To depict the hideousness of John Merrick, a Victorian freak so ugly that women fainted and men gagged at his sight, the Broadway production of "The Elephant Man" hit upon a simple solution.
Clad only in a loincloth, actor Philip Anglim stood, tall and expressionless, in a hospital amphitheater. As the head doctor, pointer in hand, lectured his peers on the sundry deformities of the poor creature, Anglim subtly twisted his spine askew, gnarled up one of his hands, and cocked his head gently to the side, as if under a great weight. It was a stylized depiction of physical monstrosity, but since Bernard Pomerance's Tony-winning play was also austerely stylized, it worked perfectly.
The device is retained in the television adaptation of "The Elephant Man," which airs tonight at 9 on Channel 7, as the premiere presentation of "ABC Theatre of the Month." But perhaps because television is a more literal medium, it seems far less apt. The television version, by using more sets, opening up the action and multiplying the number of actors, aims for a certain realism. In this new context, Anglim's performance, though often touching, also seems vaguely incongruous. When the camera closes in on his choirboy face, you have to remind yourself that he really is supposed to be a fright and that the other characters are seeing him with far different eyes.
Still, "The Elephant Man" tells a rather extraordinary story with intelligence and poetry, asks some fundamental questions about the so-called charity we lavish on the unfortunate, and examines our enduring need to tame the exceptional being by turning him into an imitation of our ordinary selves. Few television dramas bite off half so much these days. If "The Elephant Man" really was better on the stage, we should probably be grateful that it is on television at all.
Victorian England relished the enormous contrasts in Merrick's person -- the bony protuberances and cauliflower-shaped growths on his face and body (a severe form of nerve disorder diagnosed today as neurofibromatosis) which actually masked a sweet romantic soul and a gentle, but lively, wit. He was a real-life example of beauty and the beast, rolled into one. Rescued from a dingy sideshow and given sanctuary in a hospital ward, he was eventually adopted by fashionable London society, which showered him with gifts and compliments and pretended he was no different from other men.
Frederick Treves (Kevin Conway), the doctor who becomes rich and celebrated caring for the elephant man, ultimately realizes the fallacy in such well-intentioned thinking. Merrick is different, and like all creatures who do not conform to the comfortable definitions of mankind, he both attracts and unsettles. "He makes all of us think he is deeply like ourselves," observes Treves, on the edge of despair. "And yet we're not like each other at all. I conclude we have polished him like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch."
Like Anglim, Conway is a holdover from the original Broadway production, and performs with the economy and assurance of one who has a long run under his belt. Penny Fuller has the third major role, that of Mrs. Kendall, the Victorian actress who is engaged to help out in the socialization of Merrick precisely because, as a performer, she knows how to hide her true feelings. Fuller gives a splendid portrayal of someone who is initially playing a part, and then finds to her surprise that she actually believes every word she is uttering. In the play's most bizarrely touching scene, she bares her breasts to Merrick, who has never seen a naked woman before. Fuller makes it seem less an act of pity or exhibitionism than an expression of pure honesty between kindred souls.
The supporting players are all competent within the relatively narrow definitions of their roles. If the London policeman looks vaguely familiar to you, it may be because the cameo is played by John Neville-Andrews, the Folger Theatre's new artistic director. Jack Hofsis, who staged the drama on Broadway, again handles the task with commendable sobriety. Nonetheless, this "Elephant Man" registers as a curious hybrid. It wants to be more than a filmed version of the Broadway play, and yet is certainly somewhat less, atmospherically, than the recent film which boasted the same title, although different authorship.
Anglim's approach to the central character seems to suffer most in the transition, however. On stage, the performance was buttressed by the very medium itself, one which relies on convention and artifice. On the tube, it just looks self-consciously arty. Instead of an authentic monster, we get Tiny Tim grown up.