The Elephant Man
The Elephant Man
BERNARD POMERANCE 1979
The Elephant Man was first produced in London at the Hampstead Theatre. It soon moved to New York and opened Off-Broadway at the Theatre of St. Peter’s Church, and then to Broadway and the Booth Theatre. Pomerance’s play earned good reviews and a number of awards, including a Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics award, the Drama Desk Award, and the Obie Award.
The play is based on the story of Joseph Merrick; in large part, it draws from the book by Frederick Treves, which chronicles Merrick’s life story. Critics applauded Pomerance’s efforts to depict the conflict that results when Treves saves Merrick from the freak shows only to exploit Merrick himself.
The play was so successful that it was turned into an even more successful Hollywood film in 1980. The film earned several British Academy Awards, including Best Actor (for William Hurt as Merrick) and Best Film.
It also received a number of Academy Award nominations in America, including Best Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Director (David Lynch), Best Film Editing, Best Picture, and Best Original Score. The film also starred Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, and Anne Bancroft.
Bernard Pomerance was born in Brooklyn in 1940. He is a very private man and there is very little information about his parents, his childhood, his early education, or his personal life.
Pomerance was a student at the University of Chicago, but then moved to London when he was in his early thirties. After moving to England, he began working with small, innovative theatre groups. With director Roland Rees, he founded the Foco Novo theatre group, which produced Pomerance’s early plays.
Pomerance’s reputation as a playwright is based on one play, The Elephant Man, first performed in 1979 and then made into a successful Hollywood film in 1980. The play initially opened in London at the Hampstead Theatre before moving to New York and eventually opening on Broadway.
After writing two more plays, Quantrill in Lawrence (1980) and Melons (1985), he finally published his first novel, We Need to Dream All This Again, in 1987.
The opening scene takes place in London Hospital: Dr. Treves, the new lecturer in anatomy, presents his credentials to the hospital administrator, Carr Gomm. A salary is settled upon, and Gomm makes a mysterious reference to the salary serving as an excellent consolation prize.
In a store, Ross is collecting money for a viewing of John Merrick, who is described as a freak of nature. Treves enters and says he will not pay if it is all a trick; but after seeing Merrick, Treves pays Ross. They agree that Treves will pay Ross a fee to take Merrick for a day to study his condition.
While conducting a lecture, Treves shows slides of Merrick while describing the exact nature of the deformities. Merrick is also present and demonstrates his infirmities when asked. A voice from the audience tells Treves that he cannot permit Merrick to return to the freak show.
In Brussels, the pinheads are being prepared to sing by the Man. Ross and Merrick enter, and Merrick tells the pinheads that he has earned a lot of money, which Ross is holding. Merrick also says he is happy. The Man enters again and tells the pinheads to sing.
At that moment a policeman enters and orders the show stopped. Ross comes back and tells Merrick that he has become a liability. After stealing his money, Ross turns Merrick over to the conductor, who agrees to drop Merrick at Liverpool Station in return for a little money. The scene ends with Merrick saying he has been robbed.
Merrick arrives in London, and a policeman and the conductor have to hide Merrick to protect him from the mob. Merrick tries to speak, but his words are difficult to understand; the policeman and conductor think he is an imbecile. They find Treves’s card in Merrick’s pocket and send for the doctor.
Treves interviews Nurse Sandwich, whom he hopes will be able to care for Merrick. A number of other nurses have been too revolted by his appearances to care for him. Although he claims to have vast experiences in Africa with terrible diseases, Miss Sandwich is just as frightened and bolts from the room.
The bishop and Gomm talk about Merrick’s aptitude for biblical instruction. The bishop feels it is his Christian duty to help Merrick with religious instruction. He is also pleased that Treves is a Christian.
Treves informs Merrick that he has a home for life and that he will never have to go on exhibition again. Treves badgers Merrick to acknowledge how lucky he is. He repeatedly forces Merrick to thank him and to admit that, while there are rules to follow, those rules will make Merrick happy. It illustrates that Treves sees Merrick as a child and not capable of real thought.
Treves brings in an actress, Mrs. Kendal, to meet Merrick. Treves informs her that Merrick is very lonely that he needs to be more socialized. Mrs. Kendal asks about Merrick’s disorder and whether his sexual function has been inhibited. Treves is embarrassed to discuss sexual matters with a woman, but he finally admits that Merrick is normal in that way.
Mrs. Kendal comes to visit Merrick and they discuss Romeo and Juliet, a play she has acted in several times. They engage in a spirited discussion of Romeo and Merrick is revealed to very much an intellectual capable of deep thought.
Mrs. Kendal is very impressed with his ability to explore beyond the obvious and tells Treves that Merrick must be introduced to some of her friends. She shakes Merrick’s hand as she leaves and he is heard sobbing in the background as she exits.
Merrick is working on a model of St. Phillip’s Church. He is visited by several important members of society, each leaving a Christmas gift for him. After they leave, Treves and Merrick discuss the model he is building and the illusion of perfection.
Several of Merrick’s visitors, including Mrs. Kendal, Gomm, and the bishop, think Merrick is like each of them. All of them fail to see that Merrick has a definite personality of his own.
Lord John and Treves are talking; the details are not given, but it appears that John may be a swindler of sorts. Merrick overhears and is worried that he may lose his home in the hospital if all the money is gone.
Merrick complains to Mrs. Kendal that he has never even seen a woman’s body unclothed. She begins undressing. Merrick turns to look at her just as Treves enters. As a proper Victorian gentleman, he is shocked that Mrs. Kendal has shown Merrick her body and he orders her to cover herself.
Ross returns and asks Merrick to help him; he has read that Merrick has important visitors and he suggests that Merrick begin charging each of these people to visit. Merrick reminds Ross that he robbed him and refuses to be a part of his plan.
Treves tells Merrick about a patient he operated on and who came back from the dead. Merrick, who is clearly hurt by Mrs. Kendal’s being sent away, begins to question Treves about the women he operates on and how he fells about seeing their naked bodies.
When he asks Treves if Mrs. Kendal might return, Treves replies that she would not choose to do so. The scene ends with Treves muttering to himself that he does not want her present to see Merrick die.
Treves dreams that Merrick has come to borrow him from Gomm and takes him back for examination. Gomm, who is disguised as Ross, describes Treves as a dreamer.
The dream continues: Merrick is lecturing and describing Treves as self-satisfied and incapable of truly giving of himself. He also describes Treves as sexually repressed and focused more on controlling his emotions than on being able to empathize with those around him. This scene mirrors the earlier one where Treves presents Merrick at a lecture.
Treves informs Gomm that Merrick is dying. Treves notes the irony that as Merrick has finally managed to achieve a more normal life, his body is failing him. The bishop steps away from Merrick, where the two have been praying, and tells Treves that he finds the depth of Merrick’s religious belief moving.
Treves appears to be in despair over the meaninglessness of his life and grieving for something lost. As Treves collapses into weeping, Merrick places the final piece in the model of St. Phillip’s that he has constructed.
Snork brings Merrick his lunch. After he eats, Merrick falls asleep sitting up—only that way will keep the weight of his head from killing him. In a dream, the pinheads enter, singing, and lay him down. Merrick dies and Snork enters to find the body.
Gomm reads a letter he will send to the newspaper announcing the death of Merrick in his sleep. The letter contains a brief summary of how the hospital attempted to make Merrick’s life easier. The remaining funds, previous donated to care for Merrick, will be donated to the hospital’s general fund. The play ends with the reading of the letter.
The Bishop is concerned about Merrick’s religious instruction and offers spiritual guidance. He genuinely believes in doing his Christian duty, but he also appears to forget that Merrick has needs beyond those of religion.
The Conductor believes that Merrick is an imbecile. When they arrive in London, he gets help from a policeman to protect Merrick.
The Countess is one of Merrick’s visitors.
The Duchess is one of Merrick’s many visitors who brings him Christmas gifts.
Gomm is the administrator of the London Hospital where Merrick is housed. His care of Merrick always appears to be self-serving. When Merrick dies, Gomm writes the final epitaph for Merrick and decides to donate the money for Merrick’s care to the hospital.
See The Bishop
Lord John is involved in some shady financial dealings. When a great deal of money is lost, it is implied that John will be leaving town quickly.
An actress, Mrs. Kendal visits Merrick in order to provide some normal social interaction for him. She is not repulsed by Merrick’s appearance. Finding him to be charming and intelligent, she decides to introduce him to society. She visits him frequently and becomes an important part of his life.
When he tells her that he has never seen a naked woman, she removes her clothes. Treves enters and is so outraged that he throws Mrs. Kendal out of the room—and out of Merrick’s life.
Merrick suffers from Proteus Syndrome, which has resulted in large, bulbous growths growing from his skull. To explain his nickname, “The Elephant Man,” he tells Treves that his mother was beautiful, but she was kicked by an elephant when she was pregnant.
Placed in a workhouse when he was three, he had been part of a freak show for many years. He brings in a lot of money for his “handler,” Ross, but then Ross also steals from him. He is incredibly lonely.
After Treves finds Merrick, he is taken to the London Hospital where he is studied and sheltered. While in the hospital, Merrick begins to draw and read, and ultimately he constructs a model of St. Phillip’s Church.
Merrick is intelligent and funny, with a normal interest in women. When he tells Mrs. Kendal that he has never seen a normal woman’s body, she responds by removing her clothing. When she is banished, Merrick misses her very much.
These are three women freaks with pointy heads. They appear briefly in Brussels as part of a freak show and reappear in Merrick’s dream as he dies.
Ross is the manager of “The Elephant Man,” a freak show. He steals from Merrick and sends him back to London. Later, after Ross reads that Merrick has become a celebrity, Ross visits him and suggests that they go back into business again.
Sandwich is the nurse that is so repulsed by Merrick’s appearance she runs from the room.
Snork is a porter who brings Merrick his meals. It is he who finds Merrick’s body after he dies.
A surgeon and teacher, Treves brings Merrick to the hospital for study. He also rescues Merrick after Ross abandons him. He appears to genuinely care about Merrick, but he hopes to garner attention from his association with him. Treves is rigid and uncompromising, a Victorian gentleman who is shocked when Mrs. Kendal shows Merrick her body.
In the end, Treves becomes disillusioned in his life and finds no satisfaction in his job or his family. Yet he does seem to understand by the play’s conclusion that his life has been changed by Merrick.
Alienation and Loneliness
On account of his disease, Merrick is completely isolated from normal society: first in the freak show, and later, in his quarters in London Hospital. When Treves meets him, he is treated as a freak and in dire need of friendship.
