When I was fourteen years old and first saw Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man as a teleplay on ABC, the lack of makeup and prosthetics made no sense to me. If you could make Joseph Merrick look monstrous—as John Hurt did in David Lynch’s film—then why wouldn’t you? Only much later would I understand that Pomerance was more concerned with the grotesqueness of British imperialism and Victorian society, which is why his Merrick doesn’t look like Lynch’s.
Though I didn’t comprehend the playwright’s vision at the time, I kept watching because I had to know what happened next—what would transpire between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends him and whom Merrick asks to be his mistress? Mrs. Kendal wouldn’t consent; that I knew, but I also knew that she had grown to care for Merrick and was saddened by the knowledge that his hideous deformities would prevent him from experiencing physical intimacy of any kind, much less sexual intercourse. As I watched Mrs. Kendal speak to Merrick, I realized that no matter what I secretly thought of my awkward adolescent self, that I would never be perceived as the freak that Merrick was, that one day I would love and be loved. And when Mrs. Kendal tells Merrick that she has seen photographs of him—of his naked body, taken for display at lectures—and starts to undress so that he can see her breasts, I knew that I was witnessing something that was considered scandalous but that was, in fact, morally just.
Those moments between Merrick and Kendal that now replay so vividly in my mind mark a moment in my moral education. For decades they’d continued to dwell in some far corner of my imagination, waiting to rise to my consciousness again, as they did recently when I had the opportunity to act in a local production of The Elephant Man. When I was cast in the show, I seized the chance not only as an opportunity to perform but also as an occasion to research Joseph Merrick so that my work on stage would be informed by my study of his life.
The bibliography that follows includes the play, itself—which first stirred my interest in Merrick—the memoir of his doctor, Frederick Treves, and two book-length studies that revise and expand Merrick’s story: Ashley Montagu’s exploration of his psyche, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity; and the first comprehensive biography of Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man.
Though Treves aimed to tell Merrick’s story as accurately as possible, as Montagu notes, “his attempt to reconstruct Merrick’s past was to a great extent erroneous” (69). Nevertheless, his memoir still offers readers what no other writing about Merrick can: a look at him through the eyes of his own doctor. And as Michael Howell and Peter Ford observe in their biography: “Of all of Treves’ writings, ‘The Elephant Man’ is undoubtedly the one that will continue to be read long after the others are forgotten” (164).
Whether these annotations will serve as preliminary writing for a larger project, I cannot say. But I can say that as I have stepped on stage to enter Merrick’s world, I have carried with me what I’ve learned.
Howell, Michael and Peter Ford. The True History of the Elephant Man. 1980. New York: Skyhorse, 2010. Print.
The first comprehensive biography of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man, co-written by physician Michael Howell and editor and writer Peter Ford, chronicles the life of Merrick, beginning with his initial encounter with Frederick Treves, at the storefront across from the London Hospital in 1884, then turning back to his birth in Leicester in 1862. Howell and Ford document the death of Merrick’s mother, Mary Jane Merrick, née Potterton, from pneumonia in 1873, his years of labor at the Leicester Union Workhouse, his exhibition—by showmen Sam Torr, Tom Noonan, and Sam Roper—and his final years in residence at the London Hospital under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves.
Howell and Ford’s research reveals that Merrick chose not to disclose to Treves essential details about his family background, namely that his mother and his sister, Marion Eliza, were both “crippled” (42, 46), and they clarify that Treves’ error regarding Merrick’s first name was intentional, citing the manuscript of Treves’ memoir in which he crossed out “Joseph” and replaced it with “John.”
The True History of the Elephant Man also addresses the question of Merrick’s condition—with neurofibromatosis and Proteus syndrome as the prevailing diagnoses—noting that to the frustration of future researchers, the skin samples of Merrick’s preserved at the London Hospital dried out when the hospital staff was evacuated during World War II. Dry rot in the hospital, a consequence of damage from the bombings, affected the specimens, which were subsequently burned.
Montagu, Ashley. The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. 1971. Lafayette: Acadian, 2001. Print.
In The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, anthropologist Ashley Montagu explores how Joseph Merrick developed a healthy personality despite the “reality of his physical hideousness” and the “cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and revulsion by all who beheld him” (100). With chapters devoted to Merrick’s doctor, Frederick Treves, and the London Hospital, as well as chapters on maternal love and personality development, Montagu’s study provides both historical and psychological context for Merrick’s story.
Observing that Treve’s two-paragraph account of Merrick’s early years seems “utterly incompatible with [his] loveable personality” (85), Montagu asserts that Merrick was not abandoned by his mother as Treves suggests in his memoir. In the third edition, published in 1996, Montagu notes that his views on Merrick’s mother were confirmed by Michael Howard and Peter Ford in The True History of the Elephant Man.
Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. Print.
Though its time frame corresponds with that of Frederick Treves’ memoir of Joseph “John” Merrick, Bernard Pomerance’s play departs from Treves’ account, reimagining the last four years of Merrick’s life in twenty-one short scenes. Throughout the play, the actor portraying Merrick wears no makeup or prosthetics to alter his appearance, a stipulation of Pomerance’s introductory note, where he asserts that any attempt to reproduce the Elephant Man’s grotesque physical deformities would be both “counterproductive” and “distracting” (v). Pomerance fashions a fictional relationship between Merrick and the actress Madge Kendal (who raised funds for Merrick’s care and arranged for him to attend the theatre but never met him), employs dream sequences to explore the unconscious of Merrick and Treves, and uses as a central metaphor Merrick’s building of a cardboard model of St. Philip’s Church, a model he did in fact construct with his one good hand during his stay at the London Hospital.
Treves, Frederick. “The Elephant Man.” The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces. London: Cassel, 1923. 1-37. Print.
Frederick Treves’ memoir “The Elephant Man” chronicles the final years in the life of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, the grotesquely deformed man who came under the care of Treves two years after the doctor examined Merrick at the London Hospital.
Beginning in 1884 with Treves first encounter with Merrick as a freak-show attraction at a storefront across from the hospital, the narrative details Treves’ plan for Merrick to be transported across the street for examination—under his cloak and hat, lest he be mobbed or beaten—Treves’ reunion with Merrick after his dismissal from a traveling show in Belgium, and Merrick’s subsequent residence at the London Hospital, where he lived until his death in April 1890.
2 thoughts on “From One of the Pinheads Dancing ’round His Angel: Musings on the Elephant Man and the Secret Self”
As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts. I have thought it might be fun to write a collection of poems from the point of view of all around him and their reactions to his life and plight.
Thanks, Brian. I admire your idea of writing a collection of poems from the points of view of the various people in Merrick’s orbit–a Whitechapel Road Anthology of sorts.