Poetry of Religion on Broadway: ‘The Elephant Man’

by Janet Karsten Larson

Dr. Larson is assistant professor of English and director of composition at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 2-9, 1980, pp. 14-18. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This play, with its pressing enigma of mercy and justice, has at its quiet dramatic center the story of an overwhelming need for faith in the face of malignant nature and one-dimensional culture.

. . . the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. . . Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. [Oscar Wilde, "The Decay of Lying"].

What is an elephant compared to a man? [Bertolt Brecht, A Man’s a Man].

Something important indeed has happened in American theater when an eloquent play with religious implications commands the attention of Broadway audiences and critics as The Elephant Man has done. In its opening season last spring, this first American production of a work by Bernard Pomerance swept up all the major drama prizes, including three Tony and three Obie awards, and it continues to draw full houses at the Booth Theatre, where it moved from its off-Broadway location in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church at Citicorp Center.

A compendium of late Victorian attitudes, Pomerance’s work is a historical drama of the last years (1886-1890) of the grotesquely misshapen John Merrick, which were spent in the London Hospital, Whitechapel, under the care of Sir Frederick Treves. For 30 years Treves did not tell the story of this unusual patient and protégé -- for whom he sought to achieve "normality as far as possible" -- until he published his reminiscences in 1923. Pomerance transforms these primary materials for the stage through the conventions of Victorian melodrama and of dramatic realism, with gestures toward absurdist theater and the alienation techniques of Bertolt Brecht. (Brecht also elaborated an elephant/man joke in his early works The Elephant Calf and A Man’s a Man, which Pomerance adapted for a London production in 1975.)

Perhaps surprisingly, this theatrical mélange is not incoherent. Asking his audience alternately to enter into the lives of Treves and Merrick and to draw back sharply as critics, Pomerance makes the play’s enigma of mercy and justice that much more pressing for those who witness its incarnation, The Elephant Man. At its quiet dramatic center is the story of the overwhelming need for faith in the face of malignant nature and one-dimensional culture. The greatest surprise is that for all its irony, this compelling play lays Pascal’s wager on the bare possibility of salvation.

A Double Figure

In the opening swift melodramatic scenes, Merrick is insulted, beaten, robbed and abandoned -- an innocent social victim "raped" most brutally of all by his several rescuers. At a circus in the second scene, Ross (I. M. Hobson), the manager who discovered Merrick in a workhouse, hawks his traveling mutation show as "Mother Nature uncorseted and in malignant rage!" But the main attraction is the freak’s suffering from exposure "to the cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and disgust by all who behold him. . . . Tuppence only, step in and see!"

Ross’s crude appeals to sadistic voyeurism are rapidly succeeded by the subtler cruelty of Sir Frederick Treves (Kevin Conway). whose ebullient spirit of Darwinian science is allusively linked to the hubris of the British Empire. To the rising young scientist, the mysterious anatomical disorder (today the diagnosis would be neurofibromatosis) is "medical richesse." In scene three he lectures (as though reading from the real Treves journal) while pointing with his cane to projected photographs of the real John Merrick:

The most striking feature about him was his enormous head. Its circumference was about that of a man’s waist. From the brow there projected a huge bony mass like a loaf, while from the hack of his head hung a bag of spongy fungous-looking skin.... The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever... . The right arm was of enormous size and shapeless. . . .The right hand was large and clumsy -- a fin or paddle rather than a hand. . . . The other arm was remarkable by contrast. It was not only normal, but was moreover a delicately shaped limb covered with a fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied. The lower limbs were unwieldy, dropsical-looking, and grossly misshapen. . . .

Waiting in a patch of light to Treves’s side is John Anglim, the handsome actor who will play John Merrick (and who is now playing him in the touring company); classic in physique, he is loincloth-clad and stands in a cruciform posture, with arms angled slightly from his body and palms toward the audience. As the lecture in past tense proceeds, Anglim becomes the Elephant Man character by slowly contorting his straight frame until he has become crooked, as though under the pressure of Treves’s anatomical language. This posture, maintained through the rest of the play, never allows us to forget the shocking pictures; but what we actually "see" is an elegant theatrical paradox -- an Apollonian figure imitating an inhuman creature, the essential "Form" of a god with the "Appearance" of a mortal.

Because Pomerance has chosen not to paint and pad his freak literalistically, Merrick -- ever in a double figure -- reminds us of that "other" dimension of beauty and wholeness that is nearly absent from the broken world this play exposes. Merrick is thus not only a Beast with a Beautiful Soul, but a walking (lame), talking (barely articulate) symbol of transcendence on the stage. (His foil Treves is double too but with quite different effect: every bit the gentleman in Victorian period costume, he is short, stocky, red-whiskered -- just faintly animalistic as well.)

