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Tuberculosis: The White Death - Excerpt from Plagues Past & Present

by J.H. Hacsi


Did the famous French playwright Moliere marry his daughter? That was a charge hurled at him by his enemies.

He had led an extremely stressful life, one entirely of his own choosing. After years of struggle, endless hard work, and a miserable married life, he died under the shame of this charge. It needn’t have been that way.

He began life on January 15, 1622, as Jean Bapiste Poquelin. His father was a prosperous furniture merchant in Paris who did upholstery work for the king. Young Jean was well educated, earning a law degree in 1642. But then he threw it all over and incorporated an acting troupe, the Illustre Theater, in collaboration with the family of a young woman he had fallen in love with, Madeleine Bejart, who became his mistress. At this time he changed his name to Moliere so as not to shame his parents.

Madeleine was a tall, attractive woman, a few years older than Moliere, an accomplished lead actress. Moliere wrote a number of plays for her. It is not known exactly when her romantic relationship with Moliere came to an end, but she was loyal to the company, remaining with it until her death in 1672.

The theater troupe played its opening season in Paris, went bankrupt and left to tour the provinces. During the twelve years that followed, Moliere became a skilled administrator, director, actor and playwright. In 1659 he brought his troupe back to Paris and this time they did not fail. They played before the king, Louis XIV, the Sun King, and the king’s brother became their patron. In time the troupe was appointed the official provider of entertainment for the king and his court.

Moliere became the most popular comedy playwright of his time. He made fun of almost every social or professional class, nobles, doctors, actors, writers, the clergy, anyone and everyone, creating numerous enemies. One or more of these enemies accused him of marrying his own daughter.

For almost a decade before his marriage, he had been romantically involved with a woman named Catherine Debrie, who had supported him lovingly through one disappointment after another. His attachment to her was deep and sincere but not sufficiently passionate to keep him from noticing a young actress who had just been added to their company, one Armande Bejart, said to be either the younger sister or the daughter of his first love Madeleine.

Moliere found himself captivated by the girl, a frivolous young woman twenty-one years his junior. Despite his own better judgment, he conceived a passion for her that he could not control or resist. He must pull free from Catherine, leaving her heartbroken, and make Armande his wife.

And so in 1662 Moliere, at the age of forty, married Armande Bejart, who was nineteen. He soon realized that his infatuation had caused him to make a dreadful mistake. Armande had married him only to advance herself as an actress and soon proved to be a flagrant flirt. Worst of all, rumors began circulating almost at once that he’d married his own daughter.

At some point during his adult years Moliere had picked up a lung ailment, possibly when as a young man running his newly incorporated theatrical troupe he’d spent time in a debtor’s prison before being bailed out by his father. The ailment remained with him for the rest of his life, striking him down periodically with fever, cough and extreme weakness.

Moliere’s final play was The Imaginary Invalid, written in 1673 when he was fifty-one. He was a fine comic actor and in this play he portrayed Argan, the hypochondriac. The fourth performance of the play was scheduled to take place before the king and his court. During the day Moliere felt so weak and ill that he was urged not to perform that night, but he felt honor bound to go on.

During the performance he was seized by a coughing fit and collapsed to the floor, bleeding. King Louis urged him to forego the rest of the play and rest, but Moliere resisted. After a brief interlude, he managed to finish the performance but within hours after returning home he collapsed with another hemorrhage and died.

Did he marry his biological daughter? There is no solid evidence either way but probably not. His youthful love Madeleine was almost certainly Armande’s mother. Moliere was in constant contact with Madeleine, his lead actress. He would have known whether there was any possibility that he was her child’s father. Had he known that he was or suspected that he might be, he would surely not have married her.

Did he suffer from the malicious rumor that his wife was his daughter? Being human, he almost certainly did. He had long felt that his marriage to Armende was a horrible mistake. Now this mistake was being used to shame him, to destroy his reputation. He had lived with stress his entire adult life, but did this distress now plunge down into a total despair that hastened his death?

In the historical record there are indications that when stress drops down into despair, tuberculosis becomes a rampant killer. TB reached plague levels in the 1600s and this continued for two hundred years. Doctors considered stress to be one of the main causes of the disease.

Today the U.S. medical profession is aware that almost every American has experienced a primary TB infection, that is, we harbor the tubercle bacillus within us, but only if we have an impaired immune system will we ever develop active tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis remains a serious problem in the poor countries of this world, but in the developed nations life has eased up enough that it strikes infrequently and can be cured fairly easily if it does strike.

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Excerpted from Plagues Past and Present, A Mind/Body/Approach by J. H. Hacsi. Paper, $14. Available at Baker and Taylor, www.Amazon.com or on order from any bookstore.

_______

J.H. Hacsi graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earlier in her life wrote short stories (over 200 published) and romance novels (eight published). Throughout her life she has been greatly interested in history and science, also the role of the mind and mysticism. She has read widely in all these fields. She is a widow with five sons and five grandchildren and lives in Claremont, CA.


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