Bradley Cooper's stupendous rendering of Joseph Merrick in director Scott Ellis' Broadway production of The Elephant Man is painful to watch -- both literally and figuratively. Merrick suffered from either neurofibromatosis type 1 or Proteus syndrome, or some combination of the two, which caused dramatic skin, facial and bodily deformities. Ellis chooses to convey his misshapenness to the audience by presenting large real-life photographs of Merrick. As the photographs are shown early in Act One, the condition is described while Cooper -- devoid of the assistance of makeup and costume -- dramatically contorts his face, hands and body. Cooper remains so drastically contorted throughout the two hour performance that the pain of the true story mirrors the painful rigidity of Cooper's body and face. By the time the curtain dropped, my face felt as heavy as my heart.
This devastating tale of the true-life trajectory of Merrick (born in 1862 in England) begins in 1884 when Merrick is living a miserable life on the road, showcased as the main attraction in a degrading freak sideshow. Merrick eventually meets the surgeon Frederick Treves who takes him on as a patient but also as a social protege of sorts. While residing in the London Hospital, Merrick becomes a sideshow of a different form, meeting flabbergasted and intrigued members of London's high society including the Princess Alexandra of Wales.
Regardless of the isolation and outcasting that defines Merrick's life, The Elephant Man celebrates the triumph of dignity in the face of adversity. Merrick is repeatedly prodded, poked, humiliated, rejected, diminished, and disrespected. Even his surgeon to whom he develops a strong, long-standing friendship is unable to truly accept his humanity. And yet life's cruelty and multiple adversities do not diminish Merrick's underlying and persistent dignity. Throughout the play, he diligently builds a magnificent replica of the Mainz Cathedral in Germany. (The real life version of Merrick's model cathedral is exhibited at the Royal London Hospital Museum.) While onlookers travel from far corners to view Merrick's ugly exterior, he diligently works to create this object of stunning detail and beauty. Whether he is spoken to as an animal, disregarded as subhuman or patronized as an object of outward pity, Merrick turns to this intricate work of art and continues.
Perhaps Merrick's persistence with the painstaking rendering of the church reflects his innate understanding that true beauty reflects the human spirit.