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...

(The entire section is 698 words.)