- In Search of Merrick:Kinesthetic Empathy, Able-Bodiedness, and Disability Representation
In 2007 the Proteus Theatre Company of Basingstoke, England, presented a one-man show entitled Merrick, the Elephant Man.1 This production, which was developed by director Mary Swan and actor Saul Jaffé, told the story of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), the well-known “Elephant Man” of Victorian Britain who suffered from Proteus Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes abnormal growths and deformities. Disability and the perceptions, myths, and challenges associated with it have played an important role in the Proteus Theatre Company’s activities. The community-based company (whose name has nothing to do with the syndrome) provides a long-standing free workshop for adults with disabilities, and its Merrick project was supported by Shire, a biopharmaceutical company that specializes in treatments for life-altering conditions such as Merrick’s. After conducting extensive research on Merrick and Proteus Syndrome, Swan and Jaffé developed a production that told Merrick’s story through the use of multiple media, burlesque, and acrobatic performance. Jaffé, who is an able-bodied actor, played a range of male and female characters including Tom Norman, the English showman and entrepreneur who exhibited Merrick to paying audiences in 1884; Frederick Treves, the surgeon who brought Merrick to the London Hospital in 1886 where he lived until his death in 1890; as well as numerous others who formed Merrick’s world during his childhood and adult life. The heart of Jaffé’s performance was his portrayal of Merrick. Eschewing makeup or prosthetics, Jaffé embodied Merrick through a series of physicalized enactments involving posture, gesture, movement, and voice. Over the course of the performance, Jaffé alternated between Merrick’s lived experience of disability and the public ways in which this disability was apprehended, described, and staged.
Merrick, the Elephant Man is not the first performative enactment of Merrick’s life. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man played on Broadway and David Lynch’s film by the same name garnered [End Page 81] widespread attention, Merrick’s story has been performed dozens of times—all by able-bodied actors—in original plays, two operas, and revivals of Pomerance’s play.2 The most publicized of these revivals was the recent Broadway production starring Bradley Cooper as Merrick, which originated at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012 and opened at New York’s Booth Theater in November 2014. The renewal of interest in Merrick’s life in the 1970s had its impetus in the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. Montagu’s book resurrected the story of Merrick’s life, which had fallen into relative obscurity after Dr. Frederick Treves’s 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, and argued on behalf of its protagonist’s humanity. With its extensive visual presentation of Merrick’s body, including photos of the Elephant Man’s skeleton, which remains in the pathology collection of the Royal London Hospital, Montagu’s book foregrounded a set of questions and anxieties that subsequent dramatizations would pursue.
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How can normative conceptions of the “human” accommodate a figure of such aberrant embodiment? How do the ostensibly able-bodied negotiate the aversion, curiosity, medical interest, pity, and compassion that this radically disabling physicality occasions? And how do these questions engage more fundamental issues involving understanding and empathy?
These issues are particularly relevant, of course, to those working at the intersection of disability studies and theatre, dance, and performance studies. Drawing upon what Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander call the “theatricality of [End Page 82] disability and the centrality of performance to the formation of disability cultures and identities,”3 scholars in disability and performance studies have identified culturally prevalent models of embodiment that “enfreak” those with non-normative bodies, while describing the many forms of performances that individuals with disabilities have used to take control of their appearance and assert their agency in its visual reception. But the culturally familiar phenomenon of able...