The Imaginary Invalid
Season 07-08 Season

Program Article:
The Entertainer


Quite by accident, a new art form came into the world on August 17, 1661. On that summer day, the French finance minister Nicholas Fouquet welcomed King Louis XIV and the court to his estate. Knowing how much the King loved to be entertained, Fouquet engaged his favorite artists: the ballet-master Beauchamps, the composer Lully and the comic playwright and actor Molière. When Beauchamps found himself without enough dancers, however, Molière suggested interspersing the scenes of his comedy The Bores between episodes of the ballet in order to buy the dancers time to change costumes. He even wove the dances into the plot of his play “to make a single work out of the ballet and the comedy.” The king was delighted, and a new form was born: the comedy-ballet.

From then on, the king called his three artists together to create a new comedy-ballet whenever he had a special occasion to celebrate: a birthday, a military victory or a holiday. Molière wrote 12 comedy-ballets altogether, including seven of his last 10 plays. In the prologue to his 1665 play Love Is the Doctor, Molière brought the three arts onto the stage in person to declare their joint purpose. “Let us argue no more over whose talents are the greatest, and instead boast of a greater glory today,” sing the figures of Comedy, Music and Ballet. “Let the three of us unite with a new ardor to please the greatest king in the world.” The king had just granted Molière’s company a royal pension and the use of the name “The King’s Troupe,” and they would repay him with his favorite arts united.

The premiere of a new comedy-ballet also became an eagerly awaited event in Paris, as the King’s Troupe always brought its elaborate shows to the Palais-Royal theatre after first presenting them to Louis XIV and his court. In the summer of 1672, the gazette Mercure Galant proclaimed that “during Carnival a new spectacular play, entirely comic, will be performed—and since this play will be written by the famous Molière and the ballets will be created by Beauchamps, we should expect only the best from them.” Carnival, the time of transgressive celebration before the 40 somber days of Lent, seemed the perfect time for the celebration of the arts offered by comedy-ballet. Music and dancing filled the streets during Carnival, and every citizen became a performer in his or her own comedy, dressing in costumes and masks that erased identity and social distinction.

Working with the young composer Charpentier after a falling-out with their ambitious partner Lully, Molière and Beauchamps rehearsed their performers feverishly. Lully had siphoned off the best singers and dancers for his new operas, so Molière’s actors trained day and night to learn how to sing and dance. Finally, on February 10, 1673—at the height of Carnival—The Imaginary Invalid opened at the Palais-Royal. For the first time, a comedy-ballet would premiere before a Paris audience, and not before their king.

With The Imaginary Invalid, which he called a “comedy mixed with music and with dance,” Molière finally achieved the artistic goal he had put forth 12 years earlier: “to make a single work out of the ballet and the comedy.” The play contained as many forms of entertainment as the French stage could offer: ballets set in forest glades, an ode to Louis XIV, Italian opera, pastoral love songs, Molière’s hilarious and biting satire, and episodes from the commedia dell’arte, that raucous Italian style of comedy that had been so influential on Molière’s writing. Most importantly, all these forms came together as never before to tell the story of the hypochondriac Argan.

But what do singing shepherds and dancing nymphs have to do with a man held in the thrall of his doctors? What does sickness have in common with song, and doctors with dance? To the ailing Molière, they had everything in common; his doctors’ useless and unscientific pronouncements resembled nothing so much as the play-acting he staged at the Palais-Royal every night. The establishment Faculty of Medicine vigorously defended the obsolete medical traditions of the classical past, fighting against all innovations. In a visit to a French medical school in 1676, the exiled English philosopher John Locke described the “great violence of Latin, French, grimace, and hand” in the doctors’ speeches, and the elaborate costume and ritual of their ceremonies. Being a doctor in 17th-century France required only an ability to memorize old texts—a skill all of Molière’s actors possessed—and little practical knowledge of the human body.

The Imaginary Invalid is a play full of performers, and not just the actors on the stage. “It’s easy enough to act being in love,” Toinette warns early on, and indeed characters throughout the comedy play love, play sick, play dead and play doctor. The piece opens with an introduction to the imaginary world of performance with ballet and songs; even when the “real” story begins, however, its protagonist Argan seems to live entirely in his own imagination. Soon, the real and imaginary worlds begin to melt into each other: the two young lovers perform a song as characters who first appeared in the musical prologue, and then Argan’s brother invites actors into the house to perform a play. Finally, only the imaginary world can solve the crisis in the real world, as Argan becomes an unsuspecting performer in a play put on by disguised actors; if Argan has been performing the role of a sick man, the way to cure him is to make him perform a new role. “We’re only indulging his fantasies,” says Argan’s brother Béralde. And besides, “it’s carnival time; there is license for all.”

At the end of Love Is the Doctor, Molière’s earlier satire of the medical profession, Comedy, Music and Ballet return for one last song. “Without us all men would become sick,” they boast, “and it is we who are their great doctors.” That might be Molière’s own philosophy: art as the medicine of the imagination.  

Akiva Fox, Literary Associate



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