Philip Anglin, Ken Ruta and Penny Fuller discuss their roles in "The Elephant Man"
BROADCAST: Jan. 8, 1980 | DURATION: 00:40:14
Cast members Philip Anglin, Ken Ruta and Penny Fuller talk about their roles as John Merrick, Mr. Treves and Mrs. Kendal, respectively. They also talk about having great appreciation for their roles and being able to see audience's reactions to their performances.
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Studs Terkel Now often we hear the phrase theatre and life and the intertwining of the two, and a classic case is a quite beautiful play you've heard about, "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerance. It won the Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize for Theatre as well as some of its actors too for their magnificent performances. "The Elephant Man" at the Blackstone Theater and three of the principal actors are guests this morning. Philip Anglim, who plays the role of this freakish figure, or is he? And how different from us, John Merrick, an actual case in British medical history, of this in a moment. And Ken Ruta plays the role of the doctor Mr. Treves, who finds him and treats him, and Penny Fuller plays the role of an actress who comes to know him, Mrs. Kendal. And so, in a moment, their thoughts about the play and what it means to us and who they are in this play. After this message. [pause in recording] [music playing] You know, as we hear this cello, I was thinking any one of the three of my guests' thoughts. The cello is played as the background music off and on during the performance of "The Elephant Man" at the Blackstone and wherever it is performed. The cello and Bach and other composers. Why do you think? Why is this music chosen by the playwright and the director?
Ken Ruta And I think the range of it is closest to our own. And that feeling you get from hearing a cello, it seems to come from right inside you somehow. The whole thing about a cello, I mean the way it's held and everything, there is something that is so in it's shape, it is almost a human shape.
Philip Anglim Until Merrick is finally brought into the hospital when he cries out, "Help me!" and Treves befriends him. And it's also the idea of civilization has now re-entered after this chaos and the battering, and music is both, you know, it is an ordering, a civilizing of sound and of putting it into structure, which is what society is, to the extent.
Studs Terkel You know, also I think in listening to it, I also thought that Bach and the others and the idea of Casals, excellent cellist players there, that in the human being are all these possibilities, these heavenly possibilities, the soaring through Bach, you see. And here you got this guy, Merrick, the case of John Merrick. Who was he? Who is he? You played the role from the beginning.
Philip Anglim Well, no one really knows what the actual disease is, but it was a disease of the skin and bone. And it was progressive so that probably--although there's very little known about him. In fact, the only thing that is known about him is the memoirs that Treves wrote at the end of Treves's life.
Ken Ruta Yes.
Philip Anglim It's because he's a specialist. Anyway, so he's picked up by this kind of half-baked freak show owner and he's toured around for many years and exhibited in Europe until finally--it's interesting what happens. At one point, after a certain point, the disease had progressed to the extent where he was no longer just a curiosity, but he incited a kind of mob hysteria, almost turned them into a shark pack and they would try to destroy him. So the police would no longer grant permits for his exhibition, and it was at that point that the freak show owner abandoned him again. And coincidentally, I mean what an extraordinary coincidence, he still had--he had a card on him, which dated from a two year previous examination by this doctor, Frederick Treves at the London Hospital. The card is found on him battered and torn and dirty and he, Treves, is notified of Merrick's arrival in London alone. And Treves comes down to the train station where he's being held in a back room and away from the crowd that's trying to tear him apart. And Treves brings him into the hospital. And suddenly in the hospital what happens is that the public perception of him changes because instead of actually seeing him on exhibition, they read about him and it incites instead of hatred and hostility, it incites sympathy and hundreds of thousands of pounds, money, pours into the hospital to support him.
Studs Terkel A freak who is so strange and dangerous to the great many who want to destroy him suddenly becomes a celebrity isn't that it? I was thinking, let's stick with us for a minute. He had--the appearance he had then, he had attributes of an elephant, didn't he? I mean, his hands, his extension?], isn't that it?
Studs Terkel Before I ask you a question about the mob and the great many, the feeling of wanting to kill him, in the play, quite done beautifully too, it's suggested, you see. We see actual--Treves shows actual slides.
Philip Anglim Yes. It's wonderful. As Ken begins the lecture which was taken from Treves's memoirs, again verbatim, the audience begins--because I'm suggesting it to an extent with my body, begins to believe that I've been transformed.
