The following passages are from five of the six plays in which medicine was the target de jour for Moliere’s social satire. The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire 1673) [v.6] will be discussed in a later post. We discuss here The Flying Doctor (Le Medecin Volant 1659) [v.6]*, Don Juan (1665) [v.3] , Love is the Best Doctor (L’Amour Medecin 1665) [v.3], The Physician in Spite of Himself (Le Medecin Malgre Lui 1666) [v.3], Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669) [v.5].
The authors of “Moliere” in the Encyclopedia Britannica point out “his notion of what is comic: a comedy, only incidentally funny, that is based on a constant double vision of wise and foolish, right and wrong seen together, side by side.” and quote him in The Lettre (an anonymous retort to critics):
“The comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable…To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence,.…Incongruity is the heart of the comic.…It follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.”
They give some advice for reading Moliere (these are plays, after all):
“…Molière insisted that his plays were made for the stage,…Comedies, in his view, were made to be acted.” and “…actors have helped to recover an aspect of his genius that the scholars had missed, his stage violence….to animate the absurd. His characters are imagined as excitable…to the point of incoherence. He sacrifices plot to drama, vivacity, a sense of life.”
The Flying Doctor
The theme here is one Moliere would re-use—a daughter in love feigns illness to avoid marriage to an unsuitable suitor. A witless counterfeit doctor is recruited to help contrive a happy ending. Sganarelle (a recurring character) is at first reluctant. With offer of currency (his ‘diploma’), he allows that he “will kill a person as easily as any doctor in town.”
On arrival he opens with
“Hippocrates says, and Galen, by undoubtful arguments, demonstrates, that a person is not in good health when he is ill.” The father says, “I am very much afraid she is dying.” Sganarelle: “Ah! let her be careful not to do so! she must not amuse herself to die without a prescription of the doctor.”
There’s some scatological humor with the drinking of urine (a diagnostic test of the times), and mocking references to the humors (an ancient precept only now being questioned) . A lawyer drops in and quotes Ovid, in Latin: “Sometimes the evil is stronger than the art and science.” Sganarelle responds with latinate gibberish.
Don Juan is an insufferable cad and a cynic, about everything, including medicine. But there is room for comedy amidst the cynicism— a dialogue between Don Juan and Sganarelle, (once more the faux doctor):
SCAN. Five or six countrymen and countrywomen, seeing me pass, came to ask my advice upon different diseases.
D. Ju. You answered that you knew nothing of the matter?
SCAN. Not at all. I wished to keep up the honour of my dress; I speechified about the disease, and gave each of them a prescription.
D. Ju. And what remedy did you prescribe?
SCAN. Upon my word, sir, I picked them up where I could. I prescribed at random ; it would be a funny thing if the patients should get cured, and come to thank me.
D. Ju. And why not? Why should you not have the same privileges as all other physicians? They have no more to do with the recovery of their patients than you, and all their art is a mere pretence. They do nothing but get honour if they succeed; and you may take advantage, as they do, of a patient's good luck, and see attributed to your remedies what is owing to a lucky chance and the powers of nature.
[This sentiment is precisely that as expressed by Montaigne.]
SCAN. What, sir? You are also an unbeliever in medicine?
D. Ju. It is one of the greatest errors of mankind.
SCAN. What ! you have no belief in senna, cassia, or antimonial wine?
[Recall the great antimony debate and its role in ‘curing’ Louis XIV]
D. Ju. And would you have me believe in them ?
SCAN. There was a man who, for six days, was dying ; they did not know what more to prescribe for him, and all the remedies produced no effect; at last the doctors took it into their heads to give him an emetic.
D. Ju. He recovered, did he not ?
SCAN. No, he died.
D. Ju. The effect is admirable.
SCAN. I should say so! He could not die for six whole days, and that made him die at once. Could you have anything more efficacious ?
[A year after this play was staged (1666), parliament approved the use of antimony]
Love is the Best Doctor
Here again, a romantic farce, with real and faux doctors and a damsel in distress. This one was written in 5 days, and musical accompaniment by Lully.
We borrow from Henri Van Laun:
“In Love is the best Doctor…he ridiculed the most fashionable physicians, and the patients who consulted and trusted them. Four doctors are called in to a consultation, in which, instead of comparing notes about the state of the patient, they converse about things in general and nothing in particular; at the end, the distracted father finds himself more bewildered than before, and rushes out of the house to buy a quack medicine,
As long as credulous and physic-swallowing people exist, and as long as external appearances will be taken as an indication of true knowledge and worth, so long will Moliere's comedy retain its sting.”
