The subject matter of The Elephant Man and its implicit themes make it a drama with meaning for young people. The malformed young protagonist is a lonely outsider encouraged to pursue social acceptance, a process that sacrifices his true self-development. Merrick realizes that the promise of equality is an illusion. The cruel lessons that he learns about the society outside himself have relevance to young persons who stand outside the adult world, with its conventional and contradictory standards.
One theme in the play concerns the false promise of imperialist Victorian England, arguably still extant today, that its subjects can win equality and acceptance by loyally conforming to its rules. Such elements as nationality, race, and class, however, work to erode this promise. In the play’s context, John Merrick is instructed by Treves that he can be like other men if he follows the rules and appears gracious and grateful. Pursuing a path to promised normalcy, the Elephant Man pays a price for his conformity by becoming a mirror in which his narcissistic society visitors can see themselves. When Merrick questions the mercilessness of the hospital’s decision to discharge a rule-violating orderly with children to feed, he is told by Treves that rules are for our own good. The realization that normalcy and equality with others is an illusion comes to Merrick when an outraged Treves forbids him to look at Mrs. Kendal’s naked breasts and tells him that he must not forget what he is. Earlier, Treves has had a dream in which Merrick conducts a lecture about him just as he had lectured about his patient, pointing out the deformity of normalcy. Pomerance is concerned with the theme that society’s conventional morality and the idea of normality are, at bottom, destructive illusions.
As the Elephant Man’s social education increases, his physical condition degenerates, but concurrently he slowly builds a handsome model of London’s St. Phillip’s Church. This latter activity, Pomerance admits in his introductory remarks, constitutes a central metaphor for the action. Merrick describes the church as “an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud.” In progressively constructing the model (interpreted in the Christian tradition as God’s building and Christ’s body), which is finally completed just before his death, Merrick demonstrates that he is a sensitive artist striving toward grace. He builds a context that contains his body, no longer ugly or a mirror for others, which becomes an image of God. The model is truly Merrick’s spiritual apotheosis.
Pomerance’s play is theatrically effective and intellectually provocative in its ideas. More ideas are perhaps unleashed than are fully developed. Also the shift of focus from Treves to Merrick and then back to the former near the drama’s conclusion somewhat obfuscates where the center of the play lies and suggests that the physician’s loss of self-assurance should receive more preparation. Nevertheless, Merrick emerges as being superior to the narcissistic society that Treves provides for him, as well as to the medical community that uses him for its research and fund-raising. Merrick has learned that unquestioningly obeying questionable rules of the establishment leads neither to social equality nor to self-development. A passive sufferer aware of being exploited, Merrick rejects the world of false expectations and turns to a spiritual one, which he finds in his church model and in his death. The drama shows what happens to a lonely outsider who eventually rejects a patronizing world that will never be able to accept him as an equal and attains spiritual and moral superiority in the end by standing alone.