I’ve just been to see The Real and the Imagined History of the Elephant Man at The Malthouse. I admit that I went with trepidation – nervous about how disfigurement might be portrayed. I am all too familiar with the language used about people like us, and balk at the idea of a freak show. The woman sitting next to me offered her hand should things get rough.
The play is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a man with a disfiguring medical condition who was termed “the elephant man” in 19th century London.
The horror of Joseph’s appearance was described, not shown. The audience could only imagine the horror of how he might look. The body and face of Daniel Monks, who has cerebral palsy, hinted a little that Joseph’s body was different, but there was fortunately no masking up or makeup needed to enhance the disfigurement.
It was an uncomfortable watch at times – imagining how grotesque Joseph Merrick might look, and the fear within those who encounter him. The public and medical gaze, and the ridicule he endured was difficult. He was trapped by loneliness and his existence to both amaze and repulse the public. He was forced to be hidden away, used as a medical specimen, and for entertainment.
I related. I’ve been in all of those situations. I’ve heard “the elephant man” being thrown around when people have talked about people like me. “Oh but you’re not like them”, of course they qualified. My Internalised ableism has probably meant I’ve described others – with a worse facial difference or skin condition than me – as “the elephant man” many years ago.
Joseph wished people were more at ease when they looked at him. I felt more at ease, and my fear about the play eased, as he recited lines that I identified with.
There were lines that I want to remember forever, the ones that stabbed my core – powerful statements of how the world sees the other and how we with facial differences and disfigurements see ourselves.
“In my mind I’m a gentleman. In this world I’m …”
“Am I here for my comfort, or the comfort of the world?”
“I am the most extraordinary thing in this city, yet when you look at me you don’t see me.”
“I’m not a wrong version of them, not a man with a disease, not an error. I do not need to be kept in a cage. I am a new species.”
There were low expectations of Joseph – until the nurses realised his intelligence – when he could speak. Yet he was used as a puppet to perform, and a charity for their bank of their good deeds.
The play was somewhat disability led, which I believe made it safer for people like me. They might have understood the challenge of watching the play as someone with a facial difference. Disappointingly, but predictably, the audience laughed when the r word was used. Why is the suggestion of intellectual disability funny? Were they laughing because they were uncomfortable or because they couldn’t fathom Joseph having a disfigurement *and* a disability?
This performance of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man shows that pride can exist while looking different, and that those without facial difference are often more monstrous than those they ridicule.
Daniel Monks was excellent and so was my dear friend Emma J Hawkins – as was the rest of the cast. They all took on different characters while Daniel remained constant as Jospeph. And the costumes – oh the costumes were superb. Emma told me she can keep hers – so envious!
The Real and Imagined Life of the Elephant Man has been told in a new way to previous narratives. Daniel Monks said on my Facebook post:
“It was a brand new script. Joseph wrote very little in his life (that we know of, or survived), and the primary source document on his life is from the doctor who housed him at London Hospital. Because of this, previous incarnations of his story have always been from the doctor’s point of view, with the doctor as the protagonist; the abled saviour, and Joseph as his “subject”. With this play, the playwright Tom Wright, really wanted to position Joseph as the protagonist, and have the play follow his journey & his life – and since there are very little first hand accounts from him, that’s why this play is called “The Real & Imagined History of The Elephant Man”.”
He was also interviewed by The Age.
As the play ended, my heart and my eyes were full. I was confronted by my own prejudice about the way this story has previously been told, and I was pleasantly surprised and relieved Joseph’s pride won over the public ridicule.
It’s at the Malthouse until 27 August. See it.