The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Elephant Man depicts the difficult life of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, a real person who lived from 1862 to 1890. Because of his extreme bodily and facial deformities, he was nicknamed the Elephant Man. Until rescued by the physician Frederick Treves and given a home at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Merrick earned his living as a freak attraction in a traveling sideshow. The play’s twenty-one scenes depict selected episodes from the last six years of Merrick’s life and emphasize Merrick’s strength of spirit and the hypocrisy of Victorian English society.

The action begins not with Merrick, but with Treves, who considers himself a man blessed with a career, a home, a family, and financial success. The audience can contrast Treves’s life with that of Merrick, who is shown trapped at the opposite end of the social scale: Merrick’s tumor-ridden face, contorted body, and distorted speech doom him to a life of abuse and ridicule.

Merrick’s manager, Ross, who claims to have taken Merrick from the workhouse where he was abandoned at the age of three, robs and beats Merrick and confines him like an animal in darkness. He advertises Merrick to paying customers as a creature whose “physical agony is exceeded only by his mental anguish.” Merrick is no less an object of morbid fascination at a medical meeting, where Treves exhibits him while lecturing on Merrick’s multiple handicaps.

Ross abandons Merrick, complaining of too little profit from his display. Treves, performing what Bishop Walsham How calls his “Christian duty,” persuades the London Hospital’s director, Carr Gomm, to give Merrick permanent sanctuary. Charitable...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Elephant Man is a play with little plot. The story is revealed through snapshots in time. The episodes are brief, stylized, and sometimes complemented by theatrical devices, such as three women “Pinheads.” Ostensibly an act from Merrick’s freak show, the Pinheads act as the chorus in a Greek tragedy. They comment on the characters and action and perform as agents of fate in shifting Merrick from his upright posture into the recumbent sleep position that kills him.

In most performances, the settings are impressionist, achieved with a minimum of backdrops and props: Pomerance mandates little in the way of stage setting. For example, Ross’s sideshow in scene 2 requires nothing more to set the stage than a storefront poster heralding the Elephant Man attraction.

The lead role of Merrick is demanding. While Pomerance advises that no actor should attempt to simulate Merrick’s near-unintelligible speech, the role requires sustaining a contorted body posture and skewed facial alignment for the entire performance. The actor must skillfully meld Merrick’s outer ugliness and his inner beauty.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Elephant Man is a biography drama whose title is the sideshow term that was applied to Joseph Merrick (1863-1890), who was so hideously malformed by an incurable and then-unknown disease (now diagnosed as neurofibromatosis) that he was cruelly exploited as a traveling show oddity. Merrick was rescued from such exhibition by the anatomist Dr. Frederick Treves, who arranged safe shelter for him in London Hospital, Whitechapel, which became Merrick’s home for six years before his death in 1890. He became a curio studied by scientists and visited by members fashionable society, who found him both gracious and intelligent. Treves’s published account of Merrick’s life sparked Bernard Pomerance’s interest in the life of this man, whom he calls “John Merrick” in this drama.

In twenty-two short scenes identified by title placard, The Elephant Man, in order to tell its story effectively, employs a presentational style identified as Epic Theater. This form, largely attributed to German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), presents a series of incidents without the restrictions of conventional theatrical construction, permitting a strong appeal to the spectators’ reason. In the play’s early scenes, Treves sees Merrick in a London sideshow and “borrows” him to be the subject of a medical lecture. (In this lecture scene, slides of the actual “Elephant Man” are shown, since the playwright stipulates that the actor...

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The Elephant Man

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

John Merrick (1863-1890) was most likely given the label “Elephant Man” by a shrewd carnival pitchman in order to lure the customers, but his actual physical appearance defied such a simple metaphorical description. In the scene that introduces Merrick to the audience, his doctor and benefactor, Frederick Treves, describes him more concretely: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 surface of which was comparable to brown cauliflower Another mass of boneprotruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out, and making the mouth a wide slobbering aperture. The nose was merely a lump of flesh. The back was horrible because from it hung, as far down as the middle of the thigh, huge sack-like masses of flesh covered by the same loathsome cauliflower stain. The right arm was of enormous size and shapeless. The right hand was large and clumsy—a fin or paddle. 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. From the chest hung a bag of the same repulsive flesh. The lower limbs had the characters of the deformed armunwieldy, dropsical-looking, and grossly misshapen. There arose from the fungous skin growths a very sickening stench which was hard to tolerate.

