The great French comic playwright Moliere didn’t much care for doctors. You can’t really blame him. During the 17th century, physicians did things like give their patients antimony, a substance that centuries later was used by poisoners because it caused severe liver damage.
In one of Moliere’s plays, a doctor character offers a wry take on patients who want to stay alive: “And that is where we doctors come in, with our technical jargon and our instruments of torture knowing as we do how to take advantage of the veneration which the fear of death gives to our profession.”
The Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre had some fun in 1982 adapting several comedies by Moliere about doctors into a cheeky show titled “Malpractice, Or Love’s the Best Doctor.” Fresno State theater professor Ruth Griffin, who trained at Dell’Arte, is directing a production that opens Friday, March 11. We caught up with for an interview:
Q: Did Moliere write a lot about doctors?
A: Let’s just say Moliere had it in for them. His farces skewering doctors include “The Flying Doctor” (1659), “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” (1666), “Love is the Best Doctor” (1665) and “The Imaginary Invalid” (1673).
Q: In the adaptation, were the Dell’Arte Players influenced by contemporary thinking as well?
A: Yes, by their reading of Ivan Ilich’s book “Medical Nemesis.” This book deals with the destruction of health by the over technicalization of medical practice in the 20th century and the alarming increase of pharmaceutical drugs.
Q: Was there such a thing as “malpractice” in his time? Could people sue bad doctors back then? I could find no incidence of legality in regards to medical practice.
A: I’m guessing Louis XIV could probably make life really difficult for a doctor if he was displeased with his treatment.
Q: How long were the original plays?
A: The “Imaginary Invalid” is a full-length play and was originally performed with music and dance interludes. The plays were performed at the Court of Louis the XIV with accompaniment by Jean Baptiste Lully. Moliere himself played the lead of Argan. While he was playing Argan, the hypochondriac, Moliere was seized by a fit of coughing. He finished the performance but collapsed and died a few hours later of a hemorrhage in the brain at the age of 51. He suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis.
Q: Why this show?
A: I proposed the play to honor the Dell’Arte International School. It changed me as an artist and opened up historical forms of theatre and world theatre to me. I have always subscribed to dance and theatre together, and they showed me new ways to integrate a more physically based acting.
Q: How is the “typical” Moliere doctor portrayed?
A: Ah, this is a favorite subject of mine. The doctors in Moliere’s plays never cure anyone and are on stage only long enough to enact their incompetence.
The prototype for his doctors is Il Doctore from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte, which influenced Moliere in his stylization and incorporation of lazzi (comic bits). Il Doctore is a charlatan and a pedantic lecher who is in it for the money. In the Dell’Arte adaptation, there is a vaudevillian quality to the doctors. Moliere has that feel as well. When reading the original plays as part of my research, I thought it reads like the Marx Brothers or an Abbot and Costello routine.
Q: What does Moliere have to say about the medical industry, and about the foibles of healthcare in general, in this production?
A: In the book “The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison,” John Emsley writes: “Moliere was convinced that the death of his only son was due to the careless administration of antimony and this is probably the reason why he never missed a chance to poke fun at doctors in his plays.”
Antimony became known as the choice of poison for murderers in the 19th century. It is a powerful emetic that causes liver damage.
I found this quote from an article titled “Moliere and the Doctors” in a medical journal from April 15, 1911. There is a well-known story of Louis XIV asking Moliere how he got on with his physicians, and of the dramatist’s reply: “Sire, we talk together. He prescribes remedies for me. I do not take them, and I get well.”
Q: Describe the creative concept for the show.
A: Jeff Hunter has designed the set, which incorporates a traditional Commedia stage, my first, and I am totally excited. It has an expanded floor plan because he knows I am going to seek to use movement to tell the story. Elizabeth Payne is designing costumes from the period of 17th century France. She is a master of historical research and design. Eric Armstrong has designed the lights to participate with the timing of the comedy and enhance the movement and mood of the scenes in daylight and dream.
Q: Anything else?
A: The play “Malpractice” was designed for street-theater performance and played six weeks at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City. It also toured throughout the United States. In approaching it within a theater, I conceived of it as an imaginary performance for the Court of Louis the XIV.
I assembled the music for the music design from the composers who worked with Moliere, namely Jean Baptiste Lully and Marin Marais. I interspersed dances throughout as would have been done for the court.
The Dell’Arte Players were and are a part of the agitprop theatre movement as first instigated by Bertolt Brecht. They also join with groups such as the Pickle Family Circus and San Francisco Mime Troupe in the Renaissance of Vaudeville.
To carry the vaudevillian patter of the doctors in “Malpractice” I have added accordion music from vaudeville and the music of Scott Joplin.
Malpractice, Or Love’s the Best Doctor
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, and Saturday, March 12; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 13; and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 15-Saturday, March 19
- Fresno State Woods Theatre
- www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts, 559-278-2216
- $17, $10 students