Bernard Pomerance, the playwright who wrote the poignant Tony Award-winning drama “The Elephant Man,” about a grotesquely deformed but sensitive man in Victorian England whose human longings are often misunderstood by those around him, died Aug. 26 at his home near Galisteo, N.M. He was 76.
His agent, Alan Brodie, confirmed the death. The cause was lung cancer.
The American-born Mr. Pomerance spent much of his career in London, where he wrote several early plays and helped found a small avant-garde theater company. He found little success until “The Elephant Man,” which was first performed in London in 1977.
The play is based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a 19th-century British man with a condition that produced large, unsightly growths on his head and much of his body. He spent years on display in a freak show, enduring the ridicule and disgust of the carnival-goers.
Finally, he was taken to a hospital, where a doctor, Frederick Treves, cared for him and introduced him to Victorian polite society.
Mr. Pomerance’s play — which changes the central character’s first name to John — takes place in the 1880s and focuses largely on Merrick, Treves and an actress, Mrs. Kendal, the only woman Merrick becomes close to.
Early in the play, photographs of the real-life Merrick are shown as Treves describes his patient’s physical condition. Mr. Pomerance’s stage directions specify that the actor playing Merrick not appear in makeup or a mask. The character’s deformities are conveyed through contortion, gesture and speech.
Merrick becomes something of a social phenomenon, discussing literature and building a model of a cathedral with his one usable hand.
Yet it becomes apparent that his well-dressed, gift-bearing visitors are little different from the loutish gawkers who gazed at him in sideshows.
Treves calls Merrick a man with an “acute sensibility and, worse for him, a romantic imagination,” and over time an emotional attachment develops between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal.
“Sometimes I think my head is so big,” Merrick tells her, “because it is so full of dreams.”
He reveals his regret that he will never have an intimate moment with a woman, prompting Mrs. Kendal to remove her blouse and expose her breasts — at which point Treves returns, upbraiding both with stern Victorian rectitude.
“The Elephant Man” was first presented in New York in 1979 at an off-Broadway theater in a church. It became an instant phenomenon.
“ ‘The Elephant Man’ is more than docudrama,” Time magazine drama critic T.E. Kalem wrote. “It is lofted on poetic wings and nests in the human heart.”
After the play moved to Broadway, it was greeted with sold-out audiences and critical praise. Merrick, as portrayed by actor Philip Anglim, was “like some sort of simple, twisted saint,” Kalem wrote.
“The Elephant Man” won Tony Awards for best drama, best director (Jack Hofsiss) and best actress (Carole Shelley, who played Mrs. Kendal).
The play ran for more than two years and has been widely produced around the world, including Broadway revivals that featured actors Billy Crudup and Bradley Cooper in the title role.
In 1980, a film called “The Elephant Man,” directed by David Lynch and starring John Hurt as Merrick, was produced. The film was not based on Mr. Pomerance’s play, but he and his producers filed suit against the film’s production company, claiming that the duplicate title would confuse audiences and took advantage of the play’s artistic reputation. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
After the Broadway premiere of “The Elephant Man,” Mr. Pomerance was rarely seen in public and granted few interviews.
“The most important element in theater is the audience’s imagination,” he said in 1979. “My interest in the audience is to remind them of a common thing and, if only temporarily, they do then become a unity, a community.”
Bernard Kline Pomerance was born Sept. 23, 1940, in Brooklyn. He said little about his parents or youth, and it is safe to say that more is known about Joseph Merrick than about Mr. Pomerance.
He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1962 and moved to London six years later.
“It’s true I didn’t write plays before I came to London,” he told the New York Times in 1979. “I had been working in narrative form, but I realized all my notes were coming out as dialogue.”
Along with director Roland Rees and others, he founded the Foco Novo theater company in the early 1970s. (The name was the title of one of Mr. Pomerance’s early plays.)
Other plays included “High in Vietnam, Hot Damn,” “Hospital” and “Thanksgiving Before Detroit.”
After “Elephant Man,” Mr. Pomerance wrote two more plays, “Quantrill in Lawrence,” about a Confederate raid in the Civil War, and “Melons,” about a sage American Indian chief. Both were produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company but did not reach Broadway.
His first marriage, to writer Sally Belfrage, ended in divorce. In 2008, he married Evelyne Franceschi, who died in 2015. Survivors include two children from his first marriage; a brother; and two grandchildren.
According to public records, Mr. Pomerance returned to New York in the 1980s. He published a book-length epic poem, “We Need to Dream All This Again: An account of Crazy Horse, Custer, and the battle for the Black Hills,” in 1987.
About a dozen years ago, Mr. Pomerance settled permanently near Santa Fe, N.M. In 2013, he emerged from a largely secluded life to spend a day helping students at Santa Fe High School prepare for a production of “The Elephant Man.”