The Elephant Man and his friends

Last updated 00:00 22/08/2007
NEED FOR UNDERSTANDING: the Elephant Man has remained a source of fascination.

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The Elephant Man is returning to a Christchurch stage, writes CHRISTOPHER MOORE.

Somehow the Victorians refuse to leave us. It is 117 years since his death, but the ghost of The Elephant Man still haunts us.

Consider the story of Joseph Merrick – medical curiosity, freakshow exhibit and victim of the Victorians' endless search for novelty – a salutary tale of greed, exploitation, intolerance, but finally help. The life and death of this intelligent, sensitive man, grossly deformed by a rare disease, has been the subject of fascination for more than a century.

Bernard Pomerance's play, The Elephant Man, comes to Christchurch with a new production by Top Dog Theatre (University Theatre, Arts Centre, August 29 to September 8). The play focuses on the relationship between Merrick and the royal surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, who discovers Merrick in a fairground freakshow. He eventually gives him sanctuary in London Hospital.

Pomerance's play also reveals the enduring friendship between Merrick and the famous Victorian actress, Mrs Kendal. It won critical praise and several accolades, including a Tony Award and a long Broadway season from 1979 to 1981. The lead role was originally played by Philip Anglim and later David Bowie and Mark Hamill. One of Pomerance's directions is that no prosthetic makeup be used on the actor portraying Merrick.

But who was The Elephant Man?

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862. When he was two, his mother noticed darkened, discoloured skin growths. Lumps began developing under the boy's skin. Gradually the right side of his face and body began to swell and deform. By age 12, Merrick's right hand was grossly deformed. By his 20s, his entire face was distorted.

A diagnosis at the time was elephantiasis. It was not until 1996 that new techniques led to a diagnosis of the extremely rare Proteus syndrome, which is characterised by multiple lesions of the lymph nodes, an abnormally large head and partial gigantism of the feet.

By the late 1870s, Merrick had become an object of loathing and ridicule. In 1883, things improved when he took a job as a professional sideshow attraction. While being exhibited in the back of an empty shop in London's Mile End Road, he was seen by Treves, who asked Merrick to consent to be medically examined. Sideshows were eventually outlawed, and two years later, Merrick returned from work in Belgium, abandoned, sick and destitute.

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Treves was summonsed, and Merrick was given sanctuary at London Hospital and became the focus of fashionable attention. The Princess of Wales took an interest in his welfare. Society flocked to his rooms. He lived at London Hospital until he died in 1890.

Unable to sleep horizontally because of the weight of his head, he had spent years sleeping upright in a chair until, in an attempt to be normal, he lay down on a bed and died from suffocation after his windpipe was crushed. He was 27.

The Elephant Man's long journey didn't end there. His preserved skeleton was, for many years, exhibited in the Royal London Hospital before being removed from public view.

In 1987, a century after Joseph Merrick entered the hospital, the singer and entertainer Michael Jackson indicated that he wanted to buy the remains to add to his collection of rare and unusual memorabilia at his Californian ranch. Jackson's offer of $1 million was rejected by hospital authorities. The singer later denied that he had attempted to buy Merrick's remains.

* Top Dog Theatre: The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance. University Theatre (Arts Centre), 7pm, August 29 to September 8 (not Sunday). Book at Court Theatre.

- The Press

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