Ken Ruta Well, even the thing about Philip not really being that ugly. I think if there was someone that really looked like that, the response would be terrifying. And the same thing in the real life too, that thing about evil. I have a line about saying that people thought it was some sort of weird superstitious beliefs about the sight of him and they thought he brought it on himself. So it was some sign from God or something or other that he was afflicted like that.
Studs Terkel Normalcy.
Ken Ruta Well he was a very smart up and coming doctor there and this was something that happened to him, chance, and he had already written two books and was quite an up and coming man. But then this just skyrocketed and he became doctor to royalty and he was quite a good--I mean, like, he wrote this book years after Merrick had died and it was really thoughts of remembering. I have a speech in there about corsets. He was a big man that tried to get people away from wearing corsets. He knew all the disease about crushing the insides, which is wonderful too about keeping yourself in and
Penny Fuller One
Ken Ruta Yeah.
Ken Ruta Well I think so. He was ready to take any--I don't think that this particularly-- when he first took Merrick in, he saw it as opportunity and then it became, open doors that hadn't been opened to him before.
Studs Terkel As the case is. Who is Mrs. Kendal? Now we come to--oh! I should point out that everybody is afraid to treat him, right? Nurses, because he's so horrible in appearance that nobody will treat him. Along comes--who are you?
Penny Fuller Well it's--there's a point of departure from the play and the real life Madge Kendal was, in fact, an actress of this time. And in actual fact, she never met Merrick, but she was indeed greatly responsible for some of the things, the good things, that happened to him. Which do you want to know about? The lady in the play or the lady who really lived?
Penny Fuller Madge Kendal. And Ken gave me for opening night the most wonderful picture of her and autograph ever. She was in the time of Ellen Terry and while that--she was a little bit more of a--what would you say? Light, not light weight [unintelligible]--
Penny Fuller Not as much. Now she and Ellen Terry did "Merry Wives of Windsor" together and Ellen Terry said something about that Mrs. Kendal was so very nice because she left Portia open, did not play Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" so that Ellen was, in fact, able to do it. [laughing] But she--from what I could find out, Mrs. Kendal's husband used to go to the hospital, to the London hospital, as was a kind of a Victorian duty thing to sort of go and visit the sick and afflicted and whatever. And he met Merrick and he came home and told her about him and then she said, "I don't want to hear about that, like I don't want to hear about it." But eventually, what happened was she did in fact arrange for John Merrick to go to the theater in a box where he could be totally hidden because if they--if the people saw him, they would have gone into one of those mob scenes and she introduced him to basket weaving through letters and things and he made her baskets. And the model which is used in the play, a model of a church that Merrick builds, was actually built for and given to Madge Kendal and she returned it to the hospital after his death.
Penny Fuller Took the liberty of making a rather wonderful story that Mrs. Kendal is Treves's attempt to find somebody who will talk to Merrick. And he says to her, "Because you're an actress and you can hide your true emotions. That's what you're trained to do. So I thought that that would be a good thing for you to come
Studs Terkel Merrick.
Ken Ruta Yes, and that's the key to opening up and I think like most women on Earth, you won't give in. You're trained to hide your true feelings and do do other ones, you know really, I don't want to say that--what the author [charges?] [laughing].
Penny Fuller Just a tad. But then, he couldn't help but I guess. So he decides that maybe this lady, as the nurses and other people in the hospital cannot cope with him, that maybe she can. And so she does, in fact, get through this initial meeting and in the play, Mrs. Kendal becomes not only a friend, but an initiator of a lot of [unintelligible].
Studs Terkel You know, there's a marvelous moment and it's very revealing too. At the very beginning when Treves, you are trying to tell her how to behave in front of him. How do you say "pleased to meet you" and what really happens because it's terribly moving, isn't it? Now what about Merrick during all this? He's there, he's--you got him in. You, Treves, Ken
Philip Anglim Well this is the first time that he's had three meals a day and a roof over his head and this is home for him. He says, "I've never had a home before." So it certainly is--he is totally oblivious to the other implications, which are the implications that he's being used, not necessarily financially although that may also be true, but used in the sense that people--he's now just a different kind of free. He's in a different exhibition in different contexts, but he's still big and you know, I mean that the final grotesquery of the whole story is that he's still a freak because his bones are still being exhibited at the London Hospital in a glass box. He hasn't been buried.
Philip Anglim No, I saw the model, I saw the model. You see, this play, you give him a certain kind of notoriety now to him and a certain interest. In fact, the book upon which Bernard learned a little bit about
Philip Anglim Is now selling something like a thousand copies a week. And--but anyway, so the London Hospital now has become rather embarrassed by the fact that he's still on display. So the room has been closed off.
