23 January 2014

Jules Romains: Knock ou le triomphe de la Médecine (1924)

Jules Romains's Knock was first performed in 1923 at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées under the direction of Jacques Hébertot. The production and décor were by Louis Jouvet, who also played the role of Knock in the 1951 film, and to whom Romains originally dedicated the book.

The play can be seen as a comical satire on American advertising. Doctor Parpalaid has rather unsuccessfully run a medical practice in the small commune of Saint-Maurice for twenty-five years and is now moving to Lyon. He sells his practice to Dr Knock, who is far more of a businessman than a doctor, having begun his career history by selling ties and peanuts. He applies his sales technique in much the same way to medecine, but trading on people's fear of illness. His first strategy is to pay the town crier – by his good fortune on market day, very shortly after he arrives – to advertise initial free consultations.

Knock's surgery is full of people queuing for the freebie, although he manages to convince them that they have an illness that will require considerable curing, and in this way ensures that his new patients' fears will reap many rewards for him. The more patients he has, the more money he makes: it is of course against his interests to have healthy patients, or more exactly – people who think they're healthy are non-existent patients.

Above all, and like any brilliant salesman, Knock is an excellent psychologist and works on flattering people, getting people on his side: he is, of course, providing such people as the chemist and the hotel keeper with work, so how can they not praise him to the skies?

Psychologically, prestige in the form of titles is also important, and he insists that he be called 'Doctor': it is all the more degrading for Dr Parpalaid, therefore, that the hotel keeper calls him 'Mr'.

Parpalaid is visiting Knock after three months, during which time Knock has made a great deal of money, and his business is thriving to such an extent that people are coming from great distances to see him, and the hotel has difficulty finding a room for him. Knock's triumph is underlined when he easily gets Papalaid to believe that he is sick, although this is of course the triumph of commerce over reality.

We need plays like this, but particularly those adapted to modern times. Where are the Molières and the Jules Romains of today?

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