Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur De Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution
Statler, Kathryn, The Historian
Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution. By Harlow Giles Unger. (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2011. Pp. x, 236. $26.95.)
The author of this book brings the secret life of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais into vivid relief with this well-written, engaging, and fast-paced tour de force. Beaumarchais's pivotal roles as government agent, diplomat, financier, and advocate of the American Revolution have been relegated to the dustbin of history, according to Harlow Giles Unger; all that remains is his reputation as a famous eighteenth-century French playwright. Unger sets out to correct this one-sided portrait by addressing the clandestine operations Beaumarchais undertook to ensure the American Revolution's success. The book opens with an overview of the grim situation American patriots found themselves in at the end of 1776, then takes the reader through Beaumarchais's early years, his growing fame at court, financial windfalls and setbacks, and the enormous success of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Unger focuses most of the remaining chapters on Beaumarchais's support of the American Revolution. Underlying the entire book is the idea that Beaumarchais became "every bit as cunning, resourceful, and witty offstage as his fictional alter ego Figaro was in The Barber onstage" (88).
Unger excels in illuminating Beaumarchais's complicated dealings with the American revolutionaries, French foreign minister Vergennes, and Louis XVI. Beaumarchais was able to persuade Vergennes to provide secret aid to the American cause through the auspices of his dummy corporation, Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, and to recognize American independence. "By October 1777, Beaumarchais's ships had landed 200 field artillery pieces at Portsmouth, along with thousands of muskets, thousands of kegs of powder, and enough blankets, clothes, and shoes . …