‘Almost Like Me’

In the first ten scenes John Merrick is an irresistibly sympathetic character who suffers "humiliations in order to survive" yet believes in happiness and is capable of compassion for other victims as well as of wit in the face of brutality. Treves gives Merrick a "home" in that typically Victorian earthly paradise, the charitable/scientific institution, where he teaches the man to bathe himself and to repeat: "Rules make us happy because they are for our own good." Merrick imitates well enough; yet this disturbing naïf knows too much. When Treves defends the peremptory sacking of a staring hospital attendant as merciful for Merrick’s sake, the freak asks his keeper: "If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?" Such early lines seem to promise that the Elephant Man will be the little child who leads these scientists to transcend their own kind of naïveté and egoistic blindness.

Despite his exterior hideousness, Merrick’s spirit utterly charms the actress Mrs. Kendall (Carole Shelley), whom Treves brings in to help civilize his creature. "My head is so big," Merrick confides to her, "because it is so full of dreams Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?" This woman, kind-souled under a witty theatrical façade, becomes the human means for Merrick’s release of imagination (and the magnet for his intense idealism); she graciously undertakes the task of introducing him to the best society. Meanwhile Bishop Walsham How (a rotund Anglican type played by the same actor who portrays Ross) aspires to instruct this "true Christian in the rough" who "bears his cross" with such fortitude (but who is perplexed by the book of Job, "for he cannot see that a just God must cause suffering, as he puts it, merely then to be merciful"). The first half of the play ends triumphantly, raising the audience’s expectation for more than Merrick’s induction into normality.

When the second half opens, the artistically gifted Merrick is building a model of St. Philip’s Church. He explicates its Platonic religious allegory: the cathedral is "not stone and steel and glass; it is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud. So I make my imitation of an imitation." Reversal has already set in, however, thwarting Merrick’s early promise. The "best society" he must imitate to become a man among men is composed of one-dimensional figures who now crowd the stage space, bearing lavish silver gifts (props for Merrick’s humanity) in a Christmas pilgrimage to the London Hospital. Now their cultured faun -- Merrick in evening dress -- steps respectfully into the background to receive their homage in the repeated formula, "I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance."

As a popular cult figure, however, Merrick must also take on all the other figures’ contradictory dreams. One by one they come forward to express just how Merrick seems "almost like me." Treves thinks his protégé "curious, compassionate, concerned about the world, well, rather like myself." Yet like the others Treves also acknowledges the reflection of his darker self in this living memento mori: Merrick is "visibly worse than in ‘86-’87. That, as he rises higher in the consolations of society, he gets visibly more grotesque is proof definitive he is like me." Midway through the play Treves and Merrick have arrived at exactly the same point. But the doctor "can make no sense" of their shared condition.

Ironically, as Merrick begins to emerge as society’s Everyman, the morality-fable simplicity with which the play opened has vanished. Our responses to both Merrick and Treves become less sure, more complicated by the transformation each undergoes in the encounter with the other. Following a Brechtian pattern, the innocent now becomes deeply implicated in the system of exploitation that has "saved" him. When the corrupt Ross turns up again to ask for help, Merrick’s rejection of the man’s crude proposition is at once a necessary defense of his own human dignity and a cruelly elegant refusal to acknowledge the evident poverty and pain of the aging manager.

Cruelty or Kindness? A Metaphor

Meanwhile we have come to sympathize with Treves, who has begun to question his materialist assumptions and the "moral swamp" of his society. As he and others busy themselves with providing proof of Merrick’s humanity -- in order to shore up their own secular faith in a progressive social Darwinism and in their own decadent moral order -- they expose their hollow theatricality and the futility of their "progress." This society does not "know . . . what else to do" with Merrick’s nature but to "rob it," says Sir Frederick at last; and, like those colonized by British imperialism, this imitative product of their social engineering becomes a "mockery of everything we live by."

The play’s crisis comes after a great blow to Treves’s sexual "decency," when he discovers the lovely Mrs. Kendall shyly unveiling her torso to Merrick -- a poignantly "beautiful sight" in John’s only moment of "paradise" in the play. "Do you know what you are?" Treves yells at Merrick. "Don’t you know what is forbidden?" Mrs. Kendall is banished, but Treves never answers Merrick’s pained questioning about the disappearance of his Ideal and, indeed, allows him to believe that she chooses to absent herself from the hospital.

Merrick then begins "chipping away at the edges" of Treves’s indecently confident morality which can invoke no religious belief to justify the parting of these two souls. He soon asks: "Frederick, do you believe in heaven? Hell? What about Christ? What about God? I believe in heaven. The Bible promises in heaven the crooked shall be made straight." Treves quips drily: "So did the rack, my boy. So do we all." It is clear that this innocent inquisitor is becoming the doctor’s rack; "If you are angry, just say it," he at last explodes. "Say it: I am angry. Go on. I am angry. I am angry! I am angry!"

"I believe in heaven," replies the Model Christian.

Is this cruelty or kindness? The words are brought home in the title of the next dream scene. Stepping forward smartly with top hat and cane, a transformed Merrick turns anatomist to dissect the moral deformities of the "terrifyingly normal" scientist hunched miserably in his chair. The Brechtian scene jars our sympathy for Merrick, our easy tolerance for the victim’s imitative failures of compassion. Merrick is morally correct yet lacks moral imagination. We, as witnesses of his social and moral deformation, see that he has taken on several new double identities since his comparatively simpler elephant/manhood. He accepts the new artificial self that society imposes, but he also judges it; his innocence is provoking, perverse; his very goodness has evil effects, yet his cruelty also registers an essential sense of justice.

