Playwright, spy, litigant, lover, inventor, businessman, adventurer, watchmaker, pamphleteer, musician, gun-runner, Beaumarchais was one of the most colourful characters of eighteenth-century France. Somehow he survived royal disfavour, duels, brigands, and the Revolution, and is today remembered most for his plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, and the operas they became. The hero of both, the resourceful Figaro, has much of Beaumarchais's own exuberant character.
He was born Pierre Augustin Caron on 24 January 1732, in Paris, where his father André-Charles Caron was a watchmaker. When he was 21 he invented a new kind of escapement. It was pirated by a rival, and Pierre went into print with all guns blazing, as he would so many times in his life. His complaint brought the adjudication of the Academy of Sciences in his favour in 1754, and the notice of the Court. As the King's watchmaker he had ample opportunity to make love to the ladies and scout out business opportunities.
One Mme Franquet persuaded her husband to stand down from his position at court, in favour of the handsome and well-spoken Caron. This M. Franquet did so, then soon died, and Caron married the widow in 1756. He assumed a noble name Beaumarchais, from an estate of hers, got himself appointed a secretary to the King, and bought himself a title of nobility to go with the new name. An accomplished musician, he next set himself up as teacher of the harp to the king's daughters, and obtained a share in the business of the banker Joseph Duverney. By this means he became rich. His first wife dying within a year of marriage, in 1768 he married a Mme Geneviève-Madeleine Lévêque, and when she died in 1770/11 it was rumoured that Beaumarchais had poisoned her. He married Marie-Thérèse Willermanulas in 1786.
He was making enemies. In 1764 he pursued to Spain a suitor for his sister's hand, who had broken his promise. When Duverney died in 1770 acknowledging a large debt to Beaumarchais, his heir the Comte de La Blache challenged it, and it went to trial, and then before the judgement of the Parlement. The member of Parlement he needed to speak to to plead his case was unavailable, unless, as his wife told him, he were to lay out certain fees to herself and a secretary. Beaumarchais lost the case but found that the secretary was none other than the wife, and demanded return of all the fees. He was charged with attempted corruption of justice. In the midst of this he was imprisoned for a quarrel over an actress at the Comédie Italienne.
This was the opportunity for his first great success in writing. He had already had two plays performed, Eugénie in 1767, based on his adventure in Spain, and in 1769 Les Deux amis. Now his battle against the parliamentarian Goezman over his wife's shady dealings were conducted in open print, in a series called Mémoires, and the brilliant style of these made his name as a writer. He was to attack censorship and publish a (financially disastrous) complete edition of Voltaire, whose banned works he had bought after the master's death.
In 1775, after being banned for two years, came Le Barbier de Seville; and in 1778 he finished its sequel Le Mariage de Figaro, but this so offended the King with its portrayal of the licentiousness of Count Almaviva that it was not until 1784 that it was performed; and for France it was the greatest theatrical success of the century. Mozart's opera of the latter premiered (in Vienna) in 1786, and in 1792 Beaumarchais created a third Figaro play, La Mère coupable, in which the Countess has a baby by Cherubino. This was by far the least successful of the three, and has not been made famous by an opera. He wrote the libretto of an opera himself, Tarare, to music of Salieri in 1787.
Back to his adventures. The loss of the case against Goezman ruined him for two years, then he was restored, and entered the King's secret service. He was assigned to travel to England and Holland to seize and destroy supposedly libellous pamphlets against the royal mistress Madame du Barry and Queen Marie Antoinette. In the former case he was assisted in his negotiations by another famous French spy, the man or woman (Beaumarchais opened a book on it) called the Chevalier d'Eon. In the latter case he pursued the author hotfoot into Germany, and here encountered and fought off simply masses of brigands... by his own account. He was imprisoned in Vienna.
In the war between Britain and the American colonies he took the American side quite actively, and started a trade in arms across the Ocean, with his own money and with what he could persuade France to put up in various degrees of secrecy.
The Marriage of Figaro (which is actually a subtitle for La Folle journée, the Mad Day) attacks the immoral behaviour of the upper classes, and when it was eventually performed to great éclat it nevertheless got him in great trouble. He fell out of royal favour (I'm tempted to add "again", but I'm losing track), and he engaged in another war of pamphleteering, in which he came out the loser. He was imprisoned (again) briefly at Saint-Lazare. After the Revolution he was accused of treason and imprisoned (again) in 1792. He was released through the string-pulling of his current mistress.
Going into exile in England and Holland, he published his memoirs Mes six époques. The English and the Dutch thought he was a revolutionary spy; the French proscribed him as a traitor. Amid all this he actually returned to France in 1796, and stayed safe and sound there, dying peacefully in Paris on 18 May 1799.
The 1911 Encyclopaedia: http://www.theatrehistory.com/french/beaumarchais001.html
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera
1. Two of the sources above differ on the year of Mme Lévêque's death.