Enlightenment comedies

While playing in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro this week, the doubtless unoriginal thought occurred to me that while this opera is always presented as a frothy comedy of manners and mistaken identities, the underlying subject matter is very dark. Everything comes out all right in the end, but only because those with inherited power and wealth choose to make it so. While the servant characters make lively fun of the aristocratic Count, his entitlement to do exactly as he pleases is never seriously challenged.

In a way, it reminded me of the comedies of Jane Austen, which we generally think of as “light” satirical works. People who aren’t ardent Janeites like me often complain that they’re “only about women wanting to get married,” but what’s often forgotten is the rage, not to say panic, of the women in the polite drawing rooms. Unable to inherit property, they had to make marriage their goal as a matter of their very survival. An imprudent or impulsive move could lead to their starvation. Some, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, decide they can’t afford to be too picky, even at the expense of their own happiness. And so it is with Mozart’s (and Beaumarchais’) high-spirited Susanna. If she can’t get married, she’s ruined. Even the Countess, an aristocrat, is similarly trapped. Her cage may be a gilded one, but she still has no power whatsoever.

I don’t suppose Austen, the daughter of an English clergyman, and Pierre Beaumarchais, the polymath son of a French watchmaker, would have thought they had much in common, but the anger simmering beneath the surface of their high-spirited comedy seems very similar somehow.

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