Everyone hopes to be loved for who they truly are on the inside. That is the human connection, a universal truth that has no age, time, or country boundaries. Love and affection are what we need most, besides air, in order to flourish and become who we are destined to be. Love and compassion are among our most transformative gifts.
The tale we are about to experience is one of sorrow, heartache, and ultimately the affection of the human kind. It is a story from over a century ago that still has bearing on our current society’s behavior. It is a story we must learn so that we as a society learn from the past and stop repeating this behavior in the future.
Joseph “John” Merrick was born in 1862 and by age two was already exhibiting symptoms of the illness that would take over his life. His body would become covered by so many tumors and out of control skin growths it would deform his physical appearance as well as ability. One hand, in fact the whole right side of his body, was excessive larger than the left. The extreme size of his right leg was compounded by a hip injury he sustained as a child thus he could not walk without use of a cane. The growths that grew from his head made it twice the size of an average person’s. It was so severe that they never stopped growing his entire life and as a result could not sleep lying down as a “normal” person would. Instead he would bend his knees to his chest and rest his head as best he could on them. He must have been in so much pain and uncomfortable to boot but he could not support his head if he were to lie down. The weight of his head would crush him.
His upper and lower back was covered in masses that were light brownish in color and were more sags than tumors. They would hang from his body and was more weight for him to carry. It was not until his death, when his skeleton was examined that doctors full realized just how serious his condition was. The tumors totally covered his jaw and parts of his mouth so much that is grew crooked and took up most of his face. Talking was almost impossible, only those close to him could understand his speech which got progressively worse as time went on. His body was working so hard that the breathes he could between words sounded like someone who had permanent pneumonia.
Mr. Merrick’s mother died when he was a teenager, his father and new wife through him out on the streets. By this time his condition was certainly full on. In order to support himself he worked at a factory for a few years but eventually had to stop. He was being beaten and harassed by coworkers and anyone who saw him on the street. Thus the only way to support himself was by participating in a display in one of the many freak shows that were popular at that time. It is here where he meets the man that changed his life, Dr. Frederick Treves.
The year is 1884 and the good doctor happens upon this show and an exhibit being called “the elephant man”. It was a common myth at one time that Mr. Merrick suffered from elephantiasis which is a tropical disease that causes parts of the body to swell to enormously. The logic for this diagnosis was that Mr. Merrick’s mother was attacked by an elephant at a circus during her pregnancy. While that may have happened, it surely did not bring about his illness. Never the less it is what Mr. Merrick believed all of his life. At the time he lived no one could for sure what he had. As of late, researchers believe it was a combination of two conditions: Neurofibromatosis (which cause nerve cells grow out of control) and Proteus Syndrome (which corrupts a line in the DNA to allow some body parts to overgrow and not others). Neither has ever been proved to be absolutely correct.
Dr. Treves arranges for The London Hospital to care for Mr. Merrick and that is where the movie and play really take off. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is when Mr. Merrick asks if he can be cured and Dr. Treves has to admit that he is only able to care for him. It is truly gut wrenching. We will learn more about the relationship these two shared and how both of their lives were changed for knowing one another.
The movie premiered in 1980 starring a very young Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves and John Hurt as Mr. Merrick. I recently watched this for the first time. I had not known the specifics of the story and now I honestly cannot get enough information. There are already several books I must read just to satisfy my curiosity (links below). I had watched the movie prior to seeing the play so that I would have context but instead I wanted to insert myself into this story. I suppose this post is my way of doing just that.
The Elephant Man was nominated for eight awards including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor but did not win any. It is interesting to note here that up until this point in time there were no Academy Awards categories for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. After the release of this film and the Oscars that followed, the Academy would introduce those classifications largely due to the success of the movie and God like work the makeup and costume departments had done.
After leaving the Oscars with no awards John Hurt had a conversation with a colleague in which they told Hurt “What do you expect? No one can see who you are” to which Hurt replied appropriately enough “Well I thought that was the point”.
The film was intentionally shot in black and white to help create the illusion of the nineteen century and take the eye off of the disfigurement. This look creates another level of fear and heightened awareness of the story. I also find it interesting that it is the same time period and the same neighborhood (East End) where the Jack the Ripper murders took place. When you watch the movie, I can certainly picture it even though they are not discussed.
Sadly Joseph Merrick died at the age of twenty-seven in 1890. The cause of death was asphyxia but doctors did not know if it was because of his desire to sleep like everyone else or if his head was just finally too heavy. He could have also had a stroke or heart attack that forced him down where he could not get up again.
In today’s every changing world bullying has quickly risen to be a severe issue for just about everyone not only school age children. Since we live in the age of computers and high technology there is no reprieve from mental torture one can do to another. Although we are hearing about this more and more in the news it is not a new issue.