The facts are these: Treves discovered Merrick in 1880 in a freak show, studied him briefly, and then sent him and his manager off with a business card. Two years later, when Merrick was found abandoned and destitute in London, Treves’s card was the only identification on his person. This led authorities to the doctor, who agreed to take responsibility for the apparently imbecilic freak. Once permanently housed at the London Hospital, however, Merrick proved to be a sensitive, intelligent, artistic individual who, under Treves’s tutelage, emerged as a social being, even a minor celebrity. Always in precarious health, however, Merrick died unexpectedly in his sleep. Perhaps it was the result of an attempt to sleep “normally,” a posture which, by forcing the full weight of the oversized head onto the weak neck and spine, caused a fatal dislocation.

Treves chronicled Merrick’s story in his moving, beautifully written memoirs, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923). In 1971, Ashley Montagu reprinted Treves’s essay along with an extended medical, psychological, and philosophical analysis of the elephant man phenomenon. Dramatist Bernard Pomerance, in turn, became fascinated by the story of Merrick’s plight and wrote a play that has been an outstanding commercial and critical success both in London and on Broadway; during its opening season in New York, it won all of the major theater awards, including three Tonys, three Obies, the Drama Desk Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

However, for all of its power and poignancy, the story of the Elephant Man would seem to hold little promise as a subject for any creative interpretation, let alone a hit play. How could an audience be expected to identify and sympathize with a character so physically repulsive that public viewing of him was banned and the mere sight of him provoked riots? How could the feelings, ideas, and experiences of such a man be communicated when the nature of his disfigurement rendered him “utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever” as well as slurred his speech to the point where he could be understood only by those who learned his personal language? Pomerance’s answer is not to try to tell Merrick’s story, but to write a play about it. The Elephant Man works in the theater because of the adroit, sensitive ways in which the dramatist theatricalizes his material.

The play is structured in twenty-one brief, well-paced scenes. In Brechtian fashion, a projected title prefaces each scene (“Police side with Imbecile Against the Crowd,” “Even on the Niger and Ceylon, Not This,” “Mercy and Justice Elude Our Minds and Actions”). The atmosphere is fortified by a cellist, dressed in tails, who sits at the side of the stage playing Bach and Elgar. Most importantly, the actor playing Merrick does the role without makeup and with only minimal gestures and slightly stylized speech to suggest the Elephant Man’s impairments of movement and voice. “Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically—if it were possible—” the playwright states, “would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.”

The Treves lecture that introduces Merrick is illustrated by a series of slides depicting the original. These grotesque images must satisfy the audience’s view of Merrick’s deformity. A tension is created in the viewer’s mind between the humanity of the freak, as seen in the “normal” actor, and the awfulness of his real physical appearance, as projected in the slides. The audience’s focus is turned away from Merrick’s deformity toward his relationship to society in general, to other individuals, and to himself. He thus emerges from the play less as a freak than as an outsider and a kind of noble savage.

The aspect of Merrick’s personality that most impressed Ashley Montagu was his sweet, affirmative disposition. Despite his...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The setting for The Elephant Man is late Victorian England; an understanding of this period is important for understanding the...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Alienation Effect
The alienation effect was proposed by Bertolt Brecht who...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1880s: Queen Victoria has named herself Empress of India and British Imperialism is at its height. Great Britain and France...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the state of medicine in London in the 1880s. What medical options were available for the poor and for those who did not fit into...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Elephant Man was made into a successful film in 1980. The film starred Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud,...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1972), written by Ashley Montagu, is a biography of John Merrick.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive. A review in the New York Post, April 20, 1979.

Belli, Angela....

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Guernsey, Otis L., Jr. The Burns Mantle Theatre Yearbook: The Best Plays of 1978-1979. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1979.

Howell, Michael, and Peter Ford. The True History of “The Elephant Man.” 3d ed. London: Allison and Busby, 2001.

Montagu, Ashley. “The Elephant Man”: A Study in Human Dignity. Lafayette, La.: Acadian House, 1995.

Treves, Frederick. “The Elephant Man” and Other Reminiscences. London: Cassell, 1923.

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