The Play

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698

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.

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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 contributions from newspaper readers will pay for Merrick’s lodging, but living arrangements prove difficult. Although Nurse Sandwich has cared for lepers in the Far East, she is so repulsed by Merrick’s countenance that she bolts from his room.

In his new life, Merrick is as much on display as in his old life. The royalty and aristocrats who visit him in the London Hospital offer pleasantries and gifts that inflate their own egos as much as they do that of Merrick. Merrick, ever the innocent, receives their attentions with pleasure and views their noblesse oblige as helping him attain the normality and acceptance he craves. Ross returns, demanding repossession of Merrick because high society has suddenly embraced Merrick, and his moneymaking potential has been enhanced. Merrick rejects his proposals.

Unique among the play’s characters is the actress, Mrs. Kendal. She alone responds to Merrick as an equal, and in recognizing and appreciating the repressed sexual side of his nature, she undresses for him in scene 14. “It is the most beautiful sight I have seen,” says Merrick, but Treves bans Mrs. Kendal from the hospital and chastises Merrick for unacceptable behavior.

Merrick spends his days reading works by William Shakespeare, conversing with his visitors, and building an intricate model of St. Phillip’s Church. Although Merrick’s quality of life improves, Treves’s quality of life deteriorates, and he finds himself trapped in a crisis of conscience. While teaching Merrick that “the rules” make people happy, Merrick observes that Treves cannot distinguish “between the assertion of authority and the charitable act of giving.” Treves is troubled by the pressure for conformity he sees in himself and his society: “I conclude that we have polished him [Merrick] like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch.”

Despite his social gains, Merrick’s physical limitations continue to plague him. His head is so enlarged and deformed that he must sleep with it on his knees. His health is, in fact, worsening, and Treves predicts Merrick’s heart will not long sustain him.

In scene 20,...

(The entire section contains 5037 words.)

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