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John Wilson

Beaumarchais in Seville

In my very first semester of college—in 1966, at Chico State College, since elevated to California State University, Chico—I had two extraordinary professors. One was a professor of philosophy, Marvin Easterling, who later was killed in an accident while riding his bicycle. The other was a professor of English, Lennis Dunlap.

"Mr. Dunlap," he was called, because he stopped after the master's degree. He once told me that the prospect of doctoral work was simply too tedious to contemplate. He was from the South—Tennessee, I think—and he had studied, among other places, at the Sorbonne. He was then in his early forties, handsome in a rather Mephistophelean way, with a sonorous voice and the posture of an equestrian. Unlike most members of the English Department, he dressed with impeccable style—he tried in vain to instruct me in such matters—and was said to have an independent income. Along with Hugh Kenner, he was the most intelligent man I have known.

His favorite period of literature was Restoration drama, especially the plays of Wycherly and Congreve: witty, sophisticated, unencumbered by illusions—a category that included the evangelical Christianity in which I had been raised, and from which I had for the moment detached myself. Amoral? No, but the code of a natural (not hereditary) aristocracy, embodied by the superior couples of the Restoration stage.

Which brings us to Beaumarchais. If you are even a casual opera-goer, chances are you have taken in a performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro or Rossini's The Barber of Seville, both of them based on plays by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). Hardly known today except among certain scholars of French culture, Beaumarchais nevertheless created some of the best-known characters in world literature, above all the barber Figaro, who like Homer's Odysseus is never at a loss no matter how daunting the circumstances.

The same could said of Figaro's creator, as ...

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