The Elephant Man Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series) - Essay

Bernard Pomerance

Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

In his introductory remarks to the play, Pomerance acknowledges his debt to Sir Frederick Treves’s The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) and the reprinting of Treves’s account in Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study of Human Dignity (1973). Montagu’s work awakened contemporary interest in Merrick’s story and led to four confirmed produced dramatic treatments, the best known of which was Pomerance’s award-winning play. It was first produced in London in 1977 and then on Broadway in 1979, where it became a critical and popular success. The play’s several awards included a Tony, an Obie, and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Critics generally approved of Pomerance’s decision to have Merrick’s deformity suggested through the actor’s physical posture rather than through naturalistic makeup; the latter approach was used in David Lynch’s film version of The Elephant Man, which appeared in 1979 after the play’s debut but was not based on it. Pomerance’s subsequent plays have not been as successful, although his drama Melons (1985) also treats an outcast, an aging Apache leader exploited and oppressed by white civilization who dies in exacting revenge on an oil company intruding on Indian land.

Although not written precisely for young adults, The Elephant Man joins a distinguished group of plays that illuminate problems associated with disease and physical defects, such as Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box (1977), in which terminal cancer patients deal with dying; Arthur Kopit’s Wings (1978), which features a stroke victim; and Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God (1980), which portrays a young deaf woman’s stormy relationship with her teacher. With The Elephant Man, Pomerance has written a compelling play on a biographical subject that will hold continued interest and value for a young adult audience.