The Elephant Man
Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Study Guide of “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.
The Elephant Man, a one-act play by American playwright Bernard Pomerance, was first produced in London at the Hampstead Theatre in 1977. The play transferred to New York and played Off-Broadway in 1979, moving to Broadway three months later, where it ran successfully for two years. The play won many awards with its Broadway debut, including a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, and the Tony Award for Best Play. A popular film adaptation (1980), directed by David Lynch and starring John Hurt (Merrick), Anthony Hopkins (Treves), and Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendal), received several British and American Academy Awards. The play has also been adapted for television (1982) and radio (1988) and has had two prominent Broadway revivals. The 2002 revival starred Billy Crudup (Merrick), Rupert Graves (Treves), and Kate Burton (Mrs. Kendal), and the 2014 revival starred Bradley Cooper (Merrick), Patricia Clarkson (Mrs. Kendal), and Alessandro Nivola (Treves).
The play is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (renamed John in the play, aside from a nod to Merrick’s real name in the last scene), drawn from the details written in Frederick Treves’s The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923). Merrick’s condition began to appear when he was five years old, beginning with areas of rough, gray, elephantlike skin, believed by his family to have been caused by his mother’s frightening encounter with a circus elephant during her pregnancy. His condition progressed significantly as he aged, growing into widespread illness that included visible tumors all over his body. He also sustained a hip injury in a childhood accident, resulting in an infection and a permanent disability. Contrary to the narrative in the play, Merrick had an otherwise relatively typical childhood, attending school and living with his parents and siblings. But when Merrick was 11, his mother died. His home life changed when his father and new stepmother began abusing him.
Merrick left school at 13 to get a job, but the increasing debilitation due to his illness affected his ability to work. His speech was becoming difficult to understand, and people were often frightened of him. He ran away from his progressively abusive home at 15 and lived with an uncle for a while before he landed in a workhouse at 17. Life in the workhouse was miserable, but Merrick had no options. In 1884, at age 22, Merrick decided that his appearance might be his ticket out of the workhouse. He worked with entertainment businessman Sam Torr to create the Elephant Man Exhibit, advertised as half-man, half-elephant, across from the London Hospital. He generated much interest from the medical and scientific community, including Dr. Frederick Treves. Merrick allowed himself to be examined once but resisted a second exam because the experience made him feel like “an animal in a cattle market” (Blatty, David. “Joseph Merrick.” Biography, 15 Sept. 2020, https://www.biography.com/performer/elephant-man-joseph-merrick. Accessed 7 Sept. 2021.). But after Merrick was robbed and abandoned by his manager in Belgium, he allowed Dr. Treves to save him from a violent mob at the train station and bring him to the hospital. No longer able to care for himself, Merrick stayed there until he died at age 27.
Merrick’s life in Victorian England was an endless exhibition within a society that scrambled to visit “freak shows” and felt no twinge of impoliteness or cruelty for staring at people with disabilities. Even after his death, plaster casts of his body along with his skeleton were displayed at the hospital. The Elephant Man is about Merrick’s humanity and his quest to define himself as a man within society after spending much of his life as an outcast.
Joseph Merrick’s condition remained a mystery throughout his life, although his exhibit moniker often misleads some to assume that his condition was elephantiasis. But researchers after his death believe that Merrick had Proteus syndrome, an extremely rare and visibly conspicuous condition. But despite the vivid physical descriptions of Merrick in the play, Pomerance specifies that the actor in the role should not attempt to mimic Merrick’s distorted speech or use makeup and prosthetics to create a naturalistic representation of his condition, which Pomerance deems both distracting and counterproductive. This choice is one of the many elements of the play that point to the influence of playwright and theater artist Bertolt Brecht.
Dr. Frederick Treves joins the staff of London Hospital as a surgeon and anatomy lecturer, and he is welcomed by hospital administrator Carr Gomm. Near the hospital, Treves encounters a “freak-show” exhibit managed by a man named Ross and featuring John Merrick, headlined as the Elephant Man. Fascinated, Treves wants to take Merrick to the hospital for an examination and pays Ross for the privilege. After a presentation detailing Merrick’s condition, one of the attendees deems the exhibition indecent and calls the police. Ross and Merrick are beaten and run out of the city, so they flee to a fair in Belgium with a “freak show,” where they find three microcephalic women (“Pinheads”) performing. Ross hopes to continue the Elephant Man exhibition. But the police are discriminatory toward Merrick and refuse to let him appear, beating him because they believe he would be better off dead. Ross decides to part ways with Merrick, stealing his life savings and leaving him with nothing but train fare back to England. In London, a police officer and conductor protect Merrick from a violent mob. They can’t understand his speech, but they find Treves’s business card. Treves arrives and takes Merrick to stay at London Hospital. Treves tries to hire a nurse as a caretaker for Merrick, but candidates keep running away when they see Merrick. Bishop Walsham How from the church visits and is pleasantly surprised to discover that Merrick has had some religious education. The bishop looks forward to nurturing him spiritually.
Gomm enters and announces that the letter they had printed in the paper about Merrick has brought in a tidal wave of donations—enough to support Merrick for the rest of his life. Treves stresses that Merrick will live a life that is as typical as possible and be surrounded by others who treat him humanely. Two hospital employees are caught staring, so Gomm fires them, although Merrick worries about one of the men who said that he needed the job to care for his family. Treves brings in Mrs. Kendal to visit Merrick because Merrick needs the opportunity to interact with women and as an actress, Mrs. Kendal can disguise her emotions. Merrick is sketching the church, St. Phillip’s, and after a pleasant conversation, she shakes his hand and he weeps, never having shaken a woman’s hand before. Merrick and Mrs. Kendal become friends, and she brings other members of high society to meet him. Merrick begins building a model of the church. Each of his new friends looks at Merrick and sees themselves in him. But Treves reveals that Merrick’s condition is deteriorating. Merrick tells Mrs. Kendal that he wants to have a mistress like other men. Although Mrs. Kendal agrees that he is unlikely to find a willing woman, she undresses so he can see a naked woman for the first time. But Treves catches them, and, appalled, makes her leave. Ross comes to visit Merrick, begging for him to return to his “freak” act, this time charging the elite guests who visit Merrick for their time. Merrick, now beginning to feel like a man, refuses.
Merrick confronts Treves about the illogical morality that made him upset about Mrs. Kendal undressing, and Treves agrees to invite her back. But to himself, Treves admits that he doesn’t want her to come back and see Merrick die. Treves has a dream in which he is the exhibit, Merrick is the doctor displaying him, and Gomm is his manager. Having informed Gomm that Merrick is dying, Treves expresses frustration that the more Merrick becomes comfortable with society, the more his body changes physically. Treves antagonizes Bishop How by arguing that Merrick doesn’t have faith—he’s only imitating the bishop to make him happy. Then Treves breaks down and the bishop comforts him. Merrick finishes his church model and gets in bed. His head size requires him to remain sitting up when he sleeps. But Merrick imagines that he sees the three microcephalic women from Belgium. They stretch him out on the bed, and he dies of asphyxiation. Gomm writes a letter to the paper to address Merrick’s patrons and reads it to Treves. Gomm asks for input, but Treves is too upset to formulate his thoughts and exits. Gomm finishes the letter and Treves returns, having thought of something to add. But Gomm informs him that it is too late.