Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid: 17th Century “Meta”

moliereMoliere’s last play, The Imaginary Invalid, is odd mixture of… rather forced spectacle, self-promotion, humdrum love story, transparent evil stepmother tale, and a few anachronistic modernistic winks at the audience.

The modernistic flair comes when playwright Moliere has his characters more-or-less break the fourth wall between the audience and cast and begin talking about what a great playwright that Moliere fellow is.  This blatant self-promotion lasts for several minutes, during which time characters make sure to mention a few of Moliere’s popular plays by name.

Also, at the end of this play — one centering around the relationshp between patients and doctors–  Moliere has his characters perform a play-within-the-play about… the relationship between patients and doctors.

Moliere, himself, portrayed the role of the play’s eponymous hypochondriac, making all of this oh-so-very meta… especially since this was all occurring a few centuries ahead of its time.  The general tone of the play is one conveying Moliere’s desire to let us know that he knows that his plays are little more than confections concocted to pass the time and hopefully provide some amusement.

The artificial spectacle comes-in when– with the flimsiest of excuses (okay, not really even an excuse)– a group of gypsies (yes, gypsies) show up and begin singing and dancing– not once, but twice.  The gypsy’s last song is very long and sung completely in faux-Latin.  Perhaps it was great fun in its day…  I can only guess that the audiences of Moliere’s time needed no more excuse for a song-and-dance number than modern audiences need for nudity or gunplay.

The gypsies, however, do provide the best poetry in the play.  When advising the world’s youth to carpe diem and “cloud not these hours with care” they intone…


“When blooms the spring of life,

the golden harvest reap.

Waste not your years in bootless strife,

til age upon your bodies creep.

But now, when shines the kindly light,

give up your heart to love’s delight.”


In a more political vein, the play pokes fun of lawyers and physicians…

Moliere has a character point-out that physicians sound more knowledgable and powerful than they really are– and then jokes that, after all… only people of rank actually “expect their doctor to cure them!” 

Having heard enough derogatory commments about the medical profession, our arch-complainer (Argan, by name) responds– and not unreasonably– that “it is easy to speak against medicine when one is in perfect health.”

Moliere’s sincere advice in the play seems to be placed in the mouth of Argan’s brother, Beralde, when he advises Argan to quit doctors and get some rest and allow his body to heal itself…  “Nature, when we leave her free, will herself gently recover from the disorder into which she has fallen.  It is our anxiety, our impatience, which does the mischief, and most men die of their remedies, and not of their diseases.” 

Moliere does not press the case on either side… instead he allows the argument to lay where it drops between the two opposing points of view– albeit with a definite inclination against the medical profession.

As for lawyers, according to our characters, the best ones are those who know how to work AROUND the law, not within it.  Perhaps we should call them con-legal men instead of lawyers– or just “conmen” for short.

Monsieur de Bonnefol, a notary, advises Argan to seek a lawyer who has a skill “for gently overriding the law, and for rendering just that which is not allowed.”  Looking at the larger picture, de Bonnefol commends lawyers precisely for their ability to help people skirt the law… “Without that, what would become of us every day?  We must make things easy… otherwise we should do nothing.”  I think what he is saying is that if the laws were too often and too stingently enforced– we’d ALL be doing in trouble.

The dual-plot of The Imaginary Invalid is quite routine, and the characters cut from thinnest cardboard… Basically, Plot One centers around a hypochondriacal old man (Argan) who has remarried someone who may be after his money; in Plot Two, Argan has engaged his daughter to marry someone (a pompous bore) who is assuredly NOT the man the young girl has recently fallen, like, totally in love with.

Here, I pause for a confession…  I find judging works-of-art that are either really old or really new to be a very difficult vocation.  And I’m thinking here specifically of literature and plays, not so much cathedrals and statuary…

When it comes to plays, old ones do not much entertain me (exceptions would include, among a precious few, Shakespeare and some Ancient Greek plays).  And I have a theory about this (I ALWAYS have a theory)… I think that every artist and artform has a learning curve to manage.  The art in question will start off bad or mediocre, but then proceed to get better and better.  For an artist– this could take one’s whole life-time.  For an artform– it could take centuries.

