Sunday, April 3, 2011

review: the elephant man

Last night Scott took me to see the Ninth Wave's Saturday evening performance of The Elephant Man, the play by Bernard Pomerance that I mentioned in this post from last week, at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

We enter the lobby outside the theater and are greeted by a sideshow of sorts- a juggler who can also hammer a nail into his nose, a tightrope walker, a very flexible woman, a magician who can get himself out of a securely strapped straitjacket.  We pass the time watching the little performances around us with the other audience members, wondering what will happen next.

Then a show man appears, advertising the amazingly freakish Elephant Man.  For a penny one can take a look at the half man, half elephant, inside the privacy of a tent that has been erected in the lobby. A Victorian gentleman tells the showman that it is impossible.  The showman invites him to take a look. 

A hushed silence falls over the crowd as we wait for the result.  A few moments later the man comes out, stunned.  He slowly hands the showman a penny.  After a pause, he identifies himself as a doctor and asks if he could study the man further for the sake of medicine.  He gives the showman his card to give to the man inside the tent.

After the doctor departs a policeman comes by and shuts the sideshow down as a public nuisance.  A man comes out of the tent covered in a heavy coat, burlap veil and hat.  The sideshow workers who had been entertaining us begin to harass the man, trying to get him to uncover himself to mock him further.  The policeman shoos them away, and then asks the covered man if he has a place to go.  He finds the doctor's card on him, and sends for him.

Thus begins the play.  After Frederick Treves, the doctor, departs with the Elephant Man into the theater,  the audience is invited into the theater with a few appropriate Victorian warnings (such as "If you have corsets that are laced too tightly, we strongly suggest that you do not go in.")

The play was a character play, its strength based on the feelings and developments of the few characters.  The actor who plays Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, does not wear a mask or outfit to emulate the deformities that afflicted the real Merrick, which include thick lips, a huge bone-like growth on his head, sagging cauliflower-like skin on the back of his neck, right arm, and both legs, and elephant-like extremities on all limbs except his left arm:

image source: The Human Marvels
Instead the actor, Patrick Curley, shapes himself into the twisted body that is Joseph Merrick, maintaining the his left foot permanently perched on the ball of the foot, the right arm mostly stiff and curled inward, and the mouth jutting to the left, the face expressionless.

At first I thought that the lack of costume to mirror Joseph Merrick's deformities was a cop-out, but as the play went on it didn't matter to me.  The play was about depicting this "freak of nature" as human.  It was obvious, from the way Merrick moved, talked, and interacted with other characters, that he was set apart from the other people.  But he is human, and to put some stage costume or makeup on him would have either not been enough to create the desired effect or too much that it would have made both actor and character seem ridiculously clownish to the audience, which was not the point of the story.  This play wasn't meant to be another freak show, but a story of a man whose humanity is recognized by people such as Dr. Joseph Treves and Mrs. Madge Kendal.  And yet it is these same people who see his humanity that push him to conform to the inhuman conventions of Victorian society.

It is this connection with society which ultimately kills him.  As he becomes more "normal" in their eyes his severe deformities worsen and his health deteriorates.  Although Merrick slept sitting up because of the weight of his head, one night he chooses to lie down to sleep like other people, with fatal consequences.

Although Merrick is "protected" by the characters in the play, one still gets the sense that he is being "used" very much like he was in the tent as a freak show participant.  The chairman of the Royal London Hospital uses him to raise funds for the hospital.  Treves uses him to rise up in his profession, becoming personal surgeon to the Prince of Wales himself.  Others use Merrick to feel more "Christian."  The only genuinely sincere character is Mrs. Kendal, who, in one moment of liberation from the constrictions of Victorian society, gives Merrick a view of beauty he has never experienced before.  By the end, however, characters such as the chairman and Dr. Treves come to appreciate Merrick not for what they made him into, but for what he was.  At that point it is too late. 

This play, not so much about physical deformities as about the freakish mental deformities present in society, is excellent commentary not only on the morally upright view of Victorian society that we hold today, but also on our own society, which still strives to make people conform to the "norm."

There are three more performances in Pittsburgh next weekend before The Ninth Wave moves on to one major performance at The Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia on April 11.  I strongly recommend it to anyone who will be in Pittsburgh or Philly on those dates.


  1. Thank you so much for coming to see our production of The Elephant Man and reviewing it here for your blog. I am so glad you liked the performance.

    I thought you would be interested to know that the playwright, Bernard Pomerance, indicates in his script that prosthetics and makeup are not to be used to create the character of John/Joseph Merrick. He seemed to hope that audience members would have exactly the reaction you describe.

    Also, while we are presenting the show at the Pittsburgh Playwrights space, our company is actually Ninth Wave Theatre. Check out our website at to see some of the other site-specific projects we've done.

    And, if you don't mind, I would like to link or repost your review on our website as well.

    Thanks again,

    Kelly McMahon
    Director, The Elephant Man

  2. Kelly,

    Great job on the play! And I am happy to know that I had the reaction Pomerance was hoping for.

    Of course you may repost this review on your website! I grant my permission.

    Thank you for alerting me to the proper name of the theater company. I've made the changes in the above review.


    Unlacing the Victorians