Although Treves has kind motives, Merrick remains isolated in the hospital; Treves often treats him as a subject to study; and the burgeoning friendship between Kendal and Merrick is ruined when they become too close. When she is banished, Merrick is left even more lonely—now he knows what he is missing, and it breaks his heart.
- The Elephant Man was made into a successful film in 1980. The film starred Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, and Wendy Hiller. The director was David Lynch. Pomerance had nothing to do with the film, which was written by Lynch, Eric Bergen, and Christopher DeVore. The video is available from Paramount.
In a society that values beauty, Merrick is an outcast: his appearance is so deformed and hideous that people run from him in fear. He serves as an interesting contrast for the beautiful Mrs. Kendal, whose humanity is far greater than her beauty. She is able to look past the deformity and perceive the beauty of Merrick’s soul.
Creativity and Imagination
In his artwork, Merrick finds an escape from his problems. Alone in his room at the hospital, he begins to sketch St. Phillip’s. There is a beauty in his art that Merrick thinks is missing from his life. Although he is trapped in a body that has betrayed him, Merrick’s mind reveals hidden talents.
When Merrick arrives at Liverpool Station, mobs of people attack him out of fear—scared of what they might become and scared of a disease they do not understand.
Treves has his own fears. Like so many other Victorians, Treves fears sexuality and what it represents: loss of control and the embracing of emotion.
Because he is so obviously different and he inspires fear in public, Merrick’s movements are severely restricted. The hospital is supposed to be a
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the state of medicine in London in the 1880s. What medical options were available for the poor and for those who did not fit into mainstream London society?
- Conduct some research into Proteus Syndrome. (Until recently, Merrick was thought to suffer from neurofibromatosis.) Determine what treatments existed in the nineteenth century and compare them with those that exist today.
- Investigate freak shows and discuss why you think they have remained popular.
- An important theme of this play is humanity versus science. Treves can offer Merrick no cure or treatment, but he keeps him sequestered in a hospital setting. Treves perceives Merrick as a reflection of his own humanity and seeks to impose his values and beliefs on Merrick. Discuss his motives and whether you think he succeeds in redeeming himself by the play’s conclusion.
safe place, but Merrick gives up freedom for that safety. When Mrs. Kendal is thrown out, Merrick is powerless: he cannot make choices and is dependent on Treves to invite her back. True freedom for Merrick only comes with death, when he becomes free from his bodily constraints.
Treves perceives Merrick as a reflection of his own humanity and seeks to impose his values and beliefs on him. In the process, he ignores that Merrick is a human being with needs of his own. Each of the people who visit Merrick views him as a reflection of his or her own values.
Mrs. Kendal relates that Merrick is gentle, cheerful, honest, almost feminine—just like her. The Bishop thinks Merrick is religious and devout—just like the bishop. Gomm thinks Merrick is practical and thankful for his blessings—just like Gomm. The Duchess thinks Merrick is discreet—just as she is. Even Treves falls victim to this game and thinks Merrick is curious, compassionate, concerned with the world—just as Treves is.
The alienation effect was proposed by Bertolt Brecht, who thought that keeping the audience at a distance created a desirable effect. Brecht maintained that personal involvement with the plot or characters would inhibit the audience from understanding the political message of the play. Pomerance admired Brecht and modeled the construction of his play on Brechtian ideas about maintaining aesthetic distance.
The Elephant Man is classified as a melodrama, which are plays in which the plot offers a conflict between two characters who personify extremes of good and evil. These works usually end happily and emphasize sensationalism. Other literary forms that employ many of the same techniques are called melodramatic. The Elephant Man offers both good and evil in the personifications of Merrick and Ross.
Traditionally, a scene is a subdivision of an act and consists of continuous action of a time and place. However, Pomerance does not use acts, and so each scene consists of a short interlude that may be separated from previous scenes by distance of time or location.
The time and place of the play is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The primary setting for The Elephant Man is Merrick’s quarters in the hospital. The action spans an undetermined period of time.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1880s: Queen Victoria has named herself Empress of India, and British Imperialism is at its height. Great Britain and France occupy Egypt and within a few years, Africa will be partitioned and divided among European interests.
1979: Margaret Thatcher is the first woman to become Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Today: Great Britain has ceded control of Hong Kong to China, and Queen Elizabeth is set to celebrate fifty years as British ruler in 2002.
- 1880s: Impressionist painters create a new movement in art. They hold a major exhibition in Paris in 1874. Within ten years, the form will dominate the art field.
1979: Philip Johnson exhibits a new painting, Paintsplats (on a wall). Performance art becomes the newest art form.
Today: An exhibition of Jackson Pollack’s art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art results in long lines as people wait in cold, wet weather to see Pollack’s work.
- 1880s: Louis Pasteur develops a vaccine to prevent rabies. He also develops pasteurization to keep milk from spoiling from bacteria.
1979: Medicare-funded kidney dialysis costs the government $851 million for 46,000 patients and raises questions about whether such patients should continue to receive such a disproportionate amount of medical funding.
Today: Questions about physician-assisted suicide plague the country and leads to fears that doctors will simply dispose of those people who are physically or mentally unable to protect themselves.
- 1880s: Edison announces the success of his incandescent light bulb. He is sure it will burn for one hundred hours. Meanwhile in the United States, arc-lights are installed as streetlights in San Francisco and Cleveland.
1979: An accident at Three Mile Island results in the evacuation of 144,00 people. Little radiation is released, but the accident fuels fears about nuclear reactors as an energy source.
Today: Energy is assumed to be an unlimited, available resource—especially in the United States, where energy conservation lags behind that of other countries.
The setting for The Elephant Man is late Victorian England; an understanding of this period is important for understanding the relationship that John Merrick had with his doctors and the public.
In the nineteenth century, England was enjoying a successful industrial revolution. Yet industry brought social problems as well. As more people moved from the country to the cities, overcrowding resulted. In 1832, the Parliament passed a number of new laws to improve people’s lives: the areas of child labor, welfare, and sanitation were all the subject of new laws.
In 1851 the Crystal Palace exposition displayed England’s recent scientific and technological advances. The success of the Crystal Palace led to a smug satisfaction among England’s aristocracy that lasted most of that decade.
In 1859, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species created a dramatic controversy by questioning longstanding assumptions about humanity and man’s role in the world. His next book, The Descent of Man, introduced the theory of evolution. Religious leaders, who felt that Darwin was attacking a literal interpretation of the Bible, were outraged.
The Utilitarian Movement of the mid-nineteenth century also raised questions about the usefulness of religion. If man’s existence was subjected to reason, then religion provided little benefit for humans; people should rely more on technology, economics, and science for survival.
However, religion is based on faith, not reason. In many ways, religion was perceived as a luxury that modern men did not need for survival. In this difficult time, John Merrick’s embrace of religion can be interpreted as an endorsement of its absolute necessity in the world.
The Second Reform Act in 1867 gave voting rights to some members of the working class. Labor became a prominent political and economic issue, with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) igniting a debate about capitalism.
At the same time, a severe economic depression in the early 1870s led to an alarming rate of emigration, as British people fled their country for a better life elsewhere. By the end of the decade, things had improved; by the 1880s, London had become the center of civilization in the modern world.
As for the royal family, Queen Victoria had her hands full with damage control. Edward, Prince of Wales, indulged in a series of fleeting affairs with actresses and singers. The resulting liaisons created many scandals for the royal family.
Pomerance references this when he has Merrick question Mrs. Kendal about Edward’s most recent mistress. His escapades must have provided a welcome relief from the many social problems that plagued Victorian England.
The Elephant Man initially opened Off-Broadway in January 1979. In one of the first reviews, Jack Kroll contended that the play suffered from Pomerance’s “hard and heavy” morality, but “this is a minor fault, and in any case the entire Victorian does seem like an extravagant morality play on the stage of history.” Kroll concluded by saying that the “New York theatre is lucky to have The Elephant Man.”
Edwin Wilson’s review in The Wall Street Journal lauded the actors and direction, which he felt made up for the play’s faults. Among the problems, Wilson asserted
In the last few scenes of the play Pomerance abandons the hard-edged logic of the first part and chases philosophical phantoms, but through most of the evening his astute treatment of this unlikely subject makes The Elephant Man one of the best new plays of the season.
A similar sentiment is voiced by Christopher Sharp in his review for Women’s Wear Daily. Sharp asserted that the play “can compete with any other true artistic effort in the city. It reminds us of what New York theatre can become with a little courage and imagination.”
Sharp also noted the strength of the performances, stating that “this is a work that deserves intelligent acting, and it gets it.” He concluded by calling the production “a delicious evening of theatre.”
Within three months, The Elephant Man moved to Broadway with only small changes in the cast. Richard Elder of The New York Times noted that the play’s second act “has been tightened up” since it moved from Off-Broadway, but that some problems with this act remained.
In part, asserted Elder, this is because “many of the themes that are dramatized at the beginning remain to be expounded at the end.” In spite of these problems, Elder viewed Pomerance’s play as “an enthralling and luminous play.”
Douglas Watt considered many of the same problems in his review for the Daily News, but he found that “Pomerance takes us to the very heart of this awesome, true, oft-repeated story.”
Like other critics who reviewed The Elephant Man on its initial debut Off-Broadway, Clive Barnes maintained that Pomerance’s play brought a renewal to a mediocre New York theatre season.
Barnes deemed it a “wonderful, moving play,” heaping most of his praise on Pomerance’s writing, especially his treatment of themes and characterization.
In concluding his review, Barnes proclaimed that the Broadway production had “taken on a new dimension” and that “to see it is a great experience.”
Dennis Cunningham declared that the “first act is the best first act on Broadway this year.” Yet he also found that the second act just restates what has been said in the first act. In spite of this “severe
flaw,” Pomerance’s play was “the most extraordinary and moving play on Broadway.”
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico. In this essay, she explores Merrick’s humanity in The Elephant Man.
John Merrick lived his last four years in the hospital, a man ennobled by his suffering—never bitter, always forgiving. His was a humanity that transcends that of normal society; yet, it is normal society that Merrick aspired to join.
In Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the protagonist, Merrick, forces his audience to reconsider its definitions and expectations of what is considered normal. As Martin Gottfried observed in his review of the play, “Treves is trying to ‘normalize’ Merrick by making him like himself.”
Yet Treves focuses only on the deformity, and he is unable to see that underneath the growths and protrusions there exists a real human being with desires and needs similar to his own. In this respect, Merrick is as “normal” as Treves.
