There is a chair in the museum collection of the Comédie-Française in Paris, which is displayed in a corridor right off the theater’s main lobby, encased in a glass cabinet like Sleeping Beauty. It is a simple armchair on casters, upholstered in tattered leather. The chair is old, at least some 350 years. Legend has it, that the playwright-actor Molière practically died in it, on stage, when he had a coughing fit during the fourth performance of Le Malade Imaginaire, playing Argan the Hypondriac (or Imaginary Invalid). He barely made it through the last act and died at home shortly after the performance. (There is a parallel here with the death of the great British actor Edmund Keane, who almost died onstage in the arms of his actor-son Charles who was playing Iago to his Othello).
An untimely death at 51 for the playwright-actor-manager Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, who had spent many years touring France, making people laugh in a period of grime and mud and sky-high infant mortality rates, with Commedia dell’Arte-type plays that unmasked the abyss dividing rich and poor, the uselessness of the medical profession and the hypocrisy of the clergy.
But it was not an entirely unforeseen death, as he suffered from tuberculosis – most likely contracted during a stint in debtor’s prison.
When Molière had returned to Paris he was eventually incorporated in the entertainments at the court of Louis XIV. His breakthrough at the Sun King’s court was greatly engineered by another Jean-Baptiste, the naturalized Italian composer Gianbattista Lully. Alas, after some splendid collaborations, Lully got tired of playing second fiddle to Molière’s words. Lully had ambitions to create his own operas, so the two were estranged by the time Molière staged Le Malade Imaginaire in 1673. The musical interludes were written by another composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. This all to the chagrin of Lully, who had claimed a solid monopoly for his operas and had managed to get a royal edict passed to the effect that theatrical performances were only allowed the services of two strings and two voices.
Why am I telling all this?
I never cared much for the staid interpretations of Molière’s biting, satirical plays, until I saw De Ingebeelde Zieke performed last week in a staging by Jos Thie at the municipal theater in Utrecht.
Building on a tradition that was perhaps set in motion by Ariane Mnouchkine’s 1978 film Molière ou la vie d’un honnête homme, Thie renders the play in a way that neither wants to be excruciatingly contemporary, nor wants to forget about all the layers built up around such a classic in terms of its (performance) history and its underlying socio-political context. An extra gift is, that the long-lost music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier has been incorporated in this incredibly funny, superbly acted and beautifully designed performance. Finally we can see Molière the magnificent, who registered all the wrongs of his times, and may have been biting the hand that fed him, yet it didn’t stop him to speak his mind with mastery, insight and an enormous dose of humor.