Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Imaginary Invalid

on April 26, 2014

While Papa was reuniting with his Burmese uncle, I, on the other hand, was honing my acting skills.

le malade imaginaire

Although I had read all Moliere’s works back in Jeddah, I had never seen one acted out until Mme Forhan arranged for the whole class to go see a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire — The Imaginary Invalid. I loved it. I was totally enthralled!  I realized that there was much that a director and actors could add to a play, which so far, had only been black words on white paper to me. So when Mme Forhan told us that after studying the play, the best readers would be selected to perform it, I was ecstatic. I must win a spot in the play!

Angelique and Cleante

Angelique and Cleante

During class, Mme Forhan would pick students to read the parts, girls for the female parts and boys for the male parts. She asked which parts we preferred playing, and would pick the best readers for that part.  Which part should I sign up for? I looked at the characters. Well, there were really only three main female parts: the daughter, Angelique; the maid, Toinette; and the stepmother, Beline.  The daughter, I remembered, had many flirting scenes with her beau, Cleante. So she was out. I would rather have died than flirted. No way I would flirt, even in acting, with anyone, especially not a classmate! The maid was a good character. I really liked it best. She was strong-willed and almost controlled the entire household. But I remembered in time that she too, had at least one scene where she flirted with some delivery man. So she was out too. Well, I guessed I had only the stepmother left. I did not like her character since she was a greedy hypocrite, but beggars can’t be choosers. So I signed up for Beline.

Beline, pretending to be a loving fussing wife to Argan, the hypochondriac

Beline, pretending to be a loving fussing wife to Argan, the hypochondriac

Unfortunately, I realized too late that Beline too had flirting lines to say. I imagine the French in those days had to flirt in even the most mundane of situations. It must have been part and parcel of normal conversation. I was called upon to read precisely the lines where Beline hypocritically fusses on her husband, calling him “my poor, dear little husband”, “my little darling child”, “my love”, “my own dear pet”, etc every time she opened her mouth. I was aghast. Why, oh why did I pick Beline? Couldn’t get out of it now… So I bravely faced my calvary, and half consciously, robotized my voice into the expressionless halting tone of the kindergarten reader. Mme Forhan was stunned. “What happened, Fawzia? You usually read so well! Can you read those lines again?”  What a nightmare! I prayed she would let me out of the play altogether! Finally, my robot voice won the day. She dropped me from the cast. Sigh. Relief.

Didier Vincent got picked to act the main role, that of Argan, the hypochondriac. And the day of the performance, he was good. He even incorporated stuff from the live performance we had witnessed. At one point, which I suppose is the highlight of the plot, Argan pretends to be dead. His second wife, believing him finally gone, speaks out, or rather spits out her relief at his finally leaving this world and giving her what she considered her due. At her insults, Argan sits up in great indignation, but hurriedly resumes his dead position whenever she turns his way. Pretty smart acting.

We also were assigned to give each a three-minute speech to hone our speaking skills. After looking for an interesting topic, I finally opted for an account of my travels. That would grab the limelight. Better than movie, book and article reports! I practiced it well at home, timing myself with my watch, adding little anecdotes to liven the story line. D-day came and I went up on the stage in front of the classroom. Then it happened. My dreaded debilitating pathological shyness. It had never really left me. And now, it reared its ugly head yet again. My voice almost shook with anxiety, and my mind went blank. I suddenly panicked. Oh, was the speech too long? It must be too long! Let me cut it short then. Let me cut out all anecdotes! And, without knowing how, the story disappeared, and I was left churning out a list of dates and places. Ouf! Finally, it was over. In less than one minute.  Mme Forhan asked for critique. Everyone was silent. Finally, one boy raised his finger. “What is : un carat?” — “Huh? When did I say that?” — “You said that in March 1964 you went to Un Carat…”  — “Ah, no, we went to Ankara, the capital of Turkey!”  Another boy raised his finger,  “She said ‘nous arrivames’ (simple past) instead of ‘nous sommes arrives’ (present perfect)…” he opined. The prof sighed. “No, she was correct. You are wrong. It should indeed have been the simple past tense. Any other critique?” No one dared. Peer evaluation gave me a great score. Mme Forhan looked at the score, “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with it. I think she could have made it more interesting by adding anecdotes and comments to it.” Which goes to show that reputation is really important. My reputation as a great writer had brainwashed my classmates into thinking me a great speaker as well, giving me an excellent score when I did not really deserve it.

fear of public speaking

Not counting the poetry and fable recitations of my early years, that was  my earliest speech. Big time failure. Heart bumping and sweat pouring, I swore never to give a speech ever again. But today I realize that in my life I have learnt much more from my failures than from my successes. And that early failed speech was instrumental in shaping the great speeches I have given since. How was I to know then that I would speak again and again, to a large variety of audiences in the future?

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