Personally, I think there is some confusion in art criticism between works which can be valued for being revolutionary and awe-inspiring IN THEIR DAY and works which are actually the best works ever produced in that genre.  But shouldn’t a work stand upon its own merits, not because it was original in its mediocrity?  Should I value the performance of precocious child more than an accomplished adult simply because of the fact that the performer is so young?  Some would and do.

As I am guilty of this myself, let me take myself for example.  I highly praise such admittedly less than perfect entertainments as The Matrix, 300, and Sin City because of the display of technical skill and visual artistry that blew me away while watching each of these.  However, a hundred years from now, when all these techniques are passe, people will probably wonder why I raved about such flawed cinema.  Speaking for myself, I feel that even the just-okay movies of today are better than most of what was produced in the seventies and eighties.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the old works of art are the recent ones.  My question here is this… should a movie that is entertaining to a certain audience be dismissed simply because the more seasoned connoseiurs know that the movie doesn’t contain a single original line of dialogue or plot twist?  In other words, should the existence of other works of art matter when judging a particular work?  Or should a particular work be judged in isolation, voted up or down purely upon its own merits or demerits?

In the case of The Imaginary Invalid, I admit it’s not bad for a play written by any one other than Shakespeare before the 1800s.  But that’s the catch… it’s “not bad for a play…” dot-dot-dot…  The sentence itself is an apology, a beg-your-pardon for being less than excellent.

Even Shakespeare had not quite gotten down the rhythm of a play.  There are long stretches of side-tracked, foggy action amidst all the poetic thunder and lightning, and some of those soliloquies and asides I find off-putting.  Of course, I come to Shakespeare already knowing Shakespeare, and so I know that his less than shining moments are fleeting and soon to be replaced by cool swordfights of both steel and tongue.

Moliere’s opening monologue in The Imaginary Invalid is tediously long and repetitive.  Yes, Moliere, we get it:  we are here dealing with an old, cantankerous, and quasi-miserly hyperchondriac… I say “quasi-miserly” because one thing he enjoys spending money on (though at the best bargain) is doctoring.

Of course if someone really wants a purgative, all he has to do is listen to the tripe espressed by the young lovers in this play (this would be lovers in the old sense, as in, they are in love; to “make love” in those days meant to court, not to make the beast with two backs– which is, by the way, the worst euphemism I’ve ever heard– so bad in fact that the euphemism is worse than any more direct utterance of the activity I can imagine).

There are, of course, some funny bits in the play.  I admit that it’s humorous that old Argan insists upon marrying his daughter to a physician simply because he would find it convenient (and no doubt cheaper) to have a doctor in the family.  As Argan tells his servant-girl, “a good daughter ought to be delighted to marry for the sake of her father’s health.”

The evil-acting step-mother, Beline, spends most of the play pretending not to want to talk about her husband’s last-will-and-testament or even the possibility of his death  She does, however, offer-up a nice piece of advice that still holds true today and would go a long way toward helping uptight people relax if they would but remember it:  “There is no servant without defects.  We are obliged to put up at times with their bad qualities on account of their good ones.”

As is not atypical, the servant-girl in the play possesses the most real-world smarts of the characters.  She proves brilliant at playing all the family members off each other to her advantage.

After viewing many a play and even more movies and television shows in my day, I’ve finally discovered the most obvious rule of both comedy and drama… to put on a good show, you just need a bunch of liars.  Lies, cheats, and secrets appear to provide the tension necessary for both laughter and suspense.  Moliere’s play certainly has enough liars– pretending to be in love, pretending to be loyal– even pretending to be dead!  One of the best whoppers is told by Cleante (the true love of Argan’s daughter, Angelique) when he explains to Argan how he knows the words to a song merely by reading the music:  “Are you not aware, Sir, of the way of writing the words in the notes themselves?”

The denouements at the end of the play are fairly ludicrous– though certainly efficient.  It’s as if Moliere –aged and ill when he wrote this, his last play– decided that, hey, I’m out of energy and ideas.  Let’s just expose the tricksters and engage the lovers and be done with it.  And, what the hell?– let’s bring back those gypsies.

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More from Hammering Shield on Moliere…

Moliere’s Tartuffe — 17th Century Sitcom

The Misanthrope — Moliere’s Best Play


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