The Elephant Man Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Drama)

Bernard Pomerance

Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Of the four plays that have been written about Joseph Merrick, only Pomerance’s has received notable attention from drama historians. Like most of Pomerance’s other works, The Elephant Man uses historical fact to probe the darkest of human experiences and to uncover the failings of society and its members. His sharply drawn characters and precise staging strip away the social norms that veil the greed, unfettered ambition, and hypocrisy that lie within all humans.

While capturing the ugliness of humanity’s basest motives and actions, Pomerance simultaneously offers hope for redemption. His best characters, like Treves in The Elephant Man, fight the battle of good and evil with others and, more important, within themselves. They seldom win, but they offer hope that the triumph of truth is possible, if rarely or imperfectly achieved. The distinction between wrong and right is blurred in real life, but Pomerance brings it into focus, forcing his audiences to probe their most carefully concealed sins.

The Elephant Man is the best-known, most honored, and most often performed of Pomerance’s plays. The New York Drama Critics Circle voted it the best play of the 1978-1979 season. That same year, The Elephant Man received Tony Awards for best play, best actress, and best director. Pomerance’s other notable works include the play Superhighway (pb. 2001), which delves into the grief of a cancer victim’s surviving relatives, and Quantrill in Lawrence (pr. 1980, pb. 1981), a Civil War story of corrupt leadership and social disruption. The themes of despair and hopelessness arise again in his prose poem We Need to Dream All This Again: An Account of Crazy Horse, Custer, and the Battle for the Black Hills (1987).