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...