Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

The historical Merrick was born with Proteus syndrome (not the inherited disorder neurofibromatosis as has been suggested). Although never named by his doctors or mentioned in the play, the disease is central to Merrick’s biography and Bernard Pomerance’s drama. Proteus syndrome created the extreme deformities of face and form that gave Merrick his cruel nickname and led to his virtual enslavement as a sideshow curiosity.

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Throughout his tenure at the hospital, Merrick builds an elaborate scale model of St. Phillip’s Church. The model is the play’s dominant symbol, for it represents Merrick’s attempt to reconstruct himself in a form that will be seen as beautiful by those he hopes to please. Merrick recognizes himself and others as actors, all playing roles. He plans his social role as carefully as he plans his model. Merrick says of himself and the model: “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.”

Another theme, the arbitrary distinction between deviance and normality, is brought home in scene 12, titled “Who Does He Remind You Of?” In this scene, the main characters comment on the character traits they recognize in Merrick. Mrs. Kendal sees him as gentle, feminine, cheerful, honest, a serious artist, “almost like me.” Bishop Walsham How proclaims Merrick religious and devout, while Gomm thinks Merrick a practical man, like himself. Treves describes Merrick as curious, compassionate, and concerned about the world, “rather like myself.” The scene ends with Merrick adding a piece to his model of St. Phillip’s, as if adding another stone to the fragile edifice of normality and acceptance he is building for himself.

Throughout the play, Merrick’s inner nature emerges. In sharp contrast to those around him, he is kind, patient, loving, and sympathetic. He is a deep thinker and philosopher, seeing what others cannot and expressing what others dare not. For example, when Gomm fires a hospital porter for staring at Merrick, Merrick considers the punishment harsh, but Treves insists that Gomm is a merciful man. “If your mercy is so cruel,” asks Merrick, “what do you have for justice?”

The themes of vulnerability and exploitation pervade the story. Merrick is victimized but escapes the scars of victimization through the strength and beauty of his inner being. Ross, on the other hand, is greed personified. He exploits any person or situation that he can, without concern for the toll his avarice takes on himself or others. Treves, by far the most complex character in the drama, is both exploiter and exploited. While he takes advantage of Merrick, he himself is taken advantage of by a society that rewards those who play by the rules with fame and success, while at the same time stripping them of their integrity and conscience.

On the surface, the play is about Merrick, but the lesson the audience takes home comes from Treves. He despairs that his society is sick with the social “deformities” brought on by “unlimited resources and the ruthlessness of privilege.” His own success in such a milieu plagues him, and he is sick at heart. He recognizes that his charity is self-serving and patronizing. His angst makes the audience wonder whether they, like Treves, wear a mask of civility to conceal their own contorted souls.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Alienation and Loneliness
On account of his disease, Merrick is completely isolated from normal society: first in the freak show, and later, in his quarters in London Hospital. When Treves meets him, he is treated as a freak and in dire...

(The entire section contains 1055 words.)

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