Elements of Humanity
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1507
John Merrick lived his last four years in the hospital, a man ennobled by his suffering—never bitter, always forgiving. His was a humanity that transcends that of normal society; yet, it is normal society that Merrick aspired to join.
In Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the protagonist, Merrick, forces his audience to reconsider its definitions and expectations of what is considered normal. As Martin Gottfried observed in his review of the play, ‘‘Treves is trying to ‘normalize’ Merrick by making him like himself.’’
Yet Treves focuses only on the deformity, and he is unable to see that underneath the growths and protrusions there exists a real human being with desires and needs similar to his own. In this respect, Merrick is as ‘‘normal’’ as Treves.
The Elephant Man, although set 115 years ago and staged twenty years ago, is especially topical because it questions the rights of patients and their quality of life. In Merrick’s efforts to lead a normal life, the audience is able to project their own desires for normalcy. Merrick’s struggle, then, is akin to our own.
In her essay, which explores the ethics of medical technology on stage, Angela Belli states that ‘‘life in an age of ever-increasing dehumanizing forces’’ threatens to control twentieth-century man. Belli asserts that man has benefited from the technological advances in science and medicine but that these same advances raise concerns about the patient’s physical and mental well being. These advances eventually create the sort of ‘‘moral dilemmas’’ that Belli argues the ‘‘public is largely ill-prepared’’ for; she is concerned about the quality of life issues that people must now face as men seek to exert some control over their own destiny.
Belli’s focus on the contractual rights of patients to exercise control over their own lives is illustrated by Treves’s insistence that Merrick be denied access to Mrs. Kendal. Because Treves does not approve of the merest hint of sexual interest— and although nothing improper has occurred—Mrs. Kendal is banished.
Yet, Treves’s stated intent was always to bring some semblance of normalcy to Merrick’s life. What is more normal than sexual interest in an attractive woman?
Merrick’s repeated questions about Mrs. Kendal’s absence are ignored or rebuffed, as would be the questions of an inquisitive child. Treves ignores the contractual relationship and assumes a parent-child relationship with Merrick. He is reduced to a child-like state and is unable to assert his needs because Treves assumes total control over Merrick’s desires.
Treves’s goal is to turn Merrick into a proper Victorian gentleman, a reflection of Treves. In this respect, the doctor is seeking to use science—which as Belli notes—is unable to help Merrick.
Instead, Treves seeks ‘‘to prove that although his patient is beyond any medical cure, science can improve his life by transforming him into a reasonable facsimile of an upper-class Englishman of the Victorian Age.’’
Of course, this is an illusion since normalcy, at least in Treves’s eyes, is restricted to a non-sexual, superficially normal life. Merrick is a young man, and young men are interested in the sexuality of women. Yet when Merrick reveals his interest in Mrs. Kendal as a sexual woman, Treves is shocked and disgusted. Normalcy is the eunuch-like existence of a child.
Normalcy is an illusion in other respects. In the artificial world of his hospital room, Merrick eventually comes to understand that the ‘‘normal’’ life that Treves has constructed is only ‘‘an approximation of the life he longs for.’’ As Belli points out, ‘‘Merrick is confined within an environment where normalcy and freedom are merely a pretence.’’ That he can ever lead a normal life away from the hospital is an illusion that Merrick is forced to face.
Belli contends that when Treves finally recognizes that the social environment he has constructed for Merrick is illusionary, he is forced to question his own ideas about normalcy and the power of science to cure all problems. This leads to a crisis of conscience and a loss of faith.
One of the most interesting facets of Merrick’s attempts to achieve normalcy is in how those around him see themselves reflected in his image. As Janet L. Larson observes, Treves’s pride in having established Merrick with Mrs. Kendal creates for the audience an expectation that Merrick will achieve normalcy.
Then, when each member of Merrick’s new social circle comes forward to relate how he or she finds a mirror image in Merrick, Treves is forced to question what he has accomplished in constructing this artificial social milieu, which is far removed from normal existence. Treves’s efforts to normalize Merrick’s existence eventually kill him, Larson argues, as ‘‘the accumulated weight of others’ dreams—which Merrick has accepted—breaks his neck.’’
When Merrick’s reality is revealed as nothing more than illusion, there is nothing left to do except die. Of course Treves suffers as well. In creating for Merrick what Larson calls a ‘‘civilizing fiction of companionship,’’ Treves’s ‘‘shallow expectations’’ are completely destroyed, and he must finally question his own values. Merrick’s relationships—carefully constructed within a contrived social circle— are all illusionary.
Only during their last visit together does Mrs. Kendal appear to recognize that Merrick needs and wants more. Her efforts to help make the illusion real end in her banishment.
Treves’s attempts to create an illusionary normalcy have been the topic of other critics. In their article comparing The Elephant Man, the play, and The Elephant Man, the movie, William E. Holladay and Stephen Watt argue that Treves encourages Merrick’s normalcy, while restricting it at the same time.
Holladay and Watt note that ‘‘Treves endorses Merrick’s reading of romantic literature and his conversation with women . . . while Treves rehearses the importance of rules in the ‘home,’ denying Merrick any opportunity to express sexual feelings.’’
Treves’s behavior, ‘‘of alternately encouraging and then deflating Merrick’s desire for knowledge of the opposite sex,’’ is, as Holladay and Watt state, cruel. Treves establishes boundaries that limit Merrick’s sexuality; in this case, sexuality becomes an intellectual pursuit rather than a physical one. Treves provides Merrick with the illusion of sexual fulfillment.
The illusion is initiated by Kendal, who uses her acting ability to create normal discourse with Merrick. As Treves explains, she has been brought to meet Merrick because she is an actress, and thus, will not run in fright when she sees him.
This, too, is an illusion, as Vera Jiji points out in her article on The Elephant Man. Although Mrs. Kendal tells Merrick that her stage life is an illusion and that her meeting with him is reality, in fact,
the audience has watched the actress create the self with which she greets Merrick. She has carefully practiced several greetings, and so, her initial response is not spontaneous, but carefully rehearsed. However, neither Mrs. Kendal nor Treves appears to recognize that there is nothing normal about this staged meeting. The meeting between Mrs. Kendal and Merrick is as artificial as the environment in which they meet.
Jiji notes that it is not until Kendal removes her clothes that she ceases to act. In the act of undressing, she finally reveals that she is Merrick’s friend. In dropping her clothing, she drops the act, ceasing to be an actor and achieving a new level of humanity.
When the illusion between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal becomes reality, Treves bursts into the room to remind everyone that Merrick’s reality is limited. He can maintain an illusion of normalcy, but it too will be limited. One reason the audience is so dismayed at Treves’s actions is because the audience can see what Treves cannot—that Merrick cannot be bound by such artificial restraints. His death, soon after, seems inevitable.
In an age where people are all too ready to seek out a plastic surgeon for a quick tummy tuck, face lift, or liposuction, Merrick’s ability to project his inner humanity forces the audience to look beyond the obvious and the superficial.
His existence also creates obvious questions about quality-of-life issues that plague modern life. If doctors are to be able to ‘‘pull the plug’’ on those who seek this assistance because they no longer fit the model of what society defines as normal, then perhaps, there are lessons to be learned for all of us from John Merrick’s life and death.
If normalcy is an illusion, as it is for John Merrick, then it is an illusion that much of mankind embraces. The need to feel normal, to appear normal, is all too common. That mirrors maintain such a prominent place in so many homes should indicate that the need to reassure us of our normalcy is a trait that much of mankind shares. John Merrick was no different.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico.
Viewing the Elephant Man
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5070
Man stands amaz’d to see his deformity in any other creature but himself. [John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi]
John Webster is not entirely correct: men in particular have stood ‘‘amaz’d’’ at their own deformity, as the production in 1979 of Bernard Pomerance’s drama The Elephant Man exemplifies. Based on the life of John Merrick, a famous Victorian sideshow performer hideously disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the play garnered Tony Awards, Obies, the Drama Desk Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the year; but its success in New York, and in London the previous year, can hardly be attributed to the reputation of its little-known author or to the drawing power of the actors in the principal parts. Moreover, some critics, an ungenerous minority, maintained that the play’s merit did not originate in Pomerance’s superior or even competent craft. John Simon, for example, found the structure imbalanced and accused Pomerance of suspending dramatic action in the later scenes to create a vehicle for antiimperialist polemic. Pomerance indeed may be less skilled than Bertolt Brecht or Edward Bond at designing engaging drama that at the same time furthers an enterprise of social education, although he is quite obviously influenced by Brechtian theory. But even if Pomerance were Brecht, this metamorphosis would in no way account for the contemporary celebrity of John Merrick: American audiences have seldom given box-office support to materialist drama like Bond’s, Brecht’s, or John Arden’s. Why then were most reviewers and large audiences captivated by the play?
David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man (in which Pomerance had no hand) increased viewers’ knowledge of Merrick and, like the play, enjoyed both critical acclaim and considerable popular success. Although more filmgoers lined up to see The Empire Strikes Back, The Blues Brothers, and Smokey and the Bandit, Part Two, audiences were moved by this skillful black-and-white melodrama re-creating the gritty environment of late Victorian factories and back-alley peepshows. Lynch effectively represents industrialized London by deftly adapting the cinematic style of his earlier cult success Eraserhead (1977), a style punctuated by montages of urban mechanization, the constant hum of manufacturing noise, and motifs of burning gas jets and clouds of steam.
By the early 1980s, largely because of Pomerance and Lynch, Merrick’s story was widely known; but the play and film are only two examples of the flood of publications about Merrick that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s: Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971), Fred Shannon’s The Life and Agony of the Elephant Man (1979), a published version of the Lynch filmscript, Michael Howell and Peter Ford’s The True History of the Elephant Man (1980), Christine Sparks’s The Elephant Man: A Novel (1980), and so on. How does one explain this cultural rediscovery of the ‘‘Elephant Man’’ nearly one hundred years after his death in 1890? What characteristics of John Merrick and his life are most fascinating today? Further, though both Lynch’s film and Pomerance’s drama share some textual features, they are so different in crucial respects as to form opposing mythologies of Merrick’s history. What differing attractions do the two offer, and how are these attractions bound up in theatrical and filmic spectating?
