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Pomerance, Bernard 1940–

An American playwright, Pomerance became known to Americans when The Elephant Man, his first play to be produced in New York, received a Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1979. Earlier plays had been written and produced in London.

Randall Craig

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Bernard Pomerance's Foco Novo offered a three-cornered glimpse of the struggle between establishment (i.e. capitalist) forces and terrorists, with the United States intervening on the official side, in a South American state, not to say Brazil. Its circular plot actually demonstrated that guns solve no problems, but had been equipped with an epilogue hopefully suggesting that a hopeless and useless rising would after all act as an inspiration to the next wave. There was about the play a kind of undergraduate earnestness which rather swamped the dramatic moments…. (p. 39)

Randall Craig, in Drama, Winter, 1972.

Randall Craig

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All too little has been heard of … Bernard Pomerance since his irritatingly titled High in Vietnam Hot Damn. Despite its almost equally irritating title, Someone Else is Still Someone is a thoroughly delightful play …, packing a great deal into just over an hour of welcomely interval-less action…. [Under] the hectic and hilarious comedy, which borders on farce, Pomerance is making a very serious point about depriving marital partners of the freedom they need and deserve. (p. 71)

Randall Craig, in Drama, Autumn, 1974.

Randall Craig

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[The Elephant Man] is about charity and caring and the motives of those who are supposedly doing good works and indeed this is an important dramatic subject. But it seems to me that The Elephant Man badly misfires for two reasons. Commonsense and Jung tell us that all good drama is only another re-working of a universally held truth. But in this play Mr. Pomerance has stacked the cards against himself by focusing his play on a character/symbol, a total physical freak, which fortunately has always been a rarity. His leading character is John Merrick, 'The Elephant Man', who was born in the middle of Victoria's reign, grew to manhood in hideous deformity and died at an early age in a London hospital in 1890.

The other great fault of the play is the author's misanthropic view of mankind. He seems to believe that no-one gives charity for altruistic reasons. Every one of his characters (with the possible exception of Mrs. Kendal, the actress) is finally shown as motivated by pure selfishness…. I assume that Mr. Pomerance is not merely telling us that the Victorians were a materialistic and hypocritical society. After all many writers from Dickens through Samuel Butler to the last whimpers of Lytton Strachey have all told us that. Thus we must assume that the sad story of John Merrick is intended to be relevant now. But it is really impossible to make this leap. Pomerance locks us in a Victorian social framework with characters motivated by Victorian mores, while at the same time asking us to accept this as a microcosm of contemporary society….

[There] is certainly an important play to be written about caring for the unfortunate of the earth. But let the play be set now, instead of coyly sniping at our dubious motives from behind a Victorian barricade. Thus while I refuse to accept Mr. Pomerance's bleak view of humanity I might be more convinced if he were to come out into the open and write about a society of which we all have first hand knowledge. (p. 72)

Randall Craig, in Drama, Winter, 1977/1978.

Martin Gottfried

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The first of The Elephant Man is merely stunning. The second act does not fulfill all the promises, but enough answers to complete the play are there. As any artistic play must, it functions on the theatrical, emotional, literary, and metaphoric levels.

Set in Victorian London and presented in detached, formal, but stylized episodes, The Elephant Man is in fact about an elephant man—a freak. It has the audacity to depend upon a central character whose appearance is on the one hand crucial to the story while, on the other, theatrically impractical. It would be ludicrous to try to create this character, a hideously deformed young man named John Merrick, with putty and padding. The author's ingenuity, however, leads us to "see" this mutation in ghastly detail….

John Merrick is kept at the hospital by Dr. Treves, who hopes that he can find a cure, and make him normal. The playwright knows as well as we that such massive bone deformities are not curable. But medicine was not so well informed in the 1880s, and this play never pretends to be naturalistic….

Of course, Pomerance is using him metaphorically. He is all of us, deformed by our own individuality, and individuality that represents art. Dr. Treves, on the other hand, represents rules—conformity, if you like. Here is science versus art, reason versus spiritualism. Treves is trying to "normalize" Merrick by making him like himself. At the same time Merrick is an immensely believable and moving character, not just a symbol, and, capitalizing on the open speech patterns of an isolated human, Pomerance has given him poetic voice. "I don't know why I look like this," Merrick comments. "My mother was knocked down by an elephant when she was pregnant…. I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams."…

Mrs. Kendal brings Merrick to the world. She takes him to the theater and to concerts. She brings her friends to meet him. With her as intermediary, they appreciate him. They see themselves in him. That, as Dr. Treves points out, is Merrick's peculiar quality. Still, though this elephant man begins to act like other people, his deformities do not diminish.

As the play progresses, its author's references grow diffuse. There are religious allusions, for instance. These are confusing, but they do not fatally mar the play, for what counts most is its overwhelming humanity; its tragedy and compassion; its soaring poetry; the theatrical beauty it makes of the contrast between innocence, deformity, and the stark Victorian staging.

