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...
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