We contend that Pomerance’s and Lynch’s versions of the history of John Merrick combine to provide an unusually wide variety of pleasures, some spectatorial and libidinal, others more intellectual or contemplative. That is, Merrick’s story has been and can be shaped into various forms, each with its own array of audience expectations and satisfactions. We hope to illuminate these by positing three distinct, albeit at times related and overlapping, sources of pleasure in Lynch’s and Pomerance’s treatments of Merrick’s life: the conventions of melodrama, the psychological gratifications of both cinematic spectating and the viewing of sideshow ‘‘freaks,’’ and the critique of powerful Victorian institutions and colonial biases—an element more pronounced in the play than in the film.
The significant differences between the two versions account for Pomerance’s more substantial condemnation of Victorian society. One such difference concerns Lynch’s restricted focus on Merrick and his physical well-being. Like Victorian melodramatists who thrilled their audiences by situating powerless characters in increasingly desperate predicaments and devising last-minute rescues, Lynch continually places Merrick in danger and then finds ways to save him. In the film Merrick’s tranquil existence in his newfound home at London Hospital is constantly threatened by a wide variety of adversaries: his cruel manager, Bytes; an avaricious porter; an angry mob in a train station; an obstreperous member of the London Hospital Governing Committee; and Carr Gomm, governor of the hospital, who initially opposes Merrick’s permanent residency. Crueler still, he is flogged by Bytes, imprisoned in a cage near circus animals, and forced to suffer indignities at the hands of the porter’s drunken friends. Only near the end of the film— when his place in the hospital is finally secured and he attends the theater to see Mrs. Kendal—is the audience assured of his safety, just minutes before he falls contentedly into a fatal sleep.
Constructed differently, Pomerance’s play follows this pattern of engaging action only as far as the fifth scene (it has twenty-one), in which Treves rescues Merrick from a mob at a train station; thereafter little doubt remains about Merrick’s wellbeing. This structure allows Pomerance considerably greater opportunity for social analysis, which is frequently conveyed through Treves, the doctor who befriends Merrick and who dominates the later scenes by seriously examining his own, ostensibly selfless motives for doing so. In the film, by contrast, the one moment in which Treves betrays any self-doubt serves as only a brief respite from the continual melodramatic excitement. Pomerance dispenses with the excitement much earlier so as to interrogate the discourses that construct sexuality in Victorian England.
Another major difference between the two versions involves Merrick’s sexual desire, an issue that Lynch deflects by portraying Merrick as a devoted son and associating him, both narratively and cinematically, with prepubescent boys. Using the mise-en-scène to build this theme, Lynch decorates both Treves’s parlor and Merrick’s room with numerous artistic renderings of mothers and children. Invited to tea at Treves’s home, Merrick admires portraits of Treves’s family and confesses to Mrs. Treves that as a son he has surely disappointed his mother; when Princess Alexandra resolves the hospital’s dispute about keeping Merrick, she quotes Queen Victoria’s characterization of him as ‘‘one of England’s most unfortunate sons.’’ Lynch also trains numerous close-ups on young boys, such as the showman’s assistant and the children who harass Merrick at the station. He establishes this identification most conspicuously at Merrick’s death: unable to sleep lying down because of his enlarged skull, Merrick suffocates when he emulates a sleeping child in a drawing that hangs in his room. Pomerance, conversely, elects to treat Merrick as he was when Treves found him, a young adult with corresponding desires. This portrayal is all the more convincing in the play because of Pomerance’s dictum that the actor impersonating Merrick not use makeup to replicate the character’s deformity. Through the ‘‘normal-looking’’ actor, spectators more easily recognize Merrick’s typicality, his similarity to other young men in their twenties. This interconnection between the typical and the particular in the play, a relation central to historical representation, is nonexistent in Lynch’s film. With an enlarged skull, fibrous tumors, and the rest, John Hurt as Merrick bears little resemblance to any ‘‘typical’’ young man. This is not to say that Lynch’s film lacks a sexual (or political) dimension entirely; viewers of Eraserhead and, more recently, Blue Velvet are familiar with the oedipal themes in Lynch’s work. Nevertheless, in The Elephant Man Lynch creates an engaging preoedipal fairy tale and for the most part eschews analysis of Merrick’s libido.
In Lynch’s screenplay, then, Merrick is a gentle monster caught between a safe harbor and several dangers; in Pomerance’s play, he is similarly victimized— but then again so is his rescuer, Treves, who is ensnared in the values of Victorian England’s privileged class. Pomerance effaces the boundary between safety and exploitation, adding layers of social realism to various mythologies about Merrick. These differences between the film and play reveal both the many aspects of Merrick’s life that intrigue audiences and the systems of viewing within which spectators’ responses are formed. For these reasons, after summarizing the melodramatic conventions that constitute Pomerance’s and Lynch’s dramas, we delineate the spectatorial mechanisms at work in viewing the Elephant Man (along with the pleasures underlying these mechanisms) and consider Pomerance’s comparatively richer explanation of the social origins of Merrick’s victimization.
Like much commercial cinema today, melodrama was the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in Merrick’s time. More than a source of pleasure, melodrama offered audiences steeped in its conventions a ready vehicle for interpreting Merrick’s experiences. His deformities, much like Quasimodo’s in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, made him an outcast, and the true story of his fortunes and misfortunes—his mistreatment as a show freak and his ‘‘rescue’’ by the eminent young surgeon Frederick Treves—must have read like something one might see at Drury Lane or, more likely, at the Adelphi, famous in London for its melodrama. Quite literally ‘‘read,’’ for in addition to the many newspaper accounts of his life, there were a number of reminiscences, since few who had known Merrick could resist writing about him after his death. Strikingly similar in their melodramatic proclivities, these commentators reveal the extent to which their theatrical viewing informed their memories of actual events. Such interpretations of ‘‘facts,’’ as Raymond Williams points out, result from living in a ‘‘dramatized society,’’ one in which habitual spectating leads to perceiving the events of daily life as mediated by dramatic conventions: ‘‘The specific conventions of a particular dramatization . . . are not abstract. They are profoundly worked out and reworked in our actual living relationships. They are our ways of seeing and knowing, which every day we put into practice. . . .’’ Treves’s own memoir of Merrick, a typical example of the way history can be not merely dramatized but melodramatized, serves as the source for most modern representations of Merrick, including Ashley Montagu’s book, Pomerance’s play, and Lynch’s film. What the doctor describes, both playwright and director dramatize, at times amplifying Treves’s sentiment and extending the reductive polarizations of his melodramatic account.
Like many contemporary filmgoers, nineteenthcentury London audiences were not ashamed to weep at the sight of a villain persecuting a virtuous heroine; they were eager both to have their emotions engaged and to indulge in the sensationalism and spectacle that skillful melodramatists like Dion Boucicault could create. While there were many successful types of melodrama, some elements remained fairly constant. Suffering heroines and sadistic villains are a staple of the recipe, and, as Martha Vicinus observes, melodrama ‘‘always sides with the powerless,’’ the noble heroine over the powerful but depraved adversary. Such villains seem wholly possessed by their desires and will do anything to satisfy them. As a result, the heroine and the hero face myriad injustices, but no matter how ‘‘helpless and unfriended,’’ the heroine remains virtuous throughout the play. Domestic melodrama routinely rewards such paragons: the hero rescues the heroine, and their adversaries receive appropriate retribution as a larger moral order triumphs over a malign society. The appeal of such an order is obvious, as Vicinus explains: ‘‘Much of the emotional effectiveness of melodrama comes from making the moral visible’’ in the stock characters and in the plot.
Treves evidently knew this paradigm well. When his account and the play are juxtaposed with Michael Howell and Peter Ford’s The True History of the Elephant Man, his melodramatizing tendencies become apparent. Howell and Ford’s somewhat pleonastic title indicates their efforts to distinguish their factual work from several fictions about Merrick, many of them introduced by Treves. They uncover information that Treves either never knew or had forgotten by the time he wrote his memoir in 1923, information that concerns Merrick’s life before he entered London Hospital in 1884, a period about which Treves was uncertain since Merrick preferred not to speak of it. Howell and Ford show that Treves exaggerated many events on the side of the emotional or the sensational, turning the true story into the engaging drama that Pomerance and Lynch recreate. For instance, Treves reproaches Merrick’s mother for ‘‘basely’’ deserting her son when he was ‘‘so small that his earliest clear memories were of the workhouse to which he had been taken.’’ Less melodramatically, Howell and Ford contend that Merrick’s mother was quite kind to him until her death, when her son was nearly eleven. Merrick did enter the Leicester workhouse, but at age seventeen and of his own initiative.
An analogous, yet more subtle, ‘‘dramatization’’ of Treves’s consciousness produces his account of first seeing Merrick. At this time the doctor did not perceive a future patient or the results of a devastating disease, only a figure of abject misery:
The showman pulled back the curtain and revealed a bent figure crouching on a stool and covered by a brown blanket. In front of it, on a tripod, was a large brick heated by a Bunsen burner. Over this the creature huddled to warm itself. It never moved when the curtain was drawn back. . . . This figure was the embodiment of loneliness.
The showman—speaking as if to a dog—called out harshly: ‘‘Stand up!’’ The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. . . . At no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. (Montagu)
Here Treves stresses Merrick’s degradation and loneliness, later remarking that Merrick was ‘‘as secluded from the world as the Man in the Iron Mask,’’ the popular Dumas character seen often on the Victorian stage. Treves’s terms for Merrick— the ‘‘creature,’’ the ‘‘thing,’’ and ‘‘it’’—betray the same mixture of pity and revulsion that Hugo’s Quasimodo or Verdi’s Rigoletto might inspire. Though Treves’s feelings are more intense, they parallel those of a Victorian audience watching the numerous other deformed or handicapped characters who, according to Peter Brooks, illustrate melodrama’s ‘‘repeated use of extreme physical conditions to represent extreme moral and emotional conditions,’’ its portrayal of ‘‘invalids of various sorts whose very physical presence evokes the extremism and hyperbole’’ of the melodramatic world. It is in this world that Treves intellectually placed Merrick at first sight.
