The Would-Be Invalid: a farce of pharmaceutical proportions

January 19, 2011 § 3 Comments

Before I begin this post, I want to remind you that you were previously warned this would happen.

Right now, the only thing on my mind is Molière’s The Would-Be Invalid. This is the text we’re reading this week for World Lit. II, and I have never read it before; naturally, I’ve never taught it before either. If you’ve also never read The Would-Be Invalid, then you are, like I was, truly missing out! If a World Lit. II professor chooses to include Molière on the syllabus, the chosen text is normally Tartuffe. I’ve taught Tartuffe before, and it was pretty good…the students were able to grasp the themes pretty well. But I truly wanted this semester to challenge myself and my students–I wanted to teach works that are not popular in the anthologies, authors who haven’t been anthologized in a while or at all.

Molière, though, probably doesn’t have a single bad work in his entire collection. The Would-Be Invalid continues Molière’s brilliant mastery of the farce, choosing as his victims of mockery this time seventeenth-century physicians and pharmacists (or apothecaries, as they were once called). These people received little education compared to the rigorous training they can expect today. (Having a sister in a Doctor of Pharmacy program has certainly opened my eyes.) A seventeenth-century physician would educate himself in the theoretical practice of medicine (probably like an early-year pre-med, pre-pharm student these days)–most medical students in the 1600s would not have ever even encountered a human patient by the time they received their doctorate in medicine. As long as they could speak and read Latin, could quote the Ancients (particularly Hippocrates and Galen), and composed a thesis on humoral theory, then they were apparently equipped to diagnose patients. (And some, the barber-surgeons, would even operate–oh, the Sweeney Todd-like horror!)

Using humoral theory, physicians would diagnose patients entirely on a system of guesswork for the body’s level of four fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The bodily fluids were associated with the four elements (air, water, fire, and earth), the four seasons, and specific organs (liver, brain/lungs, gall bladder, spleen). Judging on your symptoms (feverish, chills, aches, coughing, etc.), the physician would then diagnose an imbalance in one of the bodily fluids. The common methods of treatment were bloodletting, enemas, purgatives, leeches, and herbal concoctions. (I suppose the herbal concoctions were the closest things to real medicine that we have today.) If a patient died by one of the treatments, oopsy-daisy! If a patient miraculously healed, then it became evidence that treatment worked properly.

Molière had tuberculosis, which eventually killed him with a lung hemorrhage. He actually played the lead character in The Would-Be Invalid–Argan, the would-be invalid himself. Unfortunately for the Parisian theatrical world, Molière succumbed to a coughing fit during the finale of the fourth performance and died in his home a few hours later. Molière was highly critical of the physicians and apothecaries of his time period, which becomes strongly evident in The Would-Be Invalid. Argan, the hypochondriac “invalid,” not only buys into the therapies and treatments recommended to him by real quacks, but he also seems to revel in them, delighting in the tallying of his bill for many enemas and purges. He looks forward to his stomach cramps brought on by the purgatives he is prescribed to ingest; he eagerly climbs on his bed and assumes the position when his apothecary arrives to perform the enema.

Argan’s family, however, voices Molière’s real opinions. In the third act, Argan gets into an argument with his brother Béralde over whether or not patients should trust their physicians in the first place. When Béralde tries to speak some sense into Argan, explaining that he really isn’t as ill as he seems to be and that his physician is really just a kook, Argan fires back:

Argan: That is to say that all the knowledge in the world is shut up in your head, and you think you know more than all the great medical men of our time.
Béralde: In speech and action, your great medical men are two different sorts of people. To hear them talk, they’re the most skillful people on earth; but in action, they’re the most ignorant men alive.

After a long-ish argument and a great deal of folly to prove Argan wrong, the play ends with Argan receiving his own doctorate in medicine by speaking fake Latin in front of a fake panel of doctors. It’s really quite the perfect deal. Argan is the worst kind of (modern) patient (always seeking unnecessary treatment, shorting his physician and apothecary on the bill), but if he can be his own doctor, then the problem is resolved. If all it takes for proper doctoring is the ability to speak gibberish (in this case Latin) and to possess a charismatic spirit, then Argan is destined to be an amazing doctor. He actually strikes me as the textbook example for why medical (and psychology and pharmacy) students should avoid the temptation to self-diagnose. When you know all the worst possible symptoms and the worst possible scenarios, it’s really easy to imagine that a simple tickle in the throat is actually the early stages of pneumonia.

Read the play–at the very least, you will appreciate the advancements made in modern medicine. I have to go now. My leeches are starting to fall off.

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§ 3 Responses to The Would-Be Invalid: a farce of pharmaceutical proportions

  • I have never read The Would-Be Invalid, but will have to now. This post tells me what a good teacher you are, since you have made me really want to read the play. You might consider this teaser before students start reading, and I bet they’ll be hooked.
    Best wishes from Haiti,

  • Tori Nelson says:

    I agree with Kathy! I am definitely going to read this play! You are convincing, Mrs. H 🙂

  • petthedog says:

    This does sound interesting! Moliere was such a “sarcy” (as my mom would say), always offering sarcasm for social commentary. I love your review. This is such a timely topic that I’m sure your students can relate as well as enjoy the reading.

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