Regent Theatre opened its production of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man this past weekend to enthusiastic audience response. The production is especially thought-provoking, using elements from Brechtian theatre to tell the story. Keep reading for thoughts from director Michael Hill-Kirkland.
'I was first introduced to Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, in a 1980 production of Pomerance’s play at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, CA. I was enthralled. Even as a young director, I recognized the fingerprints of Bertolt Brecht on Pomerance’s play. Brecht sought to deemphasize the audience’s tendency to identify with the feelings of a character. He sought to make the audience think rather than feel. Eventually, he came to believe that both thinking and feeling were not only complimentary but necessary. The question for Brecht became, “To what degree?” As I watched the play, I was struck by the fact that despite its episodic structure and use of dialogue voiced in past tense, devices Brecht utilized to achieve the verfremsdung (or alienation) effect, the play still landed with tremendous emotional gravitas; certainly affording as much emotional impact as social criticism. Like the characters in the play, we whisper to ourselves, “He is like me.” This irony only deepens when we realize that in seeing ourselves in Merrick we, in fact, normalize him; an act that robs him of his individuality. Pomerance is clearly commenting on society’s tendency to force square pegs into round holes. His depiction of Victorian society is one in which deformity is epidemic. You simply have to look a little harder to see it. And so it is with us. The moment sin entered the world we became “deformed,” and as Merrick states, it is only in heaven where the “crooked will be made straight.”
I went on to direct The Elephant Man in 1983. It was a very satisfying experience. However, I have no desire to repeat myself. Like Pomerance, I have taken my cue from Frederick Treves’ memoires, but with a twist. I approach the play not only as memory, but as dream. Like Merrick, Treves now seeks to lie down and, “sleep like other people.” His conscience has opened his eyes to his own deformities. Wealthy, respected, surgeon to the Prince of Wales—he cannot sleep. Morally adrift, he is in search of standards that will afford him peace. The poem Merrick often used to end his letters has taken root in the recesses of his mind and, just like Merrick was beaten in the Leicester workhouse, Treves’ own conscience now beats him like a drum, “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom”,
‘Tis true my form is something odd,
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.
Here then is the personal purgatory of Frederick Treves, where he seeks to reconcile his inner man with the outer man; where he is haunted by the childlike profundity of Merrick’s words,
“Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams.”
Michael Hill-Kirkland, Ph.D.'
The Elephant Man runs through January 31st. Call the box office at 757.352.4245 for tickets or visit www.regent.edu/theatre.