Friday, June 29, 2007

The Imaginary Invalid redux

My notes on farce last night were a little bland, frankly. I do think that the identity/mocking dialectic provdes a lot of the charge in farce, but the notion of farce as antidote is a little flat. So I want to play with another idea by starting with the simultaneity of identifying with the farcical character and mocking him ... in other words, participating in mocking oneself as one is reflected in the character with whom we ironically cannot help but identify.

I think that the root of this simultaneity is in a rhetoric of deception. So a little terminological set-up:

Rhetoric is the art of manipulation of the relationship between author and audience. In that art, neither author nor audience are fixed or singular concepts. Both shift both in terms of their biological or real being and more so in terms of their representation and play in the text. Manipulation, then, in rhetoric is never singular ... it always involves simultaneous manipulation of both sides of the pairing, each of which is at least multiple and ... being coy ... multifarious.

Multiple, in this sense, points to the author being a real person when he wrote the text, and a real person after he wrote the text, and an implied or represented person in the text, and a reflected or perceived person when the text is experienced by its audience. And, multiple points to an audience that walks into a theater and watches a performance, or reads a book, and that is also implied or represented in the text, and that is often recreated or predicted or defined in the text through the vehicle of an internal audience who witnesses the action.

Multifarious is multiple but more so; it points to the possibility that each of these authors and audiences can change within a performance or a reading or the length of a novel or story. Perhaps I use multifarious in too coy a manner, so I found a couple of definitions (skip to the next paragraph if you want the short version): "uniting usually in an improper way distinct and independent matters, subjects, or cause" [ Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law. Merriam-Webster, Inc. (accessed: June 29, 2007)] and "1593, from L. multifarius 'manifold,' from multifariam 'in many places or parts,' perhaps originally 'that which can be expressed in many ways,' from multi- 'many' + -fariam 'parts,' perhaps from fas 'utterance, expression, manifestation,' related to fari 'to speak' (see fame)" [ Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: June 29, 2007)].

Having credentialed, let me paraphrase: uniting in an improper way distinct matters through manifold utterances. Well that, it turns out, is the essence of farce. I am certainly not saying that all rhetoric is farce, because there are many rhetorics dedicated to other purposes. But all rhetorics involve selection from multiple possibilities, and that selection always has the possibility of deception through elimination as well as deception through copious or overlaid saying. In the case of farce, the eliminated choices are obvious and open, even stated, and they are replaced in statement or utterance by additional overlaid and contradictory utterances. So what the farcical character does is to obscure the obvious and state the obscure. He does it baldly. Soon enough, he will be hung by his own petard, as it were, and we will laugh at him. But in the end, the farcical fool ends up with the last laugh if only because he carries on, or because the obscure becomes the obvious. Argon starts as patient, and ends as doctor to himself as patient.

In the Imaginary Invalid, the scene opens with a man obsessed with his medicines and his pains and his fears, and yet his actions belie his words and fear. He pines for his doctor, threatens to marry off his daughter to the doctor's fool son solely to have a doctor in the house, and then ends up by becoming a doctor himself. As I said yesterday, I think that the American Conservatory Theater performance pulled it off. I should add that Anthony Fusco's performance as the scheming notary, Monsieur de Bonnefoi, and as the truly twisted apothecary, Monsieur Fleurant, was exceptionally pleasurable. The notary, attached to the gold-digging evil wife, schemes and manipulates; but he is a bad guy and is eventually chased off and humiliated. The apothecary, however, embodies our fears and our vicarious hopes ... he is the mean man with the enema, yet we can openly hope that the enema is delivered and we can take pleasure in the discomfiture of poor ... well not so poor ... Argon. Fusco made a fabulous evil enema-dealing apothecary.

But every step on the way in this farce is a peculiar representation of deception ... whether Argon deceiving himself, or his wife is deceiving him, or his daughter is deceiving herself, and so on. And meanwhile, the author is deceiving us because he constructs characters again and again who are not who they seem to be, but they are, and we know it, but we pretend we don't so we can laugh.

Farce is a rhetoric of deception that is unusually open about its purposes and its methods. Part of its allure is that the author's toolkit is on full display. I am intrigued by the idea of a rhetoric of deception in every text, and I hope to return to it frequently. But starting with farce, I think, allows us to look at the elements of deception with exceptional clarity.

So those elements include an author with multiple purposes, an audience hoping to be deceived but reserving its savoir faire and savvy, characters who are not what they seem, and devices in the author's toolkit such as that juxtaposition and reversal to which I allude in this blog from time to time.

I plan to return to this theme in thinking about the movie C.R.A.Z.Y. when I get around to watching it again.

Click here for my previous post on the Imaginary Invalid.

Photo by Arod, down by Fisherman's Wharf

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