In 1961, one Frank Edwards put out a book entitled Strange People. It contains a two-page entry entitled “The Elephant Boy,” full of made-up “evidence” about “a tragic creature” who was “the most frightful freak on record.” Strange People also refers to “two-headed children” as “it” without admitting there are such things as conjoined twins.* The only reason I’m mentioning this craptastic volume is that David Bowie listed it, in a 1980 interview with Tim Rice, as the first place he ever heard of Joseph Carey Merrick.
Joseph Merrick is best known to history as The Elephant Man! The Great Freak of Nature! Half a Man & Half an Elephant! Born in August 1862 to a working-class family in Leicester, England, Merrick suffered from a progressive genetic disorder that caused abnormal growths from his bones to his skin. By his late teens, struggling to make a living, he resorted to a hellish workhouse. To get out of there, he signed on with successive entertainment managers who helped him exhibit himself as a human novelty. He wrote an autobiographical sketch emphasizing both his strangeness and his humanity; he saved up a large sum of money; he offered himself for scientific study. When his exhibition was effectively outlawed in England, he carried it overseas, where his local contact robbed and deserted him. Stomped-upon but ever-resourceful, Merrick found an English-speaking helper who got him as far as London. There, ill and exhausted, he turned for aid to Dr. Frederick Treves, a young surgeon who’d previously examined him. Treves and the London Hospital took up a charitable fund, offering Merrick a permanent home in some spare rooms. Treves’ 1923 memoir – affectionate, moving, and condescending – describes how Merrick enjoyed the acquaintance of celebrities and the new cultural opportunities available to him before he joined the 27 Club in April 1890.
Feel free to look here for some photographs of Mr. Merrick. By the way, his name was Joseph, but Treves’ memoir and works adapted from it mistakenly call him John.
Eighty-nine years to the month after Joseph Merrick’s death, Bernard Pomerance’s startling play The Elephant Man opened on Broadway with Philip Anglim in the title role. The play, concentrating on Merrick’s time at the London Hospital, sketches a complex relationship with Treves: the doctor as paternalistic rescuer of someone who needed rescuing but was not as much of a lost child as Victorian society might prefer. In 1980, David Bowie took over the part shortly after finishing the coincidentally named album Scary Monsters…And Super Creeps. The Pomerance play expresses Merrick’s condition through the actor’s posture, movement, and speech instead of makeup. I had a photo of David Bowie on the wall of my college dorm, but it was because I was fascinated by Merrick, not (at that time) by Bowie.
As several books more reputable than Frank Edwards’ attest, the historical Merrick was both a consummate survivor and a bright and lovable guy. He built intricate models out of cardboard. He had the best night out at the theater. He was a Janeite. And because of his appearance, and the unique life it’d made him lead, he was relentlessly, unremittingly weird. No matter how accustomed his acquaintances grew, they still found him weird. No matter how conventional his tastes, how nice his manners, how polite his conversation, he just weirded up the place. He himself was clearly aware of this quality: he wrote the pamphlet that promoted him as “The Great Freak of Nature!”
That weirdness is only part of what made the Man Who Fell to Earth so right for the Pomerance opus. Though his films didn’t always show it, Bowie was a gifted actor who could play everyday people. Yet The Elephant Man tapped all his particular strengths. He revived his mime training to hold himself in Merrick’s contorted shape. He used the full range of his rich voice to convey Merrick’s impeded, impassioned speech. He got, physically and in expression, Merrick’s peculiar position in the hospital and in society.
I base this opinion on two lengthy excerpts filmed at the time. The first (through 2:40 in this video) takes place just when Merrick comes to live at the London Hospital. Dr. Treves, who’s engineered the move and feels responsible for Merrick, reassures and instructs the street-smart but traumatized young man. An appreciative Merrick strains to rise to Treves’ cues. Treves is played here by Donal Donnelly.
It’s an interesting exercise to compare Bowie’s take with original star Philip Anglim’s in the same scene. (The full play showed on TV in 1982, with Kevin Conway as Treves.) There’s also the 1980 David Lynch film The Elephant Man with Anthony Hopkins as Treves and John Hurt as Merrick. The film swears it’s not based on the Pomerance text, but many of its scenes parallel the play’s, including this one. Hurt has the advantage and disadvantage of playing through gigantic prosthetics.
Naturally I’m biased, but I strongly prefer Bowie’s scene to either of the others. Merrick differs from Treves based on his disability and his disadvantaged life experience, but also in his social class. None of the actors gives Merrick’s speech a Leicester lilt – hard enough to make him understood at all – but Hurt sounds like the BBC with a mask on. Bowie’s vocalizing, hesitations, and wary expression accent all the gulfs between the two men.
In the second scene, Merrick is visited in his hospital flat by Madge Kendal, a glamorous actress. (This picks up at 2:42 in the video.) The historical Mrs. Kendal knew Mr. Merrick, invited him to the theater, and mentioned him in her memoirs. Pomerance’s version works hard to smother her nerves and Merrick’s weirdness with theatrical charm, but Bowie’s Merrick wants a deeper exchange and won’t let her off the hook until she meets him at his level. Patricia Elliot plays Mrs. Kendal.
During Bowie’s run on Broadway, his fellow superstar and friend John Lennon was murdered. Lennon’s lover May Pang relates that Bowie and his PA Coco Schwab were her support on that awful night of December 8/9, Bowie sitting up with her after his return from the theater. The murder surely played to Bowie’s extant tendency to paranoia, but Nicholas Pegg says he declined additional security and carried right on with the show.
More About Joseph Carey Merrick
Ashley Montagu, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971)
Michael Howell and Peter Ford, The True History of the Elephant Man (1980 and subsequent editions)
Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We’re Wrong (2001) – a contemporary reassessment of Victorian culture, including its freak shows, with an especially good think on Mr. Merrick
*In 1961. Chang and Eng Bunker met Mr. Edwards in the afterlife and beat him up.