The Imaginary Invalid
Season 07-08 Season

Director’s Notes: Keith Baxter on The Imaginary Invalid

Keith Baxter

• The Imaginary Invalid is unique among Molière’s plays. It begins with an homage to Louis XIV, then at the zenith of his power, and there are three commedia dell’arte interludes. All the American productions of the play cut these interludes, so one is left with the story of a querulous old man on his sickbed. However, the Prologue and the Interludes are vital to an audience’s understanding of Molière’s particular style. Unlike Shakespeare—whose work developed along lines already set down by earlier writers—Molière introduced a totally new style of theatre. Out went the statuesque style necessary for Racine and Corneille and in came robust, bawdy, full-blooded vigorous comedy, incorporating much that he had learned from his “exile” with his traveling players. He can be vulgar, but he is never crude, and his work is underpinned by a sense of romance and wit. He is not “witty” in the style of the English Restoration playwrights (who plundered his plots); he does not mock the aristocracy—his characters are bourgeois, and his dialogue is not quoted as Wycherley’s, Farquhar’s and Congreve’s are. His remarkable strength is in the creation of a hilarious parade of original characters.

• The story of Molière is ineluctably tied to the most powerful man in the world at that time: Louis XIV. From the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 until the outbreak of the War of The Spanish Succession in 1701, Europe—in effect the civilized world—was totally dominated by France. And it was now that those words—la gloire—began to be identified with the country and with the glorious monarch himself, Louis XIV, the sun king, a real dazzler. His flag flew everywhere, and not just in Europe: in the American south, where Louisiana took his name; in Canada, where France held vast acres of land outside Quebec.

• The King’s only brother, the Duke of Orleans, was known to the Court as Monsieur. Everyone at Court adored Monsieur. He was witty and mischievous; he adored gossip and the theatre. It was Monsieur who saw a farce by Molière, The Amorous Doctor, and brought his brother to see it. Louis laughed even more than Monsieur. Molière was allowed to move his Company to the Palais-Royal, where all his plays would be performed until his death.

• When his comedy Tartuffe opened, Molière was labeled agnostic. But of course this was untrue; it was the hypocrisy in the Church that he was lampooning. The Queen-mother Anne of Austria, a deeply committed Roman Catholic, was appalled by the levity of the play. Her impassioned complaints to her son meant that Louis was obliged to proscribe any further productions of Tartuffe, but he softened the blow to Molière by allowing him to call his company “Troupe du Roi.” Seven years after Molière’s death, this King’s Company would become the Comédie-Française.

• If he had outraged the priests, The Imaginary Invalid would equally appall the medical profession. Molière was unrepentant: “Almost everyone dies from their remedies and not from their maladies.” Illness and death were dreadful at Court. Ferocious blood-letting was the fashion. And enemas. Molière was merciless in his attacks on the fashionable quacks who made fortunes from the gullible dupes who paid handsome prices for chicanery. He cast a jaundiced eye on the world around him. He saw through the tinsel to the rust beneath.

• The Imaginary Invalid was Molière’s last play. It had a lavish production with an orchestra and many dancers and extras. It was an immediate success. Molière himself played the role of Argan, the Invalid. He died after the fourth performance. The church refused to give him a grave in consecrated ground. But Louis XIV intervened, and the playwright was quietly interred at night in the parish cemetery of Saint-Joseph.

• The play has never been successful in America. Producers and directors have filleted the text and removed the homage to Louis XIV and the Interludes that follow. We have tried to capture the spirit of the original. The designer and I also wanted to try and create something of the environment in which the play was first seen. Luckily there is an original-design theatre at Drottningholm outside Stockholm, and the set designer (Simon Higlett) and I were captivated by it. By chance René Auberjonois and his wife were in Stockholm that summer, and they sent me a picture postcard of the theatre. So I felt we were all on the same track and thinking the same way.



Asides Magazine Articles

Other Related Information: