While it may seem counter-intuitive to dwell on tragedy when discussing one of the world’s greatest of comic playwrights, there are good reasons for doing so. Moliere early on wanted to be a tragedian. As it turned out, tragic circumstance was as much a feature of his own life as that of his characters’. Comedy and tragedy are entangled in the skein of human experience, and Moliere could weave them together as well as the Ancient Greeks.
Fates and muses
It is often said, of the two contemporary playwrights, that Corneille was the best tragedian and Moliere the best comic of their era. In truth, Moliere perfected not only farce but satire (the third of the Greek drama genres)—often with dark undertones.
Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), like Moliere, was solidly bourgeoisie. They were both Jesuit-trained, studied law, held a Royal appointment, and then turned their back on all that to write for the stage. Corneille is most celebrated for Le Cid. He was a literary renegade who incurred scrutiny by the Church and the criticism of the Académie Française—again, lIke Moliere. They would collaborate on one play (Pysché), and centuries later become embroiled in a (tenuous) authorship controversy.
Moliere wanted, early on, to be a tragedian. Whether he seduced or was seduced by Thalia, the goddess of Comedy, the result was a body of satire that has endured for centuries. Just as Shakespeare had his problem plays, or tragicomedies, so Moliere laced humor with tragedy. Scholars identify the first tragicomedy in Western literature as the play Amphityron by the Roman Plautus (b. 254 BC). Curiously, Moliere wrote his own story of Amphityron.
One scholar observed, “…Moliere's medical comedy is much more than satire, … it contains elements of black humor and even approaches the theater of cruelty in its treatment of sickness and death…his medical comedy being farcical at the beginning of his career and much darker towards the end of his life.” (Which will bring us to The Imaginary Invalid in the next post.)
Arc of Life
Moliere’s life was in many ways glamorous. He enjoyed, for most of his adult life, the devotion of life-long friend and erstwhile consort, Madeleine Béjart, (actress and cofounder of his troupe). He would win the favor of a King and know fame in his lifetime. He married Madeleine’s daughter, Armande. Scandal ensued, with rumors (unsubstantiated) of incest. His young wife became openly unfaithful. His enemies, inflamed by jealousy and faux righteousness, wrote much publicized tracts that attacked his plays and his person.
And there was betrayal by his patron, Louis XIV. The King’s second wife promoted piety over comedy. Money for the arts was being diverted to war, and went now mostly to the opera, where Lully, Moliere’s collaborator, had wrested away the exclusive right to use music in play performances. [As an aside, Bulgowski, The Master and Margarita, wrote Moliere and the Cabal of Hypocrites to decry the betrayal of an artist by his patron.]
The aging Moliere, then, suffered from marital discord, venomous enemies, declining patronage, and ill health as his respiratory ailment (likely tuberculosis) progressed.
Equal Opportunity Satirist
Much has been made of his personal health as an influence on Moliere’s attack of the medical profession. He endured the death of a child, and suffered a chronic respiratory illness later in life. Yet, this seems in proportion to the mortal miseries of any denizen of 17th century Paris. Moliere’s medical satire, I believe, was motivated simply by his disdain for intellectual pomposity and haughty authority of any kind—whether aristocrat, priest, lawyer or doctor.
His contemporary, Ben Jonson, shared this disdain for the medical profession: “They flay a man before they kill him.’ The tradition of medical satire has continued down the centuries: Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Mozart in Così fan tutte (1790), Donizetti's Elisir d'amore (1832) and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (1918), to pick a few.
To what purpose?
AM Brown, MD in his 1897 treatise Moliére and Medical Associations, observes that Moliére’s work was true to comedy’s motto: Castigat ridendo mores – “One corrects customs by laughing at them.”
We live in the era of scientific medicine. Doctors are generally compassionate and sometimes work miracles. So, how seriously should we take Moliére’s seventeenth century perspective?—very. Doctors can still be self-assuredly and unknowingly wrong in ways that are dangerous to your health. We are better off than the time when “Nearly all men die of their remedies, and not of their illness.” But consider that in 2016 there were about a quarter million deaths in America due to medical error.
Even today, in an age of miracles, there is much to criticize—and correct—about health care. The public is duped daily by blatantly phony claims of health benefit from ‘food additives’. Serious diseases are often catered to with expensive treatments that are potentially toxic and frequently of marginal benefit. Sweet melodies and happy faces are used on television ads to distract from the FDA–mandated recitation of side affects.
Society wisely preserves the stock character of Il Dottore as a dose of humility, to be taken by doctors pro re nata—as needed. It would reassure me if, when visiting the doctor, I saw a copy of the Imaginary Invalid or The Doctor in Spite on Himself on their shelf.
In the next (and final post of Le Médecin Moliéresque) we look at The Imaginary Invalid and the practice of medicine at that time.
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