Tony-Winning Elephant Man Playwright Bernard Pomerance Dies at 76

Obituaries   Tony-Winning Elephant Man Playwright Bernard Pomerance Dies at 76 His profoundly moving account based on the life of Joseph “John” Merrick earned him the 1979 Tony Award for Best Play.
Bernard Pomerance
Bernard Pomerance Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Bernard Pomerance, the Brooklyn-born playwright best known for his compelling drama The Elephant Man, died August 26 at his home in Galisteo, New Mexico. He was 76. The cause of death was complications from cancer, according to his longtime agent, Alan Brodie.

Pomerance garnered international acclaim for his 1977 play The Elephant Man, based on the life of 19th century Londoner Joseph Merrick, a 23-year-old man afflicted with a rare genetic condition that produced huge growths of flesh and bone on his body. The compelling drama received its London premiere in 1977, and later transferred to Broadway April 19, 1979, earning Pomerance the 1979 Tony Award for Best Play.

David Bowie
David Bowie

“Bernard was a wonderful client and friend whom I have known for nearly 40 years. He was a visionary—always passionate about his writing and unafraid of tackling big challenging topics,” Brodie told Playbill. “Aside from being a wonderful writer, he was always generous, courteous and kind to all of us at Alan Brodie Representation. Representing him was a real pleasure and we shall all miss him.”

Born Bernard Kline Pomerance in Brooklyn, New York in 1940, he studied at the University of Chicago before moving to London in 1968 where he began his career as a playwright. His first play, High in Vietnam, Hot Damn, premiered in 1972 at the Almost Free Theatre, a London fringe venue where works by Tom Stoppard were also produced.

Later that year Pomerance joined forces with High in Vietnam, Hot Damn director Roland Rees and David Aukin to found their own theatre company, Foco Novo, named after Pomerance’s play of the same title, which served as its inaugural production. Foco Novo premiered several of Pomerance’s plays, including Someone Else Is Still Someone and Quantrill in Lawrence.

The public sensation surrounding Merrick’s life had nearly slipped into obscurity by the 1970s when Pomerance’s brother brought the story to his attention. The play is based on the accounts of Sir Frederick Treves, a London surgeon who rescued Merrick from a Victorian street attraction where he was displayed as “The Elephant Man.” Treves’ notes and subsequent 1923 publication The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces misnamed Merrick as “John” instead of Joseph. The misnomer carried over to the character in Pomerance’s stage play.

The Elephant Man premiered in London on November 7, 1977, at the Hempstead Theatre in a co-production with Foco Novo. Rees directed the premiere, which starred David Schofield as John Merrick. His performance became a prototype for portraying Merrick onstage.

The script calls for Merrick to be portrayed without the use of prosthetics; requiring the actor to use his own physicality to suggest his condition, thus allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the details. Actual photos of Merrick taken in the 1880s were used as projections in the original, a stylistic choice often replicated in other productions.

In his notes for the play, Pomerance wrote, “Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all. His speech was very difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically—if it were possible—would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play. For how he appeared, let slide projections suffice.”

Bradley Cooper in <i>The Elephant Man</i>
Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man Joan Marcus

The Elephant Man received its Off-Broadway premiere in January 1979, directed by Jack Hofsis and starring Philip Anglim as Merrick. The production transferred to the Booth Theatre on Broadway on April 19, 1979, and ran for 916 performances.

The play marked Pomerance’s first major New York production. In addition to the Tony Award for Best Play, Pomerance earned the New York Drama Critics Award, an Obie Award, a Drama Desk Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award.

An unrelated film made by director David Lynch—also titled The Elephant Man—was released in 1980 and featured a heavily disguised John Hurt as Merrick. The film’s released resulted in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the play’s Broadway producers, who required that the film run a disclaimer stating it was not affiliated with Pomerance’s original stage production.

The Elephant Man was his only Broadway production. Pomerance’s later plays included Quantrill in Lawrence at the ICA London in 1981, and Melons at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984. Grove Press published a collection of his plays in 2001. His long form poem We Need to Dream All This Again was published by Penguin in 1988.

At the time of his death, Pomerance was preparing new productions of his plays Miranda and Spinoff.

Pomerance is survived by his children Moby and Eve, two grandchildren, William Mossek and Gabriel Pomerance, and a brother, Michael. His wife, Evelyn Franceschi died in 2015.

A memorial service will be planned for December in his hometown of Galisteo, New Mexico. Additional public memorials are being planned for New York and London.