Molière ( 15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673)
On this date in 1673, the great French theatrical hyphenate Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (aka Moliere) was performing the lead role of the hypochondriac in his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, when he suffered a coughing fit, hemorrhaged, collapsed, then insisted on continuing to the end of the show. Moliere died at home – a few hours later – from the tuberculosis that (legend has it) he’d contracted while being imprisoned for debt. Argan, the character Moliere was playing in his final performance, was clad in green.
Debtor’s prison (or its moral equivalent) remains a standard job hazard for anyone attempting to make a living from theater or any of the Arts. Especially these days. In this place. And the irony of Moliere dying during a production in which he plays a hypochondriac has not been lost to history. It is also emblematic of the principal theme of his profoundly comic plays – including his first The Learned Ladies, The Misanthrope, The Miser, and Tartuffe – which could be summarized as, “We are not who we think we are.”
Several highly effective treatments for tuberculosis have been developed since the 17th century; although not wiped out – and occasionally threatening to make a comeback – tuberculosis is not the hazard it once was. No such luck, however, with the human strains of hypocrisy and self-delusion. They are more prevalent now than ever. There would appear to be no cure. And they ensure that Moliere’s plays never date.
Actors are a superstitious lot. They say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” (which is considered bad luck). When appearing in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they live in terror of speaking the play’s name and refer to it only as “The Scottish Play.” As an occasional actor myself, I share that fear and it scares me just writing Macbeth. (Twice now! I think I peed a little!) And, because of Moliere’s death costume in The Imaginary Invalid, we actors don’t like appearing onstage wearing green. Costumers, beware!
I don’t know exactly why actors are superstitious. I’m sure it has something to do with being present – in our bodies, live – while we practice our art, thereby risking the also-live slings and arrows of outrageous audience members. Or of slipping on our own flop sweat and falling to our deaths, metaphorical or otherwise. I do know, however, that if I’m ever lucky enough to perform the role of Argan in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, I’ll insist on a red costume and – just to be on the safe side – call it “The Hypochondriac Play.” I hope I break a leg.