In spite of the videos above, this post is not about Mozart or his opera. It is in fact about The Marriage of Figaro, a play by Beaumarchais.
Among other things, such as spy, music teacher, and political activist, Pierre Beaumarchais (born Pierre-Augustin Caron) was a playwright.
Beaumarchais’s life itself is worthy of one of his own farces. He began as a watchmaker, had misadventures in Spain, helped raise funds and support for the American revolution, and then began writing plays (for more on his remarkable life, see here). His most famous plays were–and are–his Figaro plays, most notably The Marriage of Figaro (Le Mariage de Figaro in French). The Marriage of Figaro was a sequel to The Barber of Seville (or Le Barbier de Seville), which premiered in 1775 at the Comédie-Française and was a massive success.
The Marriage of Figaro is a farce centered around two couples: Count Almaviva and his wife Rosine (whom Figaro helped bring together in The Barber of Seville); and Figaro and his fiance Suzanne. When the play opens, Figaro and Suzanne are about to get married, but they have a problem: the Count wants to sleep with Suzanne (who spurns his advances). In a bedroom scene, everyone is blaming everyone for sleeping with someone else, but no one is really sleeping with anyone. Figaro ends up jumping out a window.
Countess Rosine, learning that her husband intended to cheat on her with the unwilling Suzanne, concocts (with Suzanne) a plan to humiliate him: Suzanne will pretend to give in to him, but at the rendezvous, it will be a young page boy names Cherbuin who shows up, not Suzanne. Cherubin will reveal himself, and the Count will be shamed.
That, at least is the plan. The Count suspects Cherubin of having an affair with the Countess, so he sends Cherubin away as a soldier. In his place, the Countess decided to take the place of her maid Suzanne at the rendezvous with the Count. Figaro is in on the plan, but later, through happenstance, comes to believe that Suzanne really is having an affair with the Count after all. He’s so upset that he gets together a bunch of friends, intent upon barging in on the Count and Suzanne “in the act”. As he waits, he goes into a famous–and politically provocative–tirade against the aristocracy.
Suzanne and the Countess enter in one another’s clothes. The Countess goes off with the Count, and Figaro–thinking Suzanne has just left with the Count–is so upset that he goes to talk to the woman he believes is the Countess, but who is really Suzanne. She scolds him for his lack of trust and he begs for forgiveness. Meanwhile, the Count continues his attempts to seduce the woman he believes is Suzanne. When he realizes it’s really his wife standing before him, he falls to his knees and he, too, begs forgiveness.
For anyone familiar with the Grove of Venus scene, this all sounds eerily familiar. Both feature midnight assignations between a man and a woman; both feature manipulation and mistaken identities; both feature women of the lower class dressing up like women of the aristocracy (in this case, a prostitute dressing up as the Queen instead of just a maid dressing up as a countess). The revolutionary undertones are evident in both: turning the house on its head and teaching the Count a lesson; turning the wold on its head and making the Queen the stuff of farce. (As a note, when several of the actors were arrested in 1785, it was for lèse majesté–criminal disrespect for the person of the monarch, in this case the Queen.)
The similarities become even more striking when you consider that the play was first put on–after years of being censored for its subversive content–in April 1784, and the Grove of Venus scene occurred that July.
Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who called herself a Countess, orchestrated the little farce in the gardens of Versailles. She hired a prostitute, Nicole d’Oliva, to play the part of Queen Marie-Anoinette and meet with Cardinal Rohan, who was anxious to regain the Queen’s favor after decades of being out her good graces.
Was Jeanne inspired by the play? There is, of course, no direct proof, but the circumstantial evidence is strong. Jeanne certainly took Nicole d’Oliva to see the play while Nicole was still living in her household. There is also the case of the painting, La Reine en Gaulle, which caused a great sensation. In that painting, the Queen wore a simple white muslin dress and carried a rose. In the Grove of Venus, Nicole–playing the part of the Queen–wore a white muslin dress and handed a rose to the gullible Cardinal. In fact, if you are to believe Comte Beugnot, an old friend of Jeanne’s, there was even a candy box on Jeanne’s mantel that had a miniature version of that infamous painting.
(A side note, when I wrote a fictionalized version of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, I imagined Nicole becoming almost physically ill when Jeanne takes her to see Figaro because the parallels are so clear.)
Some theorists assert that the Grove of Venus scene was actually put on by the Queen. Was the Queen involved? She was, after all, an amateur dramatist, fond of putting on plays in the little theater at her Petite Trianon. She had played the part of both the Countess and Suzanne. Perhaps the Grove of Venus scene was her idea of a great joke, or her way of humiliating the Cardinal, whom she had detested since she was a young dauphine. Or maybe it was all part of the Queen’s attempts to use the Cardinal to help her get hold of a diamond necklace and forcing him to pay for it (for a little more on that, see The Short Story). The circumstantial evidence is much thinner here; yet people at the time believed it.
On balance, it’s very difficult not to see the hand of Jeanne de La Motte in the Grove of Venus scene. It looks as though she was inspired by Figaro and by the painting–and by the possibility of tens of thousands of francs from the Cardinal.
Of course, it wasn’t just Jeanne de La Motte-Valois whom the play influenced. The play became famous even before it was officially allowed to be performed. For years, it was censored because of its themes. While it was censored, it was put on in private performances, even by the Queen herself. Nothing is better publicity than being banned, and when the ban was finally lifted, the play benefited from its own hype. It was massively popular the moment it opened. The timing made a difference as well: the release of the play coincided with rising food prices and revolutionary discontent. It’s anti-monarchical bent was in tune with the politics of the time. Whether the play was influenced by the coming Revolution or whether the play in some way contributed to the coming of the Revolution is an impossible enigma. But to this day, it is as a lightning rod for discontent that the play is usually remembered.
However, it is not the play that is best remembered at all: it’s Mozart’s opera, written just two years after the play was un-banned. Which brings us full-circle to the videos above. I promise, this post was not, I repeat, not an excuse to listen to Mozart. Or at least, not entirely.