An Introduction to Joseph Merrick

You may only know Joseph (John) Merrick because of the physical deformities that earned him the label of “The Elephant Man.” He was, as is anyone tagged with a label of any kind, much more than that label. We at the Commonweal are thrilled to mount the later life story of Joseph Merrick and introduce you to the remarkable man that he was. 

  • By all accounts, was completely healthy and normal at birth. The deformities began to develop at age 5.
  • Despite his appearance, he attended his local school.

                  Frederick Treves

  • He spent most of his time conversing with his doctor and friend, Frederick Treves or writing poetry and prose.
  • He built a cardboard model of St. Philip’s Church.
  • Baffled by doctors and scientists when he was alive, it is now considered that Merrick suffered a rare case of neurofibromatosis or a disease known as Proteus Syndrome.
  • His parents attributed his disorder to his mother having been kicked and knocked to the ground by an elephant while at a fairground.
  • His head circumference was measured at 36 inches, his right hand at 12 inches and one of his fingers at 5 inches.
  • His life was saved by a business card that he kept in his possession for two years.
  • A replica of his skeleton is on display at Royal London Hospital. The actual skeleton is in the medical college of the hospital but not on permanent display.
  • He had three siblings who died remarkably young. Brother William Arthur died of scarlet fever at age four. His sister, Marion Eliza, passed at age 24 from Myelitis related seizures.
  • At age 13, Joseph was a door-to-door salesman selling items out of his father’s barbershop. He wore a burlap sack to cover his deformities.

Princess Alexandra of Denmark

  • In his four years of living at the London Hospital, he was visited and befriended by the highest levels of British Society right up to Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra who held the title of Princess of Wales from 1863-1901, the longest anyone has ever held the title.
  • He was highly intelligent and wrote many letters, mostly of thanks for much patronage while he lived in the London Hospital. Those letters were always signed off with the following poem:

‘Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.

  • He died on April 11, 1890, at the age of 27.

The Elephant Man begins previews Friday, May 19 and the gala opening performance is Saturday, May 27. 


Two Decades, One Playwright

Henrik Ibsen Festival IbsenfestTwenty years ago, a pledge was made. A pledge to a playwright and his works. A pledge to an audience base. A pledge to a company of artists that, for the foreseeable future, the works of that one playwright would be produced on an annual basis. Countless other things have come and gone but that pledge remained strong.

This season at the Commonweal, we celebrate both the pledge and the fact that the pledge is now considered fulfilled. It has been an honor for this company to stage the plays, both original and adaptations, of Henrik Ibsen for past 20 years. As we say adieu to that commitment, members of the Commonweal ensemble have been asked a question: “what is your strongest memory or fun fact about the company’s connection to Ibsen? I hope you’ll find these to be a good read and if they inspire any of your own memories…please share!

Stela Burdt: I met my husband (Scott Dixon) during rehearsals of Enemy of the People in January 2001.  Rehearsals were at Luther College, as we had students in the production. We got to know each other over the drives back and forth between Lanesboro and Decorah.

Scott Dixon: One of my favorite Ibsen experiences was directing Enemy of the People in 2011, ten years after appearing in it in 2001—my Commonweal debut.

Eric Lee in When We Dead Awaken, 2017

Eric Lee in When We Dead Awaken, 2017

Eric Lee: When We Dead Awaken is the very first Ibsen production I’ve been involved in. It is an honor to be a part of the final Ibsen Festival, as a part of a 20-year tradition.

Philip Muehe: I saw Adrienne perform the title role in Hedda Gabler when I was in high school, and in college, I wrote my Theatre History II capstone paper about groundbreaking female protagonists…Hedda won.

Abbie Cathcart: I got to try lefse, Gjetost cheese (omg so good), Aquavit, and pickled herring (no me gusta) for the first time at last year’s festival!

Ben Gorman: The Wild Duck (2005), which also toured. I played the usually drunk, wry Dr. Relling, taking over the role a month into the production from Patrick Bailey; also played Werle’s house servant Pettersen. We toured upstate, including Fergus Falls MN, and a few of us did a day trip over to Fargo ND—in my case, just so I could say I’d been there.

Chris Oden and Adrienne Sweeney in An Enemy of the People, 2001

Adrienne Sweeney and Chris Oden in “An Enemy of the People,” 2001

Adrienne Sweeney: An Ibsen was my very first show here at the Commonweal—An Enemy of the People, 2001. It was also the first Ibsen play I had ever done.  AND…my first of TWENTY THREE shows with Scott Dixon! (WHA???)

Hal Cropp: Of the Ibsen productions in our 20-year history, I have performed in nine, directed seven, adapted one (The Wild Duck) and am the only member of the company who has been here for all twenty.

David Hennessey: Former resident company member Irene Erkenbrack Green and I have a record we suspect few actors can match. We have appeared together in separate productions of the rarely performed Peer Gynt: once at Luther College, 2003; once here, 2008.

