The Man with Many Talents: Who was Pierre Beaumarchais?

Remembered today as a French polymath, Pierre Beaumarchais’ talents seemed to be never-ending. His knowledge spanned between inventing, publishing, being a musician, a playwright and much more. So what is the legacy this jack of all trades has left behind?

The Inventor
Beaumarchais was interested in inventing from when he was aged twelve. He dropped out of school to become an apprentice under his father, who was a watchmaker. Pocket watches were largely used as fashion accessories in the mid-18th century, but Beaumarchais wanted to change this. At age 21, he invented a new type of mechanism which allowed pocket watches to become more reliable and usable, rather than just for fashion.This caught the attention of King Louis XV, and Beaumarchais was asked to create a watch mounted on a ring for Madame de Pompadour.

 The Playwright
During the middle of his life, Beaumarchais begun writing plays to be performed at theatres around Europe. His first dramatic play, Eugénie was premiered at the Comédie-Français in 1767, which came to some good critiques. However, it is his trio of ‘Figaro plays’ that Beaumarchais is most-known for now:

  1. Le Barbier de Séville (‘The Barber of Seville’) Premiered in 1775
  2. Le Mariage de Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’) Premiered in 1781
  3. La Mére coupable (‘The Guilty Mother’) Premiered in 1792

All three of these plays used the characters of Figaro and Count Almaviva and they are said to represent the change in social attitudes before, during and after the French Revolution. You may recognise the first two in this trilogy, as they have famously been made into operas by the likes of Mozart and Rossini. Some have attempted to put the the last play into an opera format, but none have reached the popularity of the other two. Alongside the likes of Shakespeare, Beaumarchais was one of the only playwrights to provide multiple works for opera composers and librettists.

The Spy and Double-Revolutionary
Beaumarchais is known for being both a French and American Revolutionary. After Beaumarchais aided the Americans by supplying them with French money and supplies, he began to restore his civil rights. To achieve this, Louis XV sent him around Europe on secret missions. Beaumarchais then became a hub of information that the French government used to their advantage. Whilst in London, Beaumarchais was tasked with collecting information on British politics and society, whilst also trying to persuade French allies to return to the homeland.

The Musician
Beaumarchais was able to play the guitar, viol, flute and harp, and he made his big break when Louis XV appointed him to teach his four daughters the harp. He soon became the musical advisor for the royal family – a prestigious role. Beaumarchais would arrange small concerts every were which were attended by the King and Queen. He would often accompany the performers with his flute or harp, which pleased the royal family.

Beaumarchais has left his legacy as a polymath, with him being known for the many different things that he achieved in his lifetime. His legacy lives on today in theatres and opera houses around the world, in enlightening history books, and perhaps even the watch on your wrist!

Image source: WikiCommons

Discover more: whatson.englishtouringopera.org.uk

© Alex Burns 2018
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