The Imaginary Invalid was the last play Moliere was to write. He was at the peak of his career, and the nadir of his health when he penned the most confrontational and explicit of his screeds against the profession of medicine. He explicitly framed his argument in an ongoing debate between a hypochondriac, The Imaginary Invalid (Argan), and his rational, and skeptical, brother (Beralde). They even discuss the author by name—“a fine impertinent fellow.” The last scene is a triumphal ceremony as The Imaginary Invalid is installed as his own physician. But the ceremony is a farce—the triumph is Moliere’s.
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.
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].
Some 350 years after his plays were the most popular in Paris, Moliere’s witticisms spice the French language*, a tribute to his enduring relevance as a social critic. Moliere’s art was, if not an antidote, than at least an anodyne for the denizens of 17th century France, whose social lives were constrained by authorities of every kind. In the field of medicine, there was a sense of resignation. The inevitability of illness was to be feared—but so too was the noxious assault on disease and patient alike by doctors more invested in process than results.
We continue exploring Moliere’s comic portrayal of doctors by considering the state of medicine in seventeenth century France and features of Moliere’s life that shaped his attitude toward it. His Jesuit education afforded him the tools of a skeptic—critical thinking and a knowledge of natural philosophy. His talent as a playwright, along with Royal protection, afforded him an audience. He was going to mirror, in public, the growing perception that the medical profession had become senile. The medical Faculty of Paris had met their match.
Even in our era of scientific, and sometimes miraculous, medicine, we relish hilarious portrayals of the doctor as a pompous and inept buffoon. The durability of this stock character, known since antiquity, is due not just to the fact that satire is funny. There is a larger social purpose—the power that doctors wield, specious or real, must be tempered with humility. No one was better at taking the medical profession ‘down a notch’ than Moliére. We will explore, in a series of articles, the milieu of medicine in seventeenth century Europe, the making of Moliere, and the substance of his medical satires, the most famous every written.