Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2007
Say what you want about the overemphasis on outward appearance in today’s culture, as animals who walk upright and have forward facing eyes human beings naturally rely on sight as a primary means of identifying each other and communicating. When we see something that is out of the ordinary, it frightens us, especially when we can’t explain it, so while we may shake our heads in righteous indignation over the reactions of our forefathers and mother at the sight of The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, it is likely that we would react much the same way in a similar situation. Remember that there was no explanation for Merrick’s condition, which we now believe is Proteus Syndrome. Merrick himself attributed his affliction to the fact that his mother was frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant with him, and the letter that Dr. F.C. Carr Gomm, administrator of London Hospital, placed in the London Times soliciting financial aid for Merrick was careful to assure the public that his condition was “through no fault of his own.” We are not the far even today from blaming certain afflictions on lifestyle choices of which we don’t approve. Until the last year’s of his life when Merrick’s case was widely publicized and doctors explained that he was not contagious or blighted by God for a life of sin, the general populous did not know what to make of him, and they were afraid.
The one thing that Bernard Pomerance’s award-winning 1979 play does not force you to do is look at the physical reality of Joseph Merrick, except in a few briefly shown slides. The character of John Merrick (the play is based on Sir Frederick Treves’ 1923 memoirs and Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity in which Merrick is called John) is played by an able-bodied actor who merely indicates the severe physical restrictions of Joseph Merrick’s reality. He also speaks clearly enough to be understood, which the real Merrick couldn’t. Pomerance requires this in the introductory note to his published script, stating that to really represent Joseph Merrick’s condition would be distracting from the story he is trying to tell. If you want that distraction you can watch David Lynch’s 1980 film, which is NOT based on Pomerance’s play but again on Treves’ memoir and Montagu’s book.
Pomerance wants you to look not at Merrick’s horribly deformed exterior, but at his soul, and he wants you to look and really see the people around him, especially Treves, a very successful abdominal surgeon who had two encounters with Merrick which changed both of their lives. They first met in 1884 when Merrick was appearing as a sideshow freak, a line of work he adopted willingly as an adult and at which he made excellent money and where he was, for the first time in his life, treated decently and not beaten. Merrick agreed to be examined and photographed by Treves at that time, and Treves gave lectures on Merrick’s condition to various august scientific bodies.
They met again in 1886, after sideshows had been outlawed in Britain. Merrick had moved to the Continent to try to continue his work, but had been robbed and left destitute by an unscrupulous manager in Belgium. Returning home with a bad bronchial infection that rendered his already distorted speech unintelligible, Merrick was mobbed by terrified Londoners in the Liverpool Street train station. He produced Treves’ card, which he had carefully saved, and the surgeon arrived to rescue him. Through the good offices of Treves and Gomm and an outpouring of financial support from all over Great Britain he was able to have a permanent home and good care in a little annex of London hospital until his death in 1890 at the age of 27.
The play covers this period between 1884-1890 because it is as much an examination of Treves’ soul as it is of Merrick’s.
Pomerance is most interested in what is seen and gives clear directions in the introduction to his script. The model church must be seen, Merrick must see Mrs. Kendal naked (well, she’s hardly naked at all here, but that is the playwright’s intent), the audience must see photographs of Merrick but the actor playing him must not be made-up or costumed to approximate Merrick’s deformity.
Pomerance has taken this most Victorian of tales and told it using not the verbose pseudo-realism we associate with that era, but the spare and confrontational early 20th century theatrical devices of Bertolt Brecht, in fact the set by Alley Morse reminded me strongly of the one used for TCHH’s production of Brecht’s “Gallileo” a few years back.
In the current production at Hubbard Hall directed by Kevin McGuire (who also plays Carr Gomm and a handful of those characters) most of the action takes place within a little circus ring, and at one point one of the seven actors in the cast is dressed as a ringmaster. Each of the brief scenes has a titled which is both projected and spoken. We are meant to remember that what we are watching is a show, presented for us to look at, and, if you are a theatre critic, to write about what you see. When we look we don’t always see what is actually shown or intended, but McGuire and Pomerance focus our attention very closely, in an almost cinematic way, on specific characters, events, and ideas.
This is aided by both McGuire’s decision to use the smallest possible cast to present the play and Morse’s spare set. Much is made of words, both the scene titles projected on the front of the Hubbard Hall balcony and the words inscribed over Merrick’s bed proclaiming him “The Fruit of Our Original Sin.” We are told what we are being shown and what we are to see, although sometimes in ingeniously obtuse ways.
The play works best when it sticks to its Brechtian format. In the few scenes where it veers closer to theatrical realism and characters engage in extended dialogue it loses its way.
I am familiar with the comedic work of Doug Ryan, who plays John Merrick, which is always splendid owing chiefly to his unabashed physicality. Imprisoned in Merrick’s bodily and facial deformities (Merrick was incapable of showing emotion on his face) Ryan is considerably reined in physically, but he rises to the challenge of making Merrick’s humanity evident primarily through his eyes. Remember that Ryan is not made-up or costumed to resemble Merrick in any way, but he and McGuire have found ways to make this physical prison a visible reality. There is a fascinating moment at the very end of the play, where Ryan’s Merrick is briefly released from his crippling deformities, only to be crushed again a moment later, literally as if a weight has been dropped upon him.
