Elephant Man: Last Chance

Just quickly, since I’m running off to teach a full-day seminar in philosophy for children: went to see The Elephant Man last night in good company. It’s really well done, living up to the standards of theatre we’ve come to know and love in Edmonton. It gives a lot of food for thought on appearance, what’s normal, societal rules regulating how we perceive, react, and behave, the gaze, and the idea of monstrosity. If you’re in Edmonton, catch it at Studio Theatre at the University of Alberta–it ends on Saturday.

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One thought on “Elephant Man: Last Chance

  1. ***WARNING: This comment contains spoilers***

    Yes, it was a very good production, and we had a lot to talk about afterwards. It was quite interesting how we each had different impressions about what was going on, and its efficacy, also. For instance … Rob and I felt that the decision not to make up the actor who played John Merrick in papier-mache, or some equivalent stage prop to make him look more like the original, produced interesting results. That is, it prompted each member of the audience to engage their imaginations; and the actor’s contortions of face and body conveyed, I think, the physical presence of Merrick. Estheranna, however, felt that this did not challenge enough the audience’s expectations that the lead actor should be sympathetic, and that what generates this sympathy is attractiveness. She felt, at bottom, that if they had found someone to play the part with a similar physiogamy to Merrick, we would find it more difficult to identify with his humanity. I’m not sure about this, and would welcome others’ thoughts.

    A second difference in interpretation emerged around the representation of norms within the play. There is a scene where Merrick tells a “lady-friend” that he is yet to see a woman naked. She obliges, and when Dr Treeves walks in he is disgusted, and she is banished, never to return. My interpretation of this was that the doctors’ humanitarian ‘project’ involved going through a pretense of constructing Merrick as “normal.” (eg. “look, he thinks like us, he dresses like us, he feels like us). This was all okay, so long as everyone maintained the belief that it was all pretense; that actually he was fundamentally NOT like them.

    Merrick’s mistake, however, was to believe that he really could be ‘normal’, by desiring and having what normal men desire and have. Merrick’s desire was abject to Dr Treeves because it forced him to identify with Merrick; to see that the extent of their likeness.

    Rob had a more historically grounded interpretation: that Merrick demonstrated the failure of their humanitarian, normalizing project by showing himself not to be normal; or more precisely, to transgress the norms of Victorian society. Merrick was abject, by this reading, by performing what Victorian values excluded. This would also seem a viable interpretation to me, and I’m not sure that one should exclude the other.

    Does anyone else who saw the play have observations/ interpretations to share?

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