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the hypochondriac

14 november 2016

The Hypochondriac, translated in full by John Wood in 1959 and still in print from Penguin, is a daffy farrago of dramatic styles. At the heart is yet another Molière farce about an irrational father and young lovers who get around his fixations. Surrounding the main plot is a whole bunch of song and dance and slapstick. Audiences in 1673 must have loved this stuff, but it famously killed its author. In the middle of the opening run, while playing Argan, the healthy-as-an-ox gentleman who is convinced he's dying, Molière dropped dead.

Molière wrote at least three earlier plays satirizing doctors (L'amour médecin, Le médecin malgré lui, and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac). He so had it in for the medical profession that there's a scene in The Hypochondriac where Argan and his brother Béralde discuss Molière's medical satires (Act 3, Scene 3), which Argan (again, played by Molière) claims never to have heard of.

Not that medicine is a target that takes much evasive action. The specific content of Molière's attacks is different from what we'd use today, but the basic principles are still very familiar: the rapacity of physicians, their indifference to their patients, their hasty diagnoses, their overprescription of pills. I knew I'd found a good doctor during some recent health problems when she told me: don't do anything, wait for it to heal naturally. As Béralde says,

Nature, when left to itself, will quietly find its own way out of the sickness it has succumbed to. … Most people die of the cure, not the disease. (Act 3, Scene 3; p. 276)
Don't worry; I'm not a crank. When I was going blind a few years ago, I trotted right over to an eye doctor and got myself a couple of cataract surgeries – an option not available, at least in anything like its miraculous modern form, in Molière's day. Medicine really has advanced, of course. In fact, a great deal of the quackery that Molière inveighs against has moved from the mainstream into popular "alternative" medicine, where practitioners much like Argan's parade of doctors continue to frustrate their reality-based critics.

The young lovers in The Hypochondriac are pretty thin characters; the best role in the play is Toinette, the servant who sees through Argan and his doctors, and plays the trick of disguising herself (by little more than mere suggestion) as a doctor too, giving Argan the most outrageous advice of all.

As always, it's Molière's eye for the absurd situation that produces far more laughs than any joke or double entendre. At the height of the action, Toinette convinces Argan to play dead, which isn't hard (he thinks he's half-dead to start with). Argan's wife Béline immediately thinks of ways to carve up his fortune, but his daughter Angélique is oddly touched by her dad's departure. Their true colors established, the women go on to get what they deserve.

Molière. The Hypochondriac. [Le malade imaginaire, 1673.] Translated by John Wood, 1959 [as The Imaginary Invalid]. In The Miser and Other Plays. 2000. London: Penguin, 2004. 221-304.