Looking for Joseph Merrick

By Alison Croggon
Malthouse Theatre’s ‘The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man’ runs the risk of erasing its protagonist
Daniel Monks as Joseph Merrick. Photograph by Pia Johnson

The story of Joseph Merrick, popularly known as the Elephant Man, has a huge absence in its centre: Merrick himself. Ever since his death, aged 27, in 1890, imagination has rushed to fill in that missing subjectivity.

The latest offering is Tom Wright’s The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, which has been given an overwhelmingly beautiful production by Matthew Lutton and his team at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre (until August 27). The design and performances are astonishingly good, and Wright’s text, an episodic series of vignettes that creates, as is promised in the title, an imagined biography of Merrick based on some of the known facts of his life, is lyrically written and theatrically intelligent.

Merrick is performed by Daniel Monks, himself disabled, and the four other actors, who play multiple roles, are cast with an eye to difference from the white male norm of Enlightenment-era Europe. They are all female, Paula Arundell is a woman of colour, and Emma J Hawkins is short-statured.

Daniel Monks, dignified, resistant, is onstage for almost the entire show, the vulnerable centre of our attention. Around him, Arundell, Hawkins, Julie Forsyth and Sophie Ross enact a huge cast of characters, spinning their performances on a dime to create a hallucinogenic parable. There are moments of enormous beauty and grace in both the production and the text, and Arundell’s performance – beguiling, powerful, icily precise – is alone worth the price of the ticket.

They’re backed by a superb production team. Marg Horwell’s design, with the help of Paul Jackson’s atmospheric lighting, uses the barest essentials – geometric light screens, billowing smoke, a few props and items of furniture – to evoke Industrial Revolution Britain on a bare stage. Jethro Woodward is one of the best sound designers in our theatre, and has created a textured, evocative score.

And yet. And yet. For all the care of the production’s framing, I was left with a nagging question: at what point, in even the best-intentioned critiques, does art unwittingly reproduce and confirm the very attitudes it is critiquing?

There are elements in The Elephant Man that have uncomfortable reverberations with the furore in 2014 around South African playwright–artist Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, which re-created the popular human zoos of the late 19th century. As one of the young black performers asked of Bailey, “How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?”

It is difficult not to feel that this “real and imagined history”, a brave attempt to step through the voluminous literature – medical reports, books, plays, films – that has grown around Merrick, is merely, again, erasing Joseph Merrick.

What we know about him has been mediated through others from the beginning. The most influential publication is Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, which inspired most of the subsequent plays and films.

Montagu resurrected an obscure 1923 narrative, part of a longer reminiscence, by the Victorian surgeon Sir Frederick Treves. This is the tale that’s become familiar: the tragedy of a beautiful soul trapped inside a monstrous body. “I supposed that Merrick was imbecile and had been imbecile from birth,” writes Treves, after graphically describing the horrors of Merrick’s body. “That he could appreciate his position was unthinkable.”

To Treves, and later to Montagu, Merrick is primarily an insoluble medical problem that poses a moral lesson in the persistence of the human spirit. Montagu’s account, like Treves’, is deeply sentimental, but that obscures the obscenity of how Merrick is transfixed in what Foucault called the “medical gaze”, which diagnoses, defines and imprisons him. We see endless descriptions, coroner’s reports, accounts of reactions to his hideousness, but we hear very little of Merrick himself.

What Merrick ultimately becomes in these accounts is a mirror of the kindness of the privileged: not only the medical profession, which charitably rescues Merrick from a life of degradation in sideshows, but his wealthy benefactors. In an appendix, we are told of Lady Dorothy Nevill, whose “sympathy was so awakened on his behalf that she offered him a cottage on her estate for some weeks, on condition that he did not leave it until after dark”.

Wright’s text attempts to be an unsentimental correction of this narrative. It’s not so much a biography of Merrick as a theatrical critique of the impact of industrial capitalism on the human body, how it literally inscribes itself on the bodies of workers and turns the human being into stereotypical norms. Enlightenment medicine and science, in their passion for categorisation and measurement, are shown as major mechanisms of this social conformity.

Wright attacks head-on the narrative of disinterested medical kindness, suggesting that hospitals were created more for the benefit of those outside them than those inside. In a particularly confronting scene, he exposes the sideshow aspect of medicine, where Merrick was displayed as a medical freak. (Merrick later refused to take part in these expositions.)

