Proud Destiny, by Lion Feuchtwanger

July 7th, 2006

Excerpt

The Theatre francais advertised the first public performance of The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro by Monsieur de Beaumarchias. Admission free. The cost would be met by the King.

This announcement was greeted with astonishment, laughter, exultation. That Beaumarchais shuld produce his famous comedy, which the King had vetoed, on this crazy day and at the King’s expense was a master-stroke, and the performance was looked forward to with far greater excitement than was the royal procession through the streets of Paris.

The management of the Theatre francais had its hands full. The people of Paris had been invited, the people of Paris would come, the people of Paris were numerous. No more than an infinitesimal proportion of the thousands who would clamour for admission could find accomodation in the theatre, and thousands of others were asking for tickets–aristocrats, courtiers, relatives of the actors, writers and critics. It was decided to reserve a quarter of the seats for these distinguished applicants and to throw the remaining eight hundred places open to the populace.

When the doors were opened at five o’clock there was a wild scrambling in which men and women struggled with one another and many were trampled underfoot. The well-schooled police of Paris had the utmost difficulty in preventing women and children from being crushed to death.

At last all had taken their seats, shouting, lamenting, laughing. Then the guests of honour made their entrance. According to an ancient tradition, at these free performances the best seats were reserved for the ladies of the halles and the coal-heavers. As guests of honour they arrived, as was only fitting, after all the rest of the audience was assembled. The attendants cleared a path, and the other spectators greeted them with cheers as they were escorted to their seats, the coal-heavers to the King’s box, the fishwives to that of the Queen.

Never thad the Theatre francais seen such a queerly assorted audience for a premiere. Side by side sat ladies of the Court and glove-stitchers, fermiers generals and chair-menders, duchesses and women from the halles. Academicians and butchers’ assistants, in short, the people of Paris. The actors were in a fever of excitement and most of them were already regretting their rashness. Monsieur de Beaumarchais’ comedy had not been written for such an audience. This was not Athens, and it was hardly to be expected that the salted wit of Figaro would be appreciated by this motley gathering.

The three thuds were heard and the curtains parted. The audience blew their noses, cleared their throats, and went on chattering for a time. Figaro-Preville had to start three times, until eventually, after cries of “Hush! Hush!” and “Really, Madame, don’t you think you might finish your conversation at home?” the spectators setteled down to listen in silence. There was some perfunctory clapping after a moment or two, and a voice asked, “What did he say? I didn’t understand,” while others shouted, “Repeat! Repeat!” but the audience was evidently in a good humour.

Gradually the people began to grasp who these gentlemen and ladies on the stage were and what they wanted and what it was all about, that was to say that this aristocrat wanted to sleep with the bride of this nice fellow who, by the way, was one of their own class. That was nothing unusual and not much to bother about, but the aristocratwas particularly arrogant, and Figaro, who was one of themselves, was particularly engaging and had his good brains, and it was amusing and heartwarming how he told the aristocrat off. It became evident in the first half-hour that Pierre, with his sure sense of the theatre, had written a comedy which could stand the test of any audience.


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Proud Destiny was German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger’s first work written after his rescue from occupied France by American journalist Varian Fry. The German title of the book was Waffen fur Amerika, or Arms for America, and its subject is the effort of supporters of the American revolution–first the playwright Pierre de Beaumarchais and later the American envoy Benjamin Franklin–to convince King Louis XVI of France to fund arms and other supplies to the revolutionaries.

The line from an absolute monarch to a group of revolutionaries could never, willingly, be a straight one, and it takes Feuchtwanger nearly 600 pages to get from Beaumarchais’ first audience with the King to Louis’ commitment of millions of francs to the colonial cause. Along the way come many twists, turns, and diversions through the many personalities and competing interests in the French court and society.

Some, such as Franklin’s struggle to restrain his jealous and combative co-envoy, Arthur Lee, or Beaumarchais’ maneuvers to avoid his creditors, can get a bit tedious, but Feuchtwanger manages to keep the reader’s interest with superb episodes of characterization such as the visit to Paris by the Austrian Emperor Joseph, Queen Marie Antoinette’s older brother.

Proud Destiny suffered from over-selling when it first came out. Picked up as a Book-of-the-Month Club featured title, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, which is why you can find dozens of copies for under three bucks at AddAll.com and eBay. Time‘s reviewer complained that “the novel smells faintly of the Hollywood atmosphere in which it was composed. The period sets are painstaking, the main characters are photogenic.”

Feuchtwanger himself said that the real hero of the novel was “that invisible guide of history: progress.” Although he’d started work on the book before leaving France, he felt it was only in the freedom of America that his characterization of Franklin could ring true. Critically, Proud Destiny is considered one of Feuchtwanger’s lesser works, but it’s a rich and entertaining read. The book certainly holds up now much better than many other best-sellers from 1947. Even Time admitted that “the reader can savor from one large dish a thousand tidbits of 18th Century custom & morality that he would otherwise have to root for in the garden of biography and memoirs.”


Locate a copy

Proud Destiny, by Lion Feuchtwanger
New York: The Viking Press, 1947

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