The elephant in the room

Professor Nichola Rumsey and Lettie Kennedy review a production of The Elephant Man at the Haymarket Theatre in London, arguing that although we may have moved on from freak shows, physical appearance remains an under-discussed topic.

In 1977, when Bernard Pomerance’s play ‘The Elephant Man’ was first staged, understanding about the psychology of disfigurement was in its infancy. Research articles of the day focused on the many potential benefits of physical attractiveness, positing direct and proportionate relationships between the extent of a person’s attractiveness and the level of social success, educational or occupational achievement and self esteem the person enjoyed.

Set in the 1890s, The Elephant Man focuses on real-life figure Joseph Carey Merrick (known here as John, and played by Bradley Cooper), a young man whose appearance and physical health are severely compromised by a progressive disease, distorting his bones and resulting in multiple skin tumours. In the production of the play now showing at the Haymarket Theatre in London, the full extent of Merrick’s disfigurement is described by Dr Treves, a young Lecturer in Anatomy at The London Hospital with a particular interest in the diagnosis and treatment of rare diseases. Treves refers to greater-than-life-size medical photographs of John Merrick, while before the audience, initially standing tall and strong, Cooper transforms himself into Merrick through the artful use of altered posture and gait, a distorted facial appearance and impaired diction. The metamorphosis of a physically imposing Hollywood star into a man twisted and bent by multiple deformities is a powerful and sensitive touch by the production, and primes the audience to remember throughout the play that underneath the disfigurement is a ‘normal’ human being.

Abandoned by his parents to a workhouse and dubbed ‘The Elephant Man’ as the result of his skin condition, Merrick’s only option for survival in Victorian England is to make himself a spectacle for public amusement. Exploited by a showman charging customers to see ‘the freak’, his appearance becomes more shocking to the freak show audiences as his disease progresses, and the showman eventually casts him loose.  The abandoned Merrick is rescued by Treves and, funded by donations from a public appeal, becomes a permanent resident at The London Hospital. Unable to recruit nurses to care for him, Treves enlists the help of a celebrated actress, weary of the stage, to visit Merrick. Encouraged by Treves to ‘rehearse’ beforehand to enable her to withstand the shock of Merrick’s appearance, Mrs Kendall is quick to see past his disfigurement to the man beneath, and vows not only to visit regularly herself, but also to use her social connections to provide Merrick with a coterie of ‘friends’. As Merrick exchanges the baying mob for the gentile attentions of high society, who bring expensive gifts and showily chorus their sense of identity with him, an affable temperament, imaginative sensibility and keen wit emerge to lighten the play. Merrick becomes a noble savage of sorts, his trustfulness and charm a mirror reflecting the intolerance and hypocrisy of others. When Treves realises that Merrick's condition leaves him only a few years to live, Merrick graduates to tragic hero, prompting Treves to interrogate his own belief in the rationality of science as his patient and friend deteriorates.

Insofar as he challenges us to better understand first impressions, friendships and long-term relationships, Pomerance might be credited with the ability to see ahead from the 1970s to the present day and our own, more understanding time. However, Pomerance uses Merrick primarily as a device to critique do-gooding Victorian society rather than exploring an individual possessed of inner life and character: we see too little reflection and enquiry about the stigmatisation of which he must have been acutely aware, or the depression from which he reportedly suffered.

Indeed, reflection and enquiry of this kind has been slow to impact on society in general. Although awareness of the damaging effects of derogatory language and the consequences of negative stereotypes and beliefs about the origins and concomitants of disfigurement have increased, the personal accounts of many of those affected still resonate with (albeit less frequent) examples of discrimination and stigma in multiple forms. Our attitudes may have moved on from the crude caricatures of the 1890s (and to a lesser extent the 1970s too), but the ever more airbrushed and unrealistic beauty ideals portrayed in the media reinforce the reality that living with a visible difference in this social context is unlikely to become less challenging in the foreseeable future. This play reminds us that, while we have come a long way from the freak shows, we should be doing much more to challenge the myth that physical appearance is the key to happiness and success in life.

- Reviewed by Nichola Rumsey (Professor of Appearance Psychology, Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England, Bristol) and Lettie Kennedy. The play runs until 8 August.

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