Le Malade Imaginaire, known in English as The Imaginary Invalid, was Moliere’s last play. It was written in 1673 in response to his own ill health: rather than retire from the theater, he created a comedy in which he would be able to perform the title role mostly sitting in a chair. It was still too much for him: he collapsed during the fourth performance and died hours later. The actual chair in which he played the part is still to be seen, on display in the foyer at the Comédie Française in Paris.
The imaginary invalid is the wealthy, irascible Monsieur Argan: a hypochondriac who enjoys his supposed illnesses, and has two daughters, Angelique and Louison. He intends to marry Angelique to Thomas Diafoirus, the scion of a medical family, in the expectation that this will guarantee him free treatment for life. The only snag is that Angelique loves someone else, Cléante, who has got himself into the household posing as Angelique’s music teacher. She flatly refuses to marry Thomas, and flounces off when told that she must do so within four days or go into a convent.
Argan’s new wife, the gold-digger Béline, makes trouble for her stepdaughter by telling him that the disobedient girl has been caught having a surreptitious conversation with another young man. The witness was Angelique’s younger sister, so Argan summons Louison to get at the truth of the matter. But Louison is at first evasive, then tells her father a direct lie:
ARGAN: And have you seen nothing today?
LOUISON: No, papa.
LOUISON: No, papa.
ARGAN: Quite sure?
LOUISON: Quite sure.
ARGAN Ah! Indeed! I’ll make you see something soon.
(He picks up a rod.)
LOUISON: Ah! papa!
ARGAN: Ah! Ah! False girl: you won’t tell me that you saw a man in your sister’s room!
LOUISON (crying): Papa!
(Argan takes her by the arm.)
ARGAN: This will teach you to tell lies.
At this point it’s worth breaking off to issue the first and least important of four necessary warnings associated with this play. The staging of what happens next varies between productions. I’ve translated the dialog to favor one of the options; we’ll discuss the other afterwards.
(Louison throws herself to her knees.)
LOUISON: Ah! My dear papa! Please forgive me. My sister asked me not to say anything to you, but I’ll tell you everything.
ARGAN: First you’re going to get a spanking for lying, then we’ll see about the rest.
LOUISON: Forgive me, papa, forgive me!
ARGAN: No, no!
LOUISON: My dear papa, don’t spank me.
ARGAN: Yes, you’re going to be spanked.
LOUISON: Please don’t spank me, papa.
ARGAN: Come here!
(Argan prepares to spank her.)
LOUISON: Ah, papa, you have hurt me! I am dead!
(She feigns death.)
The scene is sometimes, as in the 2015 production at Limoges, played like this:
But it’s also sometimes, as at North Springs, Georgia, in 2011, done like this:
In other words, sometimes it’s a proper OTK spanking, whereas sometimes it’s a caning. And there are obvious technical advantages to the latter:
If Louison is being caned, she can ‘die’ by falling onto the stage, leaving Argan free to move about as he begins his lament for the loss of his younger daughter:
‘Louison! Louison! Ah, heaven! Louison! My daughter! Ah! wretched father! My poor daughter is dead! What have I done? Ah! Oh, wicked rod! A curse on the rod! Ah! my poor daughter!’
Whereas if she’s being spanked, as in this 2014 school production at Osnabrück in Germany, he’s stuck:
On occasion that might work to our benefit: in one production Argan made vigorous attempts to revive Louison… by spanking her some more! But most of the time, the point of the moment is that she pretends to be dead in order to escape being spanked (or caned) – though it’s also worth stressing that, according to the dialog, she has been struck at least once so that she can claim to be hurt. Unless (and here comes the second warning) the production portrays her as such a sensitive girl that the mere threat of corporal punishment upsets her so much that it apparently brings on a fatal seizure.
But there is another alternative, which can be illustrated by a 2015 production from the Turkish part of Cyprus, in which Beril Femsu Asal’s Louison gets one of the longest spankings I’ve ever seen in this play:
She gets spanked, gets up afterwards and rubs her bottom. But Argan decides he isn’t finished and starts whacking at her with his stick – and then she has her fainting fit!
Of course, she’s not dead at all, and she stops pretending out of pity for her father’s grief (or, in that one production I mentioned, to save her bottom from further resuscitation attempts). And he’s so pleased to have her back that he forgives her – provided she now tells him the truth. The scene moves on to another comic set-piece involving Argan’s amazing, all-knowing little finger, and the prospect of further spanking passes out of the play.
The Louison scene is more or less a self-contained set piece, which means that (Warning # 3) many productions simply cut it out altogether. But it’s actually rather important, because what happens to Louison is a foreshadowing of what happens to her father in the final act, when his maid Toinette facilitates a series of schemes that bring him to his senses. First he is made to eschew hypochondria by some truly alarming medical treatment, and then shown which members of his family truly love him. In the earlier scene, Louison had something unwelcome happen to her bottom; Argan’s medical procedure is a grotesque and enormous enema. Spot the connection? And just as Louison pretended to be dead, so does Argan: that’s how he learns that the greedy, loveless Béline has been waiting impatiently to inherit his money, whereas Angelique is genuinely sad to have lost her father. And so all ends happily, as a comedy should.
The play is frequently revived throughout Europe and beyond, and we’ll explore many of these productions in future articles. But if you’re going to see it, you need to pay attention to the four warnings. I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do to help you tell in advance whether it will be this sort of production…
… or whether it will do the scene like this:
Nor can I assist with the vexed question of whether, in any given production, Louison will be struck one blow, many or none at all. But I do have one piece of advice to offer: check the cast list beforehand. That way you can at least know whether Louison is in the production at all!
But if her scene is so vital in the structure of the play, why should it be so often omitted? The answer is that it saves hiring an actor, and here’s where we come to the fourth and most important warning. Just as he wrote the role of Argan for himself to play, so Moliere created Louison for a child actress in his company, and many contemporary productions cast it accordingly. That’s why the scene is often cut: the modern regulations governing the use of under-age performers are a complication well worth evading. And that’s another good reason to check the cast list in advance.
In school productions, at least, there is the security of knowing that, even if the role has been given to the smallest girl in the class, she must nevertheless be a teenager of spankable age.
But professional productions often won’t bother casting a child at all: as Argan himself says after realizing how cunning Louison has been, ‘Nowadays children aren’t children any more!’ Here’s the 2015 production at the Theater am Fluss in Austria, with Klaus Fischbach as Argan spanking Sophia Dobers as Louison:
And there’ll be more of these another time. But if you should happen to stumble upon a production with a little Louison, and if you’re looking for fessée rather than comédie, I can only advise you not to stay.