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 would have it that Jean-Baptiste Poquelin took his last breath on the boards while he was playing “The imaginary patient”, his last play. And if this legend is tenacious, it is however not so, and his death on stage belongs to folklore. However, behind all beliefs often hides a semblance of truth. If Molière did not die playing this play, but at home, rue de Richelieu, some time after the performance, as several documents attest, the playwright’s hours were indeed numbered when he entered the stage, February 17, 1673, at the Théâtre du Palais Royal.
One last painful performance
That day, the actor, suffering from a chest inflammation, played the role of Argan for the fourth time. He is ill and very weak. His wife Armande Béjart tries to dissuade him from playing. This is without counting on the stubbornness of Molière who, as the Comédie Française notes on its site, “refuses to deprive 50 workers of a day’s salary”, only imposing that everything be ready by 4 p.m.
At the appointed time, the curtain rises. Molière plays, not without difficulty, suffering until the final act. Seized by a fit of coughing at the last moment, he hides it with a final grimace. The play comes to an end. The curtain falls. Molière played his Imaginary Invalid to the end. At the end of the performance, he is transported to his home, a few hundred meters from the theater in a carrier chair.
It’s finally good at his home, after refusing a broth from his wife in favor of a piece of parmesan, as the story tells. French comedy, that Molière is again struck down by a terrible cough, causing him to spit up a continuous stream of blood. She gets the better of him and Molière disappears, at the age of 51, leaving behind him around thirty plays – from “Tartuffe” to “Women scholars” via “L’école des femmes”, “Le Misanthrope” or again “The deceits of Scapin” – which today still ensure his world posterity.