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.
Director John Demita stages the nine-member ensemble on the tiny almost bare stage around a trio of portable, translucent screens, like hospital screens, which indeed come to represent the thin veneer of privacy in the hospital clinic where Merrick (Daniel Reichert) spends his final days. (Set designed by Steven Markus.) True to the Broadway staging, and in direct contrast to Lynch’s movie, the monstrosity of Merrick’s condition is revealed without a spec of makeup or any plastic-cloth constructions. Rather, Reichert contorts his body, down to the fused fingers we hear about in the dialogue and see in projected photographs.
Beyond that, an amazing phenomenon occurs that’s been part of theater tradition for at least two and half millenia. We, as the audience, transfer what we see in the photographs and hear in the descriptions onto the actor. It’s a kind of miracle really, of imagination and perhaps of magic, supported by the horrified reactions of other characters upon seeing Merrick’s deformities for the first time.
There are two sub-themes, the first expressed earnestly by Treves, about following rules “for our own good,” an idea that Pomerance ridicules. In the clinic where Merrick finds refuge, he’s eventually visited by a stream of aristocratic visitors and well-wishers, as Treves’ deed of salvation hits the press. Among those visitors is an actress named Mrs. Kendal (rendered by Abby Craden with a marvelously imperious rigidity, like a corset around her own kindness and curiosity). Realizing that Merrick has no knowledge or experience of sex, or women, she strips for him — a scene interrupted by the outraged, rule-bound Treves, who thereafter banishes the actress from the hospital.
Mrs. Kendal, being an actress, also brings up the notion of appearances and performances, which leads Merrick to postulate that Romeo, merely checking a mirror for signs of Juliet’s breath, jumped to the conclusion of her death without sufficient evidence. That he was fooled by an appearance, and so hasty in his conclusion, shows that Romeo couldn’t have loved Juliet as he kept claiming. Romeo only loved himself, Merrick theorizes; he was in love with the idea that he was in love rather than with the person he claimed so often to cherish. This analysis of Romeo can obviously be applied to Treves and his perhaps selfish “love” of “the other” — on which he’s also building his reputation.
When Mrs. Kendal offers her hand to Merrick (after a stream of other visitors have fled in horror), Merrick cautiously, even reluctantly, holds it. A 14-year-old girl in the front row tried to contain her emotion over such a simple and common gesture between two people. The girl was still sniffling and dabbing her eyes through intermission. That’s the play’s sentimental engine in full throttle. Merrick offers not a word of the bitterness or spite that make so many hospital patients so difficult to care for. Pomerance’s Merrick is a tortured angel, something of a prophet.
The production is meticulously acted, with superb performances also by Norman Snow as hospital administrator Carr Gomm, by Brian George doubling as Merrick’s carney-barker patron-thief, as well as a local Bishop.
I wish it weren’t so staid. The director introduces his ensemble with the promising tones of a Street Violinist (Max Quill), and a juggler (Aandrea Reblynn), who returns to show how Treves’ attempts to sustain funding for a ward are a juggling act, yet the show doesn’t quite push beyond the tone of the clinic where its action finally settles — despite Kim DeShazo Wilkinson’s lush and colorful costumes.
This may be the fault of the air conditioning that generates a drone of white noise through much of the action. If actors as good as these were given a quiet space, I’m guessing this production could soar.