by Aaron Netsky, Columnist There was no “It Gets Better” campaign for the “Elephant Man.” Joseph Merrick, sometimes called John, was exhibited in freak shows in Victorian England and Europe, because large growths all over his body, stemming from a condition that remains a mystery to this day, caused him to bear some resemblance to an elephant. Police would often shut down such shows, but they usually chased the acts away; they did not break them up. So Merrick was very fortunate to catch the interest of Frederick Treves, a well-respected English doctor who eventually took Merrick in to improve his situation and, he hoped, his condition.
“To live with his physical hideousness, incapacitating deformities and unremitting pain is trial enough, but to be exposed to the cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and disgust by all who behold him---is even more difficult to bear.” So barks the character of Ross in Bernard Pomerance’s play, The Elephant Man, currently in revival on Broadway, based on Merrick’s years with Treves. The play follows Treves’s mission to help Merrick achieve the dream of being like everyone else, or as close as he can get. Viewers or readers of the play get some medical talk, but mostly Pomerance concentrates on the importance of positive social interactions, which Treves felt were important for Merrick’s psychological health.
In the play, this is primarily represented by the character of Mrs. Kendal, based on the Shakespearean and comedic actress Madge Kendal. Kendal may never have met Merrick in real life, but she was a major supporter. Francis Carr Gomm, chairman of the committee that ran the London Hospital, where Treves was treating and studying Merrick, managed to raise funds for Merrick’s open-ended stay at the hospital with a letter about his situation published in The Times. When Kendal learned about the situation, she helped raise those funds, and also helped arrange for Merrick to attend an evening of theatre, which he had long wished to do.
Mrs. Kendal is given the role of being the first woman to shake Merrick’s hand in the play, but in fact that was a friend of Treves’s named Leila Maturin. With considerable warning about his appearance, she was taken to visit him by Treves, and Merrick later said that she had been the first woman to smile at him. Given how he had spent the majority of his life to that point, this was probably true. The two kept in contact, and the experience was a step toward the feeling of normalcy Treves hoped to instill in his patient. Merrick also enjoyed a brush with royalty, as depicted in the play, when he met the Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra, when she and her husband visited the hospital to tour recently finished additions to it.
Interest in malformed people was common in Victorian England. Sitting rooms often contained books with pictures of the “Camel Girl” and the original “Siamese Twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker, for the entertainment of guests. Merrick’s case of admiration and affection despite appearance was not unique. The “Mule-Faced Woman,” Grace McDaniels, also billed as “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” reportedly received many a marriage proposal over the course of her life.
As a society, we’ve moved far away from the time when such people were only for display, and The Elephant Man captures that shift well. Perhaps it is fitting that, just as it took an actress to help bring awareness to the plight of the “Elephant Man” in 1880s London, actors and actresses continue to use his story remind audiences to look past what at first might be frightening to find something potentially beautiful.