The four doctors were recognizable physicians of the Court. Their identities were thinly veiled with cleverly chosen Greek names, then unveiled by idiosyncrasies that would be known to his sophisticated audience.
Lis. What do you want with four physicians, sir? Is one not enough to kill one person ?
SCAN. Hold your tongue. Four heads are better than one.
Lis. Cannot your daughter die well enough without the assistance of those gentlemen ?
SCAN. Do you think people die through having physicians ?
Lis. Undoubtedly; and I knew a man who maintained—and proved it, too, by excellent reasons—that we should never say, Such a one has died of a fever, or from inflammation of the lungs, but, Such a one has died of four physicians and two apothecaries.
SCAN. Hush ! do not offend those gentlemen.
Lis. Upon my word, sir, our cat had a narrow escape from a leap he took, a little while ago, from the top of the house into the street; he was three days without eating, and unable to wag head or foot ; but it is very lucky that there are no cat doctors, else it would have been all over with him, for they would have physicked and bled him.
SCAN. Will you hold your tongue when I bid you? What next ! Here they are.
Lis. Look out; you are going to be finely edified. They will tell you in Latin that your daughter is ill.
The Physician in Spite of Himself
Sganarelle again, a character that Moliére relished playing. Here, he gets his comeuppance at the hand of his mistreated wife. She overhears passing servants discuss their desperate search for a doctor to cure their master’s daughter of her muteness. She fabulates that her husband, presently in the guise of a wood-chopper, is in fact a renowned, if eccentric, physician. He is no such thing, but rather a lay-about in habit of beating his wife with a stick.
She says the only way to get him to admit to his secret skills is—to beat him with a stick. Bribed and coerced, he takes up the challenge.
“No, I tell you; they made a doctor of me in spite of myself. …but when I saw that they were resolved to force me to be a doctor, I made up my mind to be one… I find it the best of trades; for, whether we are right or wrong, we are paid equally well.…"
Once at the rich man’s house, he improvises, bloviates and stumbles upon a ‘cure’ for her ‘dumbness’ (mutism), which is feigned, yet again as a ploy in a romantic tangle. His explanations are preposterous and he cites authorities about whom he knows nothing. Bogus remedies are offered with deadpan sincerity. Caught in mistakes of common knowledge, he shamelessly ’gas lights’ his inquisitor.
SGAN. … I tell you that your daughter is dumb.
GER. Yes ; but I should like you to tell me whence it arises.
SGAN. Nothing is easier ; it arises from loss of speech.
GER. Very good. But the reason of her having lost her speech, pray?
SGAN. Our best authorities will tell you that it is because there is an impediment in the action of her tongue.
GER. But, once more, your opinion upon this impediment in the action of her tongue.
SGAN. Aristotle on this subject says... a great many clever things.
GER. I dare say.
SGAN. Ah ! He was a great man !
GER. No doubt.
SGAN. Yes, a very great man. (Holding out his arm, and putting a finger of the other hand in the bend). A man who was, by this, much greater than I. But to come back to our argument I am of opinion that this impediment in the action of her tongue is caused by certain humours, which among us learned men, we call peccant humours; peccant—that is to say … peccant humours; inasmuch as the vapours formed by the exhalations of the influences which rise in the very region of diseases, coming, … as we may say to ... Do you understand Latin ?
GER. Not in the least.
SGAN. (Suddenly rising). You do not understand Latin ?
SGAN. (Assuming various comic attitudes). Cabricias arci thuram, catalamus, singulariter, nominativo, haec musa, the muse, bonus, bona, bonum. Deus sanctus, estne oratio latinas ? Etiam, Yes. Quare ? Why. Quia substantivo et adjectivum, concordat in generi, numerum, et in casus. [Falling off his chair]
GER. Ah ! Why did I not study ?
JACQ. What a clever man !
LUC. Yes, it is so beautiful that I do not understand a word of it.
SGAN. Thus these vapours which I speak of, passing from the left side, where the liver is, to the right side, where we find the heart, it so happens that the lungs, which in Latin we call armyan, having communication with the brain, which in Greek we style nasmus, by means of the vena cava, which in Hebrew, is termed cubile, meet in their said course the vapours, which fill the ventricles of the omoplata; and because the said vapours now understand well this argument, pray … and because these said vapours are endowed with a certain malignity … listen well to this, I beseech you.
SGAN. Are endowed with a certain malignity which is caused … pay attention here, if you please.