The Elephant Man, although set 115 years ago and staged twenty years ago, is especially topical because it questions the rights of patients and their quality of life. In Merrick’s efforts to lead a normal life, the audience is able to project their own desires for normalcy. Merrick’s struggle, then, is akin to our own.
In her essay, which explores the ethics of medical technology on stage, Angela Belli states that “life in an age of ever-increasing dehumanizing forces” threatens to control twentieth-century man. Belli asserts that man has benefited from the technological advances in science and medicine but that these same advances raise concerns about the patient’s physical and mental well being. These advances eventually create the sort of “moral dilemmas” that Belli argues the “public [is] largely ill-prepared” for; she is concerned about the quality of life issues that people must now face as men seek to exert some control over their own destiny.
Belli’s focus on the contractual rights of patients to exercise control over their own lives is illustrated by Treves’s insistence that Merrick be
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1972), written by Ashley Montagu, is a biography of John Merrick.
- Another biography, The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford (1992), attempts to provide a medical diagnosis for Merrick’s condition.
- Fredrick Dimmer’s Born Different: Amazing Stories of Very Different People (1988) contains a chapter devoted to John Merrick.
- Published in 1992, Articulating the Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick and His Interpreters was written by Peter Graham and Fritz H. Oehlschlaeger. The book examines how Merrick’s story became a phenomenon that captured the attention of so many people.
denied access to Mrs. Kendal. Because Treves does not approve of the merest hint of sexual interest—and although nothing improper has occurred—Mrs. Kendal is banished.
Yet, Treves’s stated intent was always to bring some semblance of normalcy to Merrick’s life. What is more normal than sexual interest in an attractive woman?
Merrick’s repeated questions about Mrs. Kendal’s absence are ignored or rebuffed, as would be the questions of an inquisitive child. Treves ignores the contractual relationship and assumes a parent-child relationship with Merrick. He is reduced to a child-like state and is unable to assert his needs because Treves assumes total control over Merrick’s desires.
Treves’s goal is to turn Merrick into a proper Victorian gentleman, a reflection of Treves. In this respect, the doctor is seeking to use science—which as Belli notes—is unable to help Merrick.
Instead, Treves seeks “to prove that although his patient is beyond any medical cure, science can improve his life by transforming him into a reasonable facsimile of an upper-class Englishman of the Victorian Age.”
Of course, this is an illusion since normalcy, at least in Treves’s eyes, is restricted to a non-sexual, superficially normal life. Merrick is a young man, and young men are interested in the sexuality of women. Yet when Merrick reveals his interest in Mrs. Kendal as a sexual woman, Treves is shocked and disgusted. Normalcy is the eunuch-like existence of a child.
Normalcy is an illusion in other respects. In the artificial world of his hospital room, Merrick eventually comes to understand that the “normal” life that Treves has constructed is only “an approximation of the life he longs for.” As Belli points out, “Merrick is confined within an environment where normalcy and freedom are merely a pretence.” That he can ever lead a normal life away from the hospital is an illusion that Merrick is forced to face.
Belli contends that when Treves finally recognizes that the social environment he has constructed for Merrick is illusionary, he is forced to question his own ideas about normalcy and the power of science to cure all problems. This leads to a crisis of conscience and a loss of faith.
One of the most interesting facets of Merrick’s attempts to achieve normalcy is in how those around him see themselves reflected in his image. As Janet L. Larson observes, Treves’s pride in having established Merrick with Mrs. Kendal creates for the audience an expectation that Merrick will achieve normalcy.
Then, when each member of Merrick’s new social circle comes forward to relate how he or she finds a mirror image in Merrick, Treves is forced to question what he has accomplished in constructing this artificial social milieu, which is far removed from normal existence. Treves’s efforts to normalize Merrick’s existence eventually kill him, Larson argues, as “the accumulated weight of others’ dreams—which Merrick has accepted—breaks his neck.”
When Merrick’s reality is revealed as nothing more than illusion, there is nothing left to do except die. Of course Treves suffers as well. In creating for Merrick what Larson calls a “civilizing fiction of companionship,” Treves’s “shallow expectations” are completely destroyed, and he must finally question his own values. Merrick’s relationships—carefully constructed within a contrived social circle—are all illusionary.
Only during their last visit together does Mrs. Kendal appear to recognize that Merrick needs and wants more. Her efforts to help make the illusion real end in her banishment.
Treves’s attempts to create an illusionary normalcy have been the topic of other critics. In their article comparing The Elephant Man, the play, and The Elephant Man, the movie, William E. Holladay and Stephen Watt argue that Treves encourages Merrick’s normalcy, while restricting it at the same time.
Holladay and Watt note that “Treves endorses Merrick’s reading of romantic literature and his conversation with women. . . [while] Treves rehearses the importance of rules in the ‘home,’ denying Merrick any opportunity to express sexual feelings.”
Treves’s behavior, “of alternately encouraging and then deflating Merrick’s desire for knowledge of the opposite sex,” is, as Holladay and Watt state, cruel. Treves establishes boundaries that limit Merrick’s sexuality; in this case, sexuality becomes an intellectual pursuit rather than a physical one. Treves provides Merrick with the illusion of sexual fulfillment.
The illusion is initiated by Kendal, who uses her acting ability to create normal discourse with Merrick. As Treves explains, she has been brought to meet Merrick because she is an actress, and thus, will not run in fright when she sees him.
This, too, is an illusion, as Vera Jiji points out in her article on The Elephant Man. Although Mrs. Kendal tells Merrick that her stage life is an illusion and that her meeting with him is reality, in fact,
the audience has watched the actress create the self with which she greets Merrick. She has carefully
“IF NORMALCY IS AN ILLUSION, AS IT IS FOR JOHN MERRICK, THEN IT IS AN ILLUSION THAT MUCH OF MANKIND EMBRACES. THE NEED TO FEEL NORMAL, TO APPEAR NORMAL, IS ALL TOO COMMON.”
practiced several greetings, and so, her initial response is not spontaneous, but carefully rehearsed. However, neither Mrs. Kendal nor Treves appears to recognize that there is nothing normal about this staged meeting. The meeting between Mrs. Kendal and Merrick is as artificial as the environment in which they meet.
Jiji notes that it is not until Kendal removes her clothes that she ceases to act. In the act of undressing, she finally reveals that she is Merrick’s friend. In dropping her clothing, she drops the act, ceasing to be an actor and achieving a new level of humanity.
When the illusion between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal becomes reality, Treves bursts into the room to remind everyone that Merrick’s reality is limited. He can maintain an illusion of normalcy, but it too will be limited. One reason the audience is so dismayed at Treves’s actions is because the audience can see what Treves cannot—that Merrick cannot be bound by such artificial restraints. His death, soon after, seems inevitable.
In an age where people all too ready to seek out a plastic surgeon for a quick tummy tuck, face lift, or liposuction, Merrick’s ability to project his inner humanity forces the audience to look beyond the obvious and the superficial.
His existence also creates obvious questions about quality-of-life issues that plague modern life. If doctors are to be able to “pull the plug” on those who seek this assistance because they no longer fit the model of what society defines as normal, then perhaps, there are lessons to be learned for all of us from John Merrick’s life and death.
If normalcy is an illusion, as it is for John Merrick, then it is an illusion that much of mankind embraces. The need to feel normal, to appear normal, is all too common. That mirrors maintain such a prominent place in so many homes should indicate that the need to reassure us of our normalcy is a trait that much of mankind shares. John Merrick was no different.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
William E. Holladay and Stephen Watt
In the following essay, Holladay and Watt examine the popularity of both the stage and the film versions of The Elephant Man.
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Source: William E. Holladay and Stephen Watt, “Viewing the Elephant Man,” in PMLA, October, 1989, Vol. 104, no. 5, pp. 868–81.
In this brief essay, Ricks discusses the recurrent imagery that Pomerance has borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, arguing that the playwright uses the material to illustrate the nature of social conformity in the world of The Elephant Man.
Repeated images—the corset, the cathedral model, and the allusion to Romeo and Juliet—represent twists on the idea of illusive and restrictive moral standards in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man. The corset first stands as a symbol of mere control or restriction, depending on the degree of irony applied to the image. Ross, the freak show proprietor, uses the corset image to describe Merrick: he is the result of “Mother Nature uncorseted.” Ross is trying to say that anything produced by an uncorseted (or uncontrolled) Mother Nature would certainly be freakish. But when one realizes that Mother Nature restricted by a man-made fashion garment would probably bear anything but a “natural” child, the irony of the statement comes blaring forth; one would expect that Ross and the rest of “normal” people are anything but natural.
In close relation to this, the corset also stands as a symbol for moral standards imposed by culture, which restrict. Merrick, as the product of an uncorseted Mother Nature, is not inhibited by the social standards the “normal” characters impose on themselves. As Ross infers that the bulk of mankind is the product of a corseted Mother Nature, the inverse is true in their case, and Dr. Frederick Treves, paragon of societal normality, becomes the perfect portrait of mankind’s moral maladies. In moral disillusionment, Treves laments the “grotesque ailments” caused by corsets: his “patients do not unstrap themselves of corsets. Some cannot.” Treves’s bewailment of the English social system advances the idea that a Mother Nature corseted by mankind cannot produce children who act naturally and with honesty about their own feelings. The other reference to the corset is indirect and appears when actress Mrs. Kendal undresses in front of Merrick. This disregard for cultural morals (and they are cultural; African pygmies run naked) is symbolized by nothing less than taking the corset off.
The model of St. Philip’s cathedral symbolizes Merrick’s knowledge of Treves’s constricting moral standards. Each time Merrick discovers another illusive ethic in Treves’s system of thought, he adds another piece to the model. At the moment Treves himself becomes uncorseted from these moral illusions—still suffering the “most grotesque ailments” and in despair bemoaning the futility of society’s standards, Merrick fits the final piece on St. Philip’s. This symbol closely ties with the allusion to Romeo and Juliet. Merrick states, “When the illusion ended, [Romeo] had to kill himself.” Since the cathedral represents Merrick’s knowledge of Treves’s faulty standards, when the cathedral is completed, the illusion ends, and Merrick dies. Juliet, played of course by Mrs. Kendal, helps by removing the corset to destroy the illusion of Treves’ morals; this ties the images of corset and cathedral and the Shakespeare allusion together. Mrs. Kendal’s permanent departure from the play represents Juliet’s demise and foreshadows the death of Romeo.
Source: Val Ricks. “Pomerance’s The Elephant Man,” in the Explicator, Vol. 46, no. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 48–49.
Louis K. Greiff
In the following essay, Greiff compares the tragic elements in Dr. Treves to those found in Dr. Dysart in Equus.
