Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Imaginary Invalid

Didn't think I had the mojo to blog tonight ... it's MRU course catalog time and I am buried in the avalanche of minutiae that constitute the life of a catalog editor ... each tiny fact essential to someone and hence to the integrity of my publication, so there is no slacking on even the most minor little thing. Every jot and dot is life and death.

In that context, thinking about the American Conservatory Theater production of an adaptation of Molière's Imaginary Invalid. Now, I am given to enjoy theater, and hence to like productions unless there is some glaring fault, and this production had the advantage of having its audience in stitches through much of our time together. There was a little lag mid second act, and I thought that the maid Toinette's turn as a fake male doctor was a little weak, but these are quibbles. I laughed at a play 334 years old, and that alone is a recommendation.

The play got me thinking of farce. It is a send-up of a hypochondriac, and of the machinations of an evil gold-digging wife, an excessively innocent and by implication stupid daughter, a money grubbing doctor and his fool son anxious for an easy catch of a pretty wife, and a by turns fumbling and frothing suitor. In other words, all the characters are stock elements of comedy, not so much people or personages as they are caricatures from the moment they appear on stage.

In the A.C.T. production, John Apicella portrays Argan, the “imaginary invalid", and his tour de force in the opening scene where he fudges and fusses over obviously useless remedies and potions establishes both him and the play as farce. We empathize with this fool and we ridicule him at the same moment. That is something that farce both indulges and enforces ... to be both with the character and mocking him simultaneously. In other words, farce requires both intimacy and distance, both empathy and knowing superior disdain. With only empathy, you would have only pathos; with only disdain, glum self-satisfaction. You cannot enjoy farce if you are convinced only of your own superiority, but if you cannot luxuriate even briefly in superiority, you are equally immune to farce.

I am the invalid and I ridicule him.

As an aside, this is another example of juxtaposition and reversal, and I am going again to defer an examination of this feature of performance and text ... but I want to note it for future reference.

Farce tends to end happily because tragedy would break the bubble created by the unacknowledged tension between interiorizing the fool and mocking him at the same moment. This farce ends in a betrothal between beautiful but simple daughter and handsome but simple lover, and it ends in the invalid becoming his own doctor. In other words there are two conflations here: the expected conflation of destined lovers, and the unexpected conflation of patient and healer. In this case, the patient is not a patient, and the healer is not a healer, so perhaps the lovers are not so much lovers as they are children in a sandbox, another set of fools to whom we may feel ourselves superior even as we acknowledge ourselves in them.

So the farce is an antidote to the seriousness of an everyday life in which every jot and dot is life and death, because jot and dot in farce leads only to ridicule both of self and the other. There is no greater relaxation both because it encompasses all the elements of living even as it lets us out of our cage for a while. Laugh and be merry because tomorrow it's back to work; laugh and be merry because I am the fool I mock, and still tomorrow it is back to work.

I have absolutely got to crash ... I am exhausted. Perhaps tomorrow I will try the farce technique I have outlined above on myself, and perhaps I will be laughing a little more than grousing when I get home.

Click here for my next post on the Imaginary Invalid.

Drawing by Honoré Daumier, ca. 1857, Le Malade imaginaire.

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