GER. I do.
SGAN. Which is caused by the acridity of these humours engendered in the concavity of the diaphragm, it happens that these vapours … Ossabandus, nequeis, nequer, potarinum, puipsa milus. That is exactly the reason that your daughter is dumb.
[That phrase is now a French idiom, used to call out b.s.]
JACQ. Ah ! How well this gentleman explains all this.
LUC. Why does not my tongue wag as well as his ?
GER. It is undoubtedly impossible to argue better. There is but one thing that I cannot exactly make out : that is the whereabouts of the liver and the heart. It appears to me that you place them differently from what they are ; that the heart is on the left side, and the liver on the right.
SGAN. Yes ; this was so formerly ; but we have changed all that, and we now-a-days practise the medical art on an entirely new system.
[“We have changed all that” is gas-lighting at its best. “What you see and hear is not what’s really happening”, as someone recently said.]
GER. I did not know that, and I pray you pardon my ignorance.
SGAN. There is no harm done ; and you are not obliged to be so clever as we are.
GER. Certainly not. But what think you, Sir, ought to be done for this complaint ?
SGAN. What do I think ought to be done ?
SGAN. My advice is to put her to bed again, and make her, as a remedy, take plenty of bread soaked in wine.
GER. Why so, sir ?
SGAN. Because there is in bread and wine mixed together a sympathetic virtue which produces speech. Do you not see that they give nothing else to parrots; and that, by eating it, they learn to speak ?
GER. That is true. Oh ! the great man ! Quick, plenty of bread and wine.
Monsieur de Pourceaugnac
Once again, the daughter (Julie) is in love with another, not Monsieur de Porceaugnac (whose name implies a ‘pig’); The deceit here is to call in two (real) doctors to treat M. de Porceaugnac for ‘madness’, a condition from which he does not suffer. Of one such doctor the apothecary says: “He is a man who knows medicine as thoroughly, as I know my alphabet, and who would not abate one iota of the rules of the ancients, even if people die through it.”
Oblivious, at first, to the purpose of the doctors visit, Porceaugnac becomes easy prey, who the doctors deem to be in denial and in need of their services ‘will he or nil he’. The First Doctor addresses his new ‘patient’ in a 750 word monologue. As one translator put it: “The consultation of the two doctors is only a very slight caricature of the nonsense spoken by physicians in Moliere's time.” (Laun). Porceaugnac remains nonplused.
POUR: Gentlemen, I have been listening to you for this hour. Are we playing a comedy here ?
POUR. But what is all this affair, and what do you want with me ?
IST Doc. To cure you, according to the order which has been given us.
POUR. To cure me ?
IST Doc. Yes.
POUR. Zounds ! I am not ill.
IST Doc. A bad sign, when a patient does not feel his complaint.
[A classic Catch-22]
POUR. I tell you that I am very well.
IST Doc. We know better than you how you are ; and we are physicians who see clearly into your constitution.
POUR, if you are physicians, I have no business with you ; and I do not care a straw for physic.
IST Doc. Hum! hum! This man is more mad than we thought.
POUR. My father and mother would never take medicine, and they both died without doctor's assistance.
IST Doc. I am no longer surprised that they have produced a son who is bereft of his senses. (To the second Doctor). Let us proceed to the cure; and by the exhilarating gentleness of harmony, soften, mitigate, and calm the acerbity of his spirits, which I see on the point of becoming inflamed.
Now alarmingly aware of their intent to treat him vigorously with noxious remedies, he rushes from the house. His rump is still roped to a chair, which follows him about as he careens on and off stage, chased by the doctors, their appliances of torture fast in hand.
In the end, Julie’s father is told that M. P. is unfit for marriage—which by now is obvious to all.
Others would make different selections to demonstrate Moliere’s medical satire—there is much to choose from. Let us know what your favorite lines might be.
The Imaginary Invalid we hold back for the next post. That play, perhaps his best known to many, comes at the end of the author’s life and he played the title character. Despite the lacquer of comedy, the Invalid is a man of pathos. Check back for Le Médecin Moliéresque: Act III. Tragedy.
*The volume numbers references above are for the six volume English translation by Henri van Laun (1820-1896), a Dutch scholar educated in France who perused his career in England.
The dramatic works of Moliere : rendered into English by Henri Van Laun ; illustrated with nineteen engravings on steel from paintings and designs by Horace Vernet, Desenne, Johannot and Hersent; complete in six volumes..
Moliere. Encyclopedia Britannica.
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