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Source: Louis K. Greiff, “Two for the Price of One: Tragedy and the Dual Hero in Equus and The Elephant Man,” in Within the Dramatic Spectrum, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, Lanham, MD: University Presses of America, 1986, pp. 64–77.
Janet L. Larson
In the following essay, Larson contends that Pomerance’s play is a parable, informing the audience of truths they don’t expect or even want to hear.
What is an elephant compared to a man? Brecht, A Man’s a Man
[T]he more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. . . .Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”
[Scripture says] that God is a hidden God, and that since the corruption of nature, He has left men in a darkness from which they can escape only through Jesus Christ.... Vere tu es Deus absconditus. Pascal, Pensées
In 1977 Foco Novo, a radical fringe group named after a play by Bernard Pomerance about South American guerrillas, first produced The Elephant Man in England; early in 1979, the play opened in mid-Manhattan at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a worship space built into the Citicorp Center; a few months later, the production was moved to a Victorian theater on Broadway, where it has enjoyed a long run. This brief production history suggests the broad span of reference in this most recent Pomerance play: beginning in radical politics, it ends in metaphysics, and in between, it directs questions of aesthetics and ethics against show business, theatrical illusion, and all kinds of imitative performance from language learning to orthodox religious discipline and the imitation of Christ.
This thematic range makes for some incoherence: a few critics have justly observed that the play contains too many allusions, without development, too many ideas which the theater audience can scarcely take in. Yet the incomplete web the allusions weave entangles many who have seen this play in a mysterious enchantment that invites interpretation. The very multiplicity of themes and evocations is also essential to the power of a drama that expands its own dimensions through a dynamic of parable. Unfolding through multiple reversals, questioning its own premises while challenging the expectations of its hearers, The Elephant Man grows larger as we experience it and invites the audience to enlarge its own critical perceptions and sympathies. In its parabolic movement, Pomerance’s play extends itself beyond its leftist critique as well as its absurdist anguish to offer a slender opening for transcendent religious hope. These surprising expansions
“MERRICK REMINDS THOSE WHO ACCEPT A COMMON VERSION OF THE DARWINIAN HYPOTHESIS THAT THEIR BEASTLY ORIGINS ARE NOT SAFELY BEHIND THEM IN THE PREHISTORIC EONS; HE MOCKS THE EFFORTS TO CLIMB UP AND UP OF THOSE WHO GRAFT ONTO THE HYPOTHESIS A PROGRESSIVE SOCIAL DARWINISM.”
make The Elephant Man of considerable interest as dramatic parable to students of the modern theater.
In the history of the freak John Merrick, popularly known as the Elephant Man, Pomerance found a subject that invited both leftist and absurdist interpretations, but finally eluded them. Merrick was first of all the archetypal social victim of the Victorian city—a misshapen child of the workhouse who eventually sought out the circus as the only means of earning his livelihood. Exploited, banned as “indecent,” and at length abandoned by his managers, Merrick was fortuitously rescued by the young surgeon Mr. Frederick Treves, then rising in his profession. Treves brought Merrick to the London Hospital to study the incurable disorder (neurofibromatosis) that had made a “chaotic anatomical wilderness” of his body. But the scientist also sought to cure the creature’s sense of humiliation and to make him “a man like others.”
Treves’s The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, published thirty years after the experience, tells an affecting rags-to-riches story of Merrick’s last years at the London Hospital (1886–1890). It is well known that his aristocratic circle of late Victorians studied, domesticated, and exalted the Elephant Man, a strange cult figure altogether suiting the needs peculiar to the fin de siecle. Like Little Nell in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (which forty years earlier had given impetus in the nineteenth century to this sort of worship), Merrick was perceived as a figure of saintly suffering “ennobled” by troubles which he never resented, always forgave. Treves’s account suggests the tone of this worship:
[the Elephant Man] had passed through the fire and had come out unscathed.... He showed himself to be a gentle, affectionate and lovable creature, as amiable as a happy woman, free from any trace of cynicism or resentment, without a grievance and without an unkind word for anyone. I have never heard him complain. I have never heard him deplore his ruined life or resent the treatment he had received at the hands of callous keepers. His journey through life had been indeed along a via dolorosa, the road had been uphill all the way, and now, when the night was at its blackest and the way most steep, he had suddenly found himself, as it were, in a friendly inn, bright with light and warm with welcome. His gratitude to those about him was pathetic in its sincerity and eloquent in the childlike simplicity with which it was expressed.
If Treves seems to protest too much, later he allows himself to suggest that the “accidental” death of the Elephant Man by asphyxiation was an act of suicide. This veiled possibility seems to have made it all the more necessary after his death that Merrick become a religious emblem, shoring up his benefactors’ belief in themselves as vessels of “the mercy of God,” a God whom they did not otherwise honor. Despite his physical and social entrapments, however, Merrick remains an appealing figure. All the accounts, including Ashley Montagu’s 1972 book, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, persuasively present him as an afflicted man who transcended his conditions and possessed his soul.
Out of these materials, Pomerance has constructed an imaginative work that is considerably more than historical drama, although The Elephant Man could be studied alone for its remarkable display of late Victorian attitudes: the triumphal spirit of nineteenth-century science, with its undercurrent of anxiety about beastly origins; the hubris of Empire, with its high-minded cant about the “inferior races”; a callous social engineering, pursued in the same spirit of the Mechanical Age that produced social victims like Merrick; the retrenchment of religious orthodoxy, behind invocations to Duty and a hypocritical sexual code; the new idealizing of the sensual Pre-Raphaelite woman; the fatalism of “Hap” in a Godforsaken universe; the poetry of religion replacing religion; the late Romanticist cult of the victimized artist; and the aristocratic voyeurism of the Decadence, with its cultivation of hothouse curiosities and strange behaviors a rebours. Oscar Wilde, another elephantine “freak” of the period who suffered from public opinion, had protested in “The Decay of Lying” (1889) his contemporaries’ “monstrous worship of facts” and ridiculed the unimaginative writer who “is to be found at the Librairie Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his subject.” Pomerance’s reading, on the contrary, is genuine recherche; he has drawn upon the Treves/ Montagu biographic materials not just to ground his play in their facts, but to discover useable dramatic tensions within their unintended fictions.
As Leslie Fiedler has suggested, the stories we tell about mutations reflect our needs to fit their differences into some apprehensible design. The Elephant Man’s benefactors and Merrick himself responded to his freakish nature by designing stories, drawn upon culture myths, that inadequately accounted for it. Pomerance, sensitive to the allure of such coherences, reflects skeptically in his play on the earlier accounts of Merrick’s beautiful spirit and of his captors’ beneficence; the play also emphasizes certain clues in these accounts in order to heighten the contradictions in the Elephant Man’s struggle for survival in society. But if Pomerance goes beyond historical reports in these ways, he confirms unexpectedly the central intuition they share: he too is fascinated by the mystery of Merrick’s being. Mingling skepticism with wonder, Pomerance’s version of the story is neither the product of late Victorian myth-making nor a further act of twentieth-century demythologizing, but a dramatic parable that seems to have emerged from the playwright’s surprising encounter with his “subject.”
The evocation of wonder is remarkable, because a “problem-solving” language and method permeate the play. In a largely cryptic interview with the New York Times, Pomerance has called his approach to theater “left-rationalist”: “If you point out an error and appeal for the reason,” he explains, “then that is a step in the right direction.” Often the clipped, wry, ironic language of the play employs the forms of logic to expose errors and appeal for reasons. In this idiom, the wise naif Merrick is the dialectical questioner of social injustice; but since he is deformed by this society, he is also put forward himself as “proof,” as the central exhibit in the play’s argument against the present social order. Yet at the end of the play, the “benighted” Sir Frederick confesses that scientific “observation, practice, [and] deduction” have led him to “conclusions” that expose the inadequacy of his rationalism for providing either truth or consolation. Without diminishing its political impact (stronger in the London production), the play shows us that a problem-solving logic is insufficient for head or heart.
What, then, does the case of the Elephant Man “prove”? If the playwright’s only project were to “point” to Merrick’s shaping as “error,” the socially deformed man we encounter in the second half of the play would merely have been reduced to an imitation man, and the play would offer nothing more than the cynical conclusions of Brecht’s song in A Man’s a Man:
You can do with a human being what you will.
Take him apart like a car, rebuild him bit by bit—
As you will see, he has nothing to lose by it.
The miracle of John Merrick is that, although he is rebuilt by the social engineers, he is not utterly “robbed” (Treves’s word) of the mystery of his being. In communicating this mystery on stage, The Elephant Man surpasses its own critical “left-rationalist” formulations.
Interestingly, this self-questioning is one of the ways Pomerance’s play seems not to depart from, but to be indebted to the early work of Brecht, who elaborated an elephant/man joke in A Man’s a Man and The Elephant Calf. Both plays, which Pomerance adapted for the Hampstead Theatre in 1975, contain dozens of lines and songs that might gloss the later play on the Brechtian theme of society’s tyranny over the individual soul and the destructive shaping of the Model Citizen. In The Elephant Calf, Brecht’s critical theater playfully undermines itself with the self-conscious admission that “Art can prove anything.” Rushing willy-nilly to demonstrate that the baby elephant on trial really “is a man” and a matricide, one character urges:
it is unprecedented, which I am also ready to prove, in fact I will prove anything you like, and will contend even more than that, and never be put off but always insist on what I see the way I see it, and prove it, too, for, I ask you: what is anything without proof?
The Elephant Calf, with its mockery of a trial that is also a play, is a burlesque of theatrical proof; visually, it is theater “seen from the side,” so that backstage business is literally exposed. (Brecht’s staging device, with a theater curtain at a right angle to the audience dividing the platform into a visible before/behind theater on the stage, is borrowed for an early circus scene in The Elephant Man.) Robert Brustein has argued that Brecht’s plays reveal the inadequacy of their own frontal attacks on capitalist society by pointing to errors without providing persuasive reasons:
On the surface,... [Brecht’s revolt] is directed against the hypocrisy, avarice, and injustice of bourgeois society; in the depths, against the disorder of the universe and the chaos in the human soul. Brecht’s social revolt is objective, active, remedial, realistic; his existential revolt is subjective, passive, irremediable, and Romantic. The conflict between these two modes of rebellion issues in the dialectic of Brecht’s plays....
