Everyone knows the name of Molière, but many misconceptions circulate about the life of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. Is his death on stage really one? The 400th anniversary of the birth of the playwright and actor is an opportunity to make a point.
Legend has it that Jean-Baptiste Poquelin breathed his last on the stage when he was playing “The imaginary patient”, his last piece. And if this legend is tenacious, it is nevertheless not, and his death on stage belongs to folklore. However, behind all belief often hides a semblance of truth. If Molière did not die while performing this play, but at home, rue de Richelieu, some time after the performance, as several documents attest, the playwright’s hours were indeed counted when he entered the scene, this February 17, 1673, at the Palais Royal theater.
One last painful performance
That day, the actor, suffering from a chest inflammation, played the role of Argan for the fourth time. He is sick and very weak. His wife Armande Béjart tries to dissuade him from playing. This is without counting on the obstinacy of Molière who, as the Comédie Française notes on its site, “refuses to deprive 50 workers of a day’s salary”, only requiring that everything be ready by 4 pm.
At the appointed hour, the curtain rises. Molière plays, not without difficulty, suffering until the final act. Taken by a coughing fit at the last moment, he hides the latter in a final grimace. The play is coming to an end. The curtain falls. Molière played his Imaginary Malade to the end. At the end of the performance, he is transported home, a few hundred meters from the theater in a load-bearing chair.
It is finally good at his home, after refusing a broth from his wife in favor of a piece of Parmesan, as the story goes. French comedy, that Molière is again struck by a terrible cough, causing him to spit out a continuous stream of blood. She is right about him and Molière disappears, at the age of 51, leaving behind around thirty plays – from “Tartuffe” to “Women in science” through “The school of women”, “Le Misanthrope” or again “The tricks of Scapin” – which still ensure its worldwide posterity today.