Wright’s point is that the supposed “kindness” of the charitable doctors is as inimical to Merrick’s humanity as the showmen who exploited him. In Treves’ account, medical enlightenment rescued Merrick from a horrific life – abandoned by his family, rejected by society and forced to exist as a sideshow exhibit – to give him haven in Royal London Hospital, where he became a magnet for high-society ladies, even royalty, anxious to demonstrate their capacity for compassion.

In a supposedly autobiographical pamphlet, Merrick’s account differs in several ways from Treves: for example, he presents his sideshow career as his own decision. In a 1923 letter, Merrick’s former manager Tom Norman (“65 years a Butcher, Farmer, Showman, Auctioneer”) indignantly corrected some of Treves’ assertions of mistreatment, claiming that “the big majority of showmen are in the habit of treating their novelties as human beings, and in a large number of cases as one of their own, and not like beasts”.

Norman’s account is no doubt as self-interested as Treves’, but it raises the possibility that Merrick’s immurement in hospital, so much less offensive to the middle-class norms of the time, was more exploitative than his sideshow career. Before freak shows were outlawed in Britain, driving the circuit to the continent to find work, Merrick was able to save £50 – a fortune for a working-class man. According to Norman’s letter, he refused charitable donations, saying, “We are not beggars, are we, Thomas?” It may well have been that Merrick felt that earning his keep in a freak show was more dignified than subsisting on charitable donations from the rich and curious.

Other accounts of circus “freaks”, such as circus performer Daniel P Mannix’s We Who Are Not As Others, suggest there might be some truth in this. “A good freak is so important that usually the concessionaire won’t allow him to appear in the pit with the other acts,” says Mannix. “The crowd must pay an additional fee to see him, often much more than they paid to see the rest of the show.” Mannix’s book talks of people cruelly treated at home and in society who found community, the dignity of earning a good wage, and even happy marriages on the freak show circuit, and who were miserable when they were confined to institutions when freak shows were outlawed.

This possibility is never touched on in the play, no doubt because freak shows do cause moral revulsion. But it means that, despite the production’s careful framing, Merrick’s autonomy is unimaginable. He is presented equally as the helpless victim of the society in which he lives and of his body, which becomes a palimpsest for a more abstract notion of nature. Until his final speech, when Merrick tells his carers they are the real monsters and escapes the hospital, he remains almost completely a cipher. For the entire middle of the play he is traumatically mute and isolated, and is wholly defined and measured by the words and gestures of those who surround him.

When Merrick finally rebels, he claims himself as a body continually evolving into its own being to become a different species, a “species of one”. And while, on the one hand, I can read here the Romantic embrace of difference that’s seen in, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Pied Beauty’, on the other, Wright flings Merrick out of the human race altogether, as a vision of post-humanity. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough othering.

As a result, we are mere witnesses to Merrick’s suffering, and as an audience we are not asked to think much further than Lady Dorothy Nevill’s “awakened sympathies”. This discomfort, of remaining within a matrix of thought that itself limits the possibility of what is being perceived, persisted after the show. How do we think outside the systems in which we are conditioned to live?

It is worth pondering how Back to Back Theatre, in its own confronting examinations of disability, manages to avoid this trap. Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, for instance, was an examination of eugenics that powerfully knitted mundane personal interactions with the horrific history of Nazi murders of the disabled. In Food Court, the company enacted one of the most viscerally powerful theatrical representations of bullying and abuse I have witnessed.

In Back to Back’s work, disabled bodies are, of course, on display, but the medium of theatre is used to excavate all the dimensions of what that display means. The experience of being disabled is always at the centre. The company exploits voyeurism, sometimes shockingly, but as an audience we are unable to distance ourselves, intellectually, emotionally or historically, from our complicities in the production of that voyeurism. This is because the autonomy of the disabled performers is embedded in the conception and process of Back to Back’s shows.

One of Back to Back’s mechanisms is to continually remake the aesthetic through which it presents its stories. The company creates beauty and then destroys it, using that aesthetic radicalness to destabilise our default frames of perception. The Elephant Man goes part of the way but, for all its virtues, not far enough: it is still looking out of the intellectual frame of those grave Victorian doctors, disinterestedly pondering the nature of humanity through its freakish monstrosities. Perhaps, in the end, this show is too beautiful.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic. 


Daniel Monks as Joseph Merrick. Photograph by Pia Johnson

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