The Elephant Man

Joseph Carey Merrick’s model of St. Phillip’s church.

  • Play title: The Elephant Man 
  • Author: Bernard Pomerance 
  • Written/first printed: 1979 
  • Page count: 70  


The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance tells the story of a man who suffered from a medical disorder that progressively disfigured him. The play is based on the true-life story of Joseph Carey Merrick from Leicester who died aged 27 in the year 1890. The focus of this drama is the transformation of Merrick’s life brought about by the support of Dr. Frederick Treves of the London Hospital. Merrick initially made his living as an exhibit at various freak shows in London and Brussels before his move to the London Hospital as a permanent resident. This play may be viewed as an historical drama as it explores the meaning of benevolence in late Victorian London and what effects charity and care had on a recipient such as Merrick. The central theme is normality and how it may or may not be achieved.  

Ways to access the text: Reading/watching. 

A full PDF file of the play is available online via azactorsacademy. 

The play is reader friendly, however, if you do wish to watch it then the recommended version closest to the original play is a tv movie from 1982, entitled The Elephant Man which is available on YouTube. This is different from the film version starring John Hurt released in 1980. It is of interest that Pomerance says of the “Elephant Man” in the introductory note to the play, “any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.” It is important to keep this advice in mind if you do choose to view rather than read the play.   

Why read The Elephant Man 

Dramatization of a true account.  

It seems cliched to recommend a work because it is based on a true story. However, Merrick’s medical condition was so unusual that a replica of his skeleton is still on display in the museum of the Royal London Hospital. Among the famous books on Merrick are one by his physician, Dr. Treves, from 1923, and one by Ashley Montagu from 1971, and these form the basis of the biographical information for Pomerance’s play. It is relevant for a reader to know that Merrick was a real man with this horrible condition because it adds pathos to the story. Merrick’s condition was formerly thought to be neurofibromatosis but is now believed to have been Proteus syndrome. The most obvious symptom was bodily disfigurement which consisted of excessive growth of skin and bone in various parts of the body. This made Merrick’s face look almost alien, made speech difficult for him, and facial displays of emotion impossible. The circumference of his head measured nearly 3 feet (1 metre) by the time of his death. When one reads the play, it becomes apparent that empathy has a vital role, yet its absence is repeatedly depicted. Knowing that this is a true story makes one consider the predicament that Merrick was in, especially as he was born a seemingly normal child, but this condition later revealed itself and got progressively worse. As true stories go, this one is exceptional.  

Death by benevolence.  

Pomerance’s play deals with the concepts of personal and societal benevolence and what underpins such attitudes. Upon reading many summaries of this play, one would presume that Merrick is saved by Dr. Treves either by some medical intervention, or through basic kindness and support. Paradoxically, neither of these presumptions are totally wrong yet the drama reveals something unexpected. What the reader learns is that Merrick and Treves have almost equal influence on each other, and this is dramatized in their sometimes uncomfortable and challenging interactions. This play is not a saccharine tale of how a doctor received a life lesson from a deformed patient, it is an investigation into the often positive but sometimes detrimental results of interference in another’s life. It is up to the reader to decide what eventually kills Merrick. Could it possibly be kindness?   

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

Exploitation disguised as charity.  

John Merrick, as we meet him at the play’s opening, is struggling to maintain independence in the most adverse of conditions. He performs in freak shows to earn money, suffering “humiliations, in order to survive”. When he is in Belgium with his manager Ross, he says “in Belgium we make money. I look forward to it. Happiness, I mean”. Unfortunately, Ross soon discards Merrick because it is not possible to obtain a performance license, and he also robs the deformed man’s life savings. Ironically, Dr. Treves had already met John Merrick before this failure in Brussels. Indeed, it was because of the disgust of one of Dr. Treves’ anatomy students, learning that John worked in a freak show, which resulted in John having to flee England. By paying Ross “5 bob” for John’s services, even if reluctantly, Treves had already dehumanized the deformed man. Also, displaying him like an exhibit in front of anatomy students does not indicate any compassion or empathy on the doctor’s behalf. In this light, ever before Dr. Treves dramatically comes to the rescue, the reader is aware of his less than honourable actions. Upon returning to London, Merrick is penniless and vulnerable to an attack from a public mob when he meets Dr. Treves for the second time. Merrick, the man who long strived for independence has been reduced to begging, saying “help me!” This vulnerability is arguably exploited by Dr. Treves and the London hospital.  

One may say that Merrick has simply changed masters, from Ross to Treves. For example, Gomm’s letter to The Times newspaper eventually results in sufficient funds “that Merrick may be supported for life without a penny spent from hospital funds.” Yet, Merrick is still held to a contract of sorts which he mentions in passing to Mrs. Kendal. The unwritten contract is not unlike his old contract with Ross, a contract to perform. Under the new contract, Dr. Treves expects Merrick to stringently observe the rules, explicitly making him repeat the phrase, “if I abide by the rules I will be happy.” Dr. Treves proclaims that they will provide “normality” for Merrick, however, they strive instead to make him normal. The demands on Merrick include practicing polite conversation, welcoming affluent and influential guests, and generally responding to Treves’ expectations.  

