Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid is full of specific references to 17th Century France, and could be alienating for a contemporary audience. By setting the play in the current-day United States, with an emphasis on the health care system, and huge gaps between social classes, The Imaginary Invalid could become not only a commentary on antiquated French medicine, but also a biting contemporary political satire. Moliere, born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere, is indisputably the most respected French comedic playwright ever (Life of Moliere: With An Elegant head). Unfortunately, there are no letters, journals, or original manuscripts left of Moliere’s work (Maskell).
As a result, scholars cannot completely determine that Moliere wrote all the plays generally attributed to him. The most controversial claim about the mystery in Moliere’s life is that his most well-loved pieces were actually written by Cornielle (Peacock). Scholars also debate the precise professions and backgrounds of his parents, although the majority agree that his father and grandfather were tapissier de roi for the French kings. Even Jean-Baptiste’s birth year is not known. Only his baptism was recorded – January 15, 1622 – but he may have been anywhere between newborn and several years old at the time (Scott). Scholars to know that he eventually studied “under the Jesuits a the highly competitive College de Clermont,” (Maskell). We do not know much for certain about Moliere’s experience at Clermont, but there is much to infer simply from knowing he went to the most popular college in Paris (Scott). Vast forests have died in vain as scholars have tried to prove that he entered the 5th class in 1637 or the 6th class in 1631. But, in fact, this is one of the hundreds of thousands of things about the life of Moliere we cannot know. (Scott 15)Still, at a school like Clermont, Moliere would have learned Greek and Latin and almost certainly would have read and acted in classical plays (Scott). This background in classical theatre was clearly present in the plays he wrote later in his life.
In The Imaginary Invalid, the stage directions in the Prologue call for a Pulcinella, a character from Commedia Dell’Arte that Moliere would have been familiar with from his studies at Clermont (Moliere 348). After graduating from Clermont at approximately age fifteen, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin took over his father’s role in the court as tapissier de roi for King Louis XIII (Scott 27). Although there is no definitive primary evidence, Virginia Scott believes that he then studied law and worked as a lawyer for a period of six months before beginning his career on the stage (Scott 30). In his 20s, established a theatre company with some friends in Fauxbourg St. Germain and began calling himself Moliere instead of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin for the first recorded time (Life of Moliere: With An Elegant head). Moliere was both a playwright and actor in his company, and for the rest of his career.
The theatre company, called “Illustre Theatre”, fell in debt quickly and eventually Moliere was imprisoned for a time in a debtor’s prison (Parkin). Upon his release he took his plays to the provinces and gained wealthy patrons and then returned to Paris in 1658 with some success (Parkin). Having grown up in upper-class society, the life of a poor playwright may have been a shock for Moliere. His plays frequently criticized social hierarchy through satire, which likely came from his life observing people in many different classes and social standings.
Once he returned from the provinces of France, his performances were generally for the court and upper-class people, even though they so often criticized the social hierarchy present in France (Life of Moliere: With An Elegant head). In the last few years of his life, when Moliere wrote The Imaginary Invalid, scholars have concluded that the playwright had grown quite ill. Satirizing doctors was not a new concept with The Imaginary Invalid, but one can assume that since he was so close to death himself Moliere had had increasing contact with physicians. Moliere lived with tuberculosis for many years before dying of it, and doctors at the time had no cure for the disease. In those years he grew fussy, irritable, and depressed, according to friends and colleagues (Scott 244). On the day of his death, Moliere acted in The Imaginary Invalid playing Argon, a character who seems oddly similar to the actor himself at that point in his life (Scott 243). Interestingly, many aspects of Argon’s life reflect that of Moliere in his final days: Moliere had just begun renting a new apartment which bore remarkable similarity to the stage directions about Argon’s “elaborately furnished” house, he had a distrust of doctors and preferred herbal remedies (Scott 254).
The difference between the character and the actor is that, as Virginia Scott pointed out, the lease for his new apartment “was for six years; Moliere was not expecting to die,” (Scott 253). Moliere was a man of many worlds. He lived as a student, a courtier, a lawyer, a prisoner, a playwright, an actor, and a patient. All these worlds are reflected in Moliere’s plays.
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