Thursday, January 22, 2009

Constellation: Beaumarchais' Figaro in D.C.

I have been reading plays by 18th century French dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais to get ready for Constellation Theatre Company's imminent production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Source Theater in Washington, D.C. (I'll post again after I see the production on Saturday night.)

It's rare to see the play itself, which inspired one of Mozart's greatest operas. And the Balkans via Bohemia connection here? Well, Odon von Horvath's 1936 play Figaro Gets a Divorce is the brilliant Austrian playwright's updating of the comic world of Beaumarchais into post-revolutionary confusion and squalor.

Re-reading Beaumarchais reminded me that The Marriage of Figaro was a play with immense transformative power. It has revolution and, perhaps, a few specks of the blood of the Reign of Terror on the Countess' dainty ribbon -- snatched from Suzanne by Cherubin early in the play. (Even Napoleon famously said so: "If I had been a king, a man such as he [Beaumarchais] would have been locked up… The Marriage of Figaro is already the revolution in action.")

There are so many moments in which Beaumarchais upends the social and political order -- and does so deftly with the pinprick of humor. (The play was written in 1778, passed censorship in 1781, but was banned until 1784 by Louis XVI.) There's Figaro's justly-famous monologue in the fifth act (I'm using the 1964 translation by John Wood published by Penguin), which glowers and burns in a fusion of Figaro's political frustration and sexual jealousy:

Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born -- nothing more!

But there are dozens of lines and exchanges in the play that chip away at the aristocratic order -- and by Suzanne as well as Figaro:

THE COUNT: But with your brains and character you could hope for advancement in the service?
FIGARO: Brains a means to advancement! Your Highness is pleased to make fun of me. Mediocrity and subservience -- those are the qualities one needs. Given them a man can get anywhere.
SUZANNE (shyly): The Mistress has the vapours. I was coming to ask you to lend us your smelling-salts. I'll return them immediately.
THE COUNT (handing her the vial): Keep them for yourself. No doubt you'll soon find them useful.
SUZANNE: Do you imagine that women of my class have the vapours? It's a genteel malady. They only catch it in drawing-rooms.

At times, The Marriage of Figaro plunges into sheer philosophic profundity undergirded by Figaro's fierce pragmatism-- a current of thought that Horvath picked up on and deepened in Figaro Gets a Divorce:

SUZANNE: You are beginning to exaggerate! Stick to the truth.
FIGARO: My truth is the truth.
SUZANNE: Fie! You rascal! Is there more than one sort?
FIGARO: Why yes! Of course! Ever since someone first noticed that in the course of time old follies become wisdom and little seeds of falsehood blossom from modest beginnings into great truths there have been a thousand varieties.

I'm really excited that Constellation is going to do this play. (It runs from January 22 to February 22.) As the Washington Post pointed out earlier this week, the company is getting a reputation for doing challenging, large ensemble work -- as they did earlier this year with an excellent production of Vaclav Havel's Temptation. Figaro tickets are available here.

This 1775 portrait of Beaumarchais is in the public domain.

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