The doctor also sensationalizes the closing of Merrick’s show in Belgium (on the grounds of indecency) and the subsequent return to England, in part by casting Merrick’s showman as a stage villain. Treves was not in Belgium to witness the events he depicts, so his penchant for the theatrical was only minimally constrained by the bare facts: ‘‘Merrick was thus no longer of value. He was no longer a source of profitable entertainment. . . . He must be got rid of. The elimination of Merrick was a simple matter. He could offer no resistance’’ (Montagu). Regardless of what actually happened, Treves transforms Merrick into the helpless victim suffering at the hands of the cruel manager. Not surprisingly, given this transformation, Merrick is cast in a role usually reserved for a woman: Merrick as heroine. He is ideal for the part because of his innocence, helplessness, and suffering. The theatricalizing impulse manifests itself again in Treves’s narration of Merrick’s return to London, which replicates the conventional harrowing journey of the outcast woman: ‘‘[Merrick] would be harried by an eager mob as he hobbled along. . . . He had but a few shillings in his pocket and nothing either to eat or drink on the way. A panic-dazed dog with a label on his collar would have received some sympathy and possibly some kindness. Merrick received none’’ (Montagu). This characterization mirrors the portrayal of hapless victims on the Victorian stage, as in W. G. Wills’s Jane Shore (1875), in which the title character is marched, starving and hounded by onlookers, through the streets of Christmastime London. History becomes melodrama, an exciting dreamworld of black-and-white morality, sensation, and strong emotion.
Pomerance and Lynch continue Treves’s melodramatizing practices, though in differing ways and through re-creations of different moments in Treves’s memoir. For example, while Lynch elects to omit the workhouse detail, he substitutes lingering shots of the squalor of Merrick’s show life. Pomerance, however, further exaggerates Treves’s fiction of the helpless child abandoned to life in the workhouse; he has Ross, Merrick’s manager in the play, explain, ‘‘Found him in a Leicester workhouse. His own ma put him there age of three. Couldn’t bear the sight, well you can see why.’’ To complete the image, Pomerance surpasses his source by writing Merrick a moving speech detailing the horrors of the workhouse: ‘‘They beat you there like a drum. Boom boom: scrape the floor white. Shine the pan, boom boom. It never ends. The floor is always dirty. The pan is always tarnished. There is nothing you can do. . . .’’ Perhaps even more today than in the 1890s, the very term workhouse signifies abuse, poverty, and despair—the bleak urban world into which the unfortunates of Victorian literature are frequently thrust. In George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), for example, the homeless title character wanders London streets carrying her infant son and pondering her destitution: ‘‘Why should such cruelty happen to her? The Workhouse, the Workhouse, the Workhouse! . . . What had she done to deserve it? Above all, what had the poor innocent child done to deserve it?’’ Like Treves before them, Pomerance and Lynch induce their audiences to ask these conventional questions of domestic melodrama and to experience the pathos of such deplorable injustice.
For other incidents that Treves narrates melodramatically— his first sight of Merrick and the manager’s abandonment of Merrick on the Continent— Lynch builds on the emotion of the original. (Pomerance, by contrast, minimizes the emotionalism of Treves’s initial encounter with Merrick, both by keeping the audience outside the show tent and by not giving the doctor any extreme response.) Lynch emphasizes the immediate impact Merrick has on Treves by capturing the overwrought surgeon in a memorable close-up just as tears gather in his eyes and finally trickle down his face. Similarly, even though both Lynch and Pomerance retain Dr. Treves’s interpretation of the events in Belgium— the play and film audiences alike see a profit-hungry huckster robbing his charge—Lynch again exceeds the sensationalism of his source. Lynch’s scene begins on the grounds of a Belgian carnival. It is a cold and rainy day, with Bytes attracting a small crowd to see his ‘‘creature.’’ Merrick, half naked and totally exhausted, answers his ‘‘owner’s’’ command— the thumping on the stage of the same cane Bytes uses to beat him—to step forward from behind a curtain. He falls to the floor and, although Bytes jabs the cane into his back, Merrick cannot summon sufficient energy to stand. A disgusted crowd expresses its revulsion at the spectacle, thus infuriating Bytes. Later, inebriated and convinced that Merrick is being deliberately spiteful, Bytes evicts Merrick from the show wagon, imprisons him in an animal cage, and throws his few possessions out onto the ground. Lynch has represented this kind of cruelty before, tincturing it with sexual ambivalence as Bytes refers affectionately to Merrick as his ‘‘treasure’’—the valued possession whom he brutalizes. It is only through the kindness of other sideshow performers that Merrick is released from his confinement and placed on a ship for England.
Yet when the ship docks in England and Merrick takes a train to London, his troubles are still not over. He has escaped his sadistic proprietor only to be threatened by an angry mob at the Liverpool Street station. In this scene both Lynch and Pomerance surpass their source in working on their audiences’ emotions. Typically the melodramatist supplies a hero to save the helpless heroine just when the situation looks bleakest. When Dr. Treves, in his memoir, depicts Merrick’s attempts to get back to London, he places the ‘‘heroine’’ in such straits, but the doctor is modest, even perfunctory, in assigning the hero’s role to himself: ‘‘I had some difficulty in making a way through the crowd, but there, on the floor in the corner, was Merrick. . . . He seemed pleased to see me, but he was nearly done. The journey and want of food had reduced him to the last stage of exhaustion’’ (Montagu). Pomerance does not re-create the train journey; rather, he opens scene 5 with policemen barring a waiting room against an offstage mob pursuing Merrick. Ignoring the real Treves’s modesty about his own actions, Pomerance at the end of the scene brings his young surgeon onstage with the stride of a hero rescuing an innocent victim:
TREVES: What is going on here? Look at that mob, have you no sense of decency? I am Frederick Treves. This is my card.
POLICEMAN: This poor wretch here had it. Arrived from Ostend.
TREVES: Good Lord, Merrick? John Merrick? What has happened to you?
MERRICK: Help me!
In Pomerance’s scene, the starved Merrick has presumably been hounded by onlookers, though we never actually witness their inhumanity; but in Lynch’s film we see an angry crowd pursue Merrick through the station and ultimately trap him in a public restroom. As they draw closer, Merrick stops them with a desperate plea: ‘‘ I am not an animal! I am not an animal! I am a human being!’’ The crowd backs away momentarily as several policemen come to Merrick’s defense and, in the next scene, return him to Treves. Thus, both Pomerance and Lynch, in their different ways, build effective drama out of an incident that Treves invests with only minimal emotion.
In both play and film, this rescue scene concludes with a stage picture analogous to the ‘‘big curtain’’ tableaux vivants of Victorian melodrama, and from then on Merrick’s fortunes improve. As in any domestic melodrama in which the helpless woman in dire circumstances finds a home, Merrick finds his in Treves’s hospital. Yet for Pomerance there remained one further authorial chore: to complete Merrick’s characterization as virginal heroine by establishing his sexual innocence. Treves’s account suggests this role by describing Merrick as a woman—and Pomerance supplies a test of Merrick’s purity to perfect the fiction his Victorian predecessor began. Lynch, significantly we think, chooses instead to develop Merrick’s innocence as a child, skipping over the thornier issue of his sexuality.
Both play and film accumulate evidence for their divergent representations in their early scenes. As the real Treves had done in a lecture to the Pathological Society of London, Lynch’s Treves alludes briefly to Merrick’s genitals, commenting on their normalcy. Though Pomerance appropriates material from the same lecture, he handles the issue very differently, projecting our curiosity about Merrick’s sexuality onto Mrs. Kendal, who receives Treves’s permission to ask an indiscreet question: ‘‘I could not but help noticing from the photographs that—well—of the unafflicted parts—ah, how shall I put it?’’ This inquiry anticipates scene 14, which Merrick opens by noting that, since the prince and the Irishman (Charles Stewart Parnell) keep mistresses, he has ‘‘concluded’’ that he should acquire one as well. Admittedly, some sexual desire motivates this proclamation, but so too does his ambition to conform socially: the most powerful men in society have mistresses; Treves compels him to learn the ways of this society; and the conclusion is obvious—a Victorian gentleman requires the company of a lady. Never having seen a woman’s nude body, Merrick eagerly accepts Mrs. Kendal’s offer in this scene to allow him to survey hers. But there is, finally, little evidence of desire in this incident: in a spirit of adventure or kindness, she disrobes so that women for him will no longer be, to borrow Treves’s expression, ‘‘creatures of his imagination.’’ His innocent response to her nakedness—‘‘It is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen’’—is supportive of her earlier opinion: Merrick is ‘‘gentle, almost feminine.’’
In both the historical account and the play, Treves uses the same metaphor of femininity in his lecture when he compares Merrick’s arms: the badly deformed, almost ‘‘shapeless’’ and ‘‘useless’’ right arm and his hand ‘‘like a fin or paddle’’ contrast with the ‘‘anomalous’’ left arm, a ‘‘delicately shaped limb covered with fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied.’’ In an elision of Treves’s actual lecture, Lynch’s character merely remarks, ‘‘And his left arm is entirely normal, as you can see.’’ This small deviation from Treves’s account suggests Lynch’s decision to avoid the feminization of Merrick that both the historical Treves and Pomerance develop. To be sure, Lynch borrows from Treves’s memoir and reproduces minor details; the film’s motif of burning gas jets, for instance, might be attributed to Treves’s recollection of his first view of Merrick, which was illuminated ‘‘by the faint blue light of the gas jet’’ (Montagu 14). But while Lynch passes over the feminine imagery in Treves’s account, Pomerance makes good use of it. In the play, Mrs. Kendal sees Merrick as womanlike and supplies him with toilet articles so that he might ‘‘make himself’’ at the mirror ‘‘as I make me.’’ In this regard, Pomerance’s characters follow their historical models, as Madge Kendal recalls in her autobiography: ‘‘Sir Frederick Treves states that his [Merrick’s] troubles ennobled him and ‘made him as gentle, affectionate, loveable, and amiable as a happy woman.’’’ Here Merrick’s feminine identity is based on prevalent idealizations of Victorian women and girls: the mid-Victorian ‘‘cult of domesticity’’ configured women as ‘‘innocent, pure, gentle, and self-sacrificing’’—and submissive, totally dependent on men (Gorham). All these adjectives describe Merrick, who is gentle, pure, domestic, and dependent on Treves.
