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Viewing the Elephant Man

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

William E. Holladay*
Indiana UniversityBloomington


The story of John Merrick—the “Elephant Man” of late Victorian sideshows who became a cause célèbre of the aristocracy—has achieved a new and perhaps surprising popularity in recent years. An examination of Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play and David Lynch's 1980 film reveals several sources of viewing pleasure that may account for this attraction, all of which converge on representations of Merrick. Among these sources are the appeals of melodrama and Brechtian epic theater, as well as the more deep-seated gratifications connected with voyeurism, pornography, and theatrical and cinematic spectating. In distinctive ways, each narrative constructs both a mythology of Merrick's life and spectators who are alternately empowered and submissive, politically aware and emotionally engaged.

Research Article
PMLA , Volume 104 , Issue 5 , October 1989 , pp. 868 - 881
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 1989

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