Free speech isn’t something that any of us should really take for granted. Our ability to publicly criticize the decisions made by our leaders is one of the foundational pillars of living in a democratic society. In my lifetime, I have written letters to the editor, have taken to social media and have even grabbed a picket sign and marched with others to demonstrate my unhappiness with certain government policies and my determination to affect change through organized resistance. And guess what? Not one time did I ever end up in jail. No one knocked on my door in the middle of the night with billy clubs at the ready. My family was never targeted for retribution by those in positions of power. I am extremely privileged to live at a time and in a place that allows for public dissent. Not everyone is so lucky in our world, and certainly, not everyone has been so lucky throughout the course of history. Today’s post is about a character named Figaro who was the central character in one of the world’s very first entertainment franchises. Figaro was also seen as a threat by the powers that be and, as a result, was banned across many countries in Europe during the late 1700s. So, without further delay, allow me to introduce you to Figaro,,,the man better known as The Barber of Seville.
In the early 1700s, there lived a man named Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. He was born the son of a watchmaker and ended up becoming an influential figure in the Royal Court of Louis XV. Over the course of his life, Beaumarchais was a music teacher, a horticulturalist, an arms dealer, a spy and a playwright. Beaumarchais was one of the leading figures in France who advocated for France to supply arms to those fighting for independence in the United States. If you are familiar at all with the Broadway musical Hamilton, then you will know that France was a crucial ally of the US and a huge irritant to the British against whom the US were fighting. In the world of politics, Beaumarchais believed in the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and, therefore, he devoted much time and money toward causes that supported US independence abroad, as well as revolution within his own borders. One of the ways that Beaumarchais sought to accomplish unrest was by rousing the public via the Arts. In the 1700s, many political activists realized that one of the best ways to get messages out to commoners was through operas and plays and traveling minstrel shows. In the case of Pierre Beaumarchais, his gambit was the creation of three plays that have gone on to become known as The Figaro Trilogy. These three plays were The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother. Each play was subsequently adapted into a libretto (the handbook given to audience members attending an opera). Each libretto was paired with a fully-realized opera. The Barber of Seville was the first opera to be professionally produced. The musical score was composed by Gioachino Rossini. The Marriage of Figaro was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
What Beaumarchais did that was considered so dangerous to the establishment that his plays (and subsequent operas) were banned was to create a character who thumbed his nose at those in positions of power in a way that made him a champion of the under class and all who felt oppressed. That character was Figaro. The character of Figaro, itself, was based upon an Italian character named Brighella. Brighella was a musketeer-like man who carried with him a stick that he used to spank or poke other characters. This prop was known as a “slap stick” and became an integral tool in the development of a form of comic opera that was to become very popular with ordinary citizens. Slapstick comedy has gone on to become one of the most popular forms of comedy in the world today. In the world of slapstick, there is great emphasis put on physical comedy, sexual innuendo and bawdy humour. Because Pierre Beaumarchais had his finger on the pulse of his nation, he knew that one of the ways to sow the seeds of revolution among the citizens of France was to create a character around whom they could identify and rally. So, Beaumarchais wrote The Barber of Seville and introduced the citizens of France to Figaro. In The Barber of Seville, Figaro plays a servant to a man named Count Almaviva. Without going into the full plots of The Figaro Trilogy plays, the main thing you need to know is that all throughout the three plays, Figaro makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the Count or those who frequent the Royal Court. As a servant, Figaro was supposed to show deference and respect at all times to those who sat above his station in life. That Figaro would engage in debates with the Count, be openly critical of decisions rendered by The Count or say rude things about him behind his back…albeit in a comedic way…was shocking for the times. What Beaumarchais was attempting to do was normalize the act of questioning those in positions of power. That he attempted to disguise his strategy in the form of bawdy humour did not fool those on the thrones of France or many other neighbouring countries. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, in particular, were both subject to being banned because the operas were seen as attempts to foment unrest among the lower working-class people in France. I can remember very clearly a scene from the Academy Award-winning movie, Amadeus, in which Mozart has been commissioned to create the opera for The Marriage of Figaro by a social activist who wanted the opera to air in a public theatre (as opposed to one controlled by the King). Mozart agreed and was quite pleased by the opera he eventually created. Then, after it was forced to close after only seven performances, Mozart struggled to comprehend why, when he believed it to be so good. It was behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that did Mozart in at the time. But, as history has shown, the American Revolution succeeded with the important aid it received from France. In France, the French Revolution happened, and many in the ruling class found themselves kneeling beneath the sharp blade of the guillotine. Pierre Beaumarchais had a hand in both events coming to fruition. Even way back in the 1700s, the art of political subterfuge was alive and well.
The Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is a very well known piece of music that you will recognize from the buzzing of the opening notes. As with all overtures, this composition was meant to serve as an introduction to the main portion of the opera. As a consequence, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro works well as a stand-alone composition. In the vast musical catalogue of Mozart’s work, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is one of his most popular and recognizable pieces of music. Over time, with the politics of revolution behind them, both operas were given new life by being performed in public once again. This time, each opera was given an extended theatrical run and was evaluated in glowing terms by critics and audiences alike. While the third opera in the Figaro Trilogy…The Guilty Mother…has never achieved much success, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro introduced the idea of recurring characters and extended storylines to the world of storytelling in opera. By doing so, Beaumarchais introduced the idea of an entertainment franchise for the first time. In our world, such franchises are quite common. Star Wars, The Godfather, the Marvel Universe are just some of the modern movie franchises that owe a debt of gratitude to Pierre Beaumarchais, who created the original operatic franchise and launched the era of character-driven storytelling.
The link to the video for the composition, “Overture to The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.
The link to the official website for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.
The link to the official website for Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais can be found here.
The link to the official website for the world’s greatest classical music station…Classical 103.1…broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.
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