Critics and scholars have long been fascinated by the self-conscious irony of Molière’s last play. The dramatist’s death only hours after the finale of its fourth performance, during which Molière, in the role of Argan, coughed up blood onstage, was long considered his final, greatest joke, and countless commentators noted that actual life seemed to be merging with the theatrical world in a sort of triumph of illusion by the famous actor. Molière’s theatricality and showmanship continue to be common topics of discussion in criticism of the playwright and actor, including his ability to combine the arts of writing and acting, and his interest in incorporating the role of the artist and creator into the world of drama.
One aspect of this self-conscious theatricality that is particularly important to The Imaginary Invalid is the idea of imagination and falsification as it relates to art and performance. Elaborately theatrical, flamboyantly dramatic, and specifically designed to please King Louis XIV, on the surface the play might seem to be a simple farce or an unsubstantial joke. Far from reinforcing the idea that the purpose of the theater is simply to divert and amuse its audience, however, Molière was interested in highlighting drama’s power to influence and attack society. This essay will argue that The Imaginary Invalid is a sophisticated and self-conscious critique of the function and purpose of the theater, the value of which, Molière suggests, lies in its intimate connection to reality.
Aside from the prologue’s ironic insistence that the purpose of the play will be ‘‘to charm [King Louis’s] leisure. / And contribute to his pleasure,’’ the clearest hint that the play is a self-conscious analysis of theater is the insistent theatricality of its characters. Toinette, Béralde, and even Béline are all capable of theatrical creativity in the form of arranging and directing other people according to their own motives. Cléante and Angélique manage to subvert their real feelings into an improvisational musical performance, while Punchinello and the pastoral figures of the interludes comment on the themes of the play in the form of a ballet. Even the incompetent doctors are able to make a performance of their craft—in fact, since it has no substance and is something of an imaginary craft, medicine is shown to be nothing but a performance.
Indeed, it soon becomes clear that every character in the play is a master of the art of performance, amusement, and trickery, with the important exception of Argan himself. Incompetent and gullible, Argan is unable to manage his own affairs or judge the true character of his loved ones. He is a stock character similar to Homer Simpson in the popular television show The Simpsons, for whom audiences feel a certain affection because of his childlike tenderness, despite the fact that he is an ignorant and dim-witted father figure. It is this tender aspect of Argan’s personality that leads Toinette to call him ‘‘kind-hearted.’’ Because of his innocence and his inability to decipher all of the theatrical manipulations at his expense, Argan inspires sympathy among the audience and endears himself to them.
But it is fascinating and ironic that Molière would choose to render his main character, and the role he played, unable to participate in the games and performances of the other characters. Argan must be coached along in his every action, even in his bowel movements, whence comes a great deal of the play’s farcical humor. Argan continually alludes to his ‘‘bile’’ throughout the play, and a bowel movement serves as the excuse for Argan to leave the room two out of the three times he does so during the course of the plot. As Monsieur Purgon (whose name suggests cleansing or purging in Latin) notes while defending the injection that Argan has refused, it is Argan’s enemas, ‘‘which would have produced a startling effect on the bowels,’’ that cause him to rush to the toilet. Yet, in a typical and comical misidentification, Argon says of Toinette: ‘‘She’s the cause of all the bile I make.’’
These references to bowel movements and enemas are important because they suggest that...
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Did Molière’s last work kill him or keep him alive until he had brought it to life? After writing, staging, and playing the demanding lead in the three-act farce-comedy with spectacular trappings, he collapsed and died only four performances into the run of this anything-but-crazy quilt, sewn together, while he was gravely ill, from bits of his earlier comedies and farces, with the addition of swatches of new merriment, irony, and caustic observation.
