The Secret Life of The Elephant Man is a work of fiction which employs dramatic license for the purpose of entertainment. Nevertheless, the fiction is rooted in fact and is inspired by real events. The Victorian era has always fascinated me, because I believe it is the defining era of modern Britain. At this time, Britain was the world leader in arts, commerce and scientific innovation, commanders of an all-conquering Empire, on which it was believed the sun would never set.
The Victorians loved to ratify and stratify drawing up all sorts of rules and regulations, a practice which extended to their leisure time – formalising the code of play for many of the world’s major sports for example. The British (or should that be English?) class system became truly entrenched and it is easy to regard the Victorian era, with a sort of false nostalgia, as a period of harmony and contentment in ‘knowing where one stood’. It was also an era of bewildering contrasts, where philanthropy, gentility and fair play, were as much a part of everyday life as exploitation, prejudice and brutality.
In Britain and throughout the Western world, there was great concern about so called mental “defectives” undermining humanity, fuelling intense political and scientific debate about the solution. Britain opted for classification and segregation. Parliament’s Idiots Act (1886) drew up the parameters for imbecility and was followed by the Mental Deficiency Act (1913), which led to tens of thousands of British “mental defectives” being sent to institutions.
In the United States of America compulsory sterilisation was approved by dozens of states, typified by the infamous Buck v Bell case. Other “civilised” nations approved similar measures. In Germany of course, the imperative of eliminating the “weak and inferior” was taken to its extreme conclusion.
History is defined by charismatic leaders who inspire legions of followers to enact their will. Who knows how much further Britain would have taken things if someone like Dr Gilbert Greystone had developed the popular touch? Greystone establishes “The League of Decency”, a hugely well liked social purity movement. The ethos of social purity was embodied by one of our Victorian Prime Ministers who, in his early career, reportedly took to the streets on evangelical missions in a bid to convert fallen women, before returning home and atoning for his proximity to sin by self-flagellation.
A typical evening with the “League of Decency” would include edifying lectures such as “Marital Hygiene”, “Chastity and Womanhood” and why Britain must fight “Sin with Steel” by deploying the army on the seamiest streets of Whitechapel in a “take no prisoners” mission.
The League of Decency’s rallies are only slightly exaggerated version of real public meetings which were attended by thousands of people throughout Britain. Likewise, Gilbert Greystone is an exaggerated character in his actions (clandestine and illegal sterilisation operations) but, frighteningly enough, his beliefs were par for the era.
“For too long defectives have hidden behind the church.” says Greystone “We are told they have a purpose because they have soul. What poppycock! The British Empire is built on bullets and battleships, steam and steel. A man must produce, or he must perish. His soul has not the value of a can of tin.”
Greystones remarks represent a shift towards a secular society. Because, for all its piety and missionary zeal, the Victorian era was surely the time when industry became a religion in itself, work became more important than existence, and those who could not work, “defectives”, did not have the right to be.
Perhaps the lasting legacy of Joseph Merrick is his humanisation of disability and deformity, at a time when sterilisation was seen as the answer?
But what if Joseph’s affections of piety were an extension of his sideshow persona and that he was not actually a “childlike” creature, but a man with all the attendant qualities of manhood, such as desire? Would that offend public “decency”? Would the establishment be inclined to sway towards Gilbert Greystone? “The Secret Life of The Elephant Man” is the dramatisation of this national dilemma.