Gaze and Look: Seeing What We Want to See in The Elephant Man

geraint wyn davies, brent carver & kate trotter

There is a moment in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man when Dr. Frederick Treves begins to shout about the restrictive, repressing Victorian culture that has them all ensnared. While sitting in the newly renovated Bluma Appel Theatre watching the Canadian Stage Company’s production of this play I felt very much like I had been transported into a Victorian theatre. I felt as though I was watching the characters from a privileged and distanced point of view, but it was restricted and contorted, like a body in a corset, and I wasn’t able to break free from constant manipulation to just sit down and bear witness to a simple, pure, human relationship.

Everything in Victorian England was about pretenses, allusions and proper form. As an audience member watching this performance I didn’t get caught up in messy emotional connections or involvement, which turned the performance into something slightly exhibitionist. The play focused a great deal on the idea of the gaze, the way different members of society saw this disabled man, John Merrick, and how they shaped him, civilized him and turned him into something that could be seen and accepted. In 2007, we are automatically set up to be judgmental of the treatment suffered by outsiders in the past and we are often haughty in our conviction that we are better than our ancestors. There are also layers to the goldfish bowl effect. All the characters are judged in this way, and Brent Carver, who gives a riveting performance as Merrick, is watched with awe and wonder as he contorts his body and transforms almost magically from man to “elephant man” before our eyes.
The play itself has a striking lack of conflict, and therefore the audience has to shift its focus to critical thinking about relationships and themes rather than waiting to get swept into the action.
Of course, this Victorian distance runs the risk of alienating its audience to the point of them not caring about the characters or the story being told. The lovely moments of connection between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal (played beautifully by Kate Trotter) are the threads upon which the audience’s emotional investment hang. It is a pity that Mrs. Kendal does not remain onstage throughout the latter half of the show.
The direction by Robin Phillips seems as uncivilized and unshaped as the atmosphere is controlled and stifled. I hesitate to attempt to ‘civilize’ it by creating order for myself by calling this a “choice”. The use of song, projected photographs and masks each seems like an underdeveloped idea, which clutters the overall vision of the show. At the same time, Geraint Wyn Davies’ performance as Frederick Treves does not seem to follow a journey that justifies a break down in the second act. That said, as a form for a superior, distanced audience to voyeuristically watch and scrutinize human behavior, Phillips’ direction works well for fostering debate.
In 2007 do we really need another story that rallies the audience around an outcast and didactically reiterates the Dr. Seussism “a person’s a person no matter how {you fill in the blank]”? Is The Elephant Man at Canadian Stage trying to do something else here? Has it succeeded? Spending two hours in an emotional corset, The Elephant Man raised more questions than it solved- maybe the tension wasn’t supposed to be in the play, but in the sense of unfinished business that permeates our superiority and follows us home from the theatre.
The Canadian Stage Company’s The Elephant Man runs until November 3rd, 2007 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street. For tickets call 416 368-3110 or visit

Leave a Reply