Of the staple figures the author adapts from his repertoire, as though pulling favorite old garments from a wardrobe, Argan belongs with the other masters of the house: he explicitly claims the right ‘‘to do what seems good to me’’ in his family (III, 3); this right includes offering his daughter the option of wedding the man of his choice (in this case, a young doctor) or going into a convent. The daughter, Angélique, like the nubile daughters in earlier Molière, has her heart set on somebody else, a scrupulous young man named Cléante, who resembles other jeunes premiers in finding himself compelled into trickery in order to woo her. Argan’s brother, Béralde, is the last in a line of interlocutors who are generous to a fault with their advice and, unless assigned to vivid or even eccentric actors, tend to disappear into their lines and become transparent. Toinette, the maidservant, has the motherliness of Nicole and Dorine, together with a dash of the wiliness and agility displayed by the playwright’s conspiratorial male servants. A notary, an apothecary, and several physicians, all derived from the pedants of the earlier writings, especially the ones in Doctor Love, round out the cast of familiar faces. Argan, like Orgon, has a young second wife, Béline, but she does not resemble Elmire or the other wives; she is more of an analogy with Tartuffe: an object of affection and, at the same time, a sweettalking, malicious hypocrite. Above all, Argan shares with other would-be masters of the house a hunger for something he does not have, which looks attainable but proves elusive. The Sganarelles of The School for Husbands and The Forced Marriage, Arnolphe, and Harpagon want a young and malleable bride; George Dandin hopes for the dissolution of an indissoluble marriage; Orgon seeks a spiritual son and heir; Monsieur Jourdain would break away from the mediocre middle; and Argan yearns for triumph over disease, a form of yearning for immortality. The only strict novelty in the dramatis personae is a significant child’s role, that of Argan’s eight-year-old daughter, Louison (played in the original production by the daughter of Mlle Beauval, who took the part of Toinette).
But as always, Moliéresque mannerisms and full-blown idiosyncrasies give a blunt or fine freshness to each character, and most strikingly to the role designated for himself. Argan does not quite qualify as an imaginary invalid, despite the play’s title. He lives in a state of anxiety as he wavers between constipation and diarrhea. These he brings on by engorging a chemical banquet intended, in alternation, to scour and restabilize his bowels. In the play’s opening soliloquy, as he queries the charges on the bills submitted by his apothecary, he recites a catalogue of seventeenth-century purgatives, laxatives, softeners, hardeners, emollients, internal cleansers, and other agents that correspond to the items hawked during today’s dinner-hour television— only here they accumulate in an incantatory poetryby- listing reminiscent of the one declaimed by Volpone as he plays the charlatan Scoto of Mantua— or of the delicacies that Dorante in The Bourgeois Gentleman says he would have liked to prepare for the dinner party given by him and paid for by Monsieur Jourdain. Argan’s speech reveals a devout attitude toward medicine, a preoccupation with the expulsion of dirt, wind, and disorder, a vision of the body freed from the impurities of intrusive matter, a perfectly lubricated and impeccably organized organism that is the counterpart of an immaculate soul. To Argan the notion of health, the ideal that is an absence, has its own mystique and can be attained only by a fervor that almost mounts to a belief in witchcraft. Like Beckett’s Krapp and Hamm, he spends much of his time awaiting the next internal spasm, his nearest equivalent to a sign of grace from on high.
Molière only slightly tempers this dedication to medication. Just as Harpagon can, so to speak, step outside himself and pretend to become the loving father as he offers to give up his prospective bride to his son, and just as Monsieur Jourdain ‘‘lends’’ Dorante all the cash he asks for but keeps a notebook with a reckoning of the total debts, so Argan shows a streak of practicality as he cuts as much as two-thirds off the apothecary’s asking price for certain medicines. He is never altogether submersed in his fanatical devotions. By plotting the scene as a monologue, Molière shows us Argan at odds with himself, an eager imbiber of medicine pitted against a manager of the household accounts—like a millionaire, he plays Mr. Frugal when it comes to small expenses. The internal conflict finally erupts into anger, a flow of bile, which generates fear. What harm will the bile do him? He realizes he is alone and vulnerable; he calls for help. And by the conclusion of the play’s first speech we can diagnose his sickness as not imaginary but real, a chronic (and comic) terror that he may suddenly die unattended.
This husband and father has his blind spots. The most obvious one, after his unbounded faith in physic and physicians, is his wife. He believes she loves him without reserve even in his supposedly ailing condition, while the others in the family have already taken her for the ‘‘gold-digger’’ she is. He confides that he wants her to bear his child (his doctor has said it can be done!) and that he means to disinherit Angélique and Louison in her favor and presumably the baby’s (I, 7). By contrast, Harpagon and Orgon never openly declare their similar intentions of acquiring new offspring to replace the present ones as legatees, although these intentions can be deduced from the plays. No doubt Argan expects to enroll the child as soon as possible in a medical school, but in the meantime he can bring a doctor into the family for free consultations by giving Angélique to Thomas Diafoirus, a recent medical graduate and another of Argan’s blind spots.
