Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, France 1622, legendary comic playwright, Moliere, renounced his father’s profession as royal tapestry maker at age twenty-one to found and open a theatre company, the Illustre-Theatre, in collaboration with the Bejart family whose eldest daughter, Madeleine, had become Moliere’s mistress. Unable to keep the company afloat, Moliere soon ran into great debt, causing him to leave Paris and spend the next thirteen years of his life touring France. Upon his return to Paris in 1658, Moliere’s company performed in the guardroom of the Louvre for none other than the Sun King himself, Louis XIV. Patronized by the king’s brother, the Duke of Orleans, Moliere prospered as a dramatist for the next twenty-four years. Moliere rose to fame as a master of satire with such works as L’Ecole des Femmes (The School for Wives), L’Avare (The Miser), Le Misanthrope (The Misanthrope) and the ever controversial Tartuffe. Moliere collapsed backstage after the fourth night of performance of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid, in which he was playing the lead character, Argan, who, like Moliere at the time, was suffering an ailment from which he could not recover. He died at home that evening and was interred four days later.
Moliere’s last satire, Le Malade imaginaire or The Imaginary Invalid, calls into question the seemingly fantastic nature of medicine in Seventeenth century France. The history of French medicine may be broken up into two eras: before and after the plague. Unable to control the outbreak of illness, the early medical world was characterized by fatalism, skepticism and the ever-looming threat of mortality.The first successful containment of the plague greatly altered the public perception of the medical field. With the newfound sensationalism of medicine came the growth of the field; France saw increased accessibility to treatment and surgery; the rise of the clinic; the expansion of medical interest to animals; an increased attention to hygiene; an empirical focus of medical research and recognizing of the importance of statistics as well as the advent of medical policing. Some of the more important historical notes of this time include the invention of the microscope, the thermometer, and William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, a notion that was still oftentimes radically unaccepted.
With the advancement of doctoral knowledge and containment of illness, the medical field of Moliere’s time emerged as rigidly hierarchical. It consisted of three professional divisions: medecin (doctor), apothicaire (apothecary) and chirurgien-barbier (surgeon-barber). Still however, doctors knew virtually nothing of the living body’s inner organs. Because the law allowed only executed criminals to be dissected, dissections were a rare endeavor and the medical field remained largely ignorant of the inner processes of the human body. All study was conducted at a superficial observational level. Bloodletting and amputation were among the common cures for physical ailments. Medicine was largely linked to astrological forces, with doctors acting as the medium between the mechanical laws of the body and the universe. The goal was to restore the body to health by balance of the four humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm . One of the most popular treatments was purgation by enema, or “clysters” as they were called in Moliere’s time. Seventeenth century France saw an obsession with enemas with King Louis XIV receiving no fewer than 2000 during his reign.
With little to no government oversight, limited actual medical knowledge, and an arrogance and a high self-regard among its practitioners, the medical profession was a natural target for Moliere’s satire. The attention paid to ritual and the rejection of empirical facts among many doctors and the ignorance and pretension that came to characterize the medical field in general also comes under hilarious scrutiny in Moliere’s works. In both his plays, Le Malade imaginaire and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac he takes steady aim at the haughty characteristics of physicians. Further attention is paid to pseudomedical practice or “quackery”. From the Renaissance term, “quacksalvers” (those who could peddle the cure for any ailment), quacks rely on propaganda and the willingness of their patients to believe in any cure. Moliere’s Argon is a clear target for medical quackery and the institution comes under satirical fire in Le Malade imaginaire.
The Imaginary Invalid premiered at the Theatre Du Palais-Royale in 1673 and ran for one week before Moliere collapsed on stage playing the title role. It premiered on Broadway at the Liberty Theatre in 1917. Other notable productions include a French-language production at the City Center, New York in 1970; a gothic take on the play from The Actors Gang, Los Angeles in 1996; a look at the darkers aspects of the play from the Comedie-Francaise at BAM in 2004; and the American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco in 2007. More recent productions prove just how well Moliere’s final work withstands the test of time: the 2010 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production gave the comedy an updated 1960s twist, while the Bard’s Summerscape at the Fisher Center turned out an all male cast (including the actor Peter Dinklage in the role of Toinette) in 2012, and a 2013 production at the Theatre in the Round in Minneapolis featured colorblind casting.
TACT, of course, is launching this season’s Salon Series survey of comedy with this classic work, which is only the second time TACT has presented a play by Moliére. The first was in our very first season when we were still just a glimmer in our collective eyes and we performed The Learned Ladies.