On Sunday just gone, Teddington Theatre Club (TTC)’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” won (jointly) best play at the Richmond-Upon-Thames drama awards (the Swans) for 2010/11. That achievement reflects the excellent efforts of the cast and crew and rewards the decision of TTC’s artistic committee to both suggest and back the production. It also rewards the commitment we made, cited by the judges, to craft a production that was a sensitive treatment of disability and difference that a modern audience would grasp and, hopefully, reflect on. It seems appropriate in that context to republish here my programme note by way of thanks to all those who made the production possible.
Eighteen months ago I read Armand Marie Leroi’s book “Mutants”, in part in preparation for “Elephant Man”, although it has since taken on a broader importance. I have since read it twice more. If I’m honest, my understanding of the science of genetics probably reached its peak about a third of the way into the second reading – and will never progress further – but my appreciation of the story has continued to grow. There is a key theme, building on Francis Bacon: mutants – those people with genetic difference arising from errors in the code by which they’re programmed – are central to understanding what we are, why we develop in the way we do and why our bodies malfunction and die.
Or in summary, if we understand those people who are different from ourselves, we understand ourselves better.
Leroi tells this story through a mixture of modern science, teratology – the archaic study of monsters – and descriptions of early genetic experiments from splicing newt DNA in Freiburg just prior to the second world war to experiments on dwarves in it; there are also case studies of some of the more celebrated mutants throughout history, including Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.
Merrick’s doctor, Freddie Treves, late of Dorchester, friend of Thomas Hardy and physician to the wealthy and successful, wrote his own case study of Merrick, famously misnaming him John. It is from this text that much of the material for Bernard Pomerance’s play is drawn. Indeed, David Lynch’s film draws from much the same source as the play, although the two are not linked otherwise.
In the film, of course, John Hurt’s Merrick comes replete with prostheses, beautifully rendered in crisp, brightly lit black and white. In the play, Pomerance proscribes the use of prosthetics and, whilst the actor must approximate the physical form and recreate the initial difficulties Merrick faced in making his speech understood, his physical deformity is of secondary concern.
That might seem a strange thing to say of a play about the Elephant Man. It’s Richard III or Quasimodo without their hunched backs; Leroux’s Phantom without the mask. The question perhaps is what we’ve come to the theatre to see.
Many of the mutants whose stories Leroi recounts were amongst those collected by the high ranking nobles of Europe for display at court: piebald Javanese children, people covered from head to toe in luxuriant hair, conjoined twins. They were there, as Merrick was, to be stared at in amazement and with amusement. Those highborn courtiers responded in much the same way as their lower born counterparts responded to the freak shows of Barnum and others. People, it seems, are always drawn to extremes.
But Pomerance’s play is not a freak show. And a reasonable question is: do the prostheses in Lynch’s film assist or detract from the story of the man beneath them? Perhaps there’s a zeitgeist-y parallel here: when Susan Boyle sang on Britain’s Got Talent, did you also think, in the words of Amanda Holden, “I wasn’t expecting that” – by extension, a “beautiful” voice to come from someone who was unattractive physically? To make up our Merrick with lumps and bumps would be to present the audience the opportunity to betray itself with the thought: I never expected something so ugly to see so much beauty in the world. It’s an instinctive thought, and one that I’m sure we’ve all had. And it does majority a disservice. Most of us feel the immediate guilt that follows.
There should be no need for guilty consciences here. My hope is that you will note the physical difficulties Merrick faces – they do, in the end, lead to his death – but to think about what he says about the world around him, his lack of bitterness and his capacity for love and faith, and to focus on what Pomerance wants us to see: just another man, with his challenges to overcome, poorly treated by those around him but doing what we all do best: become a little better every day.