Studs Terkel And I'm thinking about that moment, Merrick, because now we come to the mind, the dreams of this elephant man, of this freak, Merrick, you see. What does Mr. Treves, of that by Mrs. Kendal, know about it? Is there a feeling? Do you get the feeling he was retarded? Is that the thought you had originally?
Philip Anglim There's an incident talking about the way we misinterpret or we assume that the exterior of a person is a reflection of the interior, and that he was dismissed as an imbecile because he couldn't speak properly. And that's true, I mean look at people with cerebral palsy today who can't speak properly and yet they can be--have brilliant minds. In fact, many of them are successful writers and artists and so forth.
Studs Terkel Dwarfish.
Penny Fuller Yes.
Penny Fuller The article or--I guess that's in that same book, isn't it? About where he talks about the difference that, by some perhaps arbitrary chance, Mr. Merrick adjusted to this to this grotesquery in an entirely different manner than Alexander Pope, who was not a thing of
Studs Terkel Let's go back to the theme of Merrick, you know, this mind, the dream, because one of the quotes that's used--in fact, it's used in the program and elsewhere, the quote, that idea. And we'll come back to the cello again, Bach, don't we? What is that quote?
Studs Terkel And so there's Merrick. And you do Merrick, by the way, beautifully. And so something is going on. A moment ago Penny Fuller, Mrs. Kendal, was speaking about a model he was making. What was this? Where'd this
Philip Anglim Well he--part of--I mean, he was reading Shakespeare, he was writing poetry, he was weaving baskets, and you know, everything from sort of the sublime to the ridiculous. But he wanted to build, design a cathedral, St. Philip's Cathedral. And he began by doing sketches and when he died, he had completed an exquisite, intricate, and very ornate model out of paper and wood, which I saw in London, which makes the model we have onstage look like sort of a Tinkertoy set. And it's all gilded and painted, little gargoyles and everything. And anyway, this is becomes for him, at least in the play, whether it did in real life I don't know, but it becomes for him a kind of guiding light and sort of, as Bernard says, a central metaphor for his development in those four years that he was in the hospital and becomes something for him to work towards. And certainly, I mean, it's fascinating because the idea of a cathedral is to create a human artifact which is a celebration of an inhuman or a non-human irrational spiritual thing.
Studs Terkel We'll come back to what I think the play is possibly about. My own interpretation is that the tremendous possibilities in the human mind and spirit and through this grotesque, wholly grotesque person and the normal people are handling him as if he were a freak. And you've got two very sympathetic people here who also are [unintelligible].
Philip Anglim Well there's a mutual education process that goes on. Merrick is being educated, he is being socialized and he is educating, perhaps subconsciously, the people around him in that they, in many ways, are re-evaluating, at times to disastrous consequences, their own lives and their own condition and what they've been working for and what their beliefs rest upon on the foundation of their preconceptions.
Ken Ruta And even going back to the Bach again, when you hear Bach badly played. I mean, you need not only that technique, you need that heart otherwise it comes sheer mechanics. And here we have the--I've got the mechanics as Treves. He [has no soul] really, and he gives me
Studs Terkel That's interesting, what you just said, yeah. Treves is doing the mechanics so automatically playing Bach. As Casals always said, you know, he's different every time because I feel different. And so we come to Treves had the intellect, and I guess he was a good man, wasn't he? Treves, very good. But there was something missing in his treatment of Merrick. Was Merrick aware of this?
Philip Anglim There were glimpses that something was wrong, I think, but Merrick's--not his genius, but certainly his brilliance in a way was his naïvete and that it was the kind of the the inability to see double meanings that he could only understand one meaning for one word. And so it was a kind of naivete that cut through the sham of society. So when he asks certain questions which seem, from someone else, would be facetious and cynical, they are, in fact, quite naive and open questions when he's-- one of the final scenes with the doctor in which he's talking about, you know, why is it that you--that this is normal and that this isn't because, in fact, they are the same actions. And it's, you know, he's trying to understand that. But I think he is relatively oblivious to the to the inner turmoil that Treves is suffering from.
Philip Anglim But he doesn't have any inner turmoil, I think that's the point. I mean, I think that Merrick is very much at peace with himself, don't you? His quest is is, I think, you know, perhaps a misguided one, but to be normal and to assume the trappings and the exteriors of of the people that he sees around him.
