Critical Essay on The Imaginary Invalid
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...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)
The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade imaginaire, 1673)
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...
(The entire section is 4717 words.)
Comic Devices and Comic Language
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 inappropriate to something which is itself not a representation of day-to-day reality but an artistic and imaginative transmutation of that reality; and third, if language is to contribute to the total comic effect, one must expect to find in the author, as has been said of Molière, ‘la volonté d’outrer les défauts et d’accentuer les ridicules’, linguistically as in other respects. Exaggeration of linguistic characteristics may seem to the reader, as opposed to the spectator, to produce crude effects, such as feature in those passages in which Argan’s medical treatment is discussed. Yet even those must be seen in their context: the world of his imagination, which he treats so respectfully and, at times, so lyrically, is...
(The entire section is 3899 words.)