I won’t be able to review, and therefore shouldn’t comment, on Backyard Renaissance/Oceanside Theatre Company’s production of The Elephant Man. I dramaturged the play twice before and, when asked, did a talk for the cast about the background. Here are excerpts from the notes.
Bernard Pomerance wrote his minimalist play for a British audience in 1977. He probably assumed they’d talk because, taken together, they build a backdrop of the Victorian era (1837–1901) reflected in the play itself.
The Victorians — i.e., the 300 wealthiest families who owned over 90 percent of the land — considered themselves “the father of the family of society.” They believed they were divinely appointed to rule, like the queen, and must improve the world as best they could. They were some of the most entitled people who ever lived.
They demanded strict morality (think: the repressed students in the musical, Spring Awakening), rigid order, and harsh punishment. Their goal: maintain the status quo. And yet the ruling class granted itself private liberties as ornate as their gingerbread houses.
The Elephant Man takes place between 1884 and 1890. During this period, the great veneer of Victorian propriety began to come apart. Pomerance references the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) having “public affairs,” one with Lillie Langtry, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” He even bought her a house. Many members of the landed gentry also dallied beyond marital bounds.
The ever-expanding British empire experienced its first major defeat: the play twice mentions Major General George “Chinese” Gordon’s death at Khartoum in 1885.
The economy was tilting toward the international Panic of ’93.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, that man came from the apes, took greater hold, except among the 300 families, though the rising middle class began to trespass on their territory.
Thus a split began between the polished outward image and the facts behind it: propriety versus hypocrisy; order versus encroaching chaos. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about it in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1886) — as did Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), where people have one identity for the city, another for the country.
A split personality may have struck closer to home. John Merrick, “the Elephant Man,” came back to England in 1886. Fredrick Treves, a promising young surgeon, brought him to the Royal London Hospital for examination. The “London” is in Whitechapel, at the East End, one of the most poverty-wracked areas of the city (there’s a Dickens novel just outside the door). In the play, Carr Gomm, chairman of the hospital, tells Treves, “Ignore the squalor of Whitechapel, the general dinginess, neglect, and poverty.” Treves finds a way to keep Merrick at the hospital, where the “Elephant Man” remained until his death in 1890.
Between 1888 and 1891, Jack the Ripper murdered prostitutes with horrific frenzy in Whitechapel. Rumors, unthinkable at the time — and still — whispered that the Ripper might actually be Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales. Albert, who frequented the district and was known to consort with the “baser elements,” died in 1891.
Whether true or not — and the nay’s deny it vehemently — the stark duality echoes the age: in this case the image of exalted royalty linked with the gruesome fact of a serial slasher.
Dorian Gray maintains his youthful image for decades, while his portrait erodes unseen. Pomerance has Merrick become almost the reverse. The more people get past “the ugliest man in the world,” they’re surprised to discover positive qualities. Treves, for example, says he was “highly intelligent” and had an “acute sensibility.”
But it’s a reversal only up to a point. In their vanity, the image-conscious Victorians who visit Merrick, and adopt him like a kind of pet, see their best features mirrored in him, not their own deformities.
And Merrick, in an eerie irony, just wants to be “normal”; in other words, to be like them.
Some say The Elephant Man now lacks relevance. But it takes place during the Gilded Age, which many historians now compare to our own.