Philip Anglim I did an article with a woman who runs the National Institute for Handicapped People and Disabled People. And in many ways, she was angered by the play because she felt that Merrick didn't--wasn't consciousness raised. You know, he didn't have any pride in his disability in a sense. He was too weak in that he gave in too easily. He was too easily malleable. He didn't talk back enough. He didn't have his minority consciousness raised.
Studs Terkel That's interesting, but the one part I think that, if I were to answer her this presumptuous to say that their consciousness was raised. The others were perhaps even more important. His was there all the time. It's theirs. So perhaps before--we'll take a break and after that we come to the part--the third part, that's Mrs. Kendal. We're talking here about this guy, Treves, who is the technician. The intellect without the feeling, and how we come to somebody who completes his [unintelligible]. In a moment, after this pause. [pause in recording] So resuming the conversation with three of the principal members of the cast of "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerance. It's a beautiful play, playing at the Blackstone through February 23rd and there matinées on Saturday and Wednesday at 2:00 and Sunday at 3:00. And the three principal characters, Philip Anglim, who plays the Elephant Man, John Merrick. And Ken Ruta, Mr. Treves, the doctor. And Penny Fuller, Mrs. Kendal, the actress. And a moment ago we pick up a soap opera, you know, and when when last we left John Merrick. [laughing] And so when last we left, we're talking about the feeling, the dreams of freak, in quotes John Merrick and of the cold, at the same time humane, but intellectually obsessed doctor and in comes this actress and she's a little different from Treves, isn't she?
Penny Fuller Well, as I say, she's a woman and she's an artist and to whatever degree you want to think she is, I mean, to whatever degree of artistry you wanted. Nevertheless, she is not--just on a basic level, she's not scientifically intellectually trained. She's an instinctive being. Being female and an instinctive, I think, artist from what we know about her in the play and from even what we know about her in her real life.
Studs Terkel That brings her a little closer to touching something in him than Treves did. We can talk about this moment, I think it's very moving. It's not giving anything away because that's not the important--the important thing is seeing the play, that it's a Victorian time and he's never seen a woman really before has he?
Ken Ruta A common--a lot of things, I mean, you want another--I want another scene there. [laughing] What does all that mean? Because it's--I mean, it's something that if Treves was in that position, he'd probably have a heart attack.
Ken Ruta Just the society's mores at that time were disrupted, then his own personal ones, and then also what it is doing to the patient since he knows what can happen to Merrick too. It's a very difficult moment. I don't know the audience all the time. It's very different to get the different reactions sometimes. It's sometimes the most obvious and other times, like the Wednesday matinees, is when it is older people, it is a great--you get more of a--
Penny Fuller Yes, he says to me, he says to Mrs. Kendal, "Have you no sense of decency?" And every once in a while, I hear one brave soul go--they are like, "Oh, how could you say that?" It's not terribly vocal at that point, their reaction. I mean the reaction first is the fact of at his discovering Mrs. Merrick, I mean Mrs. Kendal, [laughing] and Mr. Merrick in this situation and a lot of that is nervousness and a lot of that is--it's very interesting what happens. Every audience has its own personality from the moment the curtain goes up and how everybody reacts.
Studs Terkel You know, as another thing, because we touched on it [unintelligible]. And that's what happens to Merrick and the society itself. Now he's--the hospital's involved and all sorts of people are involved. People- society people who want to do good as Mrs. Kendal's husband in real life, and they're part of something now that's a celebrated act, aren't they? I mean, he's now treated differently, isn't
Philip Anglim Well, they're bringing him gifts. It's like the Gift of the Magi or something. You know, I mean, they have--they are now--he's become a kind of icon, hasn't he? And he is being, in a sense, he's being celebrated in an almost in a funny kind of primitive way sort of worshipped, in that they're bringing ritualistic gifts to him which he cannot use, just as you know, you put gifts in front of in front of some temple that will never be used, but that there is a kind of propitiation or something.
Penny Fuller He wrote to Mrs. Kendal, but she said that the letters had not survived. I mean, in this particular article that I read that she--that he had written her several letters, but that they were lost.
Ken Ruta Like
Studs Terkel But I mean, actually he had a certain way to sleep like other peop- I'm thinking about his physical. Didn't that didn't that make it more difficult for Merrick to try to behave like Treves or Mrs. Kendal?
