The Guilty Mother
(La Mère coupable) subtitled "The Other Tartuffe
" is the third play of the Figaro
Trilogy by Pierre Beaumarchais
. It is rarely revived these days. Napoleon
was said to have been very fond of it.
The villain Bégearss was reportedly based on Beaumarchais's enemy, an Irishman called Bergasse.
Its action takes place twenty years after the previous play, The Marriage of Figaro
: The story's premise is that several years ago, while the Count was away on a long business trip, the Countess and Chérubin spent a night together. When the Countess informed Chérubin that what they did was wrong and that she could never see him again, he went away to war and intentionally let himself be mortally wounded on the field. As he lay dying, he wrote a final letter to the Countess, declaring his love and regrets, and making mention of all the things they had done. The Countess did not have the heart to throw away the letter, and instead had a special box made by an Irishman called Bégearss, with a secret compartment in which to store the incriminating note, so the Count would never find it. Soon after, to her dismay, the Countess discovered herself pregnant with Chérubin's child.
The Count has been suspicious all these years that he is not the father of Léon, the Countess's son, and so he has been rapidly trying to spend his fortune to ensure the boy won't inherit any of it, even having gone so far as to renounce his title and move the family to Paris; but he has nevertheless held some doubts, and therefore has never officially disowned the boy or even brought up his suspicions to the Countess.
Meanwhile, the Count has an illegitimate child of his own, a daughter named Florestine. Bégearss wants to marry her, and to ensure that she will be the Count's only heir, he begins to stir up trouble over the Countess's secret. Figaro and Suzanne, who are still married, must once again come to the rescue of the Count and Countess; and of their illegitimate children Léon and Florestine, who are secretly in love with each other.
The characters, as described by Beaumarchais' characterizations, are:
- Count Almaviva, a Spanish lord with noble pride but not vanity.
- Countess Almaviva, very melancholy, and with the piety of an angel.
- Chevalier Léon, their son; young man obsessed with freedom, like all ardent new souls.
- Florestine, ward and daughter of Count Almaviva; a young person full of compassion.
- M. Bégearss, Irishman, a Major in the Spanish military, an old secretary to the Count when he was ambassador; a very deep man, and great schemer of intrigues, accomplished in the art of troublemaking.
- Figaro, personal valet, medic and confidant of the Count; a man formed by worldly experience and events.
- Suzanne, best friend of the Countess; wife of Figaro; excellent woman, devoted to her mistress and having left behind the illusions of youth.
- M. Fal, the Count's notary; a precise and honest man.
- Guillaume, German valet to M. Begearss; a man too gentle for such a master.
Figaro and his wife Suzanne are still in the service of Count Almaviva and his wife Rosine, but the household has all moved to France. The Count is there with the intention of degrading his wealth. The piece begins on Saint Leo's day, the birthday of the son the Countess has had with the former page, Chérubin. Ever since the Count and Countess's only son died in a duel, the Count has cast off Léon, whom he considers to be the fruit of the Countess's impardonable act of adultery. Monsieur Bégearss, an Irishman, is introduced to the household. Figaro and Suzanne suspect him of wanting to betray them. He wants to marry Florestine, the ward of the Count, and to move Léon -- who also wants to marry Florestine -- away to Malta and have Figaro accompany him. He calls the Count's attention to a letter that Chérubin wrote the Countess during the time of their affair.
The Count reads the letter and is infuriated, finding at last the proof for his suspicions. He consents to let Bégearss wed Florestine. Bégearss secretly tells the household that Florestine is the actual daughter of the Count, and that she therefore cannot marry León. She dissolves into tears and León is griefstricken.
Bégearss informs the Countess of the secret, and she accords the marriage between Florestine and Bégearss, whom she believes to be the savior of the family's honor. He then orders her to burn the letters from Chérubin, which she does while crying. The Count echoes the plan of sending Léon to Malta. The marriage is set to occur in the evening.
The Countess promises Léon she will appeal to the Count. She makes an ardent plea, but the Count rebukes her over her adultery. The Countess faints, and the Count hastens to get help. Along with Suzanne and Figaro, the scheme is uncovered: Bégearss has betrayed the family, and should be prevented from marrying Florestine and receiving the Count's fortune.
The Countess warns Florestine that she shouldn't marry Bégearss, and then adopts her as a daughter, and the Count finally adopts Léon as his son. Bégearss returns from a notary, where he withdrew some of the dowry money promised by the Count. A scene is staged before him, in which it is made to appear that Figaro is going to be fired. Bégearss is betrayed, and his scheme is discovered.In the end, it is acknowledged that Léon and Florestine are not brother and sister as they has believed, and there is still hope for them.
Like the other Figaro plays, there are operatic versions; but like the play itself, they are much more obscurely known than those made from the preceding stories. Darius Milhaud
's La mère coupable
was the first, in 1966, and Inger Wikström
has made an adaptation called Den Brottsliga Modern
. John Corigliano
's The Ghosts of Versailles
makes frequent allusions in a subplot as well.