The elephant in the Blue Room
Aiming for the heart of humanity’s freak show
Full disclosure: I have been fascinated by the story of John Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, since first reading Sir Frederick Treves’ account of his remarkable life, which I discovered in a paperback horror anthology called Strange Beasts and Unnatural Monsters in 1968. Treves describes his first impression of Merrick thusly: “There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed.”
Those familiar with David Lynch’s 1980 movie version of the story, or who have seen the Victorian-era photos of the real-life Merrick (whose first name was actually Joseph) may recall the visual intensity of the Elephant Man’s pitiable deformations and wonder how a small theater company could possibly have the time, materials and prosthetic makeup expertise necessary for rendering such physical grotesquerie night after night in live performance. The answer, as it turns out, is to have the actor cast in the role portray Merrick’s physical presence with sheer skill and craftsmanship, sans makeup.
No small feat, but one that actor Nick Anderson achieves with aplomb—contorting his face and limbs and realigning his posture, convincingly occupying the lead roll in director Martin Chavira’s current production of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play The Elephant Man at the Blue Room Theatre.
Pomerance’s adaptation of Merrick’s story uses dramatic license to illuminate some of the between-the-lines moral ambiguity of Treves’ account, and also brings forth some of the sympathetic emotional resonance of this very human character as he interacts with a world that—until Dr. Treves (Caleb Mains) discovered and rescued him at age 21 to live out his life in the care of a London hospital—confined him to workhouses and freak shows.
The characters surrounding Merrick’s transformation—from freak show attraction in the company of singing pinheads (Amy Brown and Delisa Freistadt) and their manager (Saralysette Ballard) to upper-class darling—provide a vivid cross-section of Victorian society. There’s Ross (Justin McDavitt), the physically abusive and economically exploitative showman; Mrs. Kendal (Freistadt), a socially well-connected actress who befriends Merrick and introduces him to the upper crust of Naughty Nineties London, including the hospital’s director, Carr Gomm (Chris Scott), and princesses and duchesses (both Brown).
Ross sees Merrick’s deformities as simply a resource to be marketed, with no regard for the feelings of the person contained within. Kendal recognizes through conversations ranging from Merrick’s assessment of the romantic weaknesses of Shakespeare’s Romeo (“Does he check her pulse? He only cares about himself.”) and his confession of desire for physical intimacy with a woman, that Merrick’s personality and humanity are in many ways more innocent than those of “normal” people trapped in the confines of contemporary, often hypocritical, moral strictures.
Freistadt plays Kendal as a woman whose experience of the stage has given her a worldliness that is both empathic and realistic, and her revelation to Merrick of the loveliness of the female form he has never seen is an act of courage and sympathy that leaves Merrick in appreciative tears, but when discovered by the morally overwrought Treves causes a break between them.
This exploration of the interaction of economic and moral motivation versus humanistic sympathy and action results in a nearly clinical examination of Victorian character and the resonance of its often-hypocritical sense of moral acceptability in current social forms. As the characters express their identification with Merrick in self-congratulatory ways—“polished like a mirror, and we shout, ‘Hallelujah’ when he reflects us”—we can sense that playwright Pomerance is also calling out his audience’s sense of ethics in a world still fascinated by and exploitative of its own grotesque deformations.