Philip Anglim Well, I mean, that's one way of looking at his death is kind of the final sacrifice to be normal, which is to sleep like other people which, which caused him to die. But I don't--I think that there would have been, you know, mean long before he came into contact with Treves, there was this glimmering, this desperate desire to be normal. All perfectly understandable and simply he was given the environment in which to achieve that as much as possible. Some people think it was suicide. I mean, in the audience, they tend to view it as they want to. Which is another aspect of the play is that we, you know, that he is so much like me. We see in Merrick what we want to see and a reflection of ourselves.
Studs Terkel Yeah I was thinking also, that, but also the fact that at that hospital, the actual London Hospital of the reality and of the play and the support as the patrons of it and all. Once he's through, boom! That's it. Now, but this time something's happened to Treves, hasn't it? What's happened to Treves?
Ken Ruta [laughing] I think it--the, being normal. And then finding out that everything you've strived for to try and make someone like yourself. I mean, what is that? And then finding out what you were like, that you really weren't that perfect. That's pretty shattering. Because I said, there's that one thing I say about he makes us all feel that he is deeply like ourselves and yet we're not like each other, and that's a great revelation. The individual, that whole Victorian thing about everyone being in the same mold, wasn't much individuality and there's someone who is not only incredibly physically not like anyone else, but also the mind is a free--it's a very free spirit. It's not been put in any--
Penny Fuller What I think what's so wonderful about this play is the audience response, and it should tell us something about what's going on in the world because here's a play that is not totally a heavy dire evening in the theater. It's really on many levels delightful and moving and profound or whatever. But the thing that is so interesting that when--in the time when serious theatre is in serious trouble theoretically, the people's response to this play, the enormous crowds that we've had in the cities that we've had. And it is a commitment to an evening, to something more than just a diversion. And I think it says something, I'm not sure what, about what's needed right now.
Studs Terkel And those commercials, buy those things. Those of us--way back in the beginning of this conversation, you were talking about the mob wanting to get that guy, and also [unintelligible] these people who are that way have themselves to blame. During the Great American Depression, a great many people blamed themselves. The great many for not working, losing jobs, something's wrong with me. They weren't saying that society slipped on a banana peel. It's not too far removed, is it?
Ken Ruta Yeah.
Philip Anglim Arbitrary.
Studs Terkel What happens to Mrs. Kendal, do you think? A usual question, this is often asked of an actor or actress, you know, when that actor leaves. What do you think happened to Mrs. Kendal after she was kicked out of the hospital by Treves?
Penny Fuller Well, it's partially her own choice too. I mean, I suppose if she really wanted to, she could have gone back. But I think there was a line beyond which--and she says it even before she's discovered. If you tell anyone it isn't just like--it's got to do with a betrayal to a certain degree of something. And I suspect that she went on and lived her life. This mythical, Mrs. Kendal, a great deal a great deal wiser for having had this
Studs Terkel That's interesting. You said a moment ago that if she wanted to, she could have come out. She was also ashamed. Maybe she says maybe I did wrong because, [unintelligible], because she revealed part of her body to to to Merrick. Maybe I did wrong, part of Victorian thing and blaming yourself again for something, violating a code.
Studs Terkel Well the obvious question, I ask you for our last go around, the obvious question to ask is your self in playing. You've played Merrick now since the very beginning of the run, haven't you? What's it--how has it affected you in any way? Philip Anglim.
Philip Anglim That's the hardest question. I think that it's what I look forward to as the nightly experience of playing the part and playing with these people and it's the joy and satisfaction that I get out of that and out of participating in a theatrical event that is making history. And that seems to have a profound effect upon everyone that it that it touches. There's a great deal of satisfaction out of that and a great deal sense of accomplishment. And I find that the challenge to be one of the most rewarding.
Penny Fuller Oh, I think that's true. It's it's too seldom that you get to be in this kind of a play that has this kind of an effect. And that makes people respond in this way. And it's it's it's true joy. I'm very--feel very fortunate in it, to be doing it. I really do.
Ken Ruta My feelings about why I really do it, just an actor. I always tend to be a doctor or a priest. That thing about healing. So that's there's one thing, but the other thing is this man that I'm playing, I mean, he is what we all are and that's a fool. And I love that vulnerable that man and the state of chassis so to speak.
Studs Terkel Philip?
Studs Terkel No, we're talking about vulnerability here. That's the point, vulnerability. Well, I guess we are in a state of chassis. And that's one of the reasons, I suppose, the play draws. And it's at the Blackstone Theater, "The Elephant Man", through February 23rd. And my three guests, Philip Anglim and Ken Ruta and Penny Fuller, thank you very much indeed.
Philip Anglim Thank