True to the melodramatic convention that involves the ‘‘violation and spoliation of the space of innocence’’ (Brooks), scene 14 depicts Treves interrupting the meeting between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal and repeating the words he had uttered when Merrick was surrounded by the hostile mob: ‘‘What is going on here? . . . Have you no sense of decency?’’ Kendal’s explanation—‘‘For a moment, Paradise, Freddie’’—underscores the analogy between Merrick’s room and Eden, the ‘‘enclosed garden, the space of innocence, surrounded by walls,’’ invaded, in Brooks’s words, by a ‘‘villain, the troubler of innocence.’’ This encounter therefore does not undermine Pomerance’s depiction of Merrick’s innocence; on the contrary, it communicates Merrick’s virtue more resonantly by suddenly transforming Treves from hero into villain. Serving as a foil here to his morally superior patient, Treves is unable to separate, as Merrick can, nudity from sexuality. Mrs. Kendal’s act provides a sufficient test of Merrick’s character, and his purity remains intact.
As treated in all three versions—Treves’s, Pomerance’s, and Lynch’s—Merrick’s life assumes the familiar narrative shape of a domestic melodrama. An innocent ‘‘woman’’ has been eking out a precarious living under the hungry eye of an unscrupulous landlord, mortgage holder, or employer.
Finally the day arrives when, unable to pay her rent or otherwise satisfy a ‘‘lawful’’ indebtedness, she is turned out into the streets, penniless, soon to face starvation. Although suffering untold agonies as a social outcast, she maintains her honor, even when it is tested in the most severe of environments. Eventually, at the brink of destruction, a strong and equally untainted champion discovers her distress. Evil is crushed, virtue is rewarded, and the heroine becomes an inspiration to all who know her. Change the heroine to John Merrick, and we recognize one of the appeals of viewing The Elephant Man: the appeal of melodrama. What was in Treves’s memoir the product of a powerful cultural construct becomes in Pomerance’s play and Lynch’s film a successful dramatic strategy.
Scene 14 in Pomerance’s play, in which Treves interrupts and condemns Mrs. Kendal’s exhibition of herself to Merrick, is provocative for reasons other than its association of Merrick with melodramatic heroines. For one thing, it is initiated by a reversal of gender roles: a woman looking at photographs of a naked man, a situation that disrupts the established patriarchal system of seeing and being seen. Or, as Mary Ann Doane has put it, the reason ‘‘men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’’ is that ‘‘there is always a certain excessiveness, a difficulty with women who appropriate the gaze, who insist upon looking.’’ Following Laura Mulvey’s theorizing, Doane and E. Ann Kaplan regard Western culture as ‘‘deeply committed to myths of demarcated sex differences, called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ which in turn revolve first on a complex gaze apparatus and second on dominance/submission patterns’’ (Kaplan). In theories of this apparatus, the gaze is most often posited as male and dominant; the object of the gaze female and submissive. Moreover, as Patricia Mellencamp emphasizes, ‘‘More than other senses, the eye objectifies and masters.’’ Such theories of spectation can be enormously helpful in assessing modern audiences’ fascination with Merrick and his story, because Pomerance and Lynch not only recognize the kinds of gender demarcation Kaplan mentions but also, through Merrick’s powerlessness as a sideshow exhibit, reverse such constructions of maleness and femaleness. These and other spectatorial pleasures are the subject of what follows.
Lynch’s introductory sequences in The Elephant Manintimate his awareness of what Freud posits as one motive for scopophilia: the pleasure to be derived from seeing private, even forbidden things. Few directors, other than Alfred Hitchcock or perhaps Brian DePalma, understand this desire so well as Lynch does. The initial scenes signal the audience’s eventual viewing of a horrible reality just beneath the surface of society. After a thematically rich opening montage, the first London sequence takes place on a crowded circus ground where Treves, who at this point does not know Merrick, wanders toward a sign upon which the camera focuses: ‘‘FREAKS.’’
Pomerance’s The Elephant Man
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
Repeated images—the corset, the cathedral model, and the allusion to Romeo and Juliet—represent twists on the idea of illusive and restrictive moral standards in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man. The corset first stands as a symbol of mere control or restriction, depending on the degree of irony applied to the image. Ross, the freak show proprietor, uses the corset image to describe Merrick: he is the result of ‘‘Mother Nature uncorseted.’’ Ross is trying to say that anything produced by an uncorseted (or uncontrolled) Mother Nature would certainly be freakish. But when one realizes that Mother Nature restricted by a man-made fashion garment would probably bear anything but a ‘‘natural’’ child, the irony of the statement comes blaring forth; one would expect that Ross and the rest of ‘‘normal’’ people are anything but natural.
In close relation to this, the corset also stands as a symbol for moral standards imposed by culture, which restrict. Merrick, as the product of an uncorseted Mother Nature, is not inhibited by the social standards the ‘‘normal’’ characters impose on themselves. As Ross infers that the bulk of mankind is the product of a corseted Mother Nature, the inverse is true in their case, and Dr. Frederick Treves, paragon of societal normality, becomes the perfect portrait of mankind’s moral maladies. In moral disillusionment, Treves laments the ‘‘grotesque ailments’’ caused by corsets: his ‘‘patients do not unstrap themselves of corsets. Some cannot.’’ Treves’s bewailment of the English social system advances the idea that a Mother Nature corseted by mankind cannot produce children who act naturally and with honesty about their own feelings. The other reference to the corset is indirect and appears when actress Mrs. Kendal undresses in front of Merrick. This disregard for cultural morals (and they are cultural; African pygmies run naked) is symbolized by nothing less than taking the corset off.
The model of St. Philip’s cathedral symbolizes Merrick’s knowledge of Treves’s constricting moral standards. Each time Merrick discovers another illusive ethic in Treves’s system of thought, he adds another piece to the model. At the moment Treves himself becomes uncorseted from these moral illusions— still suffering the ‘‘most grotesque ailments’’ and in despair bemoaning the futility of society’s standards, Merrick fits the final piece on St. Philip’s. This symbol closely ties with the allusion to Romeo and Juliet. Merrick states, ‘‘When the illusion ended, (Romeo) had to kill himself.’’ Since the cathedral represents Merrick’s knowledge of Treves’s faulty standards, when the cathedral is completed, the illusion ends, and Merrick dies. Juliet, played of course by Mrs. Kendal, helps by removing the corset to destroy the illusion of Treves’ morals; this ties the images of corset and cathedral and the Shakespeare allusion together. Mrs. Kendal’s permanent departure from the play represents Juliet’s demise and foreshadows the death of Romeo.
Source: Val Ricks. ‘‘Pomerance’s The Elephant Man,’’ in the Explicator, Vol. 46, no. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 48–49.
Two for the Price of One: Tragedy and the Dual Hero in Equus and The Elephant Man
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3339
Two highly successful contemporary plays are so alike in conception and design that one description seems to serve for both. A doctor and his patient are the major characters in these plays, with their relationship and conflict quickly becoming the dominant dramatic center. The doctors in both works are professionally prominent and, at least to the audience’s initial view, comfortable within the norms and boundaries provided them by society. Their patients, however, are freaks. One suffers profound mental disturbance, to the point of violence, while the other is so physically distorted that few people can stand his presence or sight. The patients, in fact, are pariahs, shunned not only by society but by blood-kin as well. Their doctors nevertheless draw very close to them and, with partial or even complete success, attempt a process of normalization and cure. At the end, however, the cure proves to be double-edged, so that we remain unsure whether patient or doctor has been the more profoundly touched. Both doctors contemplate the final results of their skill deeply unsettled about themselves and their actions. They wonder whether their effort to heal a special patient has really been a tampering with something beyond themselves—an assault upon uniqueness by simple and successful mediocrity.
The plays in question are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man. They can be introduced with the same general outline because they are founded upon an identical confrontation between the normal and the extraordinary. What Martin Dysart and Alan Strang, through their encounter and juxtaposition, achieve for the one play, Frederick Treves and John Merrick achieve for the other. My purpose in pointing this out is not merely to reveal surprising parallels for their own sake. Rather, as I hope to show, the dramatic pattern shared by Equus and The Elephant Man demonstrates something important beyond specific detail. It offers us, I believe, new perspectives on the very old issue of tragedy and, in particular, on the tragic hero as he remains faithful to the contemporary and to the timeless in human affairs.
On initial encounter, Alan Strang and John Merrick do not seem possible candidates for tragedy because their human condition appears perverse and not noble, diminished and not larger than life. The first is a lower middle-class youth whose obsession with horses has finally led him to psychosis and violence. The second is destitute and, as a matter of historical record, the world’s most extreme case of physical deformity. His appearance has caused men to riot and to attack him in disgust. Yet as is clear from such works as The Oresteia or Philoctetes, madness, even hideousness, are not disqualifications from tragic stature so long as there is elevation at the same time. For Alan and Merrick alike the source of elevation—the bow which transcends their wounds—is art. Alan, in his madness, spins a private and unique mythology utterly compelling to himself, to his psychiatrist Dysart, and finally to the audience. Merrick builds a replica, or imitation, of St. Phillip’s Church which, like Mozart’s music in Shaffer’s Amadeus, represents human effort to rise from the earth and commune with God. In a fascinating parallel between the two plays, Alan and Merrick emerge as artists by virtue of an identical and paradoxical formulation. For both of them, art and the artist are born in the coalescence of squalor and the sublime or holy, what Yeats has called ‘‘The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor’’ (Yeats, 1959). Thus Alan makes the hot creatures of the stable into his gods and, through their celebration, becomes a poet and mystic. Thus Merrick finds within his own being and life both the beast which gives him his nickname and the God-urge, both the underpinnings of his church and the inspiration to build its arches and spires. Merrick himself states the artistic equation for both plays in the following exchange with his confidante, Mrs. Kendal:
MRS. KENDAL: You are an artist, John Merrick, an artist.
