One of France’s best loved plays is The Marriage of Figaro – praised for its comedic and romantic intrigue, as well as the crucial role it played in heralding the 1789 revolution. In this essay our French Content Editor, Sarah Jones, explores the politics of eighteenth-century drama through the character of Chérubin.
There are many things that get lost in the move across the English Channel/la Manche between the United Kingdom: cheese and crackers, Sunday opening hours, not to mention certain facial expressions and hand gestures. Another important addition is Pierre Beaumarchais’s play Le Mariage de Figaro, which was first performed in 1784. The Italian-language opera, Le nozze di Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart outstrips Beaumarchais’s blueprint in terms of its ubiquity in the UK: yet in France Le Mariage de Figaro cannot be dissociated from the 1789 Revolution and is thus a touchstone for French Republican ideals. Although these Republican conceptions include broad themes of natural, equal and universal rights; what Figaro is unique in doing is foregrounding the burning drive towards liberty that these ideals presupposed. This desire is lived out through the character of Chérubin, who is the true revolutionary motor of the play.
Beaumarchais and Figaro
Like many key figures of the eighteenth-century, Pierre Beaumarchais knew how to manage many careers at once. Playwright, inventor, watchmaker, musician, horticulturist, publisher, arms dealer, diplomat, spy and revolutionary: Beaumarchais dipped in and out of roles until he rose out of his family’s watch-making trade and into a position of influence at the court of Louis XV as an inventor and music teacher. After climbing neat the top of the tree, Beaumarchais was toppled from his position through a series of costly and public court battles. Beaumarchais was embroiled in the finances of Joseph Paris Duverney, who has signed a statement declaring that the debts owed by Beaumarchais to him were cancelled and bestowing a modest sum to him upon his death. Beaumarchais’s claim was challenged by Duverney’s heir, who claimed that the statement was a forgery. Whilst the case was being appealed Beaumarchais was thrown in jail for another an altercation; an opportunity that Duverney’s heir seized to persuade the presiding judge to demand that Beaumarchais repay the debts owed. Beaumarchais rose to the challenge with a pamphlet, Mémoires contre Goezman, which secured his fame amongst the French people but did little to help his legal problems. Beaumarchais was deprived of his civil rights, his right to write a will and to marry: his rise to influence had eventually collapsed.
Beaumarchais is best remembered for his three Figaro plays: Le Barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro and La Mère coupable. Le Barbier de Séville follows the Count Almaviva in his quest to marry the bourgeois girl Rosine – Figaro makes his entrance as a barber working in Seville who helps orchestrate the Count’s eventual marriage. The second instalment, Le Mariage de Figaro, lets Figaro take centre stage. Three years after the action of Le Barbier Figaro prepares to marry Suzanne, whilst fending off the amorous Count who attempts to exact his droit de seigneur – the feudal lord’s privilege of ravishing brides on their wedding night.
In part, Figaro’s revolutionary credentials are due to its early reception history. In the preface Beaumarchais claims that he was persuaded by popular opinion to right a sequel to Le Barbier de Séville: yet Figaro gained its reputation through the political tug-of-war over the right to perform it. Eventually, having passed through the hands of six royal censors, and after Louis XV was forced to back down on his stance against Figaro, the play was performed in 1784 and is said to have grossed 100,000 francs within the first twenty showings. The furore around the play amplified the revolutionary content within it: the leading revolutionary Georges Danton stated that the play had killed off the aristocracy and their privileges, and Napoleon Bonaparte claimed that it was the Revolution played out before its own time.
Desire and Revolution
The revolutionary credentials of Le Mariage de Figaro are therefore clear: Beaumarchais packs the downtrodden bourgeois characters with more punch than the despotic feudal lord, pointing out the injustices exacted by the aristocracy on the common people. In addition to this, Beaumarchais adds a sentimental, ethical and philosophical to the question of politics through the creation of the character of Chérubin, the Count’s page boy. Chérubin is an adolescent boy; beautiful, youthful and full of love. Chérubin loves whatever comes into contact with him; frequently declaring his desire to proclaim his love for the trees and any passerby. Chérubin’s desire drifts out from within him, colliding with whatever crosses his path. In this sense Chérubin escapes Freud’s paradigm of the desiring subject requiring a love-object that is the target of their tribulations: Chérubin loves everything and no-one; he is in love with love itself, and as such his sentiments live unbounded by the doomed humanity of a love-object. In this way Chérubin is the only character who’s sensuality escapes being socially circumscribed by social relations. The title gives the game away here: Figaro desires Suzanne, yet to satisfy desire by catching Suzanne-as-love-object he must first marry her. This social convention is what produces intrigue in Beaumarchais: it is the legal conventions of marriage and the droit du seigneur that kick-start the comedy of manners. Suzanne desires her fiancé, but is constrained by social convention to resist his advances – resorting to comedic violence in the final scenes. Without a human body towards which desire is channelled as sexual drive, Chérubin’s love is a free-formed version of sensuality; one that oozes from within him and moves all the characters, but without constraining them through societal convention.
