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.
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...
(The entire section is 580 words.)