"He was highly intelligent, had an acute sensibility and worse for him, a romantic imagination," Frederick Treves said of John Merrick. There was no need to add that Merrick was a hideously malformed young man who, the closer he came to a kind of normalcy, the closer he came to death. And now Bernard Pomerance's moving and remarkable play about Merrick, "The Elephant Man," has come from Off Off Broadway to Broadway, where it opened last night at the Booth.
Not unlike patrons of the freak shows in which Merrick was exposed until he found care and a measure of understanding in London Hospital in 1886, we watch this grotesque's intellectual progress and physical degeneration with fascination. And something more. For Pomerance takes us to the very heart of this awesome, true, oft-repeated story in which Merrick's "romantic imagination" is checked by the good doctor, Treves, who brings Merrick fame and position as a kind of lionized freak.
"If your mercy is so cruel," says Merrick, "what do you have for justice?"
In the four years that Merrick dwelt in London Hospital, Whitechapel, until he died in 1890 of asphyxiation brought on by the nodding (subconsciously willed?) of his enormous head, he learned to express his native wit, he developed poise, and he designed and constructed the model for a cathedral that remains on view at the hospital.
Pomerance' sensitive, never sentimental writing (he has revised the second half a bit, by the way, mostly to clarify a subsidiary situation in which Treves is swindled) is beautifully realized in all respects. David Jenkins' extraordinary boxlike setting, twice as effective expanded for Broadway, conjures up its many characters (played by eight actors) from its dim sides. And under Jack Hofsiss' fluid direction, the 21 scenes succeed one another effortlessly. This is one of the most imaginative pieces of staging in town.
The three principal characters - merrick, Treves and the actress Mrs. Kendal - are impeccably performed by Philip Anglim, Kevin Conway and Carole Shelley, in that order. Though these are the main roles, both Conway and Shelley are seen also as, respectively, a Belgian policeman and a freak-show pinhead, and all but one of the remaining actors play two or more roles. In one vivid scene, the latter are royal visitors, each of whom finds in Merrick a likeness to himself.
We can now add Anglim's name to the growing list of bravura performances by actors playing stricken people on Broadway. Merely by twisting his trunk and right arm out of shape, walking pigeon-toed and speaking with effort, he convinces us that he is this misshapen man whose genuine pictures have already been shown to us so that we automatically superimpose Merrick's defects on the actor's unblemished frame.
Conway is splendid, indeed, as Treves, to whom his patient's condition remains a mystery and who, like Dysart in "Equus," winds up questioning the value of normalcy. And Shelley is superbly at her very best as Mrs. Kendal, who amusedly consents to visit Merrick when nurses are repelled by the sight and stench of him, and who develops a deep sympathy for this bright, lonely man encased in a body of supreme ugliness. In one of the evening's most affecting scenes, Merrick, who has been reading "Romeo and Juliet," analyzes Romeo for Mrs. Kendal, who has played Juliet, and finds him lacking in any love but self-love which, says Merrick, seals his doom. "If I had been Romeo," he says, "we'd have gotten away."
There are other praiseworthy performances by Richard Clarke as the urbane hospital head, and I. M. Hobson as both an Anglican bishop and Merrick's greedy and raffish manager. Cellist David Heiss, positioned along the sidelines, plays concert excerpts while furniture and props are shifted between scenes.
"The Elephant Man" is ravishing theater and, because of the moral questions it raises, profoundly disturbing.
Whenever you think the theater is finished that is precisely when it looks up, grins, and takes interest. This has not been the greatest New York theater season of all time - not the worst but not the greatest - but within the last few days everything has been coming up roses.
Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man, which opened at the Booth Theater last night, has already been seen Off-Off Broadway. Indeed for the past few weeks it was the hottest ticket in town. Now it has come to roost on Broadway and deserves to stay for as long as forever can ever be in purely theatrical terms. And this wonderful, moving play is purely theatrical.
