Identifying with The Elephant Man

By Stephanie Romero

Elephant ManThe Mesa College Theatre Company (MCTC) performed a rendition of the Tony award-winning play this October in 2015. Under the direction of Professor George Ye, students of San Diego Mesa College presented The Elephant Man. I went to see the MCTC’s performance on October 10th. This historical drama was written by Bernard Pomerance in 1977. It’s based on the true life of Joseph Derrick who lived in 19th century London.

Derrick’s deformed, crippled body and elephant-like face caused him to be an outcast. While he was young, his dad died and he was abandoned by his mother. His unfortunate beginning led to his performing in a London circus as a freak show attraction. Any time Derrick walked around town, he covered his face with a burlap sack (with just two openings for his eyes), a newsboy cap, and dark bulky clothes. After maliciously being used for profit and abused for years by a ringmaster named Ross, a Dr. Fredrick Treves attends a show and is intrigued by the mystery of Derrick’s condition. For a fee, the doctor examines “The Elephant Man” and eventually brings Derrick to The Royal London Hospital under the strictest medical scrutiny and privacy from the outside world. No one is willing to be Derrick’s caretaker; at the sight of Derrick, people scream, run, and hide in fear. Finally, Treves is able to acquire an actress, Madge Kendal, who is able to hide her initial shock and eventually develops a friendship with Derrick. Throughout, the doctor discovers that Derrick is highly intelligent. The doctor releases information about the Elephant Man, which makes Derrick very popular. Even high-ranking officials begin to take notice, and even liberally pay for his medical and housing needs.

An Actual Photo of Derrick

An Actual Photo of Derrick

An integral part of the play is that the audience is expected to imagine Derrick’s abnormality after the showing of the real Derrick on screen. The deformity the actor playing Derrick shows are being a cripple and having distorted face, one that forces his right cheek stretch far to the the left. For that significant part, I can applaud the actor for keeping his face distorted the entire play; it was no small feat. But that same actor ran off stage twice (thus breaking out of character) before the lights were fully turned off. The actor who played the doctor forgot his lines a couple of times as well, which took me out of the storyline for a moment.

The director did a great job staging the production. The play had a balanced mixture of media and performance elements. The MCTC performed in the small Apolliad Theatre, which houses about sixty or so. The scene in which Dr. Treves is first describing Derrick’s condition, the screen projected actual pictures of Derrick. One of my favorite parts of the visual elements were short title screens, or vignettes, that were shown between scenes. For example, after the lights went down, the boldfaced text “HE DOES IT WITH JUST ONE HAND” solely appeared on a black rotating wall between two early scenes. Another time the screen said, “MERCY AND JUSTICE ELUDE OUR MINDS AND ACTIONS.” It was an effective hint to transition into the upcoming scene.

There was a powerful scene towards the end of the play in which the doctor and Derrick’s roles are reversed. In this dream-like scene, Derrick explains the doctor’s condition. The confusion, dissatisfaction, and overall unhappiness of life, despite his medical success, is revealed. At this point, I realized this play isn’t so much Derrick being an outcast as it is about how we treat the abnormal. Is someone normal according to physical standards only? Fitting in is a huge theme in Young Adult literature. Often times, YA novels give us the perspective of the teen who believes if he or she can just change certain physical characteristics, it will bring them happiness. Not being accepted causes fear, sometimes paralyzing fear, that prevents someone from living a full life. Whether it is external imperfections or internal ones, YA fiction authors explore how characters, and by reflection people, juggle this hardship. The playwright exposes the way humans shun or bully those who have defects. We all have hidden shortcomings; the difference is that the Elephant Man’s defects were blatant and physical.

If you desire to patron local theatre and support student actors, see an MCTC production. Prepaid tickets can be bought online or on campus. Click here to visit MCTC’s website and see what their upcoming productions are.

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