By Jeremy van Meter
As the final performance of The Elephant Man approaches, I am struck by the power of learning lessons as an adult—an “almost 50-year old adult.” In the portrayal of a character, there is always something to be learned if one remains open to the process. Even in playing the most minor of characters, I have always walked away knowing a little bit more about myself as a person and about the world around me. In the portrayal of Dr. Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man, what I have gained is invaluable and, I know this sounds cliché, what I have gained has made me a better man.
When rehearsal began this past April, I knew the life story of Joseph Merrick but I had no idea or had forgotten who Merrick was as a person. I had no idea that he was an avid reader. I did not know that he was a lover of poetry. I was not aware that he built, with one hand, miniature models of cathedrals and churches. It was a surprise to me that several times over the course of two years he vacationed and walked the grounds of Fawlsey Hall Estate in Northamptonshire where he would collect wildflowers to return to London with. I, like so many others before me, had labeled him as “less than” and not as intelligent as he actually was. And that is the most powerful lesson I have learned.
I, like Treves at the outset of the play, made my impressions about Merrick based on his outward appearance. Treves saw the advancement of science and his own career through the discovery of something that no one had ever seen before. For Treves, Merrick was a “case study” and it was not until he had the opportunity to see the man inside the study, that his life was changed. In today’s society, it is so easy and convenient to toss around labels. And once that label is placed, for whatever reason, the human being inside is overlooked and done a huge disservice. We do a disservice to ourselves as well.
Because of these characters—Frederick Treves and Joseph Merrick—and this play, I have made a vow to avoid placing labels on anyone. I have made a vow to live in a way that I “See” everyone I come into contact with. And, yes, that capital S I just used in the word “see” is intentional. There are amazing human beings all around us especially those that we categorize as “other.” I have made a vow to never look past them but to instead attempt to look inside them.
The Elephant Man plays through September 2nd at the Commonweal and if you have yet to experience it, I urge you to do so. The play, the story and the man inside both altered my life and I just bet it will do the same for you.