Dr. Thomas and his father arrive for formal introductions (II, 5). Cléante, rejected as a suitor for Angélique, has already presented himself in the guise of a substitute for her music teacher (II, 4), and is invited by Argan to watch the proceedings, that is, to witness Argan’s pride at having lured a medico into the family. As often happens in Molière, no mothers take part in the marriage arrangements or, indeed, in the play, only Toinette as a pseudomotherly but skeptical presence. She has previously registered her protests about the alliance. Angélique, she says, is not ill and therefore doesn’t need to marry a doctor (I, 5).
After an exchange of greetings, during which both fathers speak at once and do not hear each other or comprehend that this means they are at odds from the start, the senior Dr. Diafoirus (the name is a play on the French word for ‘‘diarrhea’’) boasts that his son holds tenaciously to ‘‘the old school of medicine’’; that he never changes his opinions; and that he vigorously disputes any new theories that come up, such as Harvey’s proposal that blood circulated throughout the body, not exactly a recent discovery, since it was published fifty-four years before The Imaginary Invalid but remained in contention among French medical practitioners. Young Thomas may lack imagination and enterprise—did not begin to identify alphabetical letters until his tenth year—but now, according to his father, he has a reliable mind and the required temperament for fathering wellmade children. The young doctor more than lives up to some of these boasts. His physical potential for fatherhood is not tested in the play, but he shows off his reliable mind as he recites by rote some speeches, balanced in their rhetoric, hackneyed through and through, and evidently composed by his father. He follows his father’s instructions all the way, despite several lapses of memory and after he has directed the address meant for Béline to Angélique. He offers an engagement gift to his fiancée-to-be: a copy of his thesis attacking the ‘‘circulationists’’; he then invites her to a performance, not of a play, but of the dissection of a woman’s body, on which he will discourse. According to a stage direction, this mechanical monster programmed to appear human ‘‘does everything with bad grace and at the wrong moment,’’ an example—perhaps exaggerated only a little, if at all—of the new graduate who has capitulated to the rules banged into his head and calls his calling an art while regarding it as a literally prescriptive science.
We soon learn the author’s purpose in keeping Cléante onstage during this scene. Argan retained him as a reciprocal measure: after one father has shown off his son, the other must show off his daughter. She will sing for the guests, accompanied by the tutor. Cléante sets up a pastoral duet in which a shepherd and shepherdess exchange vows. Argan grows displeased with the content of the song, especially when he peeks at the sheets of music and sees there are no words written on them. Cléante replies that a new form of notation, just invented, incorporates the lyrics in the music; but to the audience it has by now become obvious that he and Angélique are openly improvising (in rhyme) as they seal a secret love pact.
This continuous, two-part scene (II, 5) lies at the heart of the play, not only in its structural placement, but also in its juxtaposing of the two types of wooing. The rigidity of the Diafoirus doctors, père et fils, relying on unfelt, rehearsed sentiments, contrasts with the spontaneity of Cléante and Angélique as they give vent to their outbursts of feeling. Diafoirus senior speaks of treating patients by ‘‘following the current’’ and going ‘‘according to the rules,’’ but the method applies also to his and his son’s conduct in life beyond their professional practices. The bleak young graduate has dragged himself through his training by obedience and obduracy. In order to qualify as a candidate, he was forbidden to trust his own thoughts and feelings; his father and teachers have trained him to suppress any glimmer of initiative.
Since The Imaginary Invalid is a divertissement, the three acts spill over into a balletic prologue, two intermissions, and a finale. But the drama itself can be broadly visualized as two connected parts. Part one consists of a demonstration of the follies and deficiencies of physicians and the foolish credulity of this one patient-victim; part two grows into an extended debate over whether medicine has any value at all, whether indeed it does more harm than good. The demonstration reaches one climax with the appearance of Dr. Diafoirus and his son. It rises to a second climax with the arrival of the apothecary, Monsieur Fleurant, syringe in hand, to administer an enema, which Argan declines to take after being pressured by Béralde, although he has strong reservations about giving it up (III, 4). With hardly any delay, Argan’s personal physician, Purgon, strides into...
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In analysing aspects of plot, structure and characterisation, I have touched upon a number of points connected with the kind of theatrically comic devices and language which feature in Le Malade imaginaire—inevitably, because they are integral to the play and not gratuitous or decorative. ‘Le style est l’homme même’, wrote Buffon, and certainly their style characterises the stage-figures in Molière’s plays. The language of the theatre is not, however, the language of everyday life, for three reasons: first, from a purely practical standpoint, the language of ordinary conversation would simply make no more impression on the audience than would the tones of voice of such conversation; second, that language would be...
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