The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance

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BBC Radio 7, 22 August 2010
Predating David Lynch's famous film of the same name starring John Hurt, Pomerance's The Elephant Man charts the life of John Merrick (Gerard Murphy) and his "rebirth" at the hands of ambitious scientist Frederick Treves (Jeremy Clyde). Treves rescues him from a money-grabbing sideshow owner, gives him a home and teaches him all the polite manners characteristic of middle-class Victorian civilization. Merrick's progress is apparently miraculous; despite his handicaps, he reveals a talent for building models, talking to women - especially the celebrated actress Mrs. Kendal (Anna Massey), and understanding his own sexuality.
However Pomerance's play is also about scopophilia - otherwise explained as the desire to objectify through looking. Merrick is clearly a victim of this process while in the sideshow, as customers pay an entrance fee to gawp at him. However he is subject to precisely the same process at Treves' house, only this time it is the bourgeoisie who are the customers. What makes Merrick's plight even worse is that Treves expects him to be grateful for everything, even though he remains imprisoned by his deformity. Even when he seems to find some respite during his conversations with Mrs. Kendal, Merrick is still confined by the objectifying process; he asks Mrs. Kendal to strip naked, and thereby function as an object for his own sexual desires. Merrick's entire life is plagued by objectification; in one sequence he has a dream, where he exchanges roles with Treves, and thereby understands precsely what the scientist has done.
Merrick only achieves release from his plight through death - at that point Treves understands the consequences of his well-meaning attempts to 'civilize' the Elephant Man. As a result the scientist has a nervous breakdown. Perhaps Pomerance intends us to sympathize with him - after all, his behaviour was prompted by the best of intentions - but, in truth, we view his illness as an inevitable consequence of his psychological myopia.
David Hitchenson's World Service drama production treated the story with hard-headed pragmatism - at no point did we feel sorry for the two main protagonists. On the contrary, Jeremy Clyde's Treves entirely lacked the capacity to feel; he was solely reliant on first impressions. Murphy's John Merrick accepted his plight with a resigned stoicism, as if expecting nothing else from a so-called 'civilized' society that treated him solely as a freak.