Friday, 30 January 2009

Who's Afraid of Beaumarchais, and Other Tales of the Relevance of Culture

One of the boulevards leading off the Place de la Bastille is Beaumarchais, and yesterday it seems it was full of demonstrators protesting the way the Sarkozy government has been managing the French economy.

Place de la Bastille and Place de la République are the usual places where manifestations start in Paris, and the name of the street that runs between them is extremely well-chosen. Pierre Beaumarchais, 18th century playwright, diplomat and inventor, is the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, both plays which caused a furor when they were presented in the years preceding the French Revolution. They were run-away successes in France and elsewhere, and became the inspiration for two of the world’s best operas.

This I've known for a long time, but I didn't appreciate how audacious Beaumarchais was. Viewed more than 225 years later, plays about a barber don't seem any big thing. But things came a lot clearer when we saw the Théâtre du nouveau monde’s production of Le mariage de Figaro last night. Emmanuel Bilodeau played Figaro as a common man who was more than the measure of his “betters.” The Count, debating about accepting an appointment as an envoy to London (a post which Beaumarchais held himself,) is a petty womanizer unaware of the great changes about to take place, the women in the play are given speeches which protest the way they are manipulated by the men and conventions of their lives, and everyone dances and jokes and sings. The production was a delight, and shed a lot of light on the atmosphere that led to revolution—and the nation which has evolved from the France of Louis XVI.

Who says that culture isn't relevant? The problem from a government's point of view is that it hits sometimes uncomfortably close to home.

Photo: Agence France-Presse taken from Le Devoir

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