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In 1764-65 the irrepressible playwright Beaumarchais traveled to Madrid, where he immersed himself in the life and society of the day. Inspired by the places he had seen and the people he had met, Beaumarchais returned home to create The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, plays that became the basis for the operas by Rossini and Mozart that continue to delight audiences today. This book is a lively and original account of Beaumarchais’s visit to Madrid (he never went to Seville) and a re-creation of the society that fired his imagination.
Drawing on Beaumarchais’s letters and commentaries, translated into English for the first time, Hugh Thomas investigates the full range of the playwright’s activities in Madrid. He focuses particular attention on short plays that Beaumarchais attended and by which he was probably influenced, and he probes the inspirations for such widely recognized characters as the barber-valet Figaro, the lordly Count Almaviva, and the beautiful but deceived Rosine. Not neglecting Beaumarchais’s many other pursuits (ranging from an endeavor to gain a contract for selling African slaves to an attempt to place his mistress as a spy in the bed of King Charles III), Lord Thomas provides a highly entertaining view of a vital moment in Madrid’s history and in the creative life of the energetic Beaumarchais.
In this book I shall consider how it was that Beaumarchais met the inspiration for those and other characters when he was in Madrid or nearby-in Aranjuez, La Granja, or the Escorial-during his stay in Castile in 1764 and 1765.
Of course, all great writers invent their characters. The Baron de Charlus is not an exact replica of Robert de Montesquieu, nor has Mr. Pickwick a clear connection with anyone. All the same, Beaumarchais found in Spain a way of living in which he could permit his fascinating creations to live, talk, sing, dance, flirt, argue-and flourish.
Why, it will be asked, did he set his two most successful plays in Seville when he could have no idea whatthat magical city was really like? Presumably because it was the capital of Spain's vast empire in the Americas, where treasure fleets had been bringing gold and silver, pearls and emeralds, for more than two hundred years. Perhaps also because it seemed to be where the enchanting dances of Spain originated. Whatever the reason, Beaumarchais set Seville on its new, modern, romantic course. A fortress near Seville (Beethoven)? A village between Seville and Córdoba (Verdi)? The immortal tobacco factory (Merimée and Bizet)? Inventiveness continued till Seville built her own opera house in 1992! Sitting now as I am in a magnificent patio in a restored palace of the seventeenth century, by a fountain of a complex design surrounded by palms and red lilies, my reflection is "What a pity Beaumarchais never came here!"
I would like to thank Monsieur Hubert Faure for his hospitality in Normandy, where I completed the book.
Excerpted from Beaumarchais in Seville by Hugh Thomas Copyright © 2007 by Yale University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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