Pomerance has not thought this play through clearly enough, but he can tackle the problem in his next play. The quivering power of The Elephant Man is much rarer, and more important to the theater. The play has the drama, poetry, humanity, and intensity that we go to the theater for. When Mrs. Kendal decides, as we know she will, to show her body to Merrick; when he sighs that it is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen; when Dr. Treves comes upon them and is horrified by the impropriety; when Mrs. Kendal explains that she and Merrick were merely in Paradise; when she is dismissed, and when Merrick commits suicide (by laying down his dream-filled head), we are much too moved—transported—to quarrel. (p. 60)

Martin Gottfried, in Saturday Review (© 1979 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), March 17, 1979.

Richard Eder

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"The Elephant Man," [is a] haunting parable about natural man trading his frail beauty and innocence for the protection and prison of society….

Mr. Pomerance has used [the Elephant Man] figure to construct an image of the unspoiled natural man…. John Merrick has an uncomfortably pure sense of the good, an instinctive religious aspiration and a style of thought so unspoiled and direct that he is continually sabotaging the tutored assumptions of his protectors.

The deformity is used not for its own sake but to separate the protagonist from the society he encounters….

His innocence manages to put in question all the assumptions, the order, the power of a society—the Victorian—that considered itself to have abolished once and for all the age-old dichotomy between doing good and doing well. And yet, like Lear's fool, he is helpless and terrified of being dispossessed from the protection that has been given him.

Treves … is a sincere moralist and a sincere success. He is a brilliant doctor and destined for big things. He shows total conviction as he, the Victorian missionary, gradually teaches the Elephant Man to conform to the habits and expectations of society.

But Mr. Pomerance has not given us a prig. Treves is gradually possessed by the magical innocence of his patient, even as the patient becomes attached to the comforts and social advantages of being a scientific celebrity. The doctor begins to realize what is being destroyed. At one point, he tells a colleague that the more "normal" the Elephant Man becomes, the more the illness that will kill him is advancing.

What he is saying by implication, and goes on to say more explicitly at the play's end, is that the free and boundless spirit of his patient has been gradually crushed. The Elephant Man gradually loses the questioning vitality he has at the start. He becomes an internal captive. His energy is channeled, as he sickens, into completing the model of a church. Art, for Mr. Pomerance, is a substitute for the natural grace that we lose in living….

[The second act is] the weaker portion. In part it is inevitable: the opening up of the Elephant Man is more exciting than his decline. And furthermore, many of the themes that are dramatized at the beginning remain to be expounded at the end. They are expounded very well indeed, but some of the play's immediacy flags a bit.

This slowing down is perhaps less a defect than a trait. "The Elephant Man" is an enthralling and luminous play.

Richard Eder, "Theatre: 'Elephant Man' Opens," in The New York Times, Section C (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1979, p. 5.

John Simon

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[The Elephant Man's first act is] terse, thoughtful, theatrical in the best sense, and devoid of spurious rhetoric—a lesson from Brecht well learned, with an added touch of humanity often lacking in the master. But what goes wrong with Act II?

Some insufficiently developed marginalia …, some less than revelatory speechifying …, some top-heavy irony with a few minor characters reduced to overconvenient contrivances. Above all, too many, and conflicting, layers of symbolism. Thus the deformed Elephant Man becomes both the noble savage destroyed by civilization and the artist co-opted by society, both the monster in a Beauty-and-the Beast fable and an angelic intelligence that puts mere mankind to shame. Not only is this too much of a burden for writing that is more decent than sublime; it is also, besides being at odds with itself, in a clash with the simple historic facts: It is hard to make death by disease pass also for death from victimization, disenchantment, and unfulfilled love.

Here lies another crucial weakness. Mrs. Kendal disrobes for John Merrick, the freak whose sexual organs and appetites are quite normal, but without a real possibility of intercourse between them…. Thus an action supposed to be generous and loving becomes, in truth, a piece of sexual tantalizing, indeed cruelty. Yet even with these blemishes, The Elephant Man is, clearly, the work of a serious and gifted playwright…. (p. 85)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), May 7, 1979.

Stanley Kauffmann

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A second viewing makes [The Elephant Man] at least as enticing as before, a good work with great ambition. Its assets now seem stronger: the large theme of the arbitrariness of existence, posed against a hunger for design—in everyone but especially in Merrick. The weaknesses are now a bit clearer too: the occasional soft patches in the lean, evocative dialoque; the patness of such moments as the doctor's entrance just when the actress bares her bosom for Merrick; the fact that the play's metaphors don't sufficiently deepen.

This last defect—the major one—arises because Pomerance hasn't fixed the center of the play. It begins as the drama of Treves, the doctor who finds Merrick; then most of the action focuses on Merrick; and only near the end, by means of a lengthy scene between Treves and the bishop, does Pomerance try to move the focus back to the doctor. It's a good scene, but it can't quite do that job. This split is what makes the second act waver a bit and what keeps the metaphors visible, rather than ingested. Admittedly, it's difficult to keep Treves at the center because Merrick is more theatrical. To cite a lofty analogy, it's the problem that Melville faced in Billy Budd, in which Vere is the protagonist but Billy takes the stage. The slight muzziness of that wonderful work comes from the attraction of the experience (Billy) over the experience (Vere). The greater muzziness of this lesser work comes from the same trouble.

But,… I can still maintain that this is the best new American play since 1972, the year of Shepard's Tooth of Crime. (pp. 24-5)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), May 12, 1979.