By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Joseph Merrick died in 1890 in a London hospital, having suffocated after laying the back of his head down on a pillow — the way many of us do without even thinking about it when we want to relax. Merrick’s problem was that his head was so overgrown and heavy from an undiagnosed disease that left his body wracked with pain, twisted into deformity and bloated with stench-emitting tumors resembling cauliflowers, that the mere act of resting his head on a pillow fatally constricted his esophagus. Perhaps he was so weakened that he couldn’t help himself. Or perhaps he simply decided after a life of being tormented, abused and exploited for his deformities, enough was enough.
Though his true name was Joseph, hospital records erroneously have Merrick named John. It’s probably for that reason playwright Bernard Pomerance chose to name him John in his Tony Award–winning biographical drama, in 1979 (being given a stoic, respectful revival by North Hollywood’s Andak Stage Company). In the play, an acquaintance does call him Joseph, after which Frederick Treves (Andrew Matthews), the scientist who pulled him from a sideshow act on the brutal streets of London and Brussels and found him refuge in the London hopsital where he died, serves up a swift and imperious “correction.” It’s Treves who discovers Merrick to be a man of rare intelligence and sensitivity — locked behind layers of tumors. That Merrick’s savior — a compassionate man who also possesses a certain Puritan arrogance — couldn’t even get Merrick’s name right is one of Pomerance’s more subtle comments on the complex and nuanced quality of mercy.
David Lynch’s 1980 film adaptation of the play, a comparatively gothic treatment of the story, cast Anthony Hopkins as Treves. It’s not unrelated that Hopkins would go on to play the quasi-carniverous serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins’ Treves was discovering the monsters in society, all dressed up with nowhere to go and little to do except persecute people who don’t behave or appear like themselves. His Lecter was a man of stupendous intelligence and wit, who simply ate people — or pieces of them — for self-indulgence, fun and, perhaps, a little commentary on the hypocrisy of those living in the cage of conformity, a cage housing its own monstrosities.
In his very romantic and even sentimental play, Pomerance challenges our presumptions as to where monstrosity resides. This challenge dates back to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, King John, Macbeth, and Richard III, and Titus Andronicus, with their assortment of humped-backed and blood-lusting monsters, and their various motives for being so monstrous. It returns in Grimm’s fairy tales — from Little Red Riding Hood to Beauty and the Beast, which try to fathom the unfathomable distinctions between the monster outside us and the one within. These are cautionary tales about becoming too self-satisfied with one’s hollow presumptions of reason, compassion and empathy. Even with its gush, Phantom of the Opera is similarly about breaching divides between the “other” and ourselves, between the dark and the light, between death and life, between fear and aspiration. The musical Wicked gave such presumptions a social and perhaps even political spin on what it’s like to try to fit in when one’s skin is green, and when the culture’s Wizard-god is just another ambitious control freak.
In a 2007 edition of NPR’s This American Life, the Weekly’s food critic Jonathan Gold told the story of what it was like to sit at a restaurant table and eat a still-living prawn that had just been plucked from a tank for the diner’s satisfaction, and stripped of its protective shell — more Darwinian echoes of Little Red RidingHood and of how we eat the innocent for lunch without blinking an eye. Gold speaks of how the creature seemed to understand the situation, and stared back at him. Here was what we always think of as the “other,” unlike ourselves and therefore consumable. And yet there were the prawn’s defiant, penetrating eyes, not unlike our own, attached to the object to be sacrificed for the satisfaction if not indirect survival of the food critic. After he swallowed the prawn, the “other” became part of him — gastronomically and allegorically. Human monstrosity and that act of unwilling sacrifice by the “other,” as part of some ancient human ritual, form the two lobes in the brain of The Elephant Man.
In the play, Treves, portrayed by Matthews with bright-eyed, bow-tied self-assurance, is more Wizard than food critic, though being a scientist, he possesses a critic’s innate curiosity. He also possesses a critic’s common flaw of presuming he understands the entirety of a situation he simply does not. Treves’ getting his subject’s name wrong is one tiny illustration of that.
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