MERRICK: I did not begin to build at first. Not till I saw what St. Phillip’s really was. It is not stone and steel and glass; it is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud. So I make my imitation of an imitation. But even in that is heaven to me, Mrs. Kendal (Pomerance, 1979).
The close kinship between Alan and Merrick does not require them to be alike in the execution and style of their art. Alan is certainly the more original of the two, with Merrick emerging as a kind of mimetic or Aristotelian craftsman. Also, Alan is by far the more emotionally frenzied creator, Dionysian in contrast to Merrick’s Apollonian reserve. As a result, Alan’s mythic outbursts shock Dysart and the public while, by an opposite process, Merrick builds his church one piece at a time, quietly, all through the second half of his play. Like Dionysus and Apollo, Alan and Merrick are brothers at heart, yet not identical nor even similar on the surface.
Born as artists through the same union of opposites, they are, however, destined to suffer a similar destruction and ordeal. Each is patient to a skilled doctor, also a friend, whose intention is to cure the special figure and as far as possible make him normal. Words like ‘‘normal,’’ ‘‘average,’’ and ‘‘ordinary’’ saturate both plays, and in the mouths of the two doctors become prophecies for Alan and Merrick. Reflecting the optimism of his age, Frederick Treves reveals the following plan for his patient:
My aim’s to lead him to as normal a life as possible. His terror of us all comes from having been held at arm’s length from society. I am determined that shall end. For example, he loves to meet people and converse. I am determined he shall. For example, he had never seen the inside of any normal home before. I had him to mine, and what a reward, Mrs. Kendal; his astonishment, his joy at the most ordinary things (Pomerance, 1979).
Martin Dysart’s tone is by contrast bitter and pessimistic, but the likeness of the message remains unmistakable:
I’ll set him on a nice mini-scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it! I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them—blinking our nights away in a nonstop drench of cathode -ray over our shrivelling heads! I’ll take away his Field of Ha Ha, and give him Normal places for his ecstasy— (Shaffer, 1974).
Equus ends with the implication that Dysart will succeed, and that Alan will return to normalcy and to society. No such hope is possible for Merrick, who dies at the end of his play, in keeping with historical fact. This opposition is misleading, however, because the plays really end alike for their artist-freaks, even on an identical bit of imagery. The final act performed by Alan and Merrick is to fall asleep on stage, implying that a move toward the norm involves artistic paralysis—or worse. Surely Alan’s unconscious collapse in Dysart’s arms represents his creative death since, all along, his madness has been his poetic source. Now cured, he will never sing of Equus and the other god-beasts again. The three-way equation of normality, sleep, and death becomes even more explicit and literal in Pomerance’s play. Here John Merrick dies attempting for the first time to fall asleep in a ‘‘normal’’ position, something his unnaturally heavy head has always made impossible. This death of both the artist and the man has been foretold by Treves in the previous scene when, like Dysart, he begins to doubt his own remedies: ‘‘It is just—it is the overarc of things, quite inescapable that as he’s achieved greater and greater normality, his condition’s edged him closer to the grave. So—a parable of growing up? To become more normal is to die?’’ (Pomerance, 1979).
Thus in Equus and The Elephant Man, alike, two exceptional figures fall into the misfortune of normalcy and are destroyed. Before a conclusion is reached that the plays are, therefore, traditional tragedy, their other pair of characters should be examined. The brother-physicians Dysart and Treves, interesting and significant in their own right, may themselves have some claim to the status of protagonist. One clear truth about both of them is their opposition, in every respect, to their patients. Where Alan and Merrick touch the far extremes of dirt and deity, Treves and Dysart exist together on neutral ground between the two. They never traffic with the beasts, but surely never approach heaven or the gods either.
Also in contrast to the creative patients, these two healers are ironically destroyers. In a nearly exact parallel between the plays, both doctors reveal at least a subconscious awareness of their destructive qualities through dreams. Within Dysart’s dream, and Treves’s, an identical vision of carving and dismemberment functions as the metaphor of selfrevelation. Dysart tells his friend Hesther Salomon that in his dream he appears as ‘‘a chief priest in Homeric Greece’’ officiating at a sacrifice of children. He relates that:
As each child steps forward . . . with a surgical skill which amazes even me, I fit in the knife and slice elegantly down to the navel, just like a seamstress following a pattern. I part the flaps, sever the inner tubes, yank them out and throw them hot and steaming on to the floor. The other two (priests) then study the pattern they make, as if they were reading hieroglyphics. It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am (Shaffer, 1974).
Treves’s dream is acted out rather than told, but with no variation to the central image. In it he and Merrick repeat an earlier scene, only with their roles reversed. Merrick now assumes the dream-identity of physician conducting an anatomical lecture, with Treves on display as patient-specimen. Among several revealing (and often amusing) details, Merrick describes ‘‘The surgeon’s hands (which) were well-developed and strong, capable of the most delicate carvings-up, for others’ own good’’ (Pomerance, 1979).
Any operation or sacrifice performed on victims as dynamic as Alan and Merrick is bound to have its impact upon the performer himself. For Dysart and Treves, together, this proves to be revelation and a profoundly new awareness of life. It is possible to suggest, in fact, that as the doctors lead their patients toward average sleep, they are themselves awakened in the process—to permanent and disturbing perception. Such a turnabout seems most appropriate when one recalls that Alan and Merrick are, after all, artists. They may be victimized by sacrificial cure, but not before having the chance to infect their healers with a bit of the visionary disease.
Again alike, Dysart and Treves find that their newly-gained insight is two fold. First, they both reach some understanding of what it means to live beyond the borders of complacent normalcy, as Alan and Merrick have done. At a key point in each play, the doctor takes the place of his patient to experience what Dysart calls ‘‘Pain that’s unique’’ to the very special individual (Shaffer, 1974). In The Elephant Manthis occurs comically for Treves during the dream-scene, mentioned above, where the patient turns physician and the physician, for once, becomes a freak on display. In the very next scene—with the comedy ended and Treves now feeling his own private pain—the doctor cries out ‘‘help me’’ and weeps, exactly as Merrick did at the start of their relationship (Pomerance, 1979). For Dysart, the taking on of Alan’s burden comes during the play’s final scene. Purged from the patient’s soul and mind, the god-beast now commands the doctor’s attention, perhaps permanently:
And now for me it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave—‘Why Me? . . . Why Me? . . . Account for Me!’ . . . All right—I surrender! I say it . . . In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place— yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do—yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads! (Shaffer, 1974).
The second side of both doctors’ awakening is paradoxically opposite to the first. In the very sharing of their patients’ experience, Dysart and Treves also come to know their essential separation from these patients. In their close approach to the extraordinary figure and his uniqueness, the brother-physicians sadly discover their own contrasting and enduring mediocrity. For Dysart, a single word and his preoccupation with it serve to measure this new self-awareness. The slang-term for psychiatrist, ‘‘shrink,’’ begins to gain literal meaning during the play, not so much to signify Dysart’s effect on his patient but to inform him of his own existence in contrast to Alan’s: ‘‘Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that . . . I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity’’ (Shaffer, 1974). Within The Elephant Man, as well, one word figures heavily (in) Treves’s developing perception of himself. This time the word is ‘‘consolation,’’ and it recurs throughout the play reflecting several of its different meanings (Pomerance, 1979). At the very outset, the hospital administrator Carr Gomm tells Treves that prominence, title, and ‘‘100 guinea fees’’ will prove ‘‘an excellent consolation prize’’ (Pomerance, 1979). Treves does not understand this at first. Once having encountered Merrick, however, he finds the meaning all too clear and inescapable. The world’s familiar honors and achievements are merely what most of mankind accepts in lieu of transcendence, in consolation for being average. When, just before Merrick’s death, Treves again thinks about consolation, it is with touching awareness that the idea defines his life, yet remains utterly unsatisfying:
I am an extremely successful Englishman in a successful and respected England which informs me daily by the way it lives that it wants to die. I am in despair in fact. Science, observation, practice, deduction, having led me to these conclusions, can no longer serve as consolation. I apparently see things others don’t. I am sure we were not born for mere consolation (Pomerance, 1979).
Peter Shaffer and Bernard Pomerance have thus, together, provided recent drama with a distinct pattern whereby two opposite figures influence one another toward opposite destinies. When the process is complete, an extraordinary person has been lost, while a far more typical person has been led to important insight and self-recognition. If the plays in question are tragedies, then their authors may be providing audiences and readers with something even more noteworthy—a dramatic strategy allowing for alternative protagonists or two tragic heroes in place of the traditional one.
Alan and Merrick certainly approximate the classical tragic hero and preserve a design that is thousands of years old. They are separated from society by drastic flaws, yet also by something exceptional within themselves which elevates and confers uniqueness. Both finally suffer a destructive fall, and all who view it are moved to strong emotion and a sense of major loss. By contrast, Dysart and Treves do not conform to this timeless pattern. They are ordinary men who encounter the extraordinary but cannot attain it, and who become tragic precisely in their recognition of this truth.
In the presence of such differences on stage, we as audience discover a choice of heroes to identify with or, more accurately, find a dual identification with both of them. To witness and thus share the fall of Alan and Merrick is, through an age-old ritual, to commune with our essential humanity, utterly removed from time and social process. The two unique individuals, and their stories, provide ways to celebrate the eternal freak of nature that is man— the half-beast with a lust for transcendence, the imaginative creature so worthy of wonder, yet so easily destroyed. What Dysart and Treves provide, in contrast, is a mirror not for eternity but for today. From the vantage-point of our study or theater seat, we see in them our immediate image and circumstances, the human condition now burdened by history, society, and personal limitation. The two doctors function as effective tragic figures, I believe, because the consolations and diminishments of their lives are immediately recognized as our own. Like them, most of us who view their drama have a share in the world’s prestige and some private version of the 100 guinea fee. Confronted with the utterly extraordinary, again like them, we take accurate stock of our own insignificance, too intellectually truthful and sensitive to do anything less. The honest shock of recognition suffered by Dysart and Treves, in short, purifies the tribe as a whole. The emotions awakened through such an experience differ from our response to the unique hero’s fall, yet possess an equally compelling poignancy and depth.
