By the mid-1660s, the playwright and actor Molière had won the favor of King Louis XIV, the most powerful prince in Europe. In addition to granting Molière the coveted Palais-Royal for his troupe’s public performances, the king called on him to write new pieces for special occasions, sparing no expense to stage them at his court.
In his 1673 play The Imaginary Invalid, Molière returned to one of his favorite subjects: the medical profession. Doctors appear as objects of ridicule throughout his playwriting career, from his early short farce The Flying Doctor to later plays like Love is the Doctor and The Doctor in Spite of Himself. He never tired of portraying them as frauds who trick the weak-minded into paying exorbitant fees for dubious cures; many of his doctors aren’t doctors at all, but imposters cloaked in high-flown rhetoric. Molière had long suffered from tuberculosis and knew doctors all too well.
The Imaginary Invalid was to be a lavish (and expensive) production, a comedy with interludes of music and dancing. Perhaps to cover for his own worsening health, however, Molière made sure that his character Argan spent much of the play sitting or lying down. The play became an instant success with the theatregoing public.
But on the evening of February 17, 1673, Molière played Argan for the fourth and last time. The Comédie Française, established by Louis XIV in 1680, still displays the chair from which Molière played Argan.
The Imaginary Invalid has maintained its popularity on stages in France and worldwide since Molière’s day, though rarely in its original form. Most productions strip away the elaborate musical and comedic interludes to present only the story of the hypochondriac Argan. However, the play has experienced a surge in production recently; in the last 10 years in the United States alone, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, American Repertory Theatre in Boston and The Pearl Theater Company in New York have all staged major productions. Alan Drury translated the play, with many of the interludes intact, for a 1981 production at London’s National Theatre, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company uses a newly revised version of that translation.
This is the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s second production of a play by Molière. In 2006, Stephen Wadsworth directed Don Juan from his own translation.