Pomerance is an American who lives in England, and the play was first given, quite modestly, by a London Off-Off Broadway house. Richmond Crinkley brought it to New York a few months in an Off-Off Broadway Theater. Now it is in full fig on Broadway. It looks marvelous. The cast, understandably, is much the same.
Pomerance has based his play on the issue of oddity. The halt and the maimed, and whether they should enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or even be permitted to live. What is a human freak? Especially to a human freak.
The playwright has based his story on a genuine case history. John Merrick was born a freak, and exhibited in circuses. In 1886 he was seen by a young physician at the London Hospital, Frederick Treves. Merrick died in 1890.
Merrick was hideously deformed and sadly used by society. At first, in his original circus, he was a side-show for pennies. Rescued by Treves, adored, at least briefly, by the society of his day, he became another side-show for his genteel generation. He was patronized rather than beaten.
The play is nothing but Merrick's exploration into death. His life is on the verge of meaningless, yet he maintains some spirit of renewal. Treves, a smug yet honest Great Victorian, does his best to keep Merrick alive. But even so, he is only asking a penny for the peepshow. Treves' morality is a movable feast. Yet it has its validity.
Merrick is a stranger. His body is grotesque - yet his mind is limitless, and his dreams seem to reach out to eternity. He walks with a limp, and his entire body is obscenely deformed. Yet the mind has its own ideals and passions.
Pomerance's theme is as fascinating as his treatment of it is dazzling. He makes sadness into tragedy. First there is the incredible treatment of the Elephant Man himself. He is played by a young and handsome man, and his deformed body is represented by nothing more than a twist and curl of the actor's bodily perfection.
Merrick's journey through life - his need to make contact, his sexual need for women, his ironic awareness of his own hideousness - is made totally explicable by the play. But what is almost more interesting is the way Pomerance conceives the people around him - particularly perhaps Treves, who rescued him, for a time and at a price, and the actress Mrs. Kendal, who befriended him.
Jack Hofsiss has directed the play with special sensibility for its nuances and suggestions, and the settings by David Jenkins, the costumes by Julie Weiss and the lighting by Beverly Emmons, all play their perfect parts.
But finally it is the acting that works. This is a vehicle for actors - a Grand Prix for histrionic drivers. Richard Clarke, as an unctuous but efficient fundraiser for the London Hospital, and I.M. Hobson, as both Merrick's first entrepreneur and later a Bishop, are quite wonderful.
However the three performances that have the audience standing on its feet come from Philip Anglim as a superbly tortured Merrick, Carole Shelley, exquisite as the actress who befriends him and Kevin Conway, bluff, bewildered and honest, as Treves.
The was an interesting play Off-Off-Broadway. On Broadway it has taken on a new dimension. To see it is a great experience. It suggests reverberations to the occasional grace of infirmity, and a commentary on our attitude towards it.
"Elephant Man," that haunting parable about natural man trading his frail beauty and innocence for the protection and prison of society, has made a splendid move to Broadway.
Bernard Pomerance's play, with its array of shining performances, opened last night at the Booth Theater. It survives its transfer from its earlier showing at the Theater of St. Peter's Church with no dilution of its character. If anything, it has been strengthened.
While Philip Anglim, as the deformed innocent, is as remarkable as ever, Carole Shelley's witty and passionate performance as the actress who reaches out to him has grown even more exuberant. And as Treves, the idealistic doctor who bestows the protection of civilization upon the deformed man and comes to realize, tragically, how destructive his philanthropy has been, Kevin Conway has turned a fine performance into a towering one.
The Elephant Man after which the play is named was a real person who lived in the latter part of the last century. Hideously deformed, with spongy excrescences growing from his face and body, he was rescued from a freak show and taken into a London hospital. There, thanks to the devotion of his doctors, and an effective publicity campaign, he became an object of public interest and something of a social lion as well.