At least one of the playwrights here under study has pursued the dual protagonists, and the encounter of normal man with the extraordinary, into his most recent work. As a result, Salieri and Mozart collide and struggle, during Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, much the same way the paired characters did in the earlier plays, although with some variations to the basic pattern. Amadeus himself now functions as the artist-creature who, along with Alan and Merrick, moves toward a traditionally tragic destruction and fall. His art is more tangible, and public, than his brothers’ largely solitary efforts, yet in essence the same by virtue of being finally God-driven. The squalid along with the sublime resides in Mozart too, only now emerging comically (and somewhat trivially) through the composer’s infantile preoccupations with excrement and with beasts. The audience, for example, sees Mozart make his initial entrance pretending to be a cat, and his first spoken line in the play is miaow.
Opposing this figure is Shaffer’s Antonio Salieri, like Dysart and Treves all too desperately normal (and successful) by contrast. Salieri is awakened through contact with his inspired creature, as were the physicians, to the nature of transcendence and to its utter absence in himself. Here, however, a difference arises between this play and the first two. Salieri is honest, like the doctors, in taking his own measure against genius yet, unlike them, aroused to rage and malice by the results. Where Dysart and Treves may have revealed destructive traits subconsciously, and despite genuine intentions to cure, Salieri proves to be overtly vicious toward his counterpart. No healer to Mozart in any sense, he vows to destroy the divine creature and thereby to strike a blow against the God who has sold him short.
My purpose in mentioning Amadeus here is not to pursue a detailed comparison of three plays, although I am sure this would yield worthwhile results. Rather, I wish to stress a clear pattern for tragic character held in common by this work and the previous two. If the pattern emerged, over the past decade, through the efforts of Shaffer and Pomerance, it surely still persists in a current and highly visible example of drama today. This is as it should be, because the pattern in question represents a unique contribution to recent theater—a tragic mask whose countenance is twofold. One of its faces is familiar since, through Dysart, Treves, and Salieri, it exactly captures the look of contemporary man. Its other more distorted face is that of Alan, Merrick, and Mozart. While hardly average or ordinary, this face unlike the first preserves the essential and the eternal human expression.
Source: Louis K. Greiff, ‘‘Two for the Price of One: Tragedy and the Dual Hero in Equus and The Elephant Man,’’ in Within the Dramatic Spectrum, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, Lanham, MD: University Presses of America, 1986, pp. 64–77.
The Elephant Man as Dramatic Parable
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5106
What is an elephant compared to a man? Brecht, A Man’s a Man
The more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. . . . Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. Wilde, ‘‘The Decay of Lying’’
(Scripture says) that God is a hidden God, and that since the corruption of nature, He has left men in a darkness from which they can escape only through Jesus Christ. . . . Vere tu es Deus absconditus. Pascal, Pensées
In 1977 Foco Novo, a radical fringe group named after a play by Bernard Pomerance about South American guerrillas, first produced The Elephant Man in England; early in 1979, the play opened in mid-Manhattan at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a worship space built into the Citicorp Center; a few months later, the production was moved to a Victorian theater on Broadway, where it has enjoyed a long run. This brief production history suggests the broad span of reference in this most recent Pomerance play: beginning in radical politics, it ends in metaphysics, and in between, it directs questions of aesthetics and ethics against show business, theatrical illusion, and all kinds of imitative performance from language learning to orthodox religious discipline and the imitation of Christ.
This thematic range makes for some incoherence: a few critics have justly observed that the play contains too many allusions, without development, too many ideas which the theater audience can scarcely take in. Yet the incomplete web the allusions weave entangles many who have seen this play in a mysterious enchantment that invites interpretation. The very multiplicity of themes and evocations is also essential to the power of a drama that expands its own dimensions through a dynamic of parable. Unfolding through multiple reversals, questioning its own premises while challenging the expectations of its hearers, The Elephant Man grows larger as we experience it and invites the audience to enlarge its own critical perceptions and sympathies. In its parabolic movement, Pomerance’s play extends itself beyond its leftist critique as well as its absurdist anguish to offer a slender opening for transcendent religious hope. These surprising expansions make The Elephant Man of considerable interest as dramatic parable to students of the modern theater.
In the history of the freak John Merrick, popularly known as the Elephant Man, Pomerance found a subject that invited both leftist and absurdist interpretations, but finally eluded them. Merrick was first of all the archetypal social victim of the Victorian city—a misshapen child of the workhouse who eventually sought out the circus as the only means of earning his livelihood. Exploited, banned as ‘‘indecent,’’ and at length abandoned by his managers, Merrick was fortuitously rescued by the young surgeon Mr. Frederick Treves, then rising in his profession. Treves brought Merrick to the London Hospital to study the incurable disorder (neurofibromatosis) that had made a ‘‘chaotic anatomical wilderness’’ of his body. But the scientist also sought to cure the creature’s sense of humiliation and to make him ‘‘a man like others.’’
Treves’s The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, published thirty years after the experience, tells an affecting rags-to-riches story of Merrick’s last years at the London Hospital (1886–1890). It is well known that his aristocratic circle of late Victorians studied, domesticated, and exalted the Elephant Man, a strange cult figure altogether suiting the needs peculiar to the fin de siecle. Like Little Nell in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (which forty years earlier had given impetus in the nineteenth century to this sort of worship), Merrick was perceived as a figure of saintly suffering ‘‘ennobled’’ by troubles which he never resented, always forgave. Treves’s account suggests the tone of this worship:
[the Elephant Man] had passed through the fire and had come out unscathed. . . . He showed himself to be a gentle, affectionate and lovable creature, as amiable as a happy woman, free from any trace of cynicism or resentment, without a grievance and without an unkind word for anyone. I have never heard him complain. I have never heard him deplore his ruined life or resent the treatment he had received at the hands of callous keepers. His journey through life had been indeed along a via dolorosa, the road had been uphill all the way, and now, when the night was at its blackest and the way most steep, he had suddenly found himself, as it were, in a friendly inn, bright with light and warm with welcome. His gratitude to those about him was pathetic in its sincerity and eloquent in the childlike simplicity with which it was expressed.
If Treves seems to protest too much, later he allows himself to suggest that the ‘‘accidental’’ death of the Elephant Man by asphyxiation was an act of suicide. This veiled possibility seems to have made it all the more necessary after his death that Merrick become a religious emblem, shoring up his benefactors’ belief in themselves as vessels of ‘‘the mercy of God,’’ a God whom they did not otherwise honor. Despite his physical and social entrapments, however, Merrick remains an appealing figure. All the accounts, including Ashley Montagu’s 1972 book, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, persuasively present him as an afflicted man who transcended his conditions and possessed his soul.
Out of these materials, Pomerance has constructed an imaginative work that is considerably more than historical drama, although The Elephant Man could be studied alone for its remarkable display of late Victorian attitudes: the triumphal spirit of nineteenth-century science, with its undercurrent of anxiety about beastly origins; the hubris of Empire, with its high-minded cant about the ‘‘inferior races’’; a callous social engineering, pursued in the same spirit of the Mechanical Age that produced social victims like Merrick; the retrenchment of religious orthodoxy, behind invocations to Duty and a hypocritical sexual code; the new idealizing of the sensual Pre-Raphaelite woman; the fatalism of ‘‘Hap’’ in a Godforsaken universe; the poetry of religion replacing religion; the late Romanticist cult of the victimized artist; and the aristocratic voyeurism of the Decadence, with its cultivation of hothouse curiosities and strange behaviors a rebours. Oscar Wilde another elephantine ‘‘freak’’ of the period who suffered from public opinion, had protested in ‘‘The Decay of Lying’’ (1889) his contemporaries’ ‘‘monstrous worship of facts’’ and ridiculed the unimaginative writer who ‘‘is to be found at the Librairie Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his subject.’’ Pomerance’s reading, on the contrary, is genuine recherche; he has drawn upon the Treves/ Montagu biographic materials not just to ground his play in their facts, but to discover useable dramatic tensions within their unintended fictions.
As Leslie Fiedler has suggested, the stories we tell about mutations reflect our needs to fit their differences into some apprehensible design. The Elephant Man’s benefactors and Merrick himself responded to his freakish nature by designing stories, drawn upon culture myths, that inadequately accounted for it. Pomerance, sensitive to the allure of such coherences, reflects skeptically in his play on the earlier accounts of Merrick’s beautiful spirit and of his captors’ beneficence; the play also emphasizes certain clues in these accounts in order to heighten the contradictions in the Elephant Man’s struggle for survival in society. But if Pomerance goes beyond historical reports in these ways, he confirms unexpectedly the central intuition they share: he too is fascinated by the mystery of Merrick’s being. Mingling skepticism with wonder, Pomerance’s version of the story is neither the product of late Victorian myth-making nor a further act of twentieth-century demythologizing, but a dramatic parable that seems to have emerged from the playwright’s surprising encounter with his ‘‘subject.’’
The evocation of wonder is remarkable, because a ‘‘problem-solving’’ language and method permeate the play. In a largely cryptic interview with the New York Times, Pomerance has called his approach to theater ‘‘left-rationalist’’: ‘‘If you point out an error and appeal for the reason,’’ he explains, ‘‘then that is a step in the right direction.’’ Often the clipped, wry, ironic language of the play employs the forms of logic to expose errors and appeal for reasons. In this idiom, the wise naif Merrick is the dialectical questioner of social injustice; but since he is deformed by this society, he is also put forward himself as ‘‘proof,’’ as the central exhibit in the play’s argument against the present social order. Yet at the end of the play, the ‘‘benighted’’ Sir Frederick confesses that scientific ‘‘observation, practice, (and) deduction’’ have led him to ‘‘conclusions’’ that expose the inadequacy of his rationalism for providing either truth or consolation. Without diminishing its political impact (stronger in the London production), the play shows us that a problem-solving logic is insufficient for head or heart.