Scene after scene ends with Merrick silently placing another piece on the model of St. Philip’s as he struggles to realize spiritual being. Yet even as he constructs the model of loveliness, he is deconstructing Treves. When the distressed surgeon falls at last into the arms of the uncomprehending but kindly bishop with the half-articulate cry, "Help me," Merrick places the last piece and says quietly, "It is done." In this chilling moment the emotionless Merrick seems a predatory child-monster, the social victim so brutalized he can but excel in revenge, the aesthete who cares only for his art.

In an introductory note to the published play (Grove, 1979). Pomerance writes that the church model is "some kind of central metaphor, and the groping toward the conditions where it can be built and the building of it are the action of the play." One of the inescapable conditions for Merrick’s childlike faith is his persistent questioning of divine justice. Pleasing those who see him as an exemplar of self-help, he can boast that he builds this ambiguous symbol of his hope "with one hand" -- the graceful one. But this triumph is yet a reminder of the man’s incompleteness, of the other hand resembling a beastly vestige from an earlier evolutionary stage. Merrick slyly observes that God, in creating him, "should have used both hands, shouldn’t he?"

Merrick’s Religion

Rapidly following upon the completion of the model comes Merrick’s "accidental" death by asphyxiation. His deformity requires him to sleep sitting up, but during a fatal dream he straightens into normal sleeping position and the weight of his enormous head crushes his windpipe. As the church model looms like the dollhouse in Tiny Alice, this ending seems to evoke absurdist drama. Yet Merrick’s death is not arbitrary and meaningless. For one thing, the play has expressed too firm (indeed, at times, too morally confident) a sense of social injustice to allow such an interpretation. The death represents the culmination of Merrick’s long murder by society, by its deliberate as well as its casual brutalities.

At the same time the death seems the unconscious suicide of a disillusioned man, a suicide for which the others also are guilty. In one figure that the play proposes, Merrick is asphyxiated by the weight of others’ dreams. In another, Merrick, as a polished mirror for others’ self-images, discovers that he reflects their nothingness; and, as an early scene title announces, "When the Illusion Ends He Must Kill Himself." When Merrick sees no more evidence of spirit, he puts down his head to cut off his own breath.

Merrick’s end also fulfills the potential of an earlier stage allusion to crucifixion: when his head tilts back too far and his arms claw the air, his final posture barely suggests an imitatio Christi. Prompted by dream sirens to "Sleep like others you learn to admire/Be like your mother, be like your sire," Merrick formally imitates the dead maternal figure (whose photo he keeps under his pillow) and the equivocal paternal figure of Jesus/Treves (whose names have been linked). Merrick’s "sire" seems both cruel and merciful, just as this death is a horrible end yet releases him from a life of pain and humiliation. In imitating a kind of crucifixion, Merrick also invokes the traditional poetry of an older religion that for some of the Late Romantics retained its "traditional sanctity and loveliness" (as Yeats wrote) if not its grounding in historical truth.

And, coming so soon after the completion of the church model, Merrick’s death is complicated by its very aestheticism, its poetry of religion in the achievement of immortal form: for now he is "straight." If for the aesthetes in the 1880s "Life is ritual," death too is ritual and, like life, imitates art in the play. Merrick’s aesthetic end makes its spirited protest against "Nature’s lack of design" and God’s providence even as it barely suggests an act of faith.

Theatricality is another of the evident conditions for Merrick’s religion. Treves tells Bishop How that Merrick is "very excited to do what others do if he thinks it is what others do." Yet the agnostic scientist stoutly refuses to cast doubt on Merrick’s faith. In the absence of proof that the God so confidently invoked by the orthodox bishop really exists in the world, perhaps Merrick in his last moments is yet attempting, in his confused way, to "Follow the way by which [others] began," as Pascal wrote, accepting the sacraments, discipline and consolations of the church and now imitating Christ’s death as if he believed in their efficacy. The pity of Merrick’s end is that he seems to have almost nothing to lose in a wager on heavenly deliverance. And made straight only in the posture of his mortality, he provides Brechtian proof that in a world where people do not live justly and mercifully with one another, a person cannot both be "good" and survive.

Final Ritual

In the last ritualistic moments of the play, the others gather around the church model for a funereal tableau to pay their respects to a mystery. The ambience of this ending reminds that the loveliness Merrick had communicated to others was suggestive of the elusive possibility of some "other" kind of existence where love and justice may be no illusion.

It is not with a sense of meaningless waste that the play leaves its audience, but rather with the dark wonder of Pascal’s words in the Pensées: "Vere tu es Deus absconditus." The author of this existence, whom Merrick arraigns and admires, hides himself within the play from the Elephant Man and from others, but it is not necessary to conclude that he is absent.