The other meaty male role in the play goes to John Hadden, who has the far more difficult task of playing the thoroughly Victorian and oh-so-British Treves. Hadden doesn’t really get to strut his stuff until late in the second half in a scene where Treves dreams that Merrick is presenting him as the subject of a scientific lecture, describing him as “terrifying” in his normality. The scene is called “We Are Dealing With an Epidemic,” that epidemic being the perception and restraints of “normal” behavior. This is followed by a scene in which Treves tries to communicate the emotions and questions to which his association with Merrick have led him, but no one understands him (in reality Merrick’s speech was almost impossible to understand due to his facial deformities and Treves always had to act as his translator). In that scene Treves says: “…he makes all of us think he is deeply like ourselves. And yet we’re not like each other. I conclude that we have polished him like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch. I have grown sorry for it.”
Hadden does a fine job of giving us both the eminently “normal” man and then allowing us to see the cracks in that veneer as his association with Merrick brings into question many of Treves’ most closely held assumptions.
While the play is basically historical and many characters represent real people, Pomerance also takes artistic license and invents “realities” that suit his message. For instance the model church Merrick built was made from a kit (which does not diminish his accomplishment in assembling it or the beauty of the finished piece.) It was not a model of St. Philip’s Church and he could not see that structure from his window at London Hospital. He made it as a gift for the actress Dame Madge Kendal (1848-1935) in hopes that she would come and visit him, which she never did, instead sending her husband, actor W. H. Grimston Kendal, to pick it up. The Kendals were instrumental in lifting the public image of the theatre from the tawdry to the respectable, maintaining very high moral standards onstage and off in the theatres they managed, making Pomerance’s scenes involving Merrick and Treves’ interaction with an earthy and sensual actress named Mrs. Kendal entirely implausible.
But in Pomerance’s theatrical reality, Mrs. Kendal is a vitally important role and Yvonne Perry plays her as a most appealing and sympathetic woman.
Early in the play, a few of Treves' 1884 photographs of Merrick, stark naked, are projected. This serves to introduce the audience to the reality of Merrick’s condition. It is accompanied by a scene in which Treves delivers an anatomically specific lecture about Merrick. Ryan is front and center at this time, slowly morphing from an average healthy young man into Merrick’s restricted form and movement which he assumes for the duration of the play.
People who do not have close contact with the disabled tend to imagine them as suffering saints who never get depressed or crabby or have sexual urges and Pomerance places an emphasis on the fact that Merrick was normal heterosexual young man with desires for physical intimacy in order to depict him as fully human. This is just one reason the scene in which Mrs. Kendal strips before Merrick is important. It also connects them through their shared lives in show business. Merrick’s time as a side-show freak was born of economic necessity (he earned excellent money and was treated very well by most of his managers) but he went into the business of his own free will, as did Mrs. Kendal. Merrick points out to her that they have both put themselves before the public to be stared at, to which she responds that she does not present her true self on the stage but merely the character she is portraying, but he helps her see that their situations are more similar than different. Also, she has seen photographs of him naked and ultimately responds to his desire to see her body as an honest desire to level the playing field.
So I was disappointed that the scene in which Mrs. Kendal shows her body to Merrick was staged so very modestly here. I am not a big fan of stage nudity unless it is integral to the plot, and this is one of the few plays I can think of where it actually is. I have seen nude scenes handled tastefully in spaces as intimate as Hubbard Hall, and there are stage tricks to suggest nudity that could have been employed, specifically the use of back-lit silhouette, which is used to good effect earlier in this production.
I found myself fascinated by one particular forward-facing photo of Merrick. He stands before us, looking directly into the camera, and it is almost possible to see the face that would have been had he not been afflicted. It cannot have been comfortable for Merrick to pose for this photograph, and yet there is tremendous courage and dignity captured both in his eyes and in his posture. And in his nakedness it is possible to see his humanity as well as his deformity. He was just a man, both like and remarkably unlike, other men. This is the point Pomerance is making and it needs its counterpoint in Mrs. Kendal’s willingness to bare her body and soul to make the statement complete. Is it still true, as Pomerance titled his scene, that “Art is Permited but Nature is Not”?
What would our modern society, which is so preoccupied with appearance and has the means to modify it at the merest whim, make of Joseph Merrick? Well, he would have been on “Extreme Makeover” years ago. But is reducing everyone to a “terrifying” normality really a boon to humanity in general or even the recipients of such surgery? Joseph Merrick was living proof that the soul is formed independent of both nature and nurture. Nature made him a monster and, once his mother died, he was barely nurtured by his family or society, and yet he was a gentle, thoughtful, and remarkably “normal” young man who earned the admiration of all who encountered him once he had come under Treves’ care.
I encourage you to go to see this production because this is a play that raises fascinating questions about humanity and society, and, as always, TCHH is giving it a fine production. It is especially moving to see this play presented in an authentically Victorian space. Built in 1878, it is easy to imagine a scientific lecture such as Treves delivered being offered in such a space, and our ancestors sitting where we are sitting now to be enlightened during a time when science was ascendant and old notions of creation were being challenged.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of The Elephant Man runs through December 2 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. Individual tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members, and $15 for students. TCHH also offers a group sales rate of $10 per ticket for blocks of 10+ tickets reserved in advance by non-profit organizations. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007