It is necessary to consider the finances of the situation. Just as Ross once described Merrick as financial “capital,” Gomm similarly says of Merrick, “he knows I use him to raise money for the London” (hospital). Therefore, Dr. Treves’ benevolent actions not only improve the reputation of the hospital, but they result in a financial windfall and meanwhile the doctor publishes several successful papers on Merrick’s medical condition. When Ross returns with a new proposition for the now transformed Merrick, he says “you’re selling the same service as always. To better clientele.” Ross once proclaimed Merrick as a “despised creature without consolation,” a perverse, promotional slogan that appealed to the freak show audiences who paid tuppence per ticket. Much later, Gomm addresses a letter to the charitable donors of the hospital to inform them of Merrick’s death, a letter to be published in The Times newspaper. This letter contains a true insult to Merrick because Gomm, like Ross before him, manufactures a message that the benevolent public will most gladly consume. The text reads that Merrick “quietly passed away in his sleep” and conceals the truth that he died of asphyxiation! As such, Merrick is still being treated as “capital.” The paying public must be given what they most desire and in return they will open their wallets and purses.   

It is not fair to assert that Dr. Treves sets out to exploit Merrick, but it is the unfortunate, final result. While the financial exploitation is made clear to the reader, it goes beyond that. The two dream sequences of Dr. Treves’ show his own facility for self-criticism, and this is a turning point in the story when the main authority figure realizes his mistake. In the dream, Dr. Treves and Merrick undergo a reversal of roles and Treves is exposed to the style of treatment he formerly doled out. Standing before a gawking audience, Dr. Treves’ normality is coldly observed and critiqued, including his “vision of benevolent enlightenment.” This vision of Treves’ has its foundations in Victorian morals and the certainties of a great imperialistic power such as England was at the time. The strongest criticism from Merrick is that Treves is “unable to feel what others feel, nor reach harmony with them” which echoes his earlier criticism when the porter, Will, was fired by Treves and Merrick said, “if your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice.” Treves was indeed devoid of empathy for Merrick’s situation and went about crudely moulding him into a “normal man,” remaining totally insensitive to the psychological costs. The final interpretation must be that Dr. Treves’ prescribed form of normality is deeply oppressive and leads to the cruel exploitation of Merrick, not his salvation. 

The church model metaphor.  

There are several remarkably interesting images and allusions which are repeated throughout the play, namely the model of St. Phillip’s Church, women’s corsets, and Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. However, as it is not possible to consider all of them due to the desired brevity of this discussion, only the church will be considered here.   

Pomerance’s introductory note to the work states that “the church model constitutes some kind of central metaphor, and the groping of conditions where it can be built and the building of it are the action of the play.” Once Merrick has seen the real St. Phillip’s, he concludes that “it is not stone and steel and glass; it is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud.” In this respect, his church model is an imitation of an imitation as he says himself, and Treves adds that Plato had a similar theory. Indeed, the play presents several episodes where illusion conflicts with reality. To start to unravel the meaning of the church model, one must begin with a working definition of what Merrick means by grace. In its religious sense, a dictionary definition would explain grace as, ‘the unearned favour of God.’ It could also mean ‘elegance of movement’ if one considers the architectural beauty of a church spire reaching high into the sky. In both respects Merrick is lacking, he has been made in the image of God but as he quips, “he should have used both hands shouldn’t he” meaning that God did him no favour, and Merrick also has a pronounced limp so possesses no grace of movement. If the church model is a metaphor, then Merrick is striving to find or create an environment where he reaches some form of grace. What is clear is that his starting point is his painful consciousness of his own incompleteness, his flaws, and his perceived need to transform.

In the action of the play, Merrick’s gradual completion of the church’s model parallels his own improvements in speech and manners. At the end of several scenes, he adds yet another piece to the model. It is most significant that Merrick adds the final piece after Dr. Treves breaks down and must be consoled by the bishop. Treves compares himself to a gardener who has manipulated nature, who has “pruned, cropped, pollarded and somewhat stupefied” all that is under his care. Dr. Treves experiences a crisis because he has made Merrick “dangerously human” meaning that he has robbed him of his identity. Treves says, “we polished him [Merrick] like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch.” It is tragic because Merrick was all too willing to conform to the demands of his taskmaster in a desire to reach normality. The “Elephant Man” has followed all the rules in an attempt to fit into his new home and now it seems that the man who decided the rules, Treves, has been wrong all along. The play ends with Merrick’s dream of the Pinhead ladies who sing, “sleep like others you learn to admire” which is of course the ultimate cause of his death because he abandons his normal sitting posture for sleeping which is safe for him and tries instead to sleep like a normal man. The changes that Merrick hoped would transform him into a man like all others, his striving for grace, led him on a path of self-destruction. The construction of the model, the building of the illusion, serves as a foil for his own final disillusionment with a model of living that betrays him, even kills him. 

Works Cited.

Montagu, Ashley. The Elephant Man, A Study in Human Dignity. Acadian House Publishing, 1971.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. Grove Press, 1979.

Treves, Frederick. The Elephant Man, And Other Reminiscences. Cassell and Company Ltd., 1923.