Brandt Roberts: The Master Builder was my first exposure to Ibsen in college and my first Ibsen production at the Commonweal. Japanese shadow puppets have been an interest of mine and I got to play with shadow puppets in The Master Builder.

Bailey Otto: I have stage managed one-quarter of the productions during this commitment.

Megan Pence: My first stage kiss (A Doll’s House). My first stage death (Brand). My first (but possibly not my last) time appearing in only undergarments on stage (The League of Youth).

Jeremy van Meter: The first Commonweal play that my wife Catherine Glynn and I appeared in together as ensemble members was Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Pillars of Society. We played brother and sister—true willing suspension of disbelief!

Share your own memories and be sure to join us this weekend,
April 21-23, as When We Dead Awaken premieres during the 20th Annual Ibsen Festival to open Season 29 at the Commonweal!

An Auspicious Change of Plans

If you are not aware, the plans for our apprentice company capstone production for 2017 changed quite rapidly at the end of last season. Suddenly, rather than having two young actors in the program preparing to mount their production of choice, there was one actor forced into an extremely difficult decision. Lewis Youngren rose above many challenges and is now reaping the benefits of his efforts in his run of I Am My Own Wife at the Commonweal. For this edition of Drama Unfolds, Lewis has provided his thoughts about, reactions to and thanks for the last three months. 

An Auspicious Change of Plans

Lewis Youngren in I Am My Own Wife

Lewis Youngren in I Am My Own Wife

This experience of choosing, producing, and performing in a one-person show has been an extraordinary milestone in my life as an actor and human being, alike. To be able to, night after night, tell a story as remarkable and astounding as I Am My Own Wife is a privilege; an honor.

This journey, like most (or at least the ones most worth taking), has not been without its own set of challenges. The biggest of those challenges was probably the sudden change of plans. Going from doing a two-person show to a one-person show was a very intimidating hurdle to jump. All of a sudden, my workload doubled in size. Thankfully, I had a team of wonderful collaborators who held me up and worked together with me to divide and conquer the massive to-do list. Choosing a new show was a little nerve-racking, but it also turned out to be a lot of fun. I read a lot of scripts that I otherwise may not have. I feel that your repertoire can never be big enough, so if nothing else, it was a small victory to add some new material to my collection. However, nothing was standing out to me as the “right choice.” A lot of the scripts I read were comedies, and don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh and bring joy to people but a comedy wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell. My feelings were rooted in something deeper, something poignant, something raw. That was when I remembered a title I had come across in undergrad, I Am My Own Wife—the title was about the extent of my knowledge with it. So I read it. Before I hit the end of Act I, I had been through almost the entire spectrum of emotions. I had laughed, I had cried, I had gasped and I had scowled. Needless to say, I was exhausted just reading it.

I Am My Own Wife by Doug WrightThis script, this story and this person stirred something in me; something I hadn’t felt with the other plays. Not only did I immediately connect to the story, but I felt that people needed to hear this story right now. Here. This specific moment. Today. You. Us. Them. In this world. In our town. In the surrounding towns. THIS is the story I wanted to tell.  That’s pretty much when my decision was made. I am happy to say, with confidence, that it was the right one.

Another challenging, but the most rewarding and impactful part of this process, has been creating this entire world of characters. From Charlotte, to Tante Luise, to Ziggy Fluß, to the Stasi Agent, I have found a little piece of myself in each of the 35 characters who inhabit the play. These characters aren’t like other characters you meet from other stories. These characters existed. They were real people. They had histories. Of course, the job of the actor is still to create and portray the character, but there has to be, in my opinion, a deeper level of honesty and reality present when portraying a historical character. Lewis Youngren rehearsing I Am My Own WifeThat way, the person doesn’t become completely lost in the interpretation, but the actor also gets the freedom to craft them into something unique; into something they want them to be. Doing this 35 times seemed impossible, especially with the timeline we were working with. Lucky for me, I had Amanda Pyfferoen (dramaturg/stage manager) and Philip Muehe (director) in the rehearsal room with me. Whenever I had a specific historical question or came to a creative road block, they were right there with the knowledge and spark of creativity that the situation needed.

I am extremely grateful and humbled by this entire experience. Thank you to everyone who has turned this dream into a reality. I cannot express in words how much you all mean to me. Your time, efforts, talents, and determination are evident through this beautiful piece of theatre we have crafted together. Thank you to the people who have come to witness this story and those who have yet to attend this weekend. Your love, support, and willingness to join as an integral part of this live performance is admirable and greatly appreciated.

This has been a wild ride. I’m not ready to say goodbye to this one yet, but all things, good or bad, must come to an end. Thank you for allowing me to share this story and for being a part of this incredible journey. I leave you with the words of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf…

“You must save everything. And you must show it—auf Englisch we say— ‘as is’. It is a record, ja? Of living. Of lives.”

As of March 30, there are four performances remaining in the run of I Am My Own Wife. Ticket reservations are recommended and may be made by calling 800-657-7025 or online by clicking here