The Mirror of an Age: Moliere’s Hypochondriac

Before Christmas I went to see a matinee of The Hypochondriac at the Theatre Royal, Brighton starring Sir Tony Robinson.

Theatre for blog

The Hypochondriac directed by Lindsay Posner is Richard Bean’s adaptation of Moliere’s La Malade Imaginaire. Unlike his better-known One Man Two Guv’nors there was no audience participation, but a musical chorus sang between acts about very modern worries – ‘blood in your poo?’ ‘do you think you’ve got AIDS when you sneeze?’ A giant projection of Gilbert and George’s Blood Spunk Piss Shit Spit 1996 (Tate Modern) added to the sense of queasy angst.

The magnified spit-bubbles in the photo reminded me of the mirror in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage.

The_Arnolfini_Portrait,_détail_(2)

(c) National Gallery, London

Appropriately, as it turned out, because the play itself was a mirror, of past and present.

The contemporary entre-acte buskers reminded you that the original play was a comedy-ballet, a musical extravanganza where the spoken play was interwoven with show-stopping song and dance numbers. If you have a spare three and half hours you can see a superb recreation of the original here with Charpentier’s music performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florrisants.

The set was a tall, panelled room with a bust of Louis XIV over the door. I was instantly back in the 1670s. It’s curious that you could beam one of Moliere’s opening-night audience three and a half centuries into the future and they would’ve known exactly what play we were watching: a grumbling man centre stage in a bath-chair, still wearing his cap and night-shirt. It couldn’t be anything else.

I was intrigued to see Robinson doing theatre. As he says in this interview with ITV, he began his career on the stage. I had only ever seen him acting in Blackadder, but in my favourite first season, with its classic foolish master/ cunning servant combination, Robinson’s Baldrick had sinister, Iago-like moments.

Blackadder :  That bastard brother of mine!

Baldrick:        If only he were, My Lord...

His performance was superb, a man who relishes the power that his imaginary illness gives him, ruling his family from a commode-chair, literally on the throne:

Angelique: I know you have a heart, Father.

Argan: No I don’t – I’m a complete bastard.

b2f5dcd09601408683c7c0b508eb2351

(c) Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

But his Argan was genuinely moving; he found real pathos in the role, all the more so because the play is surprisingly cruel. In the big reveal at the end, Argan finally discovers that his wife (the brilliant Imogen Stubbs) is cheating on him, and his daughter Angelique – who he has been trying to marry off to the idiot son of a doctor, and wants to send to a nunnery when she refuses – is brave, devoted and loyal. Angelique was also superb, but I don’t know her name as with tuppence ha’penny in my pocket I didn’t buy a programme. Nor did I have my glasses, but from their voices I recognised the doctor and his son as David Collings, who played Anthony Babbington in Elizabeth R back in 1971, and Craig Gazey who I’d last seen on Coronation Street three years ago – a treat to have these two styles juxtaposed.

Moliere only lets the scales fall briefly from Argan’s eyes. He allows true love to triumph. But having regained his sanity – and his dignity – Argan sinks back into delusion. He won’t give up his beloved hypochondria and so his family engage a troupe of fake doctors to induct him into the College of Medicine. He becomes his own imaginary doctor. Moliere’s play ends with the ceremony. Posner’s song and dance number is a good reflection of the scenes that Moliere’s original audience would have seen. I hadn’t known that Moliere, playing the part of Argan himself, collapsed on stage and died shortly afterwards. Bean’s interpretation includes this episode, and when Robinson seemed to vomit blood after his final speech I was genuinely worried.

At one point, Argan’s brother Beralde, the unlistened-to voice of reason (dependable Michael Thomas, ) says that a play is as much a mirror of an age as a palace. The line was spoken with a bow to the Royal Box, like an act at the Royal Variety, mystically conjuring the presence of the King. Time has proved Beralde right. Moliere’s play is a mirror of its age and its audience. When Angelique and her lover, the music teacher Cleante, declare their love for each other in front of Argan, they do it in song, pretending to be an Arcadian nymph and shepherd. They could not of course speak as themselves. In the same way, Moliere’s play holds a mirror up to its audience. The courtiers in Moliere’s audience would’ve considered themselves on another planet to the prosperous bourgeois world of its characters. Argan is a rich carpet manufacturer (a nod to the office of Court upholsterer and carpet-fitter, that Moliere and his father held)

– I hear you supplied all the carpets for the Palace of Versailles?

– Yes (with pride) Well, the underlay

But their lives in the play explore themes the aristocracy were all too familiar with. Arranged marriage and the fantasy of marrying for love. Illness. Doctors. Medical treatments and surgery in particular were a terrifying prospect. It must have been good to laugh about these things, and watch them happening to other people. I was reminded of this a while ago when this painting came up at auction. It was called ‘an anatomist’ but it is clearly a French surgeon c.1680. His instruments make up a trepanning drill, to bore a hole in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain. In fact one of the more established and successful treatments.

Brain surgeon, c.1690

(c) Auctionata

At Court the King’s doctor Guy-Crescent Fagon was blamed for bleeding his patients to death. This didn’t hurt his practice until the King himself died. And in an age of heavily-salted meat, kidney stones were common, and so were operations to get rid of them. The composer Marais even sets one to music. In Le Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille, short and worth listening to here, the scratchy sawing viola da gamba imitates the patient’s terror as the narrator describes ‘the sight of the instruments, second thoughts, getting on and off the table…’ Moliere’s play helped his audience to make light of their worst fears, like Bean’s buskers help us laugh at ours. Some modern practices have even brought us closer together again. The recent fad for colonic irrigation made the enema scene almost too contemporary. In fact it was just as trendy at Versailles three hundred years ago. The Duke de Saint Simon describes the Duchess of Burgundy being given an enema under her vast skirts. This was at Court in front of the King!

I will have to read the text in French to see whether this exchange between Argan and Toinette his maid was from the original. Toinette (played by Tracie Bennett’s understudy; I beg her pardon for not knowing her name, as she kept the play rocketing along) disguises herself as a Turkish doctor.

Toinette: My name is Bobo.

Argan: Dr Bobo –

Toinette: Not Dr Bobo. I am Mr Bobo.

Argan: A consultant! (thrilled) I’ve waited years to see a Consultant. Wait – I can’t afford you.

It got a huge laugh. It probably did in 1673 too.

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