by Moliere: a new modern English translation
This is a modern, American English translation of the classic French farce. You will find that this version is fresh and accessible for modern audiences while keeping the spirit of the original.
The Doctor In Spite of Himself
by Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Molière
Translated and adapted from the French
by Harold Dixon
The Doctor In Spite of Himself is a classic farce in the spirit of the Italian commedia dell'arte. Martine, the wife of Sganarelle, a simple woodcutter, seeks revenge against her husband. So, she convinces Valere and Lucas, who are looking for a doctor to cure their boss's daughter, that Sganarelle is a real doctor. But, she tells them, he will deny this unless they beat him until he admits it. They beat him several times until finally he does admit that he is, indeed a doctor. Then they are off to cure the hapless Lucinda, who is pretending to be mute.
There are 8 male roles, 3 female roles, and 2 extras. Some doubling is possible.
This translation has been performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where it was enthusiastically received.
Molière (Jean Baptiste Poquelin) was one of France's greatest actors and the author of some of the world's finest comedies. The well educated son of a prosperous Parisian upholsterer, Molière studied law for a time before turning to the theatre at the age of twenty-one.
After failing miserably in Paris in 1645, and following a brief sojourn in debtors' prison, Molière and his company (modestly named L'Illustre-Théâtre -- the Illustrious Theatre), left Paris and toured the provinces for thirteen years. Molière's itinerant period (1645-1658) is the section of his life about which we know the least, in terms of hard fact, but which was most likely the most influential. It was then that they learned the business and technique of theatre -- acting, directing, playwrighting, and management, much in the manner of the contemporary Italian commedia troupes who were also touring the provinces. On his return to Paris in 1658, Molière and his troupe appeared before King Louis XIV. The performance was such a success that the remainder of Molière's very successful career was under the patronage of the French monarch. The great master of comedy died in February, 1673, shortly after a performance of his classic, The Imaginary Invalid.
The Doctor In Spite of Himself was first presented in Paris at the Palais Royal Theatre on Friday, August 6, 1666, a few months after his masterpiece The Misanthrope. It was an immediate success. In fact, this play has been performed over 2000 times at the Comédie Française. Doctor and Tartuffe are the two most popular of Molière's plays.
The play text as we know it is almost certainly a reworking of earlier Molière farces that his company had performed during their years "on the road." In fact, there is an extant script of a one-act play called Le Médecin Volant, which appears to be a precursor of Doctor. Le Médecin Volant was not discovered and published until 1819, but it is clearly the work of Molière. Adapted from an Italian farce Medico Volante, it betrays a strong influence of the Italian commedia dell'arte and introduces many of the characters and situations to be found in Doctor. The background and the soul of Doctor is colorful and vibrant. It is definitely a farce; the action is broad and fast. It is above all a play, performed for and directly to the audience, and the success of its satire rests on its ability to immediately engage the audience.
In the theatre, it seems to me, one of our most pressing and vital concerns is finding ways of presenting plays that speak directly and meaningfully to a contemporary audience. Indeed, why would we want to present a classical play to a modern audience unless we felt that the play said something that needed saying or that it held within the germ of an exciting theatrical experience? Otherwise, are we not truly in the business of perpetuating a dead theatre?
I first became excited by the possibilities of Molière's Doctor In Spite of Himself in the summer of 1973 when I was an actor at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Several friends and co-workers had an idea for a workshop production for the young company members. It was to be a musical version of Doctor set in New Orleans against a backdrop of Mardi Gras. The musical mode was to be American ragtime. I was invited to play the Valere role. This new script was called Miracle Man and was eventually performed on the Guthrie main stage as the company's Christmas show of 1973. The experience was an enjoyable and worthwhile one for me, and this encouraged me to explore the creative possibilities in this classical play for a modern American audience. Some years later, I developed this translation for a production at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My goal was to find an American equivalent for the French original.
As an actor and director, I am keenly aware of the stale, flat, hollow prose that is the hallmark of many play translations. In this one, I have endeavored throughout to find stage worthy speech that captures the spirit of the original. The theatre is by nature a practical and ephemeral art, and the test for any play translation is in its performance on stage. This is the goal for which this script is intended.
A Note on Comic Stage Violence
In this play, several of the characters beat each other with sticks. In fact, the whole premise of the title of the play refers to Martine's revenge on her husband - Valere and Lucas must beat Sganarelle to make him admit he is a doctor. When staging this play, it is very important to remember that it is a comedy, actually a physical farce. A production can go horribly wrong if the violence in this story is not handled correctly.
One of the key principles of farce is that although violent acts occur, we see none of the attendant effects or consequences of that violence. In other words, the onstage characters must commit to the violence, but the receiver of the blows must not appear to be in any real pain. Think of the old cartoon of the roadrunner and the coyote. The coyote is subjected to almost constant abuse by the roadrunner -- rocks and anvils falling on his head, packages exploding, and fake tunnels painted on rocks (so that the coyote will smash into the rock while thinking he is entering a tunnel). After every such episode, the coyote is fine in the next scene. We never worry about his safety - whether he is in pain or even killed. In a farce, the moment we worry about the victim of the violence, it is no longer funny. A classic old comic bit shows a man walking down the street and slipping on a banana peel. We laugh at this, for we saw the banana peel before he slipped on it. However, the moment we start worrying about the man, the bit is no longer funny. If he looks like a clumsy fool, we laugh. If we think he has actually sprained his back or hurt himself in any way, we stop laughing.
Keep this in mind if you are staging this play. I have found that the ones who are initiating the beating need to look like they are fully committing to the action -- they can't hold back. But at the same time, the ones being hit cannot be in any real jeopardy. The more stylized these beatings, the better chance you have to make them funny. Classical slapsticks work for this purpose. They make a loud noise, so the beating sounds and looks satisfactory, but no one really gets hurt. I have also used foam bats or sticks, made out of something like those "noodles" kids play with in swimming pools. You can hit someone very hard with one of those, but the receiver feels no real pain. In addition, beatings in the context of a chase can be quite funny. In short, experiment with these sequences in the play to discover what works best.