Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man is based on the life of John Merrick — a Victorian-era Englishman who won his nickname through the extreme deformity of his body and was exhibited in freak shows before being adopted as a sort of pet by London high society.
Born in Brooklyn, Pomerance moved to England in 1968. There, he helped form the Foco Novo theatre company in 1972. It was in London, at the Hamstead Theatre, that The Elephant Man had its premiere, with David Schofield in the title role. The work then played at the Royal National Theatre.
In the U.S., the drama had its premiere Off-Broadway at the York Theatre at St. Peter’s in early 1979. Winning handsome reviews, it moved to Broadway, where it ran from April 1979 to June 1981. The play was revived on Broadway in 2004, and it is currently playing Broadway again.
Due to the central role’s demanding nature — the performer playing Merrick wears no makeup, suggesting the character’s contorted physicality only through body manipulation — the part has attracted the talents of numerous actors interested in testing their capabilities. The actor who created the famous role in New York is, paradoxically, among the more obscure performers to have played Merrick. Philip Anglim, a San Francisco native who studied medicine at Yale, was 26 and had some regional credits when he took on the role. Soon after, he consulted an orthopedic surgeon for help in combatting the toll the job took on his body. A program of rehabilitative exercises was recommended. He worked out every day and went on long jogs.
It all paid off. “Philip Anglim plays Merrick with a questioning and affecting dignity,” wrote Richard Eder in the New York Times. “No makeup is used to make him grotesque; he presents deformity delicately but with great force by twisting his body and speaking with a muffled effort that suggests a spirit struggling with impediments. It is a winning and impressive performance.”
Eder’s Times colleague Walter Kerr was no less admiring. Anglim was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance, but did not win. (He did win a Drama Desk Award.) The production did win prizes for Best Play, Best Actress in a Play (Carole Shelley) and Best Direction of a Play (Jack Hofsiss).
Bruce Davison, who would go on to gain fame as the star of films such as “Longtime Companion” and “Short Cuts,” assumed the role of Merrick in February 1980. He referred to the experience as an artistic rebirth after having spent a frustrating decade in Hollywood. After Davison came Jeff Hayenga, for whom The Elephant Man became the most significant stage credit of his career.
Prior to the arrival of Bradley Cooper in the present Broadway revival, the most famous person by far to take on the part of Merrick was pop singer David Bowie, who joined the cast of the Broadway original in September 1980. Prior to that, he got his feet wet in the national touring company, appearing in Chicago and Denver. Bowie’s involvement helped to revive box-office receipts at the Booth Theatre, which had begun to fall.
Upon reviewing the show, the Times found Bowie to be more than stunt casting. “He is splendid,” said the critic. “For one thing, there is an ethereal quality about Mr. Bowie: he is delicately handsome, and he does not look like anyone else on stage… Mr. Bowie bends and distorts [his body], too, but now the contrast between what we see on stage and what we see in our imagination is even more striking. Mr. Bowie’s good looks see to that, and so does his approach to the part. His John Merrick is a preternaturally wise child.”
Clive Barnes in the New York Post said Bowie was “giving one of the greatest acting performances I have seen in years.” And Variety called him “shockingly good.”
Another famous figure followed Bowie into the role: Mark Hamill, then at the height of his fame as Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” film series. He began what was to be a 15-week engagement in June 1981, replacing Benjamin Hendrickson, who came between Bowie and Hamill and is one of several actors (including Tom Fitzsimmons and Jack Weatherall) who can count John Merrick as their only important Broadway credit. Hamill would be the last actor to inhabit Merrick in the inaugural American production of the Pomerance play. The producers actually ran an ad for the show showing Hamill in his Luke Skywalker costume. The tagline declared, "And the Force Continues... on Broadway!" It did no good. The critics had no chance to review Hamill’s work: Three weeks after he opened, the show closed.
Broadway didn’t see another production of the drama until 2002, when actor Billy Crudup took up the lead part in a production directed by Englishman Sean Mathias and also starring Rupert Graves and Kate Burton. Crudup, who first gained attention as the star of the original Broadway rendition of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, was then beginning to be known as a film star as well.
This time around, the critics appreciated the play less and found the direction cold, while still finding the actors admirable.
“Mr. Crudup is one of a trio of performers who are expertly practicing such sorcery in The Elephant Man, which also stars Rupert Graves as the doctor who takes Merrick into his care and Kate Burton as the actress who befriends them,” said the Times. “The director, Sean Mathias, has brought out the best in each, and the care and conviction with which they invest their roles go a long way in helping you swallow a play that turns out to have a distinct medicinal flavor.”
Variety liked Crudup as well, saying “Crudup, who contorts both his body and his face to suggest Merrick’s deformity, gives a beautifully realized performance. He speaks in a high, gentle tone that always seems to contain both an apology and a question mark, and his left arm — the character’s only unblighted limb and his sole instrument of physical expression — is used almost as eloquently.” The actor won a Tony nomination for his performance.
Pomerance was a fan of Crudup’s portrayal: “David Schofield was the best I saw until Billy Crudup took the role to another dimension in the revival of 2002,” he said. However, the production only ran a little more than two months. The casting of Bradley Cooper in the new Elephant continues Broadway’s seeming habit of drafting more and more handsome actors to personify this most un-handsome of historical figures. Cooper is already arguably the best box-office bait the play has ever had. The show has been sold out since previews began Nov. 7. How his performance measures up critically to Anglim, Bowie, Davison, Hamill and Crudup will be seen Dec. 7, when the show opens.