Magazine article The Spectator

Spanish Steps

Magazine article The Spectator

Spanish Steps

Article excerpt

Once upon a time, or about the middle of the 18th century to be exact, a young man called Jose Clavigo y Fayardo made his name and his fortune thanks to The Spectator. And the result of that is, although at several removes, a ballet recently given its premiere at the Paris Opera Garnier. This is how it came about.

Born in the Canary Islands, Clavigo arrived in Spain without a penny in his pocket. However, he managed to rectify that through his bright idea of giving the people of Madrid a new pleasure: a periodical based on the far-famed English Spectator. For a time Clavigo lodged with a family called Guilbert, the household also including the wife's younger sister Marie-Louise, known as Lisrtte. Clavigo and Lisette fell in love and, as they intended to marry once he had established himself, she turned down several other offers to wait for him. Regrettably, although his light, amusing philosophical writing won him widespread admiration and the promise of an appointment in the Spanish court, years passed before a vacancy arose, and meanwhile his eye turned elsewhere. And in abandoning Lisette, he falsely gave the impression that her frivolity was to blame.

There now arrived on the scene Lisette's brother, an adventurer named Beaumarchais who had been a watchmaker, inventor, and music teacher to the daughters of the French king, and only later would win immortality as the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. He defended his sister's honour with a challenge, securing Clavigo's confession that the fault was his, and a renewed offer of marriage. Clavigo, however, withdrew all this on the grounds that it had been achieved through improper duress, and Beaumarchais had to depart ignominiously. Years later he wrote a memoir giving his own version of the incident.

This caught the eye of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, at the time an unestablished young writer, who decided to read it aloud to a group of sensitive romantic souls who met every Friday. A lithograph reproduced in the Paris programme shows him declaiming to the group who mostly look solemn, sullen or preoccupied. Just one young lady has an amused twinkle in her eye; could she be the one who took advantage of Goethe's sentimental attachment to challenge him to write a play about the incident? He accepted the challenge and completed it within a week (to be honest, it reads that way). This was only his second play, and the first to be published under his name; not, however, a work often performed nowadays. …

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