Friday, February 17, 2023

This Day in Theater History (Moliere, Stricken Mid-Performance, Dies Offstage)

Feb. 17, 1673—Maybe he was tempting fate, but, just as
Moliere was mocking doctors in the latest satire he'd written for his troupe, The Imaginary Invalid, he began to cough and gasp towards the end of the comedy's fourth performance. 

The audience, at first stunned, fell into familiar laughter when they saw the French actor, director, theater administrator, and playwright grinning. But he had been coughing up blood and had to be carried home in a sedan chair.

Moliere frantically urged his company to summon his wife and a priest to hear his last confession, but neither arrived in time before he died, at age 50, succumbing to a seizure brought on by tuberculosis.

Why didn’t Moliere call for a doctor as he expired? I can think of four possibilities:

1) He knew his case was hopeless at this point, as he’d been suffering from TB for several years, refusing to let it curtail his creative activity;

2)    2) He thought doctors were incompetent and/or useless;

3)    3)  He dreaded physicians (an attitude not entirely excluding Possibility #2, given the state of 17th-century medicine); and

4)    4)  Dialogue he’d written for himself in his new farce, a broad wink to the audience, might have revealed how he thought men of medicine would react to his emergency: “Your Molière’s an impertinent fellow… If I were a doctor, I’d have my revenge… when he fell ill, I’d let him die without helping him. I’d say: ‘Go on, drop dead!’”

But the choice of the two people that Moliere (the pseudonym adopted by Jean Baptiste Poquelin) did want at his side echoed the two major controversies of his life and career. 

There was a two-decade difference in age between him and wife Armande, at a time when significant age gaps between spouses were even more snickered at than they are now. 

Adding fuel to the wisecracks aimed at him: the rumor that Armande was either the sister of his former mistress or her daughter by Moliere.

(Remember: With no such thing as exercise regimens, understanding of diets, or regular checkups, a 50-year-old man in 1673 was more like 60—at least.)

Moliere was fully aware of what a buffoon he looked like to his critics. The School for Wives (1662), written not long after his marriage, featured the playwright himself as a foolhardy bachelor bound and determined to wed a pretty young thing. 

And in The Misanthrope, the title character is nearly undone not just by his judgmental temperament but by his jealousy of the younger, flirtatious woman he loves.

As for a priest to hear his confession: the Roman Catholic Church came closer to wreaking vengeance on him than the medical profession did. Though Moliere had been careful in Tartuffe and Don Juan to show that he despised religious hypocrisy rather than the practice of religion itself, the Church saw these plays as direct attacks on the institution. 

When he died, his widow had to plead directly with King Louis XIV (someone that Moliere had been careful not to offend) to allow a Christian burial—an appeal only granted on the condition that the ceremony be done with no pomp.

Today, nobody but Moliere scholars knows the names of his critics. But in the three and a half centuries after his death, his work continues to entertain audiences and influence members of the profession for which he literally gave his life. 

Ever since I saw a local production of Don Juanand a 1970s PBS telecast of Tartuffe starring Donald Moffat and Tammy GrimesI have marveled at Moliere's slashing wit, as well as his sprightly dialogue rendered in Alexandrine rhymes (and translated superbly by American poet Richard Wilbur). 

I could not let this post go without discussing a bit more about the most dramatic exit he ever made. Have any other entertainers died under similar circumstances?

Well, yes. Interestingly enough, quite a few opera singers died onstage. (I suppose that the enormous vocal demands of their workand, sometimes, the singers' big framesleft them vulnerable.)

But there have also been several notable cases of other comic actors who, like Moliere, were struck down during a performance:

  • Redd Foxx, the example that sprang immediately to my mind, died of a heart attack in October 1991 during rehearsals for the sitcom The Royal Familyand cast and crew, remembering his many feigned attacks two decades before on Sanford and Son, did not immediately suspect anything was amiss this time;
  • Dick Shawn, perhaps best remembered as the hippie actor "LSD" in Mel Brooks' film The Producers, suffered a fatal heart attack during a performance at the University of California, San Diego's Mandeville Hall; and 
  • Al Kelly, a vaudeville comedian, died in the audience in 1966 right after delivering a Friar's Club roast of Joe E. Lewis.
(For more details on Moliere's death, see this fascinating 2013 post by French literature scholar and novelist Maya Slater, on the Oxford University Press blog.)

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