When we consider the case of Mr. Merrick in this context it is overwhelming. The extent to which he was treated, mocked, abused, and berated for most of his life it is a wonder he did not take that hate and internalize it. He instead remained the kind hearted, warm human being he always was, whether people who were around him took the time to notice or not.
In this latest production, The Elephant Man appears on Broadway for a limited time, fourteen weeks only to be exact. Bradley Cooper a.k.a. People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive transforms himself into Mr. Merrick. You will have surely noticed by now that I have only referred to this man as such and will continue to do so. I think a basic level of respect is due when he often had none; even his body is still on display in the museum at the former London Hospital (http://www.bartshealth.nhs.uk/about-us/museums,-history-and-archives/the-royal-london-museum/). Bradley Cooper actually went there to visit and see what he could learn. He went to the former spots where Mr. Merrick lived and worked. Now I wish I too could do that. I know I will but I just wish it would happen sooner than later.
In taking on this role, it was a life’s dream for him. In his master’s program he performed this and always wanted to bring it to Broadway. Once I learned how much the story and the man intrigued and amazed him I was all the more eager to see the show. After seeing the movie I was so glad I purchased this hot item ticket. I knew it would be the biggest show in town no matter its competition. This show brings more to the stage that you could imagine.
For starters the entrance outside of the Booth Theater has been decorated to look like you are walking into a circus or sideshow. It puts you in the mood already. While I battled my anxiety wondering how I would like the show. I knew no makeup would be used and Mr. Cooper would “morph” into his role. I had no idea the depths of that kind of performance could go.
Needless to say you don’t need to know the story to see the play. Similarly everything I have told you won’t ruin the movie or play for you. The play does an incredible job putting Mr. Cooper’s transformation literally next to Mr. Merrick’s. While I felt the play jumped around a lot and focused on scenes I could have done without, and scenes I felt like I was missing, overall my impression was positive. There are many overflowing emotions running through you. The energy is overwhelming.
The cast is perfection as Patricia Clarkson plays Mrs. Kedal an actress who is among the first to befriend Mr. Merrick. Alessandro Nivola plays Dr. Treves to Bradley Cooper’s Mr. Merrick. These two men!!!! While Ms. Clarkson is a knock out, without these two men I don’t know what I would have seen, each of them in their own right hold the story up in its hard hitting emotional range from highs to lows. You really see the connection they have and thus the connection the real men must have had. I don’t believe I could see them in anything else without this memorable vision in my head as it was pure theatric glory.
Last but certainly not least was Anthony Heald as a dual character role of both a Bishop visiting Merrick and prior to that as Ross the man running the freak show. I recognized him immediately once he was on stage. To me he will always be Dr. Chilton from Silence of the Lambs, my hands down favorite movie of all time.
Before I knew it I was once again at a stage door. This is my third time this month for those of you who are counting. I am definitely counting. I was so worried because I was seated in a corner spot but my firm rule of leaving at the first applause no matter if people don’t want me to pass them, holds true. It’s the only way I know to get to the stage door first. It was with much relief that I made it to the door right away and then proceeded to meet these three acting geniuses. My good friend Anthony came out first and almost walked away until I shouted out how big a fan I was and that I needed his autograph. He was so sweet. Patricia was delightful and bubbly, Alessandro was so appreciative and caring, and Bradley- who naturally took the longest- was a charmer for sure. He made such an effort to take selfies with fans and sign as much as possible. Considering it felt like it was twelve degrees outside that was some effort, on both our parts, but well worth it. Evenings like this make living in New York City such a gift. I know witnessing magic like this is my privilege. My theater going month was a success to say the least.
In my research for this blog I learned much about Mr. Merrick as I am sure you gathered by now. The video links below are among the best I have seen, all very fascinating. I was touched to find out that in 2004 a plaque was dedicated in his honor is his Leicester neighborhood on the spot were the sideshow once operated. When that building was to be demolished in 2008 the plaque was moved to the site of the factory where he once worked. Talk about coming full circle.
I am now proud to say that I can scratch item number four from my plays/shows section off of my 2014-15 to do list (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2014/04/for-year-4-20142015-to-do-list.html). I posted this back in April 2014 when talk of this play was just a whisper. I am so glad it came to fruition. It is a story that should be shared over and over again. We have a lot to learn from Mr. Merrick. Perhaps the greatest lesson is a common one; beauty is not only skin deep.
This was a favorite poem of Mr. Merrick’s. He often ended his letters to his friends by quoting it, False Greatness by Isaac Watts.“But blaming me is blaming God; Could I create myself anew I would not fail in pleasing you. If I could reach from pole to pole or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul; The mind's the standard of the man.”
When interviewed about this film and his part in it John Hurt said: “If you can get to the end of the elephant man (movie) and not be moved then you are not someone I want to know.”
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