Entertainment & Arts

How the story of The Elephant Man was almost forgotten

Image copyright History Archive / Rex Features
Image caption Joseph Merrick is thought to have suffered from proteus syndrome

Bradley Cooper is starring in The Elephant Man within a stone's throw of the London location where, in 1884, the real Joseph Merrick's deformities were shown off to astonished doctors.

But Merrick was almost forgotten until in the 1970s the play brought him to a new generation.

It is 131 years since the young surgeon Frederick Treves took time out from his work at the London Hospital in Whitechapel to inspect an attraction in a nearby shop, on display for the price of admission.

In Victorian times it was common for showmen to make money showing human curiosities for public entertainment. But the garish poster outside promised something extraordinary: "The Elephant Man".

Today most of those who study the case believe Joseph Merrick, then 23, was probably suffering from proteus syndrome. In this rare genetic condition, the natural tendency of cells to divide runs out of control. Merrick presented an extreme case: The huge and ugly growths of flesh and bone frightened and thrilled those who paid to gawp at him.

In 1980, Peter Ford co-wrote a book about the relationship between Merrick and Treves.

He says you can interpret Frederick Treves' interest in various ways. "Certainly when later he exhibited Joseph Merrick at the Pathological Society in central London, he had an eye to his own professional standing. In later life he became surgeon to the king, received a knighthood and grew wealthy. Treves understood how society works.

"But Merrick was genuinely worthy of academic study. Frederick Treves hoped the London Hospital might benefit from the association when, against all rules and regulations, he found Merrick a place there to live and be safe in."

Image copyright History Archive / Rex Features
Image caption One of Treves' engravings of Joseph Merrick, as seen in the publication Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1900)

Peter Ford says as a writer Treves' had a talent for melodrama. "So he writes about Merrick getting back to London after a disastrous visit to Brussels. He is besieged at Liverpool Street station and disaster looms. But the police find Treves' visiting card on him, leading to his salvation.

"It may or may not have happened like that but it's an irresistible scene."

It's a puzzle that, in his memoirs Treves, mistakenly gave Merrick the first name John. In 1977 it was the name picked up by playwright Bernard Pomerance when he wrote The Elephant Man. When the play premiered to acclaim at the Hampstead Theatre in London it was the first that most people had heard of the story.

'Star vehicle'

The producer was David Aukin, today better known for his work in film and on television. He says when radical theatre group Foco Novo worked on The Elephant Man their concerns were mainly political and social.

"I suspect audiences now see it more as a biographical play about Merrick. But Bernard Pomerance - an American living in Britain - saw parallels with contemporary politics and the way society is organised. I don't think that occurs so much to people now.

"Very few plays remain popular for almost 40 years and it's a credit to Bernard's talent that audiences today can watch it and maybe take something different away. I think there's a whole new interest in the mechanics of celebrity that didn't occur to us then.

"Partly because of the film, which in fact is unrelated, the play has become a star vehicle with people like Bowie and Bradley Cooper in the title role.

"That's fine, but I think they all owe a debt to David Schofield who was our original Merrick and who was superb.

"It was with David that we worked out how to play the elephant man without gross make-up or prosthetics. We thought anything like that would simply exploit Merrick the way he'd been exploited in life. Everyone since has followed David's lead in how you put the elephant man on stage."

Image copyright Everett / Rex Features
Image caption John Hurt's portrayal of Merrick inspired Bradley Cooper to become an actor

Peter Ford became an expert on the case when asked by a publisher to work on a manuscript submitted by Michael Howell, a doctor in the English Midlands.

"The story had been fairly well known in its day but slipped into obscurity," he says.

"When, in 1887, Princess Alexandra went to Whitechapel and visited Merrick it was news and he became a minor figure on the London social scene. Michael Howell had spotted the story could work for a modern audience.

"Michael was quite properly jealous of his material at first because I suggested we rein in a few of his flights of fancy. I thought the story was so extraordinary and powerful you didn't need to go beyond the facts.

"I'm pleased to say The True History of the Elephant Man became the standard account for the general reader, though I should make clear the play got there before us. Then, of course, came the film with John Hurt. It's a great movie although David Lynch took the odd liberty with the facts."

People often assume the film is based on the play. In fact, following a legal case, the film carried a statement that it is unrelated to the Pomerance script.

But the combined effect of the play, the book and the film was to bring the story back into the public domain.

Peter Ford says long after his death Joseph Merrick became part of popular culture's iconography of the Victorian era.

"It's curious because even 40 years ago very few people had heard of Merrick. But the film's performances and direction and the evocative cinematography made the story very attractive.

"I can understand why people today ask if Treves was exploiting Merrick, as he'd been exploited by the men who exhibited him. But it seems Joseph Merrick actively sought out his life on the freak circuit: What other way of making a living was there for him in Victorian Britain? It was economic reality."

Image copyright Joan Marcus
Image caption Oscar-winner Bradley Cooper is playing Merrick in the current London production of The Elephant Man

Ford says that, in the 35 years since the book came out, interest in the story has never gone away.

"Every couple of years something will happen like this new production of the play and suddenly people want to know about the real Joseph Merrick again.

"But if in 1884 Frederick Treves hadn't seen 'the elephant man' in a little shop in Whitechapel, and if he hadn't written about it, the story would never have come down to us at all."

The Elephant Man is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 19 May until 8 August.

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