Mr. Pomerance has used this figure to construct an image of the unspoiled natural man. Like the Kaspar Hauser in Werner Herzog's film, whom he considerably resembles, John Merrick has an uncomfortably pure sense of the good, an instinctive religious aspiration, and a style of thought so unspoiled and direct that he is continually sabotaging the tutored assumptions of his protectors.
The deformity is used not for its own sake but to separate the protagonist from the society he encounters. Mr. Anglim suggests this deformity without makeup. Instead he uses disciplined but fluid contortion of his body and a thickened, halting quality in his speech. Onstage he is a spirit struggling in chains, and the effort gives his lines a transforming energy.
And what lines they are. He is always looking at things either at startlingly close range or at a startling distance. When a nurse hired to tend him flees shrieking from his ugliness he simply thanks Treves, who has taken the precaution of holding on to the tray, for saving his lunch.
When the hospital authorities, determined to protect him from intrusive curiosity, discharge a porter for staring, he seems not to notice the attempted kindness. "If your mercy is so cruel, what must your justice be like?" he asks.
His innocence manages to put in question all the assumptions, the order, the power of a society - the Victorian - that considered itself to have abolished once and for all the age-old dichotomy between doing good and doing well. And yet, like Lear's fool, he is helpless and terrified of being dispossessed from the protection that has been given him.
Treves, played by Mr. Conway with bluff, bursting energy, is a sincere moralist and a sincere success. He is a brilliant doctor and destined for big things. He shows total conviction as he, the Victorian missionary, gradually teaches the Elephant Man to conform to the habits and expectations of society.
But Mr. Pomerance has not given us a prig. Treves is gradually possessed by the magical innocence of his patient, even as the patient becomes attached to the comforts and social advantages of being a scientific celebrity. The doctor begins to realize what is being destroyed. At one point he tells a colleague that the more "normal" the Elephant Man becomes, the more the illness that will kill him is advancing.
What he is saying by implication, and goes on to say more explicitly at the play's end, is that the free and boundless spirit of his patient has been gradually crushed. The Elephant Man gradually loses the questioning vitality he has at the start. He becomes an internal captive. His energy is channeled, as he sickens, into completing the model of a church. Art, for Mr. Pomerance, is a substitute for the natural grace that we lose in living.
Weaving through this grave and affecting parable are a series of lighter strands. There are the representatives of British society who come to visit the patient, and the freak-show empresario who betrays him at the start and returns, fruitlessly, to beg for help at the end.
I.M. Hobson plays three of the auxiliary characters, each in a totally different style and with equal dexterity. He is an orotund bishop, who discharges his rolling phrases like cannonades, settling his ponderous upper lip back in place after each one. He is a bitter desperate braggart as the empresario, and a sweetly meditative hospital porter. Mr. Hobson will be a candidate not for one but for three supporting actor awards.
The most splendid of these lighter strands is the role of the actress. Carole Shelley is golden and regal, the professional contracted by Treves to visit the deformed man and, using her acting, mask the disgust that every other woman has shown. Miss Shelley practices on Treves four different styles of affectionate treatment, bewitching him and captivating us.
But she goes on, with her grace and her wit, to open up the startling gifts of expression that have been buried in the Elephant Man. And finally she answers the bottled-up sexual longing of the sick man with the most touching of gestures: stripping to the waist for him.
Although the second act has been tightened up since the play was performed at St. Peter's, it is still the weaker portion. In part it is inevitable: the opening up of the Elephant Man is more exciting than his decline. And furthermore many of the themes that are dramatized at the beginning remain to be expounded at the end. They are expounded very well indeed, but some of the play's immediacy flags a bit.
This slowing down is perhaps less a defect than a trait. "Elephant Man" is an enthralling and luminous play. Apart from those already mentioned, credit should be given to the faultless direction by Jack Hofsiss, the fine, bleak set by David Jenkins, Juile Weiss's costumes and Beverly Emmons's lighting.