Molière is the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, one of the most important dramatists in French history. His plays have been delighting and intriguing audiences since they were first performed in seventeenth-century France, at which time they pleased King Louis XIV and changed the face of French comic drama. A subtle and profound satirist, actor, philosopher, and master of character, Molière combined all of these elements into his plays, drawing heavily from tradition but also incorporating his own unique insights. Skillfully combining his acting and writing skills, he was also an incisive social critic, ridiculing institutions from organized religion to medicine, and poking fun at the Parisian bourgeoisie (the middle class made up of prosperous tradesmen).
Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) was Molière’s final play, first performed in February 1673 in Paris. A satire of the medical profession and a comedy-ballet, or a comedy combined with song and dance, the play contains a good deal of farce and was written to amuse King Louis XIV. It is also a superb character study of a hypochondriac, or a patient obsessed with being ill, and it contains a brilliant social and political commentary on Paris in the 1670s. Many critics have even found a subtle but powerful philosophical strain in the work, and it is an excellent example of the stylized comedy-ballet popular in Louis XIV’s courtly theater. Molière himself played the main role of the hypochondriac Argan, and famously coughed up blood during his fourth performance, dying later that evening in what came to be known as a bitter irony, given the play’s subject of imaginary illness. The play is now widely available in collections such as the 2000 Penguin Classics edition of The Miser and Other Plays: A New Selection, in which it is translated as The Hypochondriac.
The play begins with a prologue and an alternative prologue. The first prologue is titled ‘‘Eclogue,’’ which refers to a short poem that is usually ‘‘pastoral,’’ or reflecting idyllic, rural shepherd life. This eclogue involves a number of gods from classical mythology, including Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and fertility. After an introduction praising Louis XIV and stating that the comedy-ballet was ‘‘devised for his relaxation,’’ the prologue praises the king’s war efforts with a rustic song and dance, until Pan enters and says that the best way to serve Louis is to entertain and charm him. The much shorter alternative prologue is a monologue, or speech by a single character, in which a shepherdess laments that foolish doctors cannot heal the sorrows of her heart.
Act 1 opens with Argan adding up his many doctor’s bills and ringing for the maid, Toinette, who reveals her impatience with Argan and goes to fetch his daughter, Angélique. Argan, who is a hypochondriac, then goes off to the bathroom while Angélique asks Toinette for advice about Cléante, the young man with whom she recently fell in love, and who has promised to ask for her hand in marriage. When Argan returns, Angélique is delighted to hear him tell her of a marriage he has arranged for her, until she discovers that she is betrothed not to Cléante but to Thomas Diafoirus, who is about to graduate from medical school. Toinette argues with Argan, but he threatens to put his daughter in a convent unless she marries Thomas, and he chases Toinette with a stick.
Argan’s second wife, Béline, enters and consoles him, and Argan calls for a notary to discuss his will, since he would like to leave all of his money to his wife. Toinette warns Angélique that her stepmother is trying to undermine her interests, but Angélique is only concerned that her father does not arrange for her to marry a man she loves. Toinette promises to send word to Cléante about the arranged marriage by talking to Punchinello, an old moneylender. The scene then shifts to the ‘‘First Interlude,’’ in which Punchinello sings his lover a serenade, until he is interrupted by an old woman, a...
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