A similar dialectic is present in The Elephant Man. This play does not make its impact only as a leftist morality play, but goes behind or under or through this “stage” to reach for unsettling questions about “the disorder of the universe and the chaos in the human soul.” Stanley Kauffmann, among others, has identified the play’s “most suggestive” theme as “the arbitrariness of existence, posed against a hunger for design.” Near the end of the play Pomerance does plant proofs for an absurdist interpretation, but, as I shall argue later, the production undermines these too. To become a dramatic parable with a religious dimension, The Elephant Man reaches beyond its own absurdist/leftist dialectic.
Before offering an analysis of the play’s structure, let me summarize here my general conclusion and set forth some definitions. Like the heuristic modern fictions Frank Kermode has described in The Sense of an Ending, Pomerance’s play overturns its own formulas and “disconfirms” audience expectations in order to create the sense that his dramatic fiction, through these repeated reversals, is “finding something out for us, something real.” This heuristic pattern is also characteristic of parabolic structures. Here Kermode’s more recent writing on parable is less helpful than John Dominic Crossan’s theology of story in The Dark Interval and In Parables, which draws upon the work of Levi-Strauss to offer a rather specialized account of parabolic teaching in the Gospels. Crossan defines parable not only as a form of narrative, but also as a story event: it is an “event” not because something happens in the parable’s plot, but because something happens between this plot and the story the hearers expected to hear. The parables maker’s structure of expression, says Crossan, confronts the hearers’ different structure of expectation. (As parable begins to reveal the kind of story it is, a hearer’s immediate response may be: “‘I don’t know what you mean by that story but I’m certain I don’t like it.’”) Parable, then, requires an audience, is inherently dramatic, and turns on a surprise which draws in the hearers as critical participants. Through their critical participation, they are transformed—or they reject the parable, and effectively exclude themselves from the Kingdom.
Crossan describes parable’s structure as beginning with conventional expectations in a setting familiar to the listeners, with accepted values intact. Then an unexpected force (an “advent”) enters into the story to overturn its terms of value (such as rich/ poor), at that moment reversing the hearers’ conventional expectations: their prejudices, common sense, cherished ethics, world view—in a word, their “myths.” Reversal challenges the hearers to new action, but the story’s ending does not synthesize all its dissonances into an explicit lesson that tells them precisely what to do, as a moral example story would. In the context of Crossan’s theology of story, he argues that in the New Testament parables and in parabolic moments of human lives, the Kingdom of God arrives in sovereign freedom to “shatter the deep structure of our accepted world” and open up a “new world” and unforeseen relationships. Crossan acknowledges that people cannot live without “myths,” but “To be human and to remain open to transcendental experience demands a willingness to be ‘parabled.... ‘”
Underlying The Elephant Man is this definition of what it means to be human; to become nonhuman is to live completely enclosed by myths, such as the late Victorian myth of the “Elephant Man.” While Pomerance’s play cannot be claimed as a Christian parable (even with Merrick as its Christ figure), its dramatic power derives from its internal dynamics of parable (Crossan’s dialectic of advent/reversal/ action), as well as from its parabolic impact on the theater audience, whose conventional responses of judgment and sympathy are challenged by the play. On stage, Merrick himself is parabolic, overturning the other characters’ expectations of him and of themselves; in turn, they are parabolic for him. (As Crossan says, “It takes two to parable.”) In Merrick’s transforming relationships with Sir Frederick Treves, the actress Mrs. Kendal, and the churchman Bishop Walsham How, established barriers of thought, language, and feeling are shattered—at least briefly—and unforeseen human possibilities emerge for simple kindness, more thoughtful understanding, and sensitivity to suffering as well as to beauty in unexpected places. In the growing compassion of some characters, and in Merrick’s rare epiphanies of harmony and loveliness, a barely intimated hope for community is renewed out of the social “swamp,” and the mystery of being is momentarily revealed. Through all these transformations, Pomerance’s drama becomes parabolic for itself, questioning its own leftist and absurdist formulations which exclude divine presence. Because of these several parabolic dimensions, The Elephant Man at length emerges neither as a leftist morality play nor as an absurd drama, but as a kind of modern mystery play through which we glimpse the possibility of a transcendent realm of being. To understand how Pomerance’s parabolic structures work to make this happen, we must turn to the text as interpreted in the New York production directed by Jack Hofsiss.
The Elephant Man opens with a ridiculously complacent Freddie Treves presenting himself to the audience as a newly arrived surgeon at the London Hospital who relishes his “excessive blessings”:
A happy childhood in Dorset.
A scientist in an age of science.
In an English age, an Englishman.
These concords are brutally disrupted as the scene shifts across Whitechapel Road. Before a garish carnival booth, a rotund manager hawks his traveling mutation show as “... Mother Nature uncorseted and in malignant rage!” But the main attraction is the Elephant Man’s suffering from exposure to his fellow men. Ross cries out:
Tuppence only, step in and see: This side of the grave, John Merrick has no hope nor expectation of relief. In every sense his situation is desperate. His physical agony is exceeded only by his mental anguish, a despised creature without consolation. Tuppence only, step in and see! To live with his physical hideousness, incapacitating deformities and unremitting pain is trial enough, but to be exposed to the cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and disgust by all who behold him is even more difficult to bear. Tuppence only, step in and see! For in order to survive, Merrick forces himself to suffer these humiliations, I repeat, humiliations, in order to survive, thus he exposes himself to crowds who pay to gape and yawp at this freak of nature, the Elephant Man.
(Ironically, Pomerance has lifted this barker’s spiel almost verbatim from the humanitarian sentiments of Ashley Montagu in his Study in Human Dignity.) The voyeuristic appeals of Ross are rapidly succeeded by the subtler cruelty of the brash young lecturer in anatomy, who rents the Elephant Man for the day. Back at the hospital with his anatomical exhibit, Treves lectures while pointing with his cane to projected photographs of the real Merrick (and the past-tense words he uses come directly from the real Sir Frederick’s journal):
The most striking feature about him was his enormous head. Its circumference was about that of a man’s waist. From the brow there projected a huge bony mass like a loaf, while from the back of his head hung a bag of spongy fungous-looking skin.... The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever.... The right arm was of enormous size and shapeless.... The right hand was large and clumsy—a fin or paddle rather than a hand.... The other arm was remarkable by contrast. It was not only normal, but was moreover a delicately shaped limb covered with a fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied.... The lower limbs.... were unwieldy, dropsical-looking, and grossly misshapen.
These opening speeches are worth quoting at length, because they suggest how Pomerance is sensitive to the formative or deforming effects of language in ways his predecessors were not when they told the Elephant Man story. The New York production brings out these effects most vividly. During this lecture-demonstration, waiting in a patch of light to Treves’s side, is a handsome actor who is Apollonian in physique, loincloth-clad, and cruciform in posture, with arms angled slightly from his body and palms toward the audience. As the lecture proceeds, the actor begins to “present” the Elephant Man character by slowly contorting his straight form until he has become “crooked,” as though under the deforming pressure of Treves’s anatomical jargon and its implicit normative values.
If this initiating scene portends Merrick’s slow crucifixion by many kinds of civilizing languages in the play, it also intimates that he will somehow survive this torture of conditioning. The twisted posture that the actor maintains throughout the play never allows us wholly to forget the shocking photographs, but what the audience actually sees is an elegant theatrical paradox: a human figure imitating an inhuman creature, or in the Platonic terms the play invokes, the essential Form of a god with the mere Appearance of mortal being. Because Pomerance has chosen not to paint and pad his freak literalistically, Merrick—ever in a double figure—reminds us of the “other” dimension of beauty and wholeness that is nearly absent from the ugly and broken world the play exposes. One cannot choose to see him only as pathetically lamed, twisted, and barely articulate: the actor playing Merrick is also a symbol of transcendence always present on the stage. And it is important to the play’s intimation of hope that we look critically through this symbol as we watch Merrick’s deformation by the other characters, including their appropriation of the Elephant Man as a metaphor for their condition.
Swift melodramatic scenes follow the lecture-demonstration: Merrick, back on the streets, is insulted, deported, beaten, robbed, abandoned. Yet Merrick believes in “happiness,” and shows he is susceptible of compassion for other victims and capable of wit in the face of brutality. When he meets up with Treves again, the doctor takes him “home” to the London Hospital to stay. Here Treves teaches the uncouth creature to bathe himself and to repeat such ordering sentences as, “Rules make us happy because they are for our own good.” Pomerance’s implicit message in this scene is Peter Handke’s explicit one in Kaspar: “You have a sentence of which you can make a model for yourself... which will exorcise every disorder from you.” It is just what Merrick needs, one might think, and certainly what his keepers need for this potentially disruptive patient: “You can quiet yourself with sentences. . .,” says Kaspar; “you can be nice and quiet.” With some difficulty, Merrick learns to imitate his betters, yet this naif/victim knows too much to succumb totally to the imitation of their sentences or their myths. When Treves defends the peremptory firing of a staring hospital attendant as a “merciful” act for Merrick’s good, the freak questions his keeper (in the “left-rationalist” manner): “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?” Such early lines seem to promise that Merrick will be the little child who leads the others to transcend their egoistic naivete and civilized barbarism.
From the beginning, John Merrick is a parabolic presence in Treves’s life, causing him to revalue his beliefs and at length to abandon them as inhuman and untrue. Other relations too are developing along these lines in the first half of the play. Most important is Merrick’s encounter with a woman. Treves has hired the celebrated actress, Madge Kendal, to provide the civilizing fiction of companionship for the Elephant Man, from whom other women less practiced in the arts of illusion have run in horror. Treves’s shallow expectations and Mrs. Kendal’s are completely overthrown. Despite her initial repugnance, which she controls at first behind a tough professional facade, Merrick’s beauty of spirit quickly charms her into authentic response. Their encounters form the most moving scenes in the play. “[S]ometimes I think my head is so big,” he confides to her, “because it is so full of dreams.... Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?” When he shares his strangely wise interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, which he has been reading, the actress (as well as the audience) discovers his sensibility to be “extraordinary”. Merrick’s unaffected humanity forces Mrs. Kendal, who has been a stage Juliet, to abandon her glibly theatrical myth of “romance” for the reality of a courageous friendship, for agape if not yet eros. Entering the existentially open, potentially dangerous territory of this out-of-bounds relation, Kendal and Merrick have stepped into the uncharted realm of parabolic action. It is taking this step that makes it possible for Pomerance’s drama in its first half to move through and past its initial rationalist social analysis. For without love, Merrick asks simply, “why should there be a play?”
