I wrote about Molière several years back when I read The School for Husbands. I recommend reading that post if you are unfamiliar with Molière and his works. Between his Jerry Springer Show lifestyle (those 17th Century French…) and his plots which often seem as if they could be written in our own time, he is simply fascinating. To quote from my previous post:
A nouveau riche attempts to acquire high culture and makes a fool of himself. A health-obsessed hypochondriac falls for a series of quack doctors and their remedies. A religious huckster preys on foolish aristocracy to obtain money and sexual favors. A young, snarky hipster mocks everything and anything, but finds nothing to believe in - not even his own misanthropy.
Are these plots from the late Twentieth Century perhaps? Quite the contrary. They come from the Seventeenth Century comedies Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Le Malade Imaginaire, Tartuffe, and Le Misanthrope, by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, commonly known by his stage name, Molière.
I read The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire) some years back, and was thoroughly excited to get the chance to see it live. For reasons I cannot fathom, Molière is not performed that often, despite the hilarity and timelessness of his plays. I did at least get a chance to see Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at The Empty Space, and Le Misanthrope at Cal State Bakersfield before that. Both were worthy productions. But they occurred before the kids were born, let alone after they because old enough to enjoy live theater. I was eager to introduce them to Molière and see their reactions.
This play was a big hit - the slapstick and silly scenes were of course popular, but also the verbal humor this time. We have seen quite a few plays together, and they are starting to pick up on the jokes. Even the naughty ones - and there are a lot of naughty jokes in this one.
There are always interesting choices in staging a Molière play. There are multiple translations, and they don’t entirely match. Also, there are different versions, plus places where there would have been a ballet or musical selection between acts. This leaves plenty of room for interpretation - and in some cases, improvisation as well.
We saw this down at Theatricum Botanicum (more about this theater in this previous post), and in this adaptation by Constance Congdon, they decided to play up the references to bodily functions and semi-inadvertent double entendres. This worked pretty well. The original was certainly broad in its time - and it is likely that the actors tarted it up a bit. Even the English wrote some bawdy stuff back then.
Another interesting decision was to go with essentially period costumes. I am not well versed in the specifics of the times, so it is possible I suppose that the costumes were as much Eighteenth as Seventeenth Century, but they were certainly of that sort, ridiculous wigs and all. One might argue that all comedies would be more effective in old French costumes.
Anyway, here is the plot:
Argan is -in the original - a nobleman who is convinced he is ill with a variety of maladies. In this version, Argan is a woman, played by Ellen Geer. She retains a certain doctor, Purgon (a nice pun that) who doses her on enemas and herbs and other such “medical” treatments as were common back in that time.
Actually, what is surprising is that so many of them remain in use now - by those who practice the quackery of “alternative” medicine. A few names are the same, but if you merely substitute “cleanse” and “colonic” for “enema,” you pretty much have it. (In this production, they did insert some modern terms such as “organic” and a few trendy “superfoods” and so on. They fit perfectly fine with the others. The more things change…)
Meanwhile, her daughter Angelique (Willow Geer) has fallen in love with a young man, Cleante, who returns her love. However, they are in the first throes of love, and haven’t yet figured out how to meet and declare their love openly.
Argan has other plans: she wishes Angelique to marry Claude (Thomas in the original) Diafoirus, the nephew of a doctor - and soon to be doctor himself. In this way, she will guarantee free medical advice for the rest of her life. As in the case of Purgon, Diafoirus is a gross pun, roughly the equivalent of Diarrhea. (The actors played this up in this version, in case the reference was missed.)
Claude is a real dimwit, alas, and fails to impress. In this version, they took a brief reference to his being sent to the henhouse and made it into an entire chicken schtick. Thomas struts like a rooster, has a wig that looks more than a little like a coxcomb, and devolves into cackles when nervous. Cameron Rose played this part up to hilarious result. The kids loved his portrayal.
Cameron Rose as Claude. Publicity photo by Miriam Geer.
It is this scene that contains some of the very best lines of the play. My translation differs a bit from the version we heard live, but the gist is the same. When Claude attempts to woo Angelique, he displays his great learning but little thinking:
Mademoiselle, no more nor less than the statue of Memnon gave forth a harmonious sound when it came to be lit by the sun’s rays, even so I feel myself animated by a sweet transport at the apparition of the sun in your beauties. And as the naturalists note that the flower named heliotrope turns incessantly toward that day star, so my heart shall henceforth always turn toward the resplendent stars of your adorable eyes, as toward its only pole. So permit me, Mademoiselle, to append to the altar of your charms the offering of this heart, which breathes and aspires to no other glory than to be all its life, Mademoiselle, your most humble, most obedient, and most faithful servant and husband.
This does not, shall we say, go over well with the women of the play (except for Argan - who is male in the original).
Monsieur Diaforius (the uncle) gives an explanation for his nephew, which includes this bit of faint praise:
He has never had a very lively imagination, nor that sparkling wit that you notice in some; but it’s by this that I have always augured well of his judgment, a quality required for the exercise of our art.
But what really thrills the uncle is this:
But what I like about him above all else, and in which he follows my example, is that he attaches himself blindly to the opinions of our ancients, and he has never been willing to understand or listen to the reasons and experiments of the so-called discoveries of our century, about the circulation of the blood, and other opinions of the same ilk.
