Clarksville Composer's Song Cycle Highlights The Humanity Of The "Elephant Man" | Nashville Public Radio

Clarksville Composer's Song Cycle Highlights The Humanity Of The "Elephant Man"

Feb 8, 2016

In his life, the Englishman Joseph Merrick was destitute and deformed, treated as a sideshow freak and an object of pity. But at the next concert of the Gateway Chamber Orchestra, audiences will be invited to imagine what the world must have looked like from the point of view of the so-called “Elephant Man.”

Merrick, pictured here in an 1886 edition of the British Medical Journal, spent his final years in a hospital under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves. Merrick died at the age of 27 from a broken neck. Treves concluded Merrick had chosen to try sleeping lying down in an attempt at normalcy; the weight of his head combined with the nature of the deformities in his neck made that unsafe.
Credit photographer unknown / Wikimedia Commons

Composer and Austin Peay State University professor Jeffrey Wood says he’s been intrigued by the story of Joseph Merrick ever since college. That’s when he stumbled across a book about the man whose entire body was affected by ailments that still aren’t fully explained.

Merrick’s spine was twisted, his skin grew thick and lumpy, tumors and growths ballooned out over his head, torso, and three of his limbs. His head was so overgrown that he couldn’t safely lay down and, by the time he reached adulthood, he was unable to manipulate his mouth well enough to speak intelligibly.

The only way he found of making a paltry living was to sit in a London storefront while people paid for the chance to stare at him. However, Merrick’s mind was unaffected; the man who could barely speak could still think and feel clearly.

This thank you note is reportedly the only surviving writing in Merrick's own hand. Those interested in his story have had to rely primarily on the writings of Dr. Treves to understand or imagine Merrick's state of mind.
Credit Jack1956 / Wikimedia Commons

Wood found himself drawn to Merrick’s humanity, but found that it was missing somewhat from the artistic treatments of the “Elephant Man” story.

In the late 70s, Wood attended “The Elephant Man” play in its first production; he found it to really be about the doctor who took control of Merrick’s care. As for David Lynch’s 1980 movie on the subject, Wood calls it a sort of “Victorian morality” tale.

He read multiple books on Merrick’s life, and watched as an opera was produced, all the while thinking he’d like to someday write music about Merrick with a different emphasis than what he’d found in others’ work. Wood wanted to focus on the man inside the body instead of the world’s reaction to his appearance.

Then he came across a book of poetry by Kenneth Sherman: “Words for Elephant Man.” All of the poems are written from the point of view of Merrick himself, imagining how it would feel to be trapped in that body and unable to express oneself.

"Everything" by Kenneth Sherman

Treves asks what I want for Christmas.

I show him an advertisement for a dressing bag.

(a) I cannot use the silver-backed brushes

because my hair has fallen out

(b) The ivory-handled razors are useless

because I cannot shave my face

(c) The deformity of my mouth

renders the toothbrush unusable

(d) The cigarette case, ditto, since my monstrous lips

could never hold a cigarette

(e) The silver shoe-horn could not help

with my ungainly slippers

(f) The hat brush is unsuited

to my peaked yachting cap.

In short, the gift is useless.

Treves believes I want it because I like to think of myself as

(these are his words):

            the Piccadilly exquisite

            a real swell

            a dandy

            a Don Juan

            a gallant

            the young spark

What in fact had attracted me

was the caption over the ad:


In those poems, Wood didn’t just find another artist with similar reactions to Merrick’s situation; he found lyrics.

Once he had permission to use the poet’s words, Wood says the music came quickly. He’d been mulling over the subject for decades, after all. The end result is a cycle of twelve songs for voice and piano, seven of which he has orchestrated for a larger ensemble.

After more than three decades of thinking about giving Joseph Merrick a musical voice, those seven songs get their premiered this week.  Another Austin Peay professor, baritone Jeffrey Williams, will sing them with the Gateway Chamber Orchestra in Franklin on Monday evening.

The program also includes music of Rossini and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, with Wood at the piano

Click here for complete concert information on Classical 91.1's Arts Calendar