When this pair shake hands (in the New York production, when she chooses to take not his well-formed left hand but his right “fin or paddle rather than a hand”), and when they nearly touch again later, the play seems to be reaching for moments of apocalyptic transformation in the marriage of different realms of being. These glimpses of what Kendal calls “Paradise” happen outside the roles prescribed by the London Hospital world, a false Victorian earthly paradise; and the couple’s poetic exchanges likewise move beyond the practiced formulas of polite discourse, the routine “I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance” that rings metallically through many social encounters. Yet some kind of society is clearly necessary for John Merrick so that his “dreams” can get out, and indeed the others need to know them. “Before I spoke with people,” Merrick confesses, “I did not think of all these things because there was no one to bother to think them for. Now things just come out of my mouth which are true.” At the close of the play’s first half, Treves proudly announces the great “success” of the Kendal-Merrick connection. He does not seem to realize that the human values which Merrick’s advent has brought into his world have caused the word “success” to bear a new meaning, even on his lips. With this triumph, the audience’s expectations are high for more than Merrick’s induction into normality.
As the second half of the production begins, culture myths have begun to reassert their power, and Merrick is dressed for the old success. Artistically gifted, he is building a model of St. Phillip’s Church and explicates its Platonic religious allegory: the cathedral “is not stone and steel and glass; it is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud. So I make my imitation of an imitation”. Yet it is no longer so clear that “up” is Merrick’s direction; the “ANXIETIES OF THE SWAMP” (the title of Scene XIII), of this decaying society, are already sucking him in (as they suck in the colonized victims in such early Brecht plays as In the Swamp). As the Hofsiss production conceives the scene (XI), theatrical caricatures of “the best society” now crowd the stage space, diminishing Merrick’s presence. The lavish gifts they bear in a Christmas pilgrimage to the London Hospital are useless artifacts meant as theatrical props for the myth of the Elephant Man’s humanity, as Kendal observes; the two-dimensional figures are the “best” people whom the excessively-dimensioned Merrick must imitate to become recognized as a man among men. Now in evening dress, Merrick steps respectfully into the background to receive their formulated homage: “I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance”; they are eager to greet the phenomenon they think they have made of him. (As A Man’s a Man would describe this transformation: “At first, it was a regular elephant, later it was a fake...”.)
“Born” into this fake society at Christmas, Merrick seems to have become their domesticated messiah. In this role, he must now accept the others’ powerful, contradictory dreams into his bursting head. So one by one the figures come forward to tell just how Merrick seems “almost like me.” He mirrors an “Example to us all,” says one who feigns to admire models of Self-Help, the preeminent Victorian creed. Mrs. Kendal describes him as “gentle, almost feminine[,]... a serious artist in his way”; Bishop How greets him as a devoutly religious doubter, like himself; Carr Gomm, the militant-ly atheist hospital administrator (a sort of Charles Kingsley for the opposing team), respects John for knowing practically “what side his bread is buttered on” and counting his blessings. To others, Merrick is a “Piccadilly exquisite” or discreet confidant. Treves sees his protege as “curious, compassionate, concerned about the world, well, rather like myself...”. But like the others, who come forward in a second cycle of confessions, Treves also acknowledges his darker self in Merrick. If Merrick is the dream-Christ who affirms their complacences, he is also a suffering servant whom they need to show them their other dimensions as human beings. In either role, however, he is an exploited symbol, loaded with their meanings rather than encouraged to speak his own.
In these equivocal roles, Merrick becomes implicitly a critic of their lives, and the impact of this criticism is felt most powerfully at this point through the change in Treves, who emerges as Merrick’s double. No longer the caricatured scientific scientist, Treves confides to the audience that John Merrick is “visibly worse than 86–87. That, as he rises higher in the consolations of society, he gets visibly more grotesque is proof definitive he is like me.” At the center of the play, the successful doctor and popular patient have arrived at exactly the same point. Sir Frederick’s transformation has begun with the advent of Merrick into his world. But the doctor’s changing sense of what limited value “proof definitive” has, forces him to admit that he can “make no sense of” their shared condition.
From this point onward, the play could be considered anticlimactic. It might be conjectured that Pomerance, having created in Merrick such a remarkable person, does not then know, any more than his other characters, what to do with him. But it is also possible, and I think more persuasive, to observe at this point in the play that there is a deliberate complication of its issues, even as the stage space becomes more crowded, and that our critical and sympathetic responses to Treves and Merrick become less easy and certain. The beauty which the play does win from its experience of human beastliness emerges only as the drama’s contradictions are heightened and important reversals have taken place for the central characters.
Following a Brechtian pattern, Merrick the innocent now becomes even more deeply implicated in the system of exploitation and counterexploi-tation that has “saved” him. When his old manager, Ross, reappears, down at the heel and apparently starving, to ask for help, Merrick rejects the man’s crude propositioning with the elegant cruelty he has learned. In this unsettling moment of deja vu, Merrick echoes Treves’s earlier defense of injustice when he says, “I’m sorry, Ross. It’s just the way things are.” And as “proof” of his new manhood, Merrick backs up against the church model he has made. “By god,” says Ross. “Then I am lost.”
As witnesses to his moral deformation in society, we find it increasingly difficult wholly to approve Merrick, for we see that he has taken on several new double identities since his comparatively simpler state of natural Elephant-Manhood. He accepts the new artificial self that society imposes, but he judges it; his innocence is provoking and even perverse, while his very goodness has evil effects. Yet despite distortion and confusion, he retains an innate sense of just proportion, and from that center of integrity continues to question divine as well as human justice through the rest of the play.
As these complications are developing in the audience’s response to Merrick, Sir Frederick is beginning to attract sympathy. Treves has begun to question the adequacy of his materialist assumptions. Increasingly hard pressed to defend his actions, he falls back upon the Victorian sexual standard as a last resource of moral certainty. The play’s climax comes after a great blow to this myth of Treves’s and to Merrick’s innocent faith in those who have saved him.
One afternoon, Treves discovers the lovely Mrs. Kendal shyly unveiling her torso to Merrick, who has never “seen” a beautiful woman before. In the New York version, her red hair cascaded down a white back, and momentarily she became a sensuous Pre-Raphaelite idealization. The confusion of soul’s beauty and body’s beauty poses no problem for John Merrick: this “beautiful sight” is simply his supreme moment of Paradise in the play. Treves shatters it. “Do you know what you are?” he shouts at John, bursting in. “Don’t you know what is forbidden?” The “Woman” is banished, but worse, Treves never answers Merrick’s anguished queries about why his Ideal has never returned to the hospital. Treves even allows Merrick to believe she chooses to absent herself. Although this banishment is meant as kindness, it is cruelty to the doubly betrayed and confused Merrick, and his disillusion forces him back upon the absurdist possibility that his body has always presented. And yet, through the ministrations of Bishop How, he still receives the discipline and sacraments of the Church and stubbornly maintains his childlike faith.
It is not difficult for Pomerance to present Treves’s outraged decency as the “error” of an indecent moral confidence, for we know that Treves can invoke no personal religious belief to justify parting these two souls. But when Merrick now begins “chipping away at the edges” of this moralism, Pomerance gives another parabolic turn to our view of its victim. “Frederick,” Merrick asks soon after the crisis, “... do you believe in heaven? Hell? What about Christ? What about God? I believe in heaven. The Bible promises in heaven the crooked shall be made straight.” Treves quips dryly, “So did the rack, my boy. So do we all.” It is clear that the innocent inquisitor is also becoming Treves’s rack when the doctor explodes, “For God’s sakes. If you are angry, just say it.... Say it: I am angry. Go on. I am angry. I am angry! I am angry!” “I believe in heaven,” return the Model Christian.
Is this “cruelty” or “kindness”? The interchangeability of these words portends a moral nightmare. This chaos in values is brought home in the next scene, a parabolic encounter titled “CRUELTY IS AS NOTHING TO KINDNESS.” Stepping forward smartly into Treves’s nightmare, a transformed Merrick, equipped with top hat and cane, begins to dissect the moral deformities of “the terrifyingly normal” scientist, hunched dreaming in his chair. The reversal of their roles may be Treves’s fantasy, but what we see is a heightened version of Merrick’s learned vices for which we already have had proof. Even in its dream mode, this Brechtian lecture-scene jars our sympathy for Merrick, our easy tolerance for the victim’s earlier imitative failures of compassion. As with old Ross, Merrick as anatomist of Treves is morally “correct,” yet lacks moral imagination. His lecture is patently “analysis” of a “left-rationalist” sort about the cruelties of Treves’s patronage, his colonization of other persons and his own sexual desires. Merrick counters neatly the scientist’s anatomical language with his own impersonal idiom, and he makes his points sharply; but he lacks the self-criticism for which his speech argues, and more important, he lacks compassion. As Merrick himself has taught us to ask, without love, “why should there be a play?”
As the script directs, scene after scene has ended with Merrick silently placing another piece on the model of St. Phillip’s. Even as he has constructed this model of transcendent loveliness, he has been deconstructing Treves and his myths. Treves’s confession and breakdown come at last. In a scene near the end of the play, he admits that his society does not “know... what else to do with” Merrick’s or anyone’s nature but to “Rob” it; society has made the Elephant Man “a mockery of everything we live by”. When the distressed scientist falls into the arms of the Bishop (as Merrick had once collapsed upon Treves) with the half-articulate cry “Help me,” John in the background places the last piece on the church and says quietly, “It is done.” In this chilling moment, echoing Christ’s words on the Cross, the outwardly emotionless Merrick seems not a messiah, but a predatory child-monster, a social victim so brutalized he can excel only in revenge, an aesthete who cares only for his art. At this crux, the model of St. Phillip’s seems to represent not the “consolation” of “Christ’s church” (as the Bishop would say), but a “cruciform lair” (as Carr Gomm would quip) from which a mildly apocalyptic beast/man who “is not, and yet is” has made his ravaging forays into civilized territory. In light of one category with which the Christian tradition has tried to make sense of the freak of nature, the “monstrous” Merrick has “finished” his circuit through the world to warn (moneo) and show forth (monstro) God’s wrath to a decadent culture.
By this point, the Elephant Man has fulfilled the ominous speculation early in the play that his presence “may be a danger in ways we do not know.” The danger is not physical contagion but spiritual scandal in this world, for Merrick is scandalous both in his mutation and in his imitation of the normal. To the guardians of Victorian morals, he represents the shock of their repressed sexuality. As a product of the workhouse, he is a reminder of the savagery on which this society is based and poses the threat of revolutionary upheaval. To the elegant and healthy, he presents the image of ugliness and disease. To the supercivilized, his childlike spontaneity recollects a natural mode of being. Merrick reminds those who accept a common version of the Darwinian hypothesis that their beastly origins are not safely behind them in the prehistoric eons; he mocks the efforts to climb up and up of those who graft onto the hypothesis a progressive social Darwinism. For the scientific investigator, he embodies all that is outside the known scheme of things; for the doctor, he thwarts the ambition to diagnose and cure. And among all the methodically-minded—the builders of Empire, the London police, the method actress, the churchman who seems nearly all form, the systematic atheist administrator—the advent of Merrick disrupts the rational patterns by which men have organized their social existences, structured desires, and protected themselves from the mystery of their own beings.