What, then, does the case of the Elephant Man ‘‘prove’’? If the playwright’s only project were to ‘‘point’’ to Merrick’s shaping as ‘‘error,’’ the socially deformed man we encounter in the second half of the play would merely have been reduced to an imitation man, and the play would offer nothing more than the cynical conclusions of Brecht’s song in A Man’s a Man:
You can do with a human being what you will. Take him apart like a car, rebuild him bit by bit—As you will see, he has nothing to lose by it.
The miracle of John Merrick is that, although he is rebuilt by the social engineers, he is not utterly ‘‘robbed’’ (Treves’s word) of the mystery of his being. In communicating this mystery on stage, The Elephant Man surpasses its own critical ‘‘left-rationalist’’ formulations.
Interestingly, this self-questioning is one of the ways Pomerance’s play seems not to depart from, but to be indebted to the early work of Brecht, who elaborated an elephant/man joke in A Man’s a Man and The Elephant Calf. Both plays, which Pomerance adapted for the Hampstead Theatre in 1975, contain dozens of lines and songs that might gloss the later play on the Brechtian theme of society’s tyranny over the individual soul and the destructive shaping of the Model Citizen. In The Elephant Calf, Brecht’s critical theater playfully undermines itself with the self-conscious admission that ‘‘Art can prove anything.’’ Rushing willy-nilly to demonstrate that the baby elephant on trial really ‘‘is a man’’ and a matricide, one character urges:
It is unprecedented, which I am also ready to prove, in fact I will prove anything you like, and will contend even more than that, and never be put off but always insist on what I see the way I see it, and prove it, too, for, I ask you: what is anything without proof?
The Elephant Calf, with its mockery of a trial that is also a play, is a burlesque of theatrical proof; visually, it is theater ‘‘seen from the side,’’ so that backstage business is literally exposed. (Brecht’s staging device, with a theater curtain at a right angle to the audience dividing the platform into a visible before/behind theater on the stage, is borrowed for an early circus scene in The Elephant Man.) Robert Brustein has argued that Brecht’s plays reveal the inadequacy of their own frontal attacks on capitalist society by pointing to errors without providing persuasive reasons:
On the surface, . . . [Brecht’s revolt] is directed against the hypocrisy, avarice, and injustice of bourgeois society; in the depths, against the disorder of the universe and the chaos in the human soul. Brecht’s social revolt is objective, active, remedial, realistic; his existential revolt is subjective, passive, irremediable, and Romantic. The conflict between these two modes of rebellion issues in the dialectic of Brecht’s plays. . . .
A similar dialectic is present in The Elephant Man. This play does not make its impact only as a leftist morality play, but goes behind or under or through this ‘‘stage’’ to reach for unsettling questions about ‘‘the disorder of the universe and the chaos in the human soul.’’ Stanley Kauffmann, among others, has identified the play’s ‘‘most suggestive’’ theme as ‘‘the arbitrariness of existence, posed against a hunger for design.’’ Near the end of the play Pomerance does plant proofs for an absurdist interpretation, but, as I shall argue later, the production undermines these too. To become a dramatic parable with a religious dimension, The Elephant Man reaches beyond its own absurdist/leftist dialectic.
Before offering an analysis of the play’s structure, let me summarize here my general conclusion and set forth some definitions. Like the heuristic modern fictions Frank Kermode has described in The Sense of an Ending, Pomerance’s play overturns its own formulas and ‘‘disconfirms’’ audience expectations in order to create the sense that his dramatic fiction, through these repeated reversals, is ‘‘finding something out for us, something real.’’ This heuristic pattern is also characteristic of parabolic structures. Here Kermode’s more recent writing on parable is less helpful than John Dominic Crossan’s theology of story in The Dark Interval and In Parables, which draws upon the work of Levi-Strauss to offer a rather specialized account of parabolic teaching in the Gospels. Crossan defines parable not only as a form of narrative, but also as a story event: it is an ‘‘event’’ not because something happens in the parable’s plot, but because something happens between this plot and the story the hearers expected to hear. The parables maker’s structure of expression, says Crossan, confronts the hearers’ different structure of expectation. (As parable begins to reveal the kind of story it is, a hearer’s immediate response may be: ‘‘‘I don’t know what you mean by that story but I’m certain I don’t like it.’’’) Parable, then, requires an audience, is inherently dramatic, and turns on a surprise which draws in the hearers as critical participants. Through their critical participation, they are transformed—or they reject the parable, and effectively exclude themselves from the Kingdom.
Crossan describes parable’s structure as beginning with conventional expectations in a setting familiar to the listeners, with accepted values intact. Then an unexpected force (an ‘‘advent’’) enters into the story to overturn its terms of value (such as rich/ poor), at that moment reversing the hearers’ conventional expectations: their prejudices, common sense, cherished ethics, world view—in a word, their ‘‘myths.’’ Reversal challenges the hearers to new action, but the story’s ending does not synthesize all its dissonances into an explicit lesson that tells them precisely what to do, as a moral example story would. In the context of Crossan’s theology of story, he argues that in the New Testament parables and in parabolic moments of human lives, the Kingdom of God arrives in sovereign freedom to ‘‘shatter the deep structure of our accepted world’’ and open up a ‘‘new world’’ and unforeseen relationships. Crossan acknowledges that people cannot live without ‘‘myths,’’ but ‘‘To be human and to remain open to transcendental experience demands a willingness to be ‘parabled. . . .’’’
Underlying The Elephant Man is this definition of what it means to be human; to become nonhuman is to live completely enclosed by myths, such as the late Victorian myth of the ‘‘Elephant Man.’’ While Pomerance’s play cannot be claimed as a Christian parable (even with Merrick as its Christ figure), its dramatic power derives from its internal dynamics of parable (Crossan’s dialectic of advent/reversal/ action), as well as from its parabolic impact on the theater audience, whose conventional responses of judgment and sympathy are challenged by the play. On stage, Merrick himself is parabolic, overturning the other characters’ expectations of him and of themselves; in turn, they are parabolic for him. (As Crossan says, ‘‘It takes two to parable.’’) In Merrick’s transforming relationships with Sir Frederick Treves, the actress Mrs. Kendal, and the churchman Bishop Walsham How, established barriers of thought, language, and feeling are shattered—at least briefly— and unforeseen human possibilities emerge for simple kindness, more thoughtful understanding, and sensitivity to suffering as well as to beauty in unexpected places. In the growing compassion of some characters, and in Merrick’s rare epiphanies of harmony and loveliness, a barely intimated hope for community is renewed out of the social ‘‘swamp,’’ and the mystery of being is momentarily revealed. Through all these transformations, Pomerance’s drama becomes parabolic for itself, questioning its own leftist and absurdist formulations which exclude divine presence. Because of these several parabolic dimensions, The Elephant Man at length emerges neither as a leftist morality play nor as an absurd drama, but as a kind of modern mystery play through which we glimpse the possibility of a transcendent realm of being. To understand how Pomerance’s parabolic structures work to make this happen, we must turn to the text as interpreted in the New York production directed by Jack Hofsiss.
The Elephant Man opens with a ridiculously complacent Freddie Treves presenting himself to the audience as a newly arrived surgeon at the London Hospital who relishes his ‘‘excessive blessings’’:
A happy childhood in Dorset. A scientist in an age of science. In an English age, an Englishman.
These concords are brutally disrupted as the scene shifts across Whitechapel Road. Before a garish carnival booth, a rotund manager hawks his traveling mutation show as ‘‘. . . Mother Nature uncorseted and in malignant rage!’’ But the main attraction is the Elephant Man’s suffering from exposure to his fellow men. Ross cries out:
Tuppence only, step in and see: This side of the grave, John Merrick has no hope nor expectation of relief. In every sense his situation is desperate. His physical agony is exceeded only by his mental anguish, a despised creature without consolation. Tuppence only, step in and see! To live with his physical hideousness, incapacitating deformities and unremitting pain is trial enough, but to be exposed to the cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and disgust by all who behold him is even more difficult to bear. Tuppence only, step in and see! For in order to survive, Merrick forces himself to suffer these humiliations, I repeat, humiliations, in order to survive, thus he exposes himself to crowds who pay to gape and yawp at this freak of nature, the Elephant Man.
(Ironically, Pomerance has lifted this barker’s spiel almost verbatim from the humanitarian sentiments of Ashley Montagu in his Study in Human Dignity.) The voyeuristic appeals of Ross are rapidly succeeded by the subtler cruelty of the brash young lecturer in anatomy, who rents the Elephant Man for the day. Back at the hospital with his anatomical exhibit, Treves lectures while pointing with his cane to projected photographs of the real Merrick (and the past-tense words he uses come directly from the real Sir Frederick’s journal):
The most striking feature about him was his enormous head. Its circumference was about that of a man’s waist. From the brow there projected a huge bony mass like a loaf, while from the back of his head hung a bag of spongy fungous-looking skin. . . . The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever. . . . The right arm was of enormous size and shapeless. . . . The right hand was large and clumsy—a fin or paddle rather than a hand. . . . The other arm was remarkable by contrast. It was not only normal, but was moreover a delicately shaped limb covered with a fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied. . . . The lower limbs. . . . were unwieldy, dropsical-looking, and grossly misshapen.
These opening speeches are worth quoting at length, because they suggest how Pomerance is sensitive to the formative or deforming effects of language in ways his predecessors were not when they told the Elephant Man story. The New York production brings out these effects most vividly. During this lecture-demonstration, waiting in a patch of light to Treves’s side, is a handsome actor who is Apollonian in physique, loincloth-clad, and cruciform in posture, with arms angled slightly from his body and palms toward the audience. As the lecture proceeds, the actor begins to ‘‘present’’ the Elephant Man character by slowly contorting his straight form until he has become ‘‘crooked,’’ as though under the deforming pressure of Treves’s anatomical jargon and its implicit normative values.
