The Elephant Man
by Bernard Pomerance
director’s notes by Emilia Sargent
We study history so that we can learn from our mistakes and create a better future for ourselves and for our descendants. So often, as we look back, we find that those before us faced the same social and human challenges that we face today, just in different settings. Based on the lives of Joseph Merrick and Dr. Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man uses historical fact to explore dark human experiences, illuminate some of society’s failings, as well as reveal our universal human-ness. Humanity has a remarkable capacity for cruelty toward others who are different from us, a trait all too familiar today as human indecency has an ever-ready platform for public humiliation through social media, thriving human trafficking trades, and hate crimes, among other deplorable things.
Merrick was ridiculed, abused, and put on humiliating display in 19th century freak shows due to his extreme deformities. He was completely constrained in society, first by his grotesque visage which relegated him to life as a “freak”, and later by his declining condition which confined him to the hospital and forced him to adhere to “restrictions
that were necessary”. This was a man corseted by society and later by the medical advances which perhaps kept him alive longer, but also living with a restricted quality of life.
In our play, we find a man ennobled by his suffering who believes in Heaven, “where the crooked shall be made straight”. He is a beautiful soul who is able to project his kindness, grace, and inner humanity through his grotesque exterior, reminding us to look beyond the superficial and recognize that beauty lies in the heart and mind. Dr. Treves, a man exemplary of Victorian society, attempts to provide Merrick with the normality and acceptance he craves by saving his life through medical science. Both men go through their own separate journeys of discovery that leave us questioning the illusion of normality and equality. We can project our own desires to be accepted as “normal” through Merrick’s efforts to lead a normal life since most of us
resonate with the desire to fit in. Like Treves, many of us can relate to discovering that the cultural conventions and accepted rules we ascribe to are faulty, and the disillusionment and self-questioning that can follow.
As much as the play examines science versus religion, it also excoriates greed, ambition, and hypocrisy and puts the distinction between right and wrong in focus. Are rules always good for all of us? Who makes the rules? Are these rules universal or a product of sociocultural convention? When is charity patronizing or self-serving? Moreover, when is willingly adhering to convention constraining, or corseting, the essence of our humanity – our true selves?
A hundred fifty years later, here we are wondering many of the same questions and still trying to learn how to navigate the challenges of being human – together.
– Emilia Sargent, February 2023