Chérubin’s osmosis of desire reflects another key theme of Le Mariage: that of circulation. Inverse to Beaumarchais’s own life, Figaro begins the play in debt and, through a careful orchestration of dangling the droit du seigneur before the Count, ends up making a tidy sum. Alongside money, then, desire also circulates amongst the characters, and it is Chérubin who is simultaneously the source of this embracing energy as well as the nexus that facilitates the desire-exchange. This is seen most clearly in the symbol of the ribbon. Chérubin discovers that one of Suzanne’s ribbons used to belong to the Count’s wife and, believing that an object that had been in intimate contact with another person possess healing powers, purloins the ribbon and bandages his wounded arm with it. When the Countess discovers the minor theft he returns the ribbon to her, and the Countess expresses her hope that the ribbon will continue its magical powers. Desire is transformed into a revolutionary spirit by its capacity to be circulated and enjoyed amongst all members of society.
The circulation of the ribbon is the forerunner of the last major theme, that of transvestism. As a detachable token, the ribbon foreshadows the costume-switching that the action eventually culminates in. Chérubin is absorbed in transvestism from the outset, as Beaumarchais specified that the male character must be played by a young woman. Eventually all the characters engage in dressing-up, either as each other or as stock characters outside their own social station. The theme of removing clothes to replace them with those of another is thus a crucial way to drive the plot towards the characters’ realisation of their own misdoings: by taking on the clothes of another, the character’s capacity for empathy is expanded. Empathy was a key category for the creation of the citizen and their consciousness in the late eighteenth-century. With empathy came the establishment of the citizen’s autonomy. In combination, empathy and autonomy produced a citizen who took responsibility for their own actions, but that could recognise similar qualities of autonomy in others. Transvestism is a physical way of achieving this ethical stance as, by changing clothes and the social roles inscribed onto them, the characters become disjointed from their own insular social worlds and the privileges attached.
Autodefenestration and the citoyen
But how is sentiment attached to the cold world of politics? The same question is often asked of the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: how is proto-Romanticism linked to seismic political and social change? As we have seen, Chérubin’s desire… In Act II Chérubin’s desire breaks out of its own theatrical containment. Chérubin and Suzanne hide from the Count inside a large wooden dresser; when the Count leaves to find tools to break open the door Chérubin unexpectedly jumps out of a window, causing the gardener Antonio to being screaming about what he has just seen. It is at this moment that desire literally breaks out of the frame of the stage and is taken towards the real world. The exhibition of desire in the theatre thus takes on a real-life resonance in that it, by way of autodefenestration, Chérubin, his sensuality and his objectless love invade the theatrical space occupied by the spectator. By jumping through an open window Beaumarchais creates the troisième lieu (‘third space’) of theatre: neither on stage nor in the wings, Chérubin heads in our direction.
Despite similarities with Rousseau’s theory of the ultimate goodness of the human soul, Beaumarchais does not share Rousseau’s cynicism regarding the power of theatre to inspire social change in its spectators, as espoused in Lettre à D’Alembert sur les spectacles. According to Rousseau, theatre was only interested in making profit, and as such was bound by common taste to display what was already popular, hence curtailing any progressive elements. However, Beaumarchais circumvents the question of whether it is possible for the audience member to identify with the ethical or political content of the play. Chérubin’s leap into a new space, our space, does not require that audience members identify with a form of ethically correct behaviour performed on stage. Chérubin’s osmosis of desire is more fundamental than that: he takes a boundless love to us, thus inspiring mutual empathy and understanding that was a founding feature of the new category of citizen in the lead up to the French Revolution.
In Le Mariage de Figaro revolution goes beyond the realm of politics and the arena of the stage. The essence at the core of political change is seen to be the acknowledgement of a desire for change and the drive to enact it. Chérubin does more than incarnate this desire: the contours of his body are so porous that there no physical space that is capable of embodying desire. Instead he is the origin and catalyst for desire: the source of Figaro’s true revolutionary spirit.
If you’re interested in French-language theatre, why not get in touch with our French Editors at email@example.com to discuss writing for The Glossa
Photo credit: wikimedia.org