I sat in the darkened theatre, laughing out loud along with my fellow play-goers at Molière’s 17th-century comedic portrayal of the physician in his play Don Juan (Dom Juan ou le Festin de Pierre). Although Molière wrote this play hundreds of years ago, there’s something strikingly modern about it, and something that may feel familiar to long-suffering doctors out there who are feeling less respect than they deserve. In fact, Georgetown University even uses Don Juan as a case study in its course on Interacting With The Medical Humanities in a section called Medical Uncertainty & Error: Physician Arrogance.
Molière was famous for his merciless skewering of the powerful in the fields of politics, law, and (in the following scene) medicine. Don Juan is a cynical opportunist and hedonist. After ruthlessly abandoning yet another young woman, we see him fleeing in disguise along with his servant, Sgaranelle. While more law-abiding than his master, Sgaranelle is also more of a simpleton. Don Juan’s character appears complex because his own hypocrisies allow him to see through the pretences of others, as Molière describes here:
Sgaranelle – So what do you say, Sir? Admit that I was right: both of us are marvelously well-disguised.
Don Juan – You’re right that you’re looking good, though I don’t know where you unearthed that ridiculous outfit.
Sgaranelle – Oh yes? It’s the garb of an old doctor who pawned it, and I paid a good deal for it. But did you know, Sir, this get-up has already made me respectable? People I’ve run into have greeted me, and several people have already consulted me the way they would a person who knows his stuff.
Don Juan – How’s that?
Sgaranelle – Five or six peasants I ran into along the way, came up to ask me my advice regarding various illnesses.
Don Juan – You told them you didn’t know a thing about it, I assume.
Sgaranelle – Who, me? Not at all! I wanted to uphold the honour of this uniform, so I pondered their problems and made recommendations for each case.
Don Juan – And what sort of remedies did you recommend?
Sgaranelle – To be honest, I grabbed at whatever came to mind—my recommendations were pretty random, and it would be a hoot if these patients actually got better and came back to thank me for what I told them.
Don Juan – And why not? For what reason wouldn’t you have the same rights as other doctors? They aren’t any better at curing illnesses than you are, and their art is pure façade. They do nothing but reap the glory of their successes and you can, like them, take advantage of the patients’ good outcomes, by attributing to your remedies what is actually the work of luck and the forces of nature.
Sgaranelle – What, Sir? Are you as cynical about medicine as you are about faith?
Don Juan – It’s one of the great errors circulating among humans.
Sgaranelle – What? You don’t believe in phlebotomy, nor in laxatives, nor in emetic wine?
Don Juan – And why should I believe in those things?
Sgaranelle – You are a real unbeliever. And yet, as you know, emetic wine has for some time now been all the rage. Its miraculous effects have converted even the biggest skeptics, and I myself was witness to its marvels three weeks ago—I saw its effects with my own eyes.
Don Juan – And they were . . . ?
Sgaranelle – There was a man who had been in agony for six days. Nobody knew what to prescribe, and none of the remedies were working. Finally they decided to give him an emetic.
Don Juan – He recovered, I assume.
Sgaranelle – No, he died.
Don Juan – Well, that’s a fabulous outcome!
Sgaranelle – What are you talking about?
Don Juan – He’d been in agony for six days, and this killed him right away. What better result could you possibly wish for?