Pomerance has described his theater as “some form of social memory,” bringing back “points that are too volatile, too dangerous to be lived every day—the skeletons in the closet, the guilt.” Late in the play, Treves calls Merrick a “parable” (though he means allegory), and indeed Merrick has begun to be a parable in so disturbing his society—not by illustrating a moral, but simply by being what he is, a momento mori among systematic people who have excluded the realities of guilt, suffering, and human limits from their most cherished culture myths. But as a parabolic presence Merrick also does more. In Crossan’s sense, parable does not stop with the shattering of illusions and complacences of the hearers; parable brings forth as well uncharted possibilities for actions and relationships. Pomerance’s play does, I believe, transcend its own disillusionments—but very narrowly, against great odds, and not until the absurdist potential of the Elephant Man’s plight has been explored to its limits.
Rapidly following upon the completion of the church model and his mission, Merrick’s “accidental” death by asphyxiation occurs. His deformity requires him to sleep sitting up, but during a fatal dream he straightens into a normal sleeping position and the weight of his enormous head crushes his windpipe. For a moment, the church model seems to loom on stage menacingly, like the little house in Tiny Alice; and seconds after Merrick expires, an attendant blunders into the room with the words already on his lips: “Arbitrary. It’s all so—....” If this death scene seems to give absurd drama the final broken word, certainly the play has all along fostered the questioning of cosmic justice and the “chancy” nature of existence. Opening this half of the play, Merrick had boasted that he built the church “with just one hand” (the graceful, artistic one); but this triumph is yet another reminder of the man’s incompleteness, of the other hand resembling a beastly vestige from an earlier evolutionary stage. In making him, Merrick slyly asks, God “should have used both hands shouldn’t he?” Does his death, then, provide “proof definitive” of the futility of all architecture, social and cosmic?
Neither Merrick’s life nor his death is completely “arbitrary” and meaningless. Pomerance has attacked the modern theater for purveying “the most limited, self-seeking adolescent vices” and things that are “just not true.” In particular, he rejects “one peculiar ideology—that we are all pathetic and that pathos is what we all find in the end.” It is on this point that The Elephant Man, which recalls Equus in some ways, strikingly differs from Peter Shaffer’s play. Shaffer’s doubting psychiatrist, like Treves, is challenged by the advent of the irrational and anticonventional in the form of his patient; but Dysart’s parable is incomplete, and he is left in self-pity and “darkness.” This ending was rewarded on Broadway by thundering applause, partly because, I believe, the play told its audience what they wanted to hear: that ordinary life is deadened beyond any hope of salvation by human or divine means, and that pathos is all we find in the end. (This seems to be the message also of Shaffer’s recent play, Amadeus.) In light of the complaint that Jean-Paul Sartre and Georg Lukacs have lodged against some modernist literature, such a conclusion finally encourages complacency through its fatalistic nihilism. Equus also wins its popularity through a predictable and shallow social critique, in my view, rather than generating disruptive forces that really would challenge the status quo. In contrast, The Elephant Man evokes the very different response of awed silence in its disturbed audience. Pomerance’s play tells us, as parables do, things we do not expect and may not want to hear; it poses challenge after challenge to conventional responses, drawing us in as participants in a dialectical process that forces us back as critics of elements in the play and of ourselves; it invites both our skepticism and our wonder. With its powerful symbol of the freak, the play lives on in the memory as a parable does, having involved us ineluctably in the discovery that there are more things in the world than we have dreamed in our philosophies.
Nor are we allowed to stay in a Kafkaesque world where “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” a world that is “only a bad mood of God, a bad day of His,” where there is (as Kafka added ironically) “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” This perspective, which Lukacs discusses in his essay “The Ideology of Modernism,” directs the anticlimax of Equus and is certainly not absent from climactic moments in The Elephant Man; but Pomerance does not allow us to remain in the postures of “modern religious atheism,” “worshipping the void created by God’s absence.”
A central theme of The Elephant Man that bears upon these difficulties of classifying it is what Merrick calls our “little vocabulary problem.” Like the conventional exchanges in the play, our labels are inadequate. The descriptions “arbitrary” and “absurd” are in a number of ways partial and premature, uttered without regard for other dimensions of the play and before all the evidence is in. In the final scenes, Pomerance takes us one step further to remind us of the firm social grounding for a tragedy that is not meaningless, or a cosmic accident. Merrick’s death, we recognize, is the culmination of his long, even ritualistic, murder by society. The occurrence of this unattended death in the hospital “home” suggests the carelessness of all society’s care for Merrick. Carr Gomm has the play’s last spoken words: “It’s too late, I’m afraid. It is done. (Smiles.)” Gomm’s cynical version of the crucifixion motto is ironic in a way different from Merrick’s earlier unconscious use of it. Gomm’s “FINAL REPORT TO THE INVESTORS” implies that Merrick has been disposed of at last, and now the money gathered to support the Elephant Man can be channeled into the hospital’s general funds. If Merrick had first seemed to the disinterested Treves a form of “medical richesse,” he remains for some to the end “our capital,” as Ross had called Merrick. Yet the capital gains over which the hospital administrator “Smiles” are not quite safely secured: the hospital’s star scientist, Sir Frederick Treves, is deeply shaken by events that are not yet “done” in him, and Merrick’s influence is not “finished.” In this last speaking scene, Pomerance lets us feel the brutal impact of administrative efficiency, while calling into question Gomm’s myth of gain, and because Treves is present, reminding us that this myth is broken for good.
Merrick’s death is also the instinctive suicide of a deeply disillusioned man—a suicide for which the others too are guilty. In one figure the play proposes for this collective responsibility, the accumulated weight of others’ dreams—which Merrick has accepted—breaks his neck. In another, more complicated figure, Merrick, a polished mirror for the others’ self-images, eventually discovers that he reflects their nothingness, and therefore (as an early scene title announces) “WHEN THE ILLUSION ENDS HE MUST KILL HIMSELF.” As this enthymeme suggests, his death is then a “logical” extension of his earlier theory of Romeo’s suicide upon Juliet’s death: Merrick had argued, idiosyn-cratically, that in trying no harder to revive Juliet when the mirror he holds up registers no breath from her lips, Romeo proves his “love” for her is only an illusion, and when the illusion ends.... With the simple logic of a child and the despair of a man capable of passion, Merrick, bereft of his Juliet and seeing no more evidence of spirit in his world, puts down his head to cut off his own breath. Because there has been love in this play, even this suicidal action has meaning in the context of a society that tries to exclude love from its theater of surfaces and mirrors.
The Elephant Man is a cosmic absurdity, a social victim, and a suicide: but the images for his death do not end here, for Merrick was also by all accounts a Model Christian. Pomerance makes him into a model of Christ as well, yet without allowing the Elephant Man to become enclosed in the mes-siah myth of his Victorian admirers. The way Pomerance handles this powerful image, as well as other Christian symbols, expresses the skeptical faith characteristic of this play, the faith that human life matters because human beings are not cosmical-ly adrift but grounded, and possibly grounded in more than their material conditions. Hope and human value depend upon the transcendence of these conditions, and the consciousness created and delimited by them. If one can call this hope a faith in a transcendent realm of being, Pomerance’s expression of it is as significantly qualified, and then left open to interpretation, as one would expect in an agnostic parable. What is surprising—and what any account of the play has to come to terms with—is the fact that while the Christian symbols Pomerance evokes are placed, they are not rejected.
In the New York version, Merrick’s end fulfills the potential of the earlier stage allusion to crucifixion. When his head tilts back too far and his arms claw the air, his final posture barely suggests a quite literal imitatio Christi. Prompted by dream sirens from “Beautiful darkness’ empire” to “Sleep like others you learn to admires / Be like your mother, be like your sire,” Merrick formally imitates the dead maternal figure (the mother whose photograph he keeps under his pillow) and, more important, the equivocal paternal figure of Jesus/Treves (whose names have been linked). Just as this horrible end releases Merrick from a life of pain, so either “sire” seems both cruel and merciful, while in the background other characters too have been cruel/kind to Merrick. Imitating his equivocal sires, the Elephant Man is a “Both” (to borrow a term from “The Song of the Both,” A Man’s a Man, and his duality complicates our response to his death, just as it was the curse and blessing of his life.
Pomerance’s particular way of qualifying Merrick’s “crucifixion” is to set it within a suggestive late Victorian context where, we may recall, the artist-as-victim became (as in Wilde’s De Profundis) the artist-as-Christ. Coming so soon after the completion of his art project, Merrick’s end is made complex by its theatrical aestheticism (and therefore not simply by its arbitrary, broken-off quality). For the English fin de siecle writers, as Lionel Johnson and the Rhymers said, life is ritual; for Merrick in his time, death too is ritual and, like his life, imitates art in this play. The form that end takes literally embodies an answer to the question Arthur O’Shaughnessy asked: “What is eternal? What escapes decay? / A certain, faultless, matchless, deathless line, / Curving consummate.” Ironically, Merrick achieves immortal form in being made at last “straight” in this final rather morbid performance.
Merrick has journeyed a long way to this late Victorian point: in viewing his equivocal achievement, we might compare his whole career in the play to the development of the English Romantic sensibility. At the beginning, he reminds us of Blake’s child weeping in the “charter’d street[s]” of London, soon to be oppressed by the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the Victorian mind police, and closed out of his Garden of Love by the spirit of “Thou shalt not.” By the end of the play, the Blakean innocent has thoroughly suffered the social, psychological, and metaphysical shocks of nineteenth-century experience. From the decadence of the “moral swamp,” he looks for salvation in the manner of Yeats’s Last Romantics. Of course, I am not suggesting that Pomerance is interested in making an allegory of literary history; rather, I am proposing that this is the kind of “romantic imagination” Pomerance’s Merrick has in the late 1880’s. These are Treves’s words in his final, nonscientific and tentative diagnosis of the patient’s maladie fin de siecle. As a Last Romantic, Merrick makes a determined protest with his death against what Wilde called “Nature’s lack of design.” Or perhaps it would be better to say that Pomerance makes his protest in the design of the play. From the perspective of Brustein on Brecht’s dialectical tensions, the objectivity of Pomerance’s left-rationalist critique has been called into question by his “romantic” revolt.
