MARK E. RONDEAU
Physically grotesque, emotionally sensitive, intellectually acute, John Merrick in "The Elephant Man" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival has the face of a monster and the soul of a poet.
Based on the real-life story of Joseph (his real first name) Merrick, "The Elephant Man" takes an unhappy story and makes it more so, glaring harshly even at those who made the final years of Merrick’s short life relatively humane.
Yet despite this, the production moves briskly and entertains, with scenes well set and impeccably acted.
The harsh tone is set early on when Merrick’s freak show manager, Ross, barks to the crowd, "See Mother Nature uncorseted and in malignant rage."
The outlines of Merrick’s story have been well-recounted in several books and in the 1980 David Lynch movie "The Elephant Man," which hews more closely to the books than Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play of the same name reviewed here, which will appear on the Nikos Stage at WTF through Aug. 5.
The play takes some liberty with Merrick’s story, particularly with the actions and possible motivations of those closest to him, but to good effect in posing big questions -- this is art and not biography, after all. This distinction is vividly on display early on, when the hot young actor Bradley Cooper -- People magazine’s 2012 "sexiest man alive" -- takes to the stage shirtless and buff. On the other side of the stage is Treves and between them is a screen on which are shown a series of photos of the real elephant man.
As Treves (Allesandro Nivola) lectures an imaginary medical amphitheater of fellow doctors on the Elephant Man’s condition, Cooper as Merrick slowly twists his body without benefit of prosthetics into an approximation of Merrick’s form -- more suggestion than reality.
Here we have an open admission that we are being treated to an artistic interpretation of historical events.
And this interpretation is dark. The drabness of the set’s faded floor planks, chipped furniture and rough canvas curtains create a mood of shabbiness and gloom.
"He’s quite beyond ugly," Treves says of Merrick at the beginning of the play, trying to steel a nurse job applicant to the Elephant Man’s appearance. (She flees upon seeing him).
But ugly is more than skin deep in the 1880s England portrayed. The paternalistic dead weight of Colonialism is an easy target for the playwright, and creeping greed and corruption taint the eminent Victorians we see on stage.
Bishop How (Shuler Hensley) and Carr Gomm (Henry Stram) are caricatures -- one devout and bombastic, ready glorify God in one breath and the British Empire in the next; the other scientific and materialistic, apparently more concerned with Merrick as a fundraising attraction than as a human being.
For his part, Merrick reads both the Bible and also apparently enjoys the great novels of the Victorian agnostic Thomas Hardy.
Much more genuine and engaging than either How or Carr Gomm is Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson), the aging actress Treves recruits to befriend Merrick, who on the one hand has an exalted, romantic view of women and on the other, understandably, has not had much positive interaction with them. Moreover, much is made of the fact that Merrick’s genitals are normal, escaping the deformity he suffers elsewhere.
Clarkson is brilliant in the role of Mrs. Kendal, funny at first and then moving one almost to tears as she genuinely connects with Merrick well beyond any playacting Treves expects of her. At one point she solemnly bares her breasts so that Merrick can see a woman naked for the first time.
Treves walks in on this exhibition and banishes her from Merrick’s life, leading the latter to question Treves as to why he believes in Victorian values when he doesn’t believe in God. And ultimately the play is as much about Treves as is it about Merrick. At the start of the play, the young doctor is eminently satisfied with his life -- he tells the audience he has a good position, a good income, and a happy family.
By the end of the play, however, Treves’ life is a mess. He has compromised himself with a shaky financial deal with a member of high society; his lower-class patients die young from toil and soot; his middle- and upper-class patients are killing themselves with excess and don’t listen to his advice; his treatise on the harmful effects of wearing corsets has been ignored; even his home life is filled with ennui. And he is haunted by Merrick’s physical decline.
Near the end of the play a despairing Treves falls into Bishop How’s arms, pleading for help. But the good bishop is totally non-comprehending. One post-modern, one pre-modern, they may as well be speaking different languages.
Soon after, Merrick turns from his elaborate model of St. Phillip’s Church (Joseph Merrick in fact made such a model) and, much as did Jesus giving up his life on the cross, says "it is done." He goes to his bed, decides to lie for once with his head on the pillow, and dies.
In the final scene, Carr Gomm is composing a letter to the London Times about Merrick’s death. He asks Treves if he has anything to add. At first he says he doesn’t and leaves, then he returns: "I did think of one small thing."
"It is too late, I’m afraid," Carr Gomm says. "It is done."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Mrs. Kendal cradles Merrick in her arms like Mary holding the crucified Jesus in the Pieta.
"The Elephant Man" provides no answers but delineates many contrasts and asks many questions. Contrasts: Reality versus illusion; self-knowledge versus self-deception; charity versus paternalism. Questions: Rather than a loving mother, is nature outright hostile to human concerns -- or just merely indifferent? Where does curiosity leave off and cruelty begin?
And finally, what makes a man? Is it looks, is it sexual experience, is it character, or is it something inherent in human beings demanding outward expression -- a soul?
Contact Mark Rondeau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Nikos Stage of the Williams College ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance is located at 1000 Main St. (Route 2). For tickets and information call 413-597-3400 or visit wtfestival.org.
Real live and real tragedy
Joseph Merrick was born in 1862 in Leicester, England. Early in life he began to develop deformity, with greatly enlarged lips, forehead and right side of his head. One of his arms and both of his feet became grossly enlarged; a damaged hip from an early fall left him somewhat lame. As an adult, his speech was very difficult for others to understand.
Merrick’s mother died when he was 11; his father soon remarried.
Leaving school at 13, he had difficulty finding a job, and his father and stepmother rejected him. After spending four harsh years in a workhouse, he made himself available to a group of promoters to be exhibited as the "Elephant Man."
At one point, Merrick was exhibited in a shop on Whitechapel Road in London, immediately across from London Hospital. A young doctor, Frederick Treves, visited the shop and invited Merrick across the street, where he was examined and photographed. The shop was closed down by police, and Merrick was sent on a European tour, where his road manager robbed and abandoned him in Brussels. He finally made his way back to London, where police found Treves’ business card on him and took him to London Hospital, where he was allowed to stay the rest of his life.
Treves visited Merrick daily and the two became quite close. Francis Carr Gomm, chairman of the hospital committee, wrote letters to the London Times asking readers for suggestions for Merrick’s long-term care, as the hospital was not set up to take care of an "incurable" such as Merrick. The public response was overwhelming in terms of letters and donations. Merrick was installed in a special basement suite off a courtyard -- with no mirror -- and received visitors from London’s social set.
He died at 27 of asphyxiation or a broken neck, perhaps after trying to sleep lying down, as the size and weight of his head meant that he had to sleep sitting up.
-- Mark E. Rondeau