If this initiating scene portends Merrick’s slow crucifixion by many kinds of civilizing languages in the play, it also intimates that he will somehow survive this torture of conditioning. The twisted posture that the actor maintains throughout the play never allows us wholly to forget the shocking photographs, but what the audience actually sees is an elegant theatrical paradox: a human figure imitating an inhuman creature, or in the Platonic terms the play invokes, the essential Form of a god with the mere Appearance of mortal being. Because Pomerance has chosen not to paint and pad his freak literalistically, Merrick—ever in a double figure— reminds us of the ‘‘other’’ dimension of beauty and wholeness that is nearly absent from the ugly and broken world the play exposes. One cannot choose to see him only as pathetically lamed, twisted, and barely articulate: the actor playing Merrick is also a symbol of transcendence always present on the stage. And it is important to the play’s intimation of hope that we look critically through this symbol as we watch Merrick’s deformation by the other characters, including their appropriation of the Elephant Man as a metaphor for their condition.
Swift melodramatic scenes follow the lecture demonstration: Merrick, back on the streets, is insulted, deported, beaten, robbed, abandoned. Yet Merrick believes in ‘‘happiness,’’ and shows he is susceptible of compassion for other victims and capable of wit in the face of brutality. When he meets up with Treves again, the doctor takes him ‘‘home’’ to the London Hospital to stay. Here Treves teaches the uncouth creature to bathe himself and to repeat such ordering sentences as, ‘‘Rules make us happy because they are for our own good.’’ Pomerance’s implicit message in this scene is Peter Handke’s explicit one in Kaspar: ‘‘You have a sentence of which you can make a model for yourself . . . which will exorcise every disorder from you.’’ It is just what Merrick needs, one might think, and certainly what his keepers need for this potentially disruptive patient: ‘‘You can quiet yourself with sentences . . . ,’’ says Kaspar; ‘‘you can be nice and quiet.’’ With some difficulty, Merrick learns to imitate his betters, yet this naif/victim knows too much to succumb totally to the imitation of their sentences or their myths. When Treves defends the peremptory firing of a staring hospital attendant as a ‘‘merciful’’ act for Merrick’s good, the freak questions his keeper (in the ‘‘left-rationalist’’ manner): ‘‘If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?’’ Such early lines seem to promise that Merrick will be the little child who leads the others to transcend their egoistic naivete and civilized barbarism.
From the beginning, John Merrick is a parabolic presence in Treves’s life, causing him to revalue his beliefs and at length to abandon them as inhuman and untrue. Other relations too are developing along these lines in the first half of the play. Most important is Merrick’s encounter with a woman. Treves has hired the celebrated actress, Madge Kendal, to provide the civilizing fiction of companionship for the Elephant Man, from whom other women less practiced in the arts of illusion have run in horror. Treves’s shallow expectations and Mrs. Kendal’s are completely overthrown. Despite her initial repugnance, which she controls at first behind a tough professional facade, Merrick’s beauty of spirit quickly charms her into authentic response. Their encounters form the most moving scenes in the play. ‘‘Sometimes I think my head is so big,’’ he confides to her, ‘‘because it is so full of dreams. . . . Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?’’ When he shares his strangely wise interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, which he has been reading, the actress (as well as the audience) discovers his sensibility to be ‘‘extraordinary’’. Merrick’s unaffected humanity forces Mrs. Kendal, who has been a stage Juliet, to abandon her glibly theatrical myth of ‘‘romance’’ for the reality of a courageous friendship, for agape if not yet eros. Entering the existentially open, potentially dangerous territory of this out-of-bounds relation, Kendal and Merrick have stepped into the uncharted realm of parabolic action. It is taking this step that makes it possible for Pomerance’s drama in its first half to move through and past its initial rationalist social analysis. For without love, Merrick asks simply, ‘‘why should there be a play?’’
When this pair shake hands (in the New York production, when she chooses to take not his well formed left hand but his right ‘‘fin or paddle rather than a hand’’), and when they nearly touch again later, the play seems to be reaching for moments of apocalyptic transformation in the marriage of different realms of being. These glimpses of what Kendal calls ‘‘Paradise’’ happen outside the roles prescribed by the London Hospital world, a false Victorian earthly paradise; and the couple’s poetic exchanges likewise move beyond the practiced formulas of polite discourse, the routine ‘‘I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance’’ that rings metallically through many social encounters. Yet some kind of society is clearly necessary for John Merrick so that his ‘‘dreams’’ can get out, and indeed the others need to know them. ‘‘Before I spoke with people,’’ Merrick confesses, ‘‘I did not think of all these things because there was no one to bother to think them for. Now things just come out of my mouth which are true.’’ At the close of the play’s first half, Treves proudly announces the great ‘‘success’’ of the Kendal-Merrick connection. He does not seem to realize that the human values which Merrick’s advent has brought into his world have caused the word ‘‘success’’ to bear a new meaning, even on his lips. With this triumph, the audience’s expectations are high for more than Merrick’s induction into normality.
As the second half of the production begins, culture myths have begun to reassert their power, and Merrick is dressed for the old success. Artistically gifted, he is building a model of St. Phillip’s Church and explicates its Platonic religious allegory: the cathedral ‘‘is not stone and steel and glass; it is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud. So I make my imitation of an imitation’’. Yet it is no longer so clear that ‘‘up’’ is Merrick’s direction; the ‘‘ANXIETIES OF THE SWAMP’’ (the title of Scene XIII), of this decaying society, are already sucking him in (as they suck in the colonized victims in such early Brecht plays as In the Swamp). As the Hofsiss production conceives the scene (XI), theatrical caricatures of ‘‘the best society’’ now crowd the stage space, diminishing Merrick’s presence. The lavish gifts they bear in a Christmas pilgrimage to the London Hospital are useless artifacts meant as theatrical props for the myth of the Elephant Man’s humanity, as Kendal observes; the two-dimensional figures are the ‘‘best’’ people whom the excessively-dimensioned Merrick must imitate to become recognized as a man among men. Now in evening dress, Merrick steps respectfully into the background to receive their formulated homage: ‘‘I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance’’; they are eager to greet the phenomenon they think they have made of him. (As A Man’s a Man would describe this transformation: ‘‘At first, it was a regular elephant, later it was a fake . . . ’’.)
‘‘Born’’ into this fake society at Christmas, Merrick seems to have become their domesticated messiah. In this role, he must now accept the others’ powerful, contradictory dreams into his bursting head. So one by one the figures come forward to tell just how Merrick seems ‘‘almost like me.’’ He mirrors an ‘‘Example to us all,’’ says one who feigns to admire models of Self-Help, the preeminent Victorian creed. Mrs. Kendal describes him as ‘‘gentle, almost feminine, . . . a serious artist in his way’’; Bishop How greets him as a devoutly religious doubter, like himself; Carr Gomm, the militantly atheist hospital administrator (a sort of Charles Kingsley for the opposing team), respects John for knowing practically ‘‘what side his bread is buttered on’’ and counting his blessings. To others, Merrick is a ‘‘Piccadilly exquisite’’ or discreet confidant. Treves sees his protege as ‘‘curious, compassionate, concerned about the world, well, rather like myself . . . ’’. But like the others, who come forward in a second cycle of confessions, Treves also acknowledges his darker self in Merrick. If Merrick is the dream-Christ who affirms their complacences, he is also a suffering servant whom they need to show them their other dimensions as human beings. In either role, however, he is an exploited symbol, loaded with their meanings rather than encouraged to speak his own.
In these equivocal roles, Merrick becomes implicitly a critic of their lives, and the impact of this criticism is felt most powerfully at this point through the change in Treves, who emerges as Merrick’s double. No longer the caricatured scientific scientist, Treves confides to the audience that John Merrick is ‘‘visibly worse than 86–87. That, as he rises higher in the consolations of society, he gets visibly more grotesque is proof definitive he is like me.’’ At the center of the play, the successful doctor and popular patient have arrived at exactly the same point. Sir Frederick’s transformation has begun with the advent of Merrick into his world. But the doctor’s changing sense of what limited value ‘‘proof definitive’’ has, forces him to admit that he can ‘‘make no sense of’’ their shared condition.
From this point onward, the play could be considered anticlimactic. It might be conjectured that Pomerance, having created in Merrick such a remarkable person, does not then know, any more than his other characters, what to do with him. But it is also possible, and I think more persuasive, to observe at this point in the play that there is a deliberate complication of its issues, even as the stage space becomes more crowded, and that our critical and sympathetic responses to Treves and Merrick become less easy and certain. The beauty which the play does win from its experience of human beastliness emerges only as the drama’s contradictions are heightened and important reversals have taken place.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352
The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance, is easily the best play thus far of the 1978–79 New York theatre season. (No one need remind me that that could be taken as a somewhat left-handed compliment.)
Currently at the new Theatre of St. Peter’s Church in the Citicorp Building, but about to transfer to a larger, more ‘‘commercial’’ milieu, it has its flaws but offers the most compelling evening of drama in New York today.
Pomerance has based his play on an actual ‘‘freak’’ of the Victorian era, John Merrick, who suffered from a mysterious and incurable illness that caused his limbs to become twisted and resulted in apparently hideous skin excretions. The title, The Elephant Man, was the one applied to him during the period when he worked in a traveling freak show in England.
The playwright, who is an American, though the work was first produced in England, shows Merrick being taken into a London hospital in Whitechapel, where he becomes one of the outstanding curiosities of the British society of the period, the 1880s. In 21 scenes, Pomerance portrays how this deformed man (brilliantly played by Philip Anglim) comes under the wing of Dr. Frederick Treves (Kevin Conway) after he is abandoned by his freak-show manager for being too grotesque even for such audiences. Treves is unable to cure him, but writes about him in a manner that makes him almost fashionable and results in philanthropic grants.
Perhaps the worst thing he does, however—and this would seem to be Pomerance’s point—is to try to change him into someone who is conventionally acceptable, someone who will be ‘‘like us.’’ It obviously cannot work, and the playwright becomes a bit too obvious at moments. But The Elephant Man deserves the fine reviews it has received and the attention of anyone who calls himself a ‘‘serious theatregoer.’’ The production, by Jack Hofsiss, could do with a little work before it transfers, but this is relatively minor. It offers the sort of challenging drama rarely seen in the New York theatre.
Source: Catharine Hughes. ‘‘Capsule Comments,’’ in America, Vol. 140, no. 7, February 24, 1979, p. 135.