The poetry of religion in Pomerance’s play marks this revolt as the later uncertain Romanticism which “chose for theme,” as Yeats wrote, “Traditional sanctity and loveliness.” Although Merrick does not dally with High Church attractions in the manner of Wilde and other later Victorians, in choosing this theme Pomerance does let us see Merrick acting a part. Just before the death scene, at the rear of the stage, Merrick enacts a pantomime of confession with Bishop How (who has become less of a caricature by the end of the production), while conversations go forward upstage about the sincerity of John’s faith. Should his faithfulness be taken seriously, or is it only an artistic illusion, “a mass of papier-mache and paint” with which Merrick fools himself and others? Or, to use Treves’s medical terms, might it be nothing but a “general anesthetic” protecting Merrick from the brutal surgeries of life, numbing the pain of his doubt that God is merciful? Treves tells Bishop How, who seeks to confirm his protege in the Church of England, that Merrick “is very excited to do what others do if he thinks it is what others do.” In this late scene, the agnostic scientist surprises us, however, by affirming that he refuses to cast doubt on Merrick’s faith.
Even as Treves recognizes the imitative character of the Elephant Man’s social acts, he also seems to sense that in Merrick’s attraction to “Traditional sanctity and loveliness,” an act of faith is concealed that transcends theatricality. For hypocritical conformity and mindless repetition are not the only modes of imitation one can associate with this tradition to which Merrick has been drawn. Perhaps in the absence of “proof” that the God so confidently invoked by the Bishop really exists in the world, Merrick is nevertheless in his last moments instinctively attempting to “follow the way by which. . . [others] began,” as Pascal wrote of the famous wager, accepting the sacraments, discipline, and consolations of the Church (and now imitating Christ’s death) as if he believed in their efficacy.
The pity of Merrick’s end is that he seems to have nothing to lose in a wager on faith, and that he can be made straight only in the posture of death. His end also seems to provide Brechtian proof that, whatever other world there may be, in the world we know where people do not live justly and mercifully with one another, a man cannot both be good and survive.
The Elephant Man does not end with the death of John Merrick. He is survived by another, equally ironic, symbol of transcendence on the stage: the model of St. Phillip’s Church. Pomerance’s remarks on what this church signifies are suggestive but laconic. In an “Introductory Note” to the Grove Press edition of the play, he writes: “I believe the building of the church model constitutes some kind of central metaphor, and the groping toward conditions where it can be built and the building of it are the action of the play.” The “conditions where it can be built,” Pomerance says elsewhere, are “the right venue he [Merrick] could survive in.”
If one thinks of this play as a dramatic parable, these remarks make fuller sense, particularly for the New York production. Within the play, this “church” is the community that Merrick miraculously discovers, built in moments of union with others, a real and present church that helps him to transcend his loneliness and difference. More generally, this survival area is the place that Pomerance has managed to build through the writing of his drama about the Elephant Man, who continues to live in new ways in the popular imagination not as a myth fulfilling desire, a refuge church, but as a parabolic conscience disturbing all our enclaves of false “consolation.” The broader community that comes into being in the theater audience is the “church” built through the whole action of The Elephant Man as dramatic parable.
The apparent paradox that the building of a “church” should be the central action of this critically conscious play might be put into the larger context that Brustein discusses in The Theatre of Revolt. The modern dramatist, he writes,
wants to convert this collective [the theatre audience] into a “chosen people” through the transforming power of his art.... In a world without God, he must shape a congregation, invent a liturgy, create a faith. “To kill God and to build a Church,” writes Camus, “are the constant and contradictory purposes of rebellion.” These contradictory purposes are the foundation of the theatre of revolt, where each dramatist labors to make a new union out of his secession—to make his initial act of revolt the occasion for a new kind of grace.
In his Times interview, Pomerance reflects on this mode of church-building. “The most important element in the theater is the audience’s imagination,” he says, and imagination connects:
The audience is people. What is in them, is in me. It goes back to the function of memory.... I don’t mean to tell them something they do not already know. I’m not bringing hot news. My interest in the audience is to remind them of a common thing and, if only temporarily, they do then become a unity, a community.
As his note to The Elephant Man text suggests, it is the labor of the play to “[grope] toward conditions where... [the church] can be built,” and “the building of it” happens only as the audience is gathered as a community through the collective experience of disturbance and transformation.
It is also this problematical “church-building” that marks the critical contrast between the religious dimensions of The Elephant Man and Equus. Shaffer yokes violence and the sacred in ritualistic enactments of the individual’s epiphany with his dark god. Pomerance’s whole mode is different: the ambiance is specifically liturgical, and includes audience and actors in a community of worship. His theatrical means are appropriate to this different end: the worshipful moments he includes involve more than one person; ritual objects on the stage are ironic symbols; a cellist at the side plays a soft prelude, an offertory at intermission, and a postlude (an aesthetic/religious touch that was part of the original London production). The Broadway cast have also said that performing The Elephant Man resembles the conducting of a religious service, requiring for certain scenes reverent silence in the theater. But this ambiance happens in a play with sharply critical moments as well as witty exchanges that make us laugh. The worship, not self-indulgent and narcissistic like that in Equus, maintains a self-critical poise.
Pomerance’s drama is not a new parable of the Kingdom, but the audience’s silence at the end of the performance recalls what John Dominic Crossan calls the silence in the parables, which do not tell us what to do next. The Elephant Man sends its hearers on their uncharted ways. To effect this kind of dismissal from Pomerance’s liturgical theater, the last scene (added in production) provides a final occasion for grace and completes the gathering of the playwright’s congregation through the whole action of the play.
In the last silent tableau, the members of the cast gather around the church model to pay their respects to a mystery which they do not understand but to which they inescapably belong. In this ritualistic moment, they/we are no longer problem solvers or critical thinkers in a “left-rationlist” theater, but a “church” gathered to ponder the parable of the Elephant Man, who has ineluctably, perhaps irrevocably, altered our habitual categories of perception, analysis, and emotional response. The ambiance of this ending reminds us that the loveliness Merrick communicated to those he knew has raised the elusive possibility of some “other” kind of existence where love and justice may be no illusion. It is not with a sense of meaningless waste that this modern mystery play leaves its audience, but rather with the dark wonder of Pascal’s words in the Pensees: “Vere tu es Deus absconditus.” The author of this existence, whom Merrick arraigns and admires, hides himself within the play from the Elephant Man and others, but it is not necessary to conclude that he is absent.
Source: Janet L. Larson, “The Elephant Man as Dramatic Parable,” in Modern Drama, September, 1983, Vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 335–56.
Calling The Elephant Man “easily the best play thus far of the 1978–79 New York theatre season,” Hughes offers a brief, favorable review of Pomerance’s play.
The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance, is easily the best play thus far of the 1978–79 New York theatre season. (No one need remind me that that could be taken as a somewhat left-handed compliment.)
Currently at the new Theatre of St. Peter’s Church in the Citicorp Building, but about to transfer to a larger, more “commercial” milieu, it has its flaws but offers the most compelling evening of drama in New York today.
Pomerance has based his play on an actual “freak” of the Victorian era, John Merrick, who suffered from a mysterious and incurable illness that caused his limbs to become twisted and resulted in apparently hideous skin excretions. The title, The Elephant Man, was the one applied to him during the period when he worked in a traveling freak show in England.
The playwright, who is an American, though the work was first produced in England, shows Merrick being taken into a London hospital in Whitechapel, where he becomes one of the outstanding curiosities of the British society of the period, the 1880s. In 21 scenes, Pomerance portrays how this deformed man (brilliantly played by Philip Anglim) comes under the wing of Dr. Frederick Treves (Kevin Conway) after he is abandoned by his freak-show manager for being too grotesque even for such audiences. Treves is unable to cure him, but writes about him in a manner that makes him almost fashionable and results in philanthropic grants.
Perhaps the worst thing he does, however—and this would seem to be Pomerance’s point—is to try to change him into someone who is conventionally acceptable, someone who will be “like us.” It obviously cannot work, and the playwright becomes a bit too obvious at moments. But The Elephant Man deserves the fine reviews it has received and the attention of anyone who calls himself a “serious theatregoer.” The production, by Jack Hofsiss, could do with a little work before it transfers, but this is relatively minor. It offers the sort of challenging drama rarely seen in the New York theatre.
Source: Catharine Hughes. “Capsule Comments,” in America, Vol. 140, no. 7, February 24, 1979, p. 135.
Barnes, Clive. A review in the New York Post, April 20, 1979.
Belli, Angela. “Medical Technology on Stage,” in Ometeca, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1996, pp. 291–303.
Cunningham, Dennis. A review of The Elephant Man on WCBS-TV, April 19, 1979.
Elder, Richard. A review in The New York Times, April 20, 1979.
Gottfried, Martin. A review in Saturday Review, March 17, 1979.
Holladay, William E. and Stephen Watt. “Viewing The Elephant Man,” in PMLA, Vol. 104, No. 5, October, 1989, pp. 868–81.
Jiji, Vera. “Multiple and Virtual: Theatrical Space in The Elephant Man,” in The Theatrical Space, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 247–57.
Kauffmann, Stanley. A review in New Republic, May 12,1979.
Kroll, Jack. A review in Newsweek, February 8, 1979.
Larson, Janet L. “The Elephant Man as Dramatic Parable,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 26, No. 3, September, 1983, pp. 335–56.
Sharp, Christopher. A review in Women’s Wear Daily, January 16, 1979.
Watt, Douglas. A review in the Daily News, April 20, 1979.
Wilson, Edwin. A review in The Wall Street Journal, January 26, 1979.
Davis, Tracy C. Actresses As Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture, Routledge, 1991, 200 p.
A historical and social examination of the issues faced by female actresses.
Howard, Martin. Victorian Grotesque: An Illustrated Excursion into Medical Curiosities, Freaks, and Abnormalities, Principally of the Victorian Age, Jupiter Books, 1977, 153 p.
As the title promises, this book looks at medicine and human abnormalities.
Judd, Catherine. Bedside Seductions: Nursing and the Victorian Imagination, 1830–1880, St. Martin’s Press, 1997, 211 p.
Explores the role of nurse in Victorian social and literary history. The evolution of nursing provides insights into gender and class issues of this period.
Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Harvard University Press, 1989, 347 p.
Ritvo provides an unusual approach to discussions of class in Victorian England by focusing on the relationship between animals and humans.