Bernard Pomerance, 'Elephