Epic or Not: The Influence of Brechtian Techniques in The Elephant Man

            The Elephant Man was written under the support of the Foco Novo Theatre Company in the mid 70s in London. While finally authored by founding member American playwright Bernard Pomerance, the entire company was involved in its development. Foco Novo, or ‘new starting point’ was a small touring company committed to the development of new plays and touring new works throughout the United Kingdom to unusual audiences. In their brief existence, the company also produced translations and/or adaptations of Büchner’s Woyzeck, Genet’s Deathwatch and Brecht’s Edward II and A Man’s A Man. Pomerance was admittedly heavily influenced by Brecht and many of Brecht’s early admirers including his friend leftist British playwright John Arden.

Including The Elephant Man, Pomerance’s plays almost always deal with or are based upon historical events or characters. He typically writes scenes as ‘snapshots’ or ‘slice of life’ moments leaving most of his scripts, like Brecht’s, short and episodic. He calls for the doubling of roles, or multiple castings for each actor. His plays, again like Brecht’s, though oftentimes short in length, will have over twenty characters to be played by a cast of more or less than ten. The most readily recognizable Brechtian influence in The Elephant Man and other Pomerance dramas are his aesthetic suggestions. While he does not write specifically in the text about scenic arrangements, the textual structure alone intuitively restricts a designer from ‘over-designing’ the piece. The use of pre-scene placards indicating either the whole or the gist of what is to come. There is no attempt at nail-biting apprehension, suspense or typical dramatic arc for that matter. Pomerance indicates the use of musical interludes at the end of almost every scene. Like Brecht’s early plays, the thematic structure relies on a central character, Dr. Treves, to deliver the thematic engine of the play.

Brecht’s earlier plays consisted of short, staccato scenes which begin in the middle of the action and, rather than arcing toward any conclusion, simply end in the middle of the action. That isn’t to say nothing happens within them, but unlike traditional realism where a scene has a progressive, chronological sequence of events aiding in the development of a coherent plotline, Brecht’s scenes serve in the interest of the development of character and motivated themes. Hence, they are not restricted to filling in the gaps. The gaps are everywhere, the gaps are accepted, and the gaps are important.  The Elephant Man is the same in that while we may see a chronological progression of time moving forward, it doesn’t hesitate to skip large periods without indicating as such, nor is it unwilling to simply stop the action mid-scene to go to blackout, project a title, play some music only pick right back where it was moments before. This disregard for the current of the action is so the audience cannot be lulled into passive observance, but must stay awake and listen to everything that is said so as not to lose track of time and place.

Multiple characters played by the same actor presents a similar aim: for the characters to be represented by new forms of old characters. In a way, it suggests that one person is no different from another. To have the actress playing the Princess of Wales also play a pinhead in a freak-show says something specific about the royalty of the period and thusly, of the political figures of 1970s England. This is a simple, but effective manifestation of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Seeing our princess as mentally inept one or two scenes later quickly reminds us that we cannot become empathically involved with the characters onstage because they just may become someone else. We see this more in Brecht’s earlier non-epic plays.

The options for scenic arrangements for a play with so many short scenes seems limiting at first. Upon further investigation, however, it is clear that the key to designing such a play will require simplicity in order to allow for versatility. When the location changes back and forth quickly and often, multiple sets cannot be flown in one after another and not become exhaustingly tedious. Therefore, as Brecht insisted, blocks and flats can be rearranged to create and recreate specific locations. Once the audience recognizes which arrangement is where, they can let it go and get on with it. The use of projections of photographs and/or video can serve as a reminder as well. Brecht used this technique to great aesthetic success with Mother Courage and her Children because the central scenic focal point was a mobile cart which was oftentimes the only scenic element present onstage but provided all the necessary properties to allow the recognition of each new location.

When many short scenes occur in quick succession, the transitions become a major part of the play. Brecht insisted on cutting out any sense of anticipation by clearly printing on placards or projecting brief aphorisms or synopses of what was to come in the following scene. During the presentation of placards or projections, there would be a brief musical interlude to either set the atmosphere or to sometimes completely destroy any sense of one. Pomerance calls for music at the blackout near the end of many scenes. Unlike the later more epic plays where the music and singing was a key element of the action and dialogue of the play, intermittent instrumental music used in his earlier plays is more atmospheric and thusly more traditional. More often than not, we’re sure to find the musical interludes in productions of The Elephant Man an important aid in setting the atmosphere for the following scene.

All of Brecht’s plays relied on a central tragic (or tragicomic) character beginning, going thorough, or perishing within a personal crisis. It is this character’s progression or regression that provides the engine for the distribution of the play’s themes and ideas. Like Brecht’s early plays, and ironically much like Aristotelian tragedy, The Elephant Man uses a central figure and his dilemma as an allegorical focal point. And the dilemma of this central figure fits a similar mold each time: to discover the truth about themselves and the world. Like Treves, Galy Gay must define his role in the war, in his marriage, in the world. Like Oedipus, Treves must initially play his given role with strength and fortitude. When he is bucked from his horse, however, he must see himself in his true light and, in reaction, destroy what he sees. Pomerance asks us to admit that we are what we eat: that the improper use of and domestication of others for their own good will in turn domesticate ourselves. As Galy Gay the porter is inserted into the role of another soldier, it is clear that in war there is no individuality and it is precisely the suppression of individuality that is the crime. Galy Gay is Treves’ Merrick and the English colonial army is Merrick’s Treves.

While it has epic elements, The Elephant Man is not an entirely epic play. While it borrows many of Brecht’s devices, it does not carry the same narrative and is not carried or delivered by important musical devices. It has the epic elements of avoiding any attempt at pure realism or naturalism, and it has living characters with plausible psychological motivations and challenges. Its dialogue, while naturalistic enough to lull an audience into thinking the characters are real, it is far too poetic, articulated, stylized, punctuated and precise. Pomerance’s direction of A Man’s A Man and Edward II, both very early plays, is an indicator that his interest in Brecht was not necessarily in the highly experimental, pedagogical (lehrstück), audience and political-oriented aims, which the epic drama tried to produce. It was the experimentation with the unrealistic passage of time, suggestive sets, expressionistic lighting, the doubling or tripling of roles and the use of placards and intermittent, instrumental music which created the atmosphere of Pomerance’s drama. The Elephant Man certainly tries to incarnate the historical characters and the events affecting them through storytelling, while epic theatre would relate the events and insist the audience make the decisions. The Elephant Man does not try to predict the future, it shows the way the world is within a specific realm and asks us to look at it and ourselves within that realm, while the epic theatre, as Brecht writes, shows “the world as it is becoming.”[1] The Elephant Man is not an unabashed misrepresentation of ‘Brechtian Drama’, but rather an inspired reuse of Brechtian techniques in a fusing of forms intended to tell a good story and ask its audience to take a closer look.


[1] Brecht, Bertolt. “Theatre for Learning.” Trans. Edith Anderson. Brecht Sourcebook. Ed.       Henry Bial & Carol Martin. New  York & London: Routledge, 2000. 23.

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