‘folie’, as well as meaning madness, can also mean extravagance or exaggeration. Therefore, the title prefigures a play that is about accumulation and excess; it has too much going on and things go out of control, which is when things become hilarious for the audience. This wildly-paced discourse and action is often enforced through stage directions; the directions that alert the actor to a change in tempo or mood are numerous, such as the development in Bazile’s character from ‘étonne’, to ‘regardant tout le monde’ to ‘stupéfait’ in Act III Scene 11 of Le Barbier de Seville. What also highlights the rapidity of the pace in these works is the number of scenes; in Act II of Le Barbier there are 12 scenes, while in Act II of Le Mariage there are 26. The effect of this is that the onward movement of the action is emphasized; for example, in Le Mariage de Figaro at the end of Act II, Scene 5 the Countess says ‘ils se sont tant presses, qu’ils ont oublié d’y mettre son cachet’. Immediately at the beginning of the next scene, the action of the previous one is picked back up; Suzanne enters asking ‘Le cachet, à quoi?’[16]. This frequent repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of scenes keeps the play focused on the action that is relevant to the plot, while ensuring that it is constantly being transformed into the next piece of action. This madly fast tempo combined with the complexity of the plot leads to moments of confusion that make the viewer laugh on the one hand, but also demonstrate the uncertain and unstable nature of life on the other. In his Act V Scene 3 monologue, Figaro says ‘on se débat: c’est vous, c’est lui, c’est moi, c’est toi; non, ce n’est pas nous: eh mais qui donc?’, which even sets out all the possibilities that could be facing the protagonist, and all he has the power to do is question them. The use of pregnant question marks is extensive across Beaumarchais’ plays, and arguably this in itself is an implicit way of portraying the lack of control we have over our lives. Although we are free to control our lives in so far as we may strive to affirm our freedom, as does Figaro, chance and the decisions of others will always place obstacles in our path, causing confusion and unpredictability to characterize human life. Beaumarchais seems to affirm this even in his style, with constantly fluctuating rhythms and an almost frenzied tempo that demonstrate the inability of the characters to keep up with the twists and turns that life brings.

Beaumarchais uses several variations of comedy in these two plays, using innovative techniques such as the ‘troisième lieu’ but also re-working existing techniques such as farce and the Comedy of intrigue, although these are often combined with more serious ideas and the emotional nature of drama and tragedy. These comic variations are indeed based on the theme of the unpredictability of life, and this theme is portrayed in the fast-paced action of the plays, the plots driven by accident and misunderstanding, but arguably most of all through the eponymous protagonist of Figaro. Even this character, willful enough to transgress social boundaries, admits that he is thwarted by chance; ‘Le hazard a mieux fait que nous tous, ma petite: ainsi va le monde; on travaille, on projette, on arrange d’un côté; la fortune accomplit de l’autre’[17]. However, in the character of Figaro, Beaumarchais seems to be suggesting that, although there will never be a final victory over the unpredictability of life, man must continue to be optimistic because the struggle to overcome life’s obstacles is what defines man. Indeed, this call for freedom of thought and of speech is a call that had been growing in might during the 18th Century, and would soon find expression a few years later in the 1789 Revolution.

[1] BEAUMARCHAIS, P. Le Barbier de Séville – Le Mariage de Figaro – La Mère Coupable (Pocket Classiques, 1993) P50 [2] [3] BEAUMARCHAIS, P. Le Barbier de Séville – Le Mariage de Figaro – La Mère Coupable p45 [4] DUNKLEY, J. Le Barbier de Séville (Grant and Cutler, 1991) p16 [5] BEAUMARCHAIS, P. Le Barbier de Séville – Le Mariage de Figaro – La Mère Coupable p45 [6] NIKLAUS, R. Le Mariage de Figaro (Grant and Cutler, 1995) p33 [7] PUGH, A. R. Beaumarchais: Le Mariage de Figaro (St Martin’s Press, 1968) p22 [8] SCHERER, J. La Dramaturgie de Beaumarchais, Paris, Nizet, 1954, p. 172 [9] BEAUMARCHAIS, P. Le Barbier de Séville – Le Mariage de Figaro – La Mère Coupable p212 [10] ibid p221 [11] ibid p209 [12] ibid p213 [13] ibid p212 [14] NIKLAUS, R. Le Mariage de Figaro p62 [15] ibid p57 [16] BEAUMARCHAIS, P. Le Barbier de Séville – Le Mariage de Figaro – La Mère Coupable p154 [17] ibid p195


Primary Sources

BEAUMARCHAIS, P. Le Barbier de Séville – Le Mariage de Figaro – La Mère Coupable (Pocket Classiques, 1993)

Secondary Sources

DUNKLEY, J. Le Barbier de Séville (Grant and Cutler, 1991)

NIKLAUS, R. Le Mariage de Figaro (Grant and Cutler, 1995)

PUGH, A. R. Beaumarchais: Le Mariage de Figaro (St Martin’s Press, 1968)

SCHERER, J. La Dramaturgie de Beaumarchais, Paris, Nizet, 1954

Read more