Bernard Pomerance occupies an unusual position in contemporary drama. He is an American, often writing plays set in the United States, but he lives in London. Although he has written more than ten plays over a period of more than thirty years, he has had only one unqualified dramatic success, on both sides of the Atlantic, with The Elephant Man, a play set in nineteenth century London. Pomerance’s early plays express a political orientation toward the left, but The Elephant Man has psychological rather than political implications. Since his play based on the historical figure, Pomerance’s best work has been inspired by American historical settings, and his plays have probed some dark issues in the American past, such as atrocities committed on the fringes of the Civil War and the exploitation of Native Americans by a white society that deprived them of their rights in the name of progress.
The Elephant Man
The Elephant Man was based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, who suffered from a disease that produced gross physical deformities. The disease is now known as neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder. Merrick’s head was enormous, with bony protrusions and spongy growths of skin. The circumference of his skull was equal to that of his waist. His nose and upper lip had a trunk-like appearance, which in profile gave the impression of an elephant’s head. His feet and legs were covered by thick, pendulous skin. Many people were terrified when they first saw him.
Merrick was exhibited at a London freak show before it was closed by police, after which he was exhibited in Belgium. In 1886, Frederick Treves, a young surgeon from the London Hospital, rescued Merrick and took him to the London. There it was discovered that underneath his deformities, Merrick was an intelligent, gentle, religious human being. When word got out of his plight, sufficient donations were received to allow Merrick to stay at the London Hospital for the rest of his life. There he read widely and received visits from people high in British society. He died in 1890 when he fell asleep and was suffocated by the weight of his head pressing on his windpipe.
In the play, Merrick’s deformity is suggested only by the distorted physical postures that the actor playing the part takes up, unlike the film The Elephant Man (which was not based on the play), in which makeup was used to present his appearance realistically. Pomerance preferred to use slide projections to show photographs of the real Merrick.
The play is not a tribute to the goodness of Treves and the hospital. It implies that Merrick is still being exhibited, if in a more subtle way. The point is emphasized when Ross, the man who did exhibit Merrick, tries to persuade Merrick to charge his visitors fees, with Ross to receive 10 percent. Merrick refuses.
The play also explores the concept of what is normal, but rather than putting Merrick under examination, it turns the spotlight on Treves and his visitors. Treves declares his desire to make Merrick “normal,” as far as is possible. He tries to train him to adopt socially acceptable responses to his condition, such as cultivating good manners and accepting that the hospital rules are for his benefit. When one of Merrick’s visitors, the actress Mrs. Kendal, satisfies Merrick’s curiosity about what a naked woman looks like by partially undressing for him, Treves is so scandalized that he banishes the offending woman. Merrick, taking a dig at Treves’s complacency, asks whose standards were offended. A few scenes later, the roles of the two men are explicitly reversed. Treves, who despite his high status suffers from self-doubt, dreams that he, rather than Merrick, is on exhibit. He also dreams that Merrick is lecturing about him, just as Treves had earlier lectured about Merrick. In the dream, Merrick describes Treves as being in a state of “benevolent enlightenment, what we believe to be a kind of self-mesmerized state.” He is self-satisfied and unable to change; his charity is merely a guise for the assertion of authority, but he cannot tell the difference. He is sexually repressed and unable to feel what others feel, a situation that he declares to be prevalent in society as a whole.
This point had been dramatized earlier in the play. No one is able to meet Merrick on his own terms and genuinely empathize with the reality of his condition. All his high-born visitors present him with gifts, but they are of use only to the giver, not the recipient: brushes and combs, for example, when Merrick is almost bald, and a walking stick for a man who does not take walks. They naïvely convince themselves that he is really like them. Mrs. Kendal thinks him artistic;...
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