It is this bit that echoes so thoroughly the spirit of our own age, where scientific denialism is rampant, and millions still cling to the opinions of the pre-scientific age on so many things. I have to hand it to Theatricum for specifically mentioning vaccine panic in the program notes - this was a bold move in Los Angeles, one of several hotbeds of anti-vaccine activism in California.
While this is happening, Cleante has disguised himself as a music teacher for Angelique, and improvises an “opera” as a means of declaring his love to her and also castigating Argan for attempting to force her to marry another.
After this disaster, Argan seems to be left without a doctor - a dreadful state for her. Angelique is in tears, desperate to escape her mother’s scheme, even if she must become a nun.
At this point, I should introduce some additional characters. Argan has remarried after the death of Angelique’s father: Beline (Jonathan Blandino) is a much younger man, and a shameless gold digger. He wants nothing more than to get Argan to sign over her property, and then die. (You can’t entirely blame him - Argan is hellish to live with.) This is where the gender flipping for this version works marvelously. Beline is hilarious as a man. The part calls for melodramatic weeping and flirting and simpering. It is a lot of fun to watch.
In order to carry out the scheme, Beline invites a crooked notary (back in the early days of the notary!) to witness signatures - and advise Argan how she can skirt the entailment laws which would guarantee that Angelique inherits the fortune. When Argan says she wants to call her lawyer, the notary objects. My version isn’t quite as pithy, but in the production, the notary responds with, “It’s not lawyers you should go to, for lawyers concern themselves with what is legal.” In other words, they aren’t crooked enough for this task.
One wonders at this a bit now, I suppose. I can’t imagine there are no lawyers that answer to the challenge to skirt the law. But, give credit for actually having something nice to say about us lawyers. I’ll take it.
The other character isn’t a minor one, but a major one, with many of the best likes. Argan’s faithful servant, Toinette (the always marvelous Melora Marshall), has a tongue about her, and sasses her mistress without shame. Since Toinette is clearly the most intelligent and perceptive character in the play, it falls to her to set things to right.
Melora Marshall, Ellen Geer, and Willow Geer. Publicity photo by Miriam Geer.
After the disaster with Thomas, she proposes to carry out a prank on Argan. Disguising herself, she claims to be a new doctor, come to see Argan. After declaring everything the other doctors did to be “rubbish,” she gives a new diagnosis, which Argan falls for just like the rest.
Then, Toinette gives things a horrific turn. She claims that Argan’s one arm is stealing all the nutrients from the other - so it should be cut off. And likewise an eye is at fault and must be removed. For once, Argan refuses a remedy.
Having thoroughly punked Argan, Toinette then turns her schemes to the next victims. She convinces Argan to fake her own death in order to see who really loves her and who doesn’t. Beline utterly fails the test, shall we say, and Angelique proves her love. Thus, the stage is set for a happy ending.
There are a couple of characters this production omitted. First is Argan’s brother, the other sane person in the play. His lines mostly go to Toinette. Likewise, Argan’s younger daughter is omitted, along with the subplot that she appears in. I think this is a defensible decision.
At the risk of spoiling the ending, I do want to mention how Molière wraps things up. (Since the play is 350 years old, I assume this isn’t really a spoiler by this point.)
As in The Would-Be Gentleman, there is a “ceremony” at the end, wherein a character is given an honorary degree to great humorous effect. In this play, since Argan cannot bring a doctor into the family - and Cleante seems unwilling to devote the next decade of his life to the cause - Toinette suggest that Argan him(her)self become a doctor. After all, he(she) has already experienced every disease - at least in her head.
In the original play, the “ceremony” is conducted in a ludicrous combination of Latin, French, and Italian, which the audience would readily understand. It is filled with both utter nonsense and jokes.
For this production, the spirit of the ceremony is preserved, but not the words. Instead, there is a combination of Latin in the form of legal and medical terms (I laughed at the former, my wife at the latter...and the former - she is a lawyer’s daughter), Spanish in the form of nonsense and bad jokes, and Pig Latin, which my kids thought was hilarious.
I want to mention a bit about the music. In Molière’s day, there would have been song and dance throughout. Theatricum did include some of this in their version. Songs were interspersed, and there was a bit of dancing, although not the hour long spectacle a French audience of the time would have expected.
The music was an interesting choice. Molière worked closely with Jean-Baptiste Lully for most of his career. Before The Imaginary Invalid, Molière’s last play, they had a falling out, and he went with Marc-Antoine Charpentier. This was a “breaking up the Beatles” level of scandal, and, after Molière collapsed and died after a performance of the play (talk about method acting!), it was rumored that Lully had poisoned him. In actuality, Molière died of tuberculosis, which he had suffered from for years. The reason the rumor gained traction is that Lully was the sort who actually might have poisoned a rival. Lully himself would die of gangrene after stabbing himself accidentally with his conductor’s staff. He refused an amputation as it would interfere with his dancing…
Anyway, Theatricum eschewed the Baroque era for its music, instead choosing the age of Mozart. I would say it was a good choice, as Mozart’s style is more singable than the earlier one, and it still struck the right note for the period setting.
I have recommended Theatricum Botanicum’s productions before. Shakespeare is, naturally, their bread and butter. You can read about their productions in years past of All’s Well That Ends Well, and As You Like It. The season runs through September, so if you are in the Los Angeles area, go check one out.