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Daniel Monks
Photograph: Graham Denholm

“A lot of his struggles still pervade today” – Daniel Monks on disability narratives and playing the Elephant Man

Written by
Rose Johnstone

Joseph Merrick – more widely known as the Elephant Man – lived in England in the late 1800s. In his early years, he acquired a progressive disability that led to him becoming destitute, then an exhibit in a freak show, and finally living under the care of a team of doctors in a hospital. His cruel moniker has pervaded through history, and his story has been told numerous times; most notably in Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play (in which Merrick was once played by David Bowie, in his only ever foray into theatre), then in David Lynch’s 1980 film, where John Hurt took on the role.

In all of these re-tellings of Merrick’s life, none have been told from his point of view. Malthouse Theatre’s The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, written by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton, aims to change that, telling Merrick’s story with agency, complexity and empathy. Read our 4-star review of the show.

Most importantly, this time around, the role of Merrick is played by an actor with a disability. Daniel Monks is a Melbourne-based actor who has hip dysplasia that affects the right side of his body, as did Merrick. As he steps into Merrick’s shoes, Monks reflects on his connection with a man who lived more than a century ago, and whether society’s attitude towards disability has come as far since then as we might imagine.

Daniel, when did you first encounter the story of Joseph Merrick?
I acquired my disability at age 11 but I didn’t first discover his story until I was probably 22. But in 2014, in a workshop I worked on him as a character just because I was fascinated by him and I felt really drawn to him. And so for the past three years I had a photo of him on my wall, and I always dreamt of playing him. But I knew I didn’t want to do the Bernard Pomerance play, because I found areas quite problematic; it told his story from quite an ableist view. And so I thought, “I’ll just never play him.” But then a new play which takes a progressive, exciting approach came along and it was the dream of all dreams.

Why have you always been drawn to Merrick?
I feel like most people who have a disability in our world can connect with him and relate to him – his struggle to be given the respect of human decency and dignity and also that sense of feeling like no one understands what it’s like to be you. It’s the most extreme example of loneliness. And so I feel like lots of people with disability can connect. But really, anyone who’s ever felt other or different at some point in their life can connect to his story. A lot of struggles he faced still pervade today. A society that can’t embrace difference; a society that isn’t accessible or accommodating and rejects or objectifies difference.

There are online communities who are obsessive in their love for him which is super interesting. I feel like he’s one of the most important disabled figures in history; certainly him and Helen Keller, they’re the ones who are most known.

It feels like an important decision that in this retelling of Merrick’s life, we see things from his point of view.
In the stories that have been told, the protagonist is usually the doctor Frederick Treves. It’s usually told from the doctor’s point of view, which is a very ableist point of view. And Joseph doesn’t really have a lot of a journey. He can just end up being an inspirational prop for the abled protagonist to learn something, which is a very common disability narrative – that of the inspirational disabled person to make the abled person put their life into perspective. It really does objectify us and it doesn’t treat the disabled person as a human being and doesn’t honour the humanity and complexity of disabled people. That’s why this is really exciting, because Tom Wright the playwright has decided to, as much as possible, present it from Joseph’s point of view. Joseph never recorded his life, and that’s why this production is called The Real and the Imagined History of the Elephant Man, because we’re imagining what it would be like from his point of view.

Daniel Monks as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man
Daniel Monks as Joseph Merrick in The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man
Photograph: Pia Johnson

In this ‘imagining’, you’ve stepped out from past incarnations of Merrick which portray him as only ever being polite and grateful to the doctors. 
One of the most exciting things in this play is showing a more three-dimensional, humanised version of Joseph. I know what it’s like to be dependent on carers, I know what it’s like to be in hospital, and because you’re so dependent on others for your survival you are super polite (at least in my experience) and meek, and grateful and don’t show any frustration or anger because your survival is in someone else’s hands. But that doesn’t mean that those feelings of frustration and rage don’t bubble underneath. I personally don’t think Treves was being dishonest when he was describing Joseph like that, but I feel like Joseph would’ve presented a very specific side to the person who gave him shelter. What’s cool about having Joseph be the protagonist and having people come into his life that are not just the people in power gives an opportunity within the play to show a greater range of who he was as a person and more complexity, which is much for fun for an actor to play as well.

Why do you believe it is important that this role is played by an actor with a disability?
As one example, there is a scene where Joseph’s right hand stops working. And me playing it with my right hand being paralysed, it adds an extra layer of authenticity and potency because it’s not me acting like my hand doesn’t work, my hand actually doesn’t work. And so hopefully it takes the story out of being, “let’s just reminisce on a story of a person who lived in the late 1800s” to, “this feels more present and real and these are struggles that people to this day face in our society”.

There has been a lot of discussion recently around whether able-bodied actors should play characters with disabilities. Do you feel that things are shifting at the moment?
I’ve only felt even the slightest change starting this year. Every year there are Oscar-baity films that involve not only abled actors playing disabled characters, but it’s always the same disability narrative: someone has the worst thing that could possibly happen to them – “become disabled” (that’s sarcasm, by the way!) – and then they have to overcome their disability. Which, for a lot of people with disability, isn’t the experience. If anything, those narratives just cater to abled audiences and an abled sphere of what it would be like to have a disability. There’s the constant thing of “I don’t know how I’d do it if I was you”. I know those people are trying to be supportive, but it does [imply that they’re saying] “your life is lesser than the rest of us”. Which is just not true. The only thing that’s stopping any disabled person from having the life they want is society, and society’s limitations lack of accommodations. It’s not the disability that is the problem, it’s the lack of accessibility.

What reactions are you hoping to elicit from audiences in The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man?
I really hope it does give abled audiences an empathetic insight into what it is like to be disabled – and also for them to realise the effect that their subconscious judgments or objectifications have on people. And on top of that I’m so excited for disabled audiences to see it as well because I know when I acquired my disability for so many years I didn’t see any stories or characters that reflected by experience or I could relate to. My favourite scene is my final scene, because it’s such a moment of empowerment and ownership of his own story and I feel like if I had seen that scene when I was younger and coming to terms with my disability it might’ve helped shift my thinking. I hope at the end of the day that it opens people’s minds and hearts.

The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man runs at Malthouse Theatre until Sunday August 27. Read our review here.

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