Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, called Molière, was one of the canniest theater artists who ever lived. At age 52, racked by ailments, hounded by powerful enemies, plagued by jealous suspicions of his much younger wife’s infidelity, and victimized, to top it all off, by the unfounded slander that his marriage was incestuous, he wrote a play about doctors, sickness, and death. And it is one of the strangest plays in the world repertoire—a mixture of the larky and the somber, of grim truth and surreal looniness, that starts with an enema joke, climaxes in a fake death, and ends with its hypochondriac hero becoming a doctor, the better to medicate himself. Molière would have understood our Paxil and saw palmetto era perfectly.
The standard English translation of the title, The Imaginary Invalid, misleads a bit by taking the French phrase literally: A malade imaginaire is a man who imagines himself sick. Molière’s hero, Argan, is an entirely real invalid; only the ailments that he diagnoses in himself are imaginary. His real illness is a narcissistic preoccupation with his own health that comes from his wealth (he is also stingy and a major control freak) and that leaves him oblivious to other human beings—unless, as doctors, they can spout a lot of jargon that impresses him as having something to say about his condition. He plans to marry his elder daughter, Angélique, to a pompous doctor’s idiot son, not noticing that she loves someone else. (Molière even heightens the contrast by making the daughter’s choice a worthier candidate financially as well as intellectually.) He likewise fails to notice that his hypocritical second wife is merely biding her time till she can squander his fortune when he dies; one of the creepiest scenes in this picture of a tension-fraught household comes when Argan, provoked by his manipulative spouse, interrogates their little daughter about Angélique’s behavior.
Under Claude Stratz’s direction, the Comédie-Française gave this somber story the darkness it seems to deserve. Even when window curtains were opened, Jean-Philippe Roy sent precious little direct light onto Ezio Toffolutti’s austerely elegant gray-green set; characters hovered in dark corners, waiting to move into Argan’s orbit center stage. The Comédie, which was founded on the remnants of Molière’s original troupe and has been playing this play since its inception, no longer keeps up the old acting conventions and traditional stage business that have made it alternately, over the centuries, an object of worship and a target for scorn. It still sustains, however, a high standard of classical training, and the acting was close to seamless—perfectly audible despite the darkness, and always apt to the text, in a taut, naturalistic style. As far as I could see, it was a first-rate company performance. Stratz’s dark approach cast a shadow on the script but never actively interfered with it; both Molière’s dramatic reversals and his verbal surprises came through.
Still, the play contains more than Stratz and the postmodern fashion he follows could convey. My complaint is less against this clearly intelligent and responsive director than against the prevalence of an aesthetic that diminishes the richness of theater as an art. Molière knew perfectly well that his comedy dealt with dark and even morbid subjects, and that people find dark and morbid subjects in comedy disquieting, even depressing. He accordingly made a point of using tactics that would turn their depression into joy—ingeniously, without relieving their disquietude. Le malade imaginaire is not a naturalistic-grotesque “black” comedy; it is a comédie-ballet, both musical and farcical. One of its characters, Toinette, is the traditional outspoken serving maid of commedia dell’arte, whose lines are as often directed to the audience as to her master; in one pivotal scene, she dresses up in professorial drag as a doctor herself. And each of the play’s three acts is rounded off with a song-and-dance sequence, again very much in the commedia spirit: Two of them are tributes to the world of young love and vitality on which Argan, with his self-willed invalidism, has turned his back, while the third, in which buffoons in doctoral gowns salute the healing arts in fake Latin double-talk, is the evening’s finale, in which Argan is farcically elevated to doctorhood himself.
This major aspect of the play went for very little in Stratz’s staging, with the lack plainly a matter of directorial choice rather than actors’ ability. Muriel Mayette was a feisty, occasionally even brawly Toinette, who could easily have extended her performance into the high-clowning realm where Molière’s style lives; the comic doctors, especially Nicholas Lormeau’s Thomas Diafoirus, were handily able to rouse all of the—strictly rationed—laughs Stratz allowed them to get. The singing and dancing had their limitations, but Sophie Mayer’s minimalist choreography, carried on in the same gloomy twilight as the spoken scenes, didn’t exactly encourage much physical elation. And while Marc-Olivier Dupin’s music was pleasant enough, you only have to hear Charpentier’s score for the original production (it’s been recorded by William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants) for a taste of the raucous, joyously bizarre energy with which the whole work should pulse. The current trend toward dark, downbeat earnestness as an approach to every play from every epoch seems to me both pretentious and puritanical, a high-art snob’s revenge on the audience for wanting to enjoy the play. That Molière’s comic art has a dark side is no news; the constantly astonishing news is his ability to balance that darkness with the freewheeling elation that is the comic spirit incarnate. In a world almost unremittingly dark and unbalanced, we need our Molière complete and free, not with his uplifting hand tied behind his back.