Playwright Bernard Pomerance used Frederick Treves’ real-life account of Joseph Merrick’s story to write his moving drama, soon to be revived on Broadway with Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, and Alessandro Nivola.
Joseph Carey Merrick, the “Elephant Man” of the Tony Award winner for Best Play of 1979, really existed. Merrick, also called “John,” was born in England in 1862. Suffering from extensive deformities, he arranged to be placed on exhibit to survive in the world. His disfigurement caused fascination and repulsion, first as the star attraction in a traveling freak show, then while under the care of surgeon and teacher Frederick Treves, and eventually as the unlikely darling of London’s high society, which included the actress Mrs. Kendal. Their support made it possible for Merrick to live out his life in London Hospital, where his remains are stored to this day.
After being largely forgotten after his death in 1890 at age 27, interest in Merrick’s story was rekindled when Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man debuted on Broadway to rave reviews in 1979.
A new production, starring Bradley Cooper in the title role alongside Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Kendal and Alessandro Nivola as Frederick Treves, begins performances at Broadway’s Booth Theatre beginning November 7 under the direction of Scott Ellis. As is traditionally done in stage productions of The Elephant Man, Cooper will not wear prosthetics to illustrate Merrick’s deformities. He will instead manipulate and contort his body physically in order to suggest the ailments of the Elephant Man.
How does playwright Pomerance bring Merrick’s real-life story to the stage? Pomerance’s inspiration comes largely from the extensive record left behind by the real-life Treves.
The real Treves was not immediately sympathetic. “The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground,” Treves wrote of his first glimpse of Merrick. “There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen.”
Pomerance has the character of Treves closely paraphrase the real Treves’ journal, telling us “the most striking feature . . . was his enormous head. Its circumference was about that of a man’s waist . . . The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever . . . Hip disease . . . left him permanently lame . . . He was thus denied all means of escape from his tormentors.”
But then, as in the real story, Pomerance has Treves look behind Merrick’s hideous physical deformities, discovering an intelligent and thoughtful man worthy of as close to a normal life as those deformities could allow.
As in real life, Pomerance’s Treves encourages the actress Mrs. Kendal to befriend Merrick and hide her natural revulsion, telling her, “Unlike most women, you won’t give in, you are trained to hide your true feelings and assume others.”
When Mrs. Kendal agrees, he tells her, “Merrick will be so pleased. It will be the day he becomes a man like other men.”
The real Treves concluded that “as a specimen of humanity, Merrick was ignoble and repulsive; but the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen . . . would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man . . . with eyes that flashed undaunted courage.”
This is the Merrick, more relevant than ever to 2014 audiences who find heroes in the unlikeliest places, who Pomerance unveils in his play.
To learn more about the real Elephant Man, read Frederick Treves’ real-life account of Joseph Merrick.