Critical Essay on <i>The Imaginary Invalid</i>
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...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)