The Elephant Man is a Tony Award-winning play by Bernard Pomerance and produced by Nelle Nugent. A production directed by Jack Hofsiss ran on Broadway from 1979 to 1981. The story is based on the life of Joseph Merrick who lived in Victorian era and is known for extreme deformity of his body. The lead role was originally played by Philip Anglim and later taken by David Bowie. The play was notable for the fact that no prosthetic makeup was used on the actor portraying Merrick.
The Elephant Man opens with Frederick Treves, a rising surgeon, meeting his new employer for the first time. Carr Gomm, the administrator of the London Hospital, reviews Treves’ accomplishments and warns the young doctor that his position at the London might not be all that he thinks it is. Treves does understand what Gomm could mean.
Meanwhile, Ross is working the crowd on Whitechapel Road. He yells out for the crowd to come and view the Elephant Man, a horrible freak of nature whom he manages. Treves passes by and is interested enough about a possible new disorder to pay Ross’ fee and enters the tent. A moment later he rushes out again and insists that he must study this poor wretch further. After negotiating a daily fee, Ross agrees.
Treves later holds a lecture on the gross anatomy of John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.” Merrick is made to stand on display as the severity of his condition is described to the audience in detail.
In Brussels, Ross and Merrick arrive after being driven out of London by the police. While Ross leaves to enquire about a permit to exhibit, Merrick tries to converse with three pinheads. Suffering from microcephaly, they are physically and mentally retarded and are little more than children. Their manager appears and puts them on stage to sing “We are the Queens of the Congo.” They perform poorly, however, and their manager admonishes them. Ross then reenters in the grip of two policemen, who tell him that Merrick’s condition is indecent will not be allowed to perform. After beating Merrick the police depart, and Ross informs him that he’s more trouble than he’s worth. Ross robs Merrick of his savings and puts him on a train headed for London.
Upon the train’s arrival in London Merrick’s appearance incites the crowd to riot. The train’s conductor and a policeman are able to get him safely inside of a building. They find Treves’ card in his pocket and fetch him. Treves is aghast at the crowd’s actions as Merrick begs him for help. In the London Hospital, Treves is interviewing Nurse Sandwich for the position of Merrick’s caretaker. He shows her photos of Merrick and she assures him that after caring for lepers in Africa she is quite prepared for anything. When Treves takes her into Merrick’s room, however, she panics and bolts from the room upon seeing Merrick a bath. Treves chastises her for her behavior and she insists that no one will ever take the job. Treves muses that the situation is far from helpful to Merrick.
Bishop How later visits Merrick and declares him a true Christian in the rough. He tells Treves he would like to continue educating Merrick in religion. Gomm enters and verbally spars with How about the importance of science versus the importance of religion. Gomm announces that, due to a letter he has sent to the Times, the people of London have donated enough money to the care for Merrick that he may live at the hospital for life. Treves tells his employer that he is determined to let Merrick lead a normal life.
Later Treves sits with Merrick and tells him that he now has a home where he can stay as long as he likes without being stared at. Just then two attendants, Will and Snork, are caught peeking into the room. As Will has been warned about this sort of behavior before Gomm fires him on the spot, and warns Snork to consider it a warning. Treves then discusses with Merrick the importance of rules before asking Merrick to tell him a bit more about his past. Merrick recounts his horrible life in the workhouses, then shows concern at the possibility of Will’s children ending up in the same situation (even though Will had treated him like a subhuman only minutes before). Treves tells Merrick that it’s just the way things are.
Treves sits in his office with Mrs. Kendal, an actress he has hired to meet Merrick. He feels that it is important for Merrick to meet women, and that Mrs. Kendal will be able to use her training to hide any revulsion that she might feel. While looking at the photographs of Merrick, Mrs. Kendal curiously asks about the status of his penis which is undeformed. Treves nervously explains that there is link between the bone disorder and the skin growth, and that part would not be afflicted because there is no bone in it. Mrs. Kendal notes that if Treves is embarrassed so easily then Merrick must be very lonely indeed.
Treves takes Mrs. Kendal into Merrick’s room and then leaves to see to a few matters. It takes all of Mrs. Kendal’s self control to not show her horror at Merrick’s appearance. After several minutes of strained conversation the topic of Romeo and Juliet is brought up. Merrick amazes Mrs. Kendal with his thoughtful and sensitive views on Romeo and the nature of love. When Treves returns she asks his permission to bring some of her friends to meet Merrick and thus begin to expose him to society. She takes Merrick’s hand and genuinely tells him how pleased she is to meet him. Upon their exit, Merrick dissolves into tears as Treves tells Mrs. Kendall that it is the first time a woman has ever shaken his hand.
Later Merrick is working on a model of St. Phillip’s church, having to work with his one good hand. He is visited by a stream of high society who lavish him with exquisite gifts. He tells Mrs. Kendal that St. Phillip’s church is an imitation of grace, and his model is therefore an imitation of an imitation. When Treves comments that all of humanity is a mere illusion of heaven, Merrick says that God should have used both hands.
The people who have come into his life all comment how, in different ways, Merrick is “just like me.” Bishop How, Gomm, the Duchess, Princess Alexandra, Treves and Mrs. Kendal all manage to see themselves reflected in him. Treves also reflects that Merrick’s condition is worsening with time.
Treves later confronts Lord John for breaking a contract after Treves had loaned him money for a business venture. Gomm enters and tells John in no uncertain terms that he is no longer welcome at the London. Gomm then admonishes Treves for being taken in by the scoundrel and risking the hospital’s reputation. Mrs. Kendal enters and Treves takes her to Merrick’s room. Treves loses his temper with Merrick, then realizes it is himself he is angry at. After he leaves Merrick asks Mrs. Kendal if Treves will keep his promise that the London will be his home, even if Treves finds himself in trouble. Merrick asks if Mrs. Kendal will do the same.
Later Merrick and Mrs. Kendal are sitting in his room as Merrick works on his model. He announces to Mrs. Kendal that he needs a mistress, and hints that he would like said mistress to be her. Mrs. Kendal listens compassionately and tell Merrick that him ever having a mistress is unlikely. Merrick laments having never seen a naked woman before, and that if Treves knew he was having these thoughts he would be appalled. Mrs. Kendal is flattered by his show of trust in her, and realizes that she trusts him just as much. Asking him to turn around, she undresses and allows him to see what he has dreamed of for so long. Treves enters and is indeed horrified and orders her to redress.
Ross later comes to the London to ask Merrick to take him on as manager again. His health has drastically worsened, and he tells Merrick that without help he is doomed to pain and death. He tries to convince Merrick to charge the society members who visit him. Merrick refuses to help Ross, telling him that after robbing abandoning him he’s had enough. Ross makes one final pathetic plea to Merrick, and is told that it’s just the way things are. Merrick later sits with Treves and asks him about his belief in God and heaven. Treves tells him of a patient who he lost on the operating table, only to revive a few minutes later. Her story of the afterlife was nothing glorious, but rather mundane to the extreme. Merrick confronts Treves about sending Mrs. Kendal away and the standards he expects everyone to live by. Treves realizes that he has been too harsh with Merrick and tells him that although he will write to Mrs. Kendal, he does not believe she will return. After Merrick leaves the room, Treves says that it is because he doesn’t want her to see Merrick die.
In a nightmare parody of his lecture on Merrick, Treves is put on display as Merrick outlines his terrifying normality and rigidity. Emphasis is places on the acts of cruelty he can commit upon others for their own good. Treves starts awake to find Merrick quietly working on his model.
Gomm and Treves later discuss Merrick’s impending death. Treves displays frustration at the fact that the more normal Merrick pretends to be, the worse his condition becomes. He confronts Bishop How, telling him that he believes Merrick’s faith is merely another attempt to emulate others. It comes out that the real source of his frustrations are the chaos of the world around him, with his patients seeming to do everything they can to shorten their own lives. No matter how hard he tries he cannot help them, just as he cannot help Merrick. He finally begs for the Bishop to help him.
Merrick finishes his model. As he is polishing it Snork delivers his lunch. Merrick goes to sleep in the sitting up posture which he must adapt due to the weight of his head. As he sleeps visions of the pinheads enter, now singing that they are the Queens of the Cosmos. They lay him down to sleep normally and he dies. Snork discovers his body and runs out screaming that the Elephant Man is dead.
In the final scene, Gomm reads a letter he has written to the Times, outlining Merrick’s stay at the hospital, his death and his plans for the remaining funds donated for Merrick’s care. When he asks Treves if he has anything else to add, a distressed Treves says he does not and leaves. As Gomm finishes the letter Treves rushes back in, saying that he’s thought of something. Gomm tells the doctor that it is too late: it is done.