You’ve likely heard of the Elephant Man. He lived in the United Kingdom in the latter half of the 19th century, born as a “normal” baby, growing, each year, into inexplicable physical deformities, which ostracized him from society. Joseph Carey Merrick (in the stage play Merrick is referred to as John), rejected by his family, eventually found himself working as a sideshow exhibit in London. He went by the name Elephant Man.
“I didn’t remember how beautiful the language is,” says Threshold Rep’s Jay Danner of the stage play, The Elephant Man. Danner was originally approached by actor Patrick Arnheim, who pitched the idea of presenting Elephant Man. “I hadn’t read the play since high school,” says Danner. “Once I read it, I was like ‘Yeah, let’s do it.'”
Danner’s enthusiasm for the story is heartening, to say the least. Reading up on The Elephant Man, and watching clips from a dramatic (it has to be dramatic, doesn’t it?) 1980s TV movie, one has to wonder how emotionally exhausting it would be to recreate the life of such a tragic man. For Danner and Arnheim, it was a no-brainer.
“Whether or not people want to come see it is not always something I think about,” says Danner. “I could see it in my head, the style of it. If I feel like that, I think it’s worth the time and effort.” Adds Arnheim, “To want to take on a role likes this took a lot of trust.”
The Elephant Man begins with Dr. Frederick Treves, played by Josh Wilhoit, discovering Merrick at his sideshow exhibit. Treves takes Merrick under his wing, allowing him to live at the London Hospital, where the two become close friends.
“The play is slightly avant garde,” says Danner. “It lends itself to that. The way Bernard Pomerance wrote it didn’t call for prosthetics.” There are photos of Merrick (Google provides a wealth of recreations of his likeness), which depict his head as large and misshapen, his shoulders askew, one arm far larger than the other. It feels grotesque to reduce a man to his physical abnormalities, which may be why Pomerance decided to forgo an exact replication of Merrick in his stage production.
Written in 1977, The Elephant Man debuted at London’s Hampstead Theatre and was later performed at the National Theatre in London and eventually, on Broadway. As Danner said, the stage play doesn’t call for prosthetics, so the true nature of Merrick’s deformities must be assumed by both the actor and the audience.
“That’s what’s so beautiful and so difficult about the role,” says Arnheim, who joins the ranks of a number of famous actors who have portrayed Merrick, from David Bowie to, most recently, Bradley Cooper. “It forces you to suspend your disbelief,” says Arnheim, who, as Merrick, walks as the man did, and talks as if his speech is impaired (Merrick’s mouth was large and swollen, hindering his ability to talk).
“He was quite intelligent and he was never in the environment to express those things, which is one thing I love about the story,” says Danner. “He’s an artist at heart.” Dr. Treves encouraged Merrick’s growth as an artist, and as something of a socialite, bringing well-known members of London’s “high society,” to visit him.
One of those members, Madge Kendal, took an interest in Merrick, and while there are doubts as to whether the real Mrs. Kendal ever actually visited Merrick, in The Elephant Man she plays an important role. Portrayed by NYC-based actress Kelley Swindall, Kendal becomes one of the few women with whom Merrick ever interacts.
“The opportunity the doctor gives him allowed him the chance to lead a normal life,” says Wilhoit. “A lot of people may not have that chance even today. There’s a realization that humanity is very self-centered. You think the good of society will prevail but then you realize, not really.”
Merrick died at the age of 27. The exact cause of his death is unkown — asphyxiation or a severed spinal cord are most likely — but it is likely that Merrick died because he laid down to go to sleep. For most of his life Merrick had slept sitting up because of the size of his head. After his death, Dr. Treves surmised that Merrick had laid down to sleep as an attempt to, for once, be like everyone else.