Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1231
On February 17, 1673, the fourth performance of The Imaginary Invalid was staged, with Molière playing the role of the hypochondriac Argan. Toward the end of the final scene, Molière was seized with a fit of choking brought on by a hemorrhage of the lungs. However, such was his dedication and strength of will that he managed to finish the scene and take his bows without his fellow actors even realizing his condition. He collapsed immediately after the final curtain call, was carried home, and died within a few hours. It was one of the most dramatic deaths in literary history. Aside from its poignancy, the incident reflected the most crucial aspect of Molière’s genius: his ability to convert painful realities into joyous farce, to defy the limitations of human life through comedy of the most superb and transcendent quality.
The Imaginary Invalid(also translated as The Hypochondriac) is the last of Molière’s plays and the culmination of an art that had its roots both in the traditions of old French farce and in the Italian commedia dell’arte form. Features of the former can be detected in the play’s irrepressible high spirits, its uproarious slapstick, and its hilarious and rollicking episodes. The influence of commedia dell’arte shows in Molière’s use of masks, a device with which he never ceased to experiment. After initially using masks the French neoclassicists had adopted from the Italian theater, he soon modified and expanded their function until they became a device perfectly suited to the expression of his comic genius. In The Imaginary Invalid, masks are employed with particular effectiveness in the characterization of the various doctors.
Molière would not have become the great writer that he was if he had not transcended his artistic origins and transformed his raw materials with the spark of genius. As it was, that spark kindled comedies with unforgettable characters and universal themes, and it produced plays of unsurpassed comedy, rich in passion, meaning, and implication.
The Imaginary Invalid contains some of Molière’s most memorable characters; Argan in particular is one of his finest creations. Like all of Molière’s comic heroes, Argan has fallen prey to an obsession that dominates his every thought and action. He is a domestic tyrant whose entire household revolves around treatment of his imagined illness, and whose selfishness extends to the point that he attempts to force his daughter into marriage with a witless doctor, so that he can profit from free medical attention. He is opposed every step of the way and eventually duped by the bold, clever, and inventive maidservant, Toinette. Surrounding these two central figures is a cluster of minor characters, including Argan’s lovely and generous daughter Angélique; his scheming and greedy second wife Béline; his practical, sensible brother Béralde; his daughter’s suitor, the automaton Thomas Diafoirus; and a motley assortment of doctors and apothecaries, among them Monsieur Purgon, Monsieur Fleurant, and Monsieur Diafoirus the elder. In all of these characterizations, Molière presents universal types rather than unique individuals; he concentrates on the character’s dominant traits, simplifying so as to create a single powerful dramatic effect. As in all his comedies, Molière subordinates plot to characterization in The Imaginary Invalid; he created the roles to fit the actors who were to perform them, supplying them with a plot just sufficient to allow them room to develop those roles. Above all, the plays were written to be performed rather than read; and the plots are marked by a blissful disregard of probability and a constant intrusion of musical interludes, song, and dance.
The Imaginary Invalid is a play of considerable thematic complexity. On the surface it is an attack on incompetent doctors and unscrupulous quacks, but many critics have seen deeper parallels between the open satire on medicine and a disguised attack on religion that they perceive in the play. Whether or not the author consciously intended those parallels, there are certainly many analogies between the doctors in The Imaginary Invalid and priests and theologians. Like Argan’s doctors, churchmen of Molière’s time preached with unbending dogmatism, summarily condemned anyone who questioned their authority, and propagated more of their kind through obscure and inaccessible initiation rites. Just as Monsieur Purgon and Monsieur Fleurant dispense their drugs, priests dispense blessings, and Argan is as dependent on his apothecary as a religious fanatic on his confessor.
Beneath this parallel between medicine and religion lies the crucial theme in the play, that blind obedience to a fallible authority is dangerous. This theme is conveyed in a number of ways, primarily through the characterization of Argan, the extreme example of a man who has totally surrendered his free will to others and thereby lost his ability to reason clearly. He is so at the mercy of the doctors that he accepts without question the curse that Monsieur Purgon delivers as punishment when his patient delays taking his enema by several minutes: “I will that before four days are up you get into an incurable state.” This central theme is also reflected in several minor relationships: Monsieur Fleurant, the apothecary, takes orders blindly from his superior in the medical hierarchy, Monsieur Purgon, and Thomas Diafoirus worships the ancients and follows his father’s commands as a puppet obeys a puppeteer.
The dialogue also conveys this theme and stresses the parallel between medical and theological dogmatism. The biblical echo is unmistakable, for example, when Toinette, disguised as a doctor, advises Argan to cut off one arm and gouge out one eye; one hears behind the line the admonition to sinners in Mark, 9:43-47, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off. . . . And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” The implications are provocative. At least one viable interpretation is that Molière is objecting to the abuse of the body and denial of its natural needs, and consequent warping of the spirit, occasioned both by absurd medical practice and the excesses of Christianity. Also fascinating is Molière’s constant use of numbers, suggestive both of meaningless medical jargon and religious superstition. Argan in the opening scene equates the quantity of medicines consumed and enemas administered in a month to the quality of his health, much as a scrupulous devotee might worry that he or she recited too few rosaries or lit too few votive candles during the week. Likewise, Monsieur Purgon’s absurd formula for the proper number of grains of salt to put on an egg (“Six, eight, ten, using even numbers; just as in drugs you use uneven numbers”) may be Molière’s way of satirizing not only contemporary medical gimmicks but also such Church practices as indulgences sold to cut down the length of one’s stay in purgatory.
It is above all Molière’s unsurpassed comedy, however, that an audience remembers, and that ensures the ongoing popularity of The Imaginary Invalid. Scenes of sheer fun, such as Argan’s tabulation of his monthly medical expenses and Thomas Diafoirus’s bungled attempt to recite his memorized declaration of love, are unforgettable, as is the moment when the invalid flies out of his chair, brandishing a stick, to chase a maidservant around the table before he suddenly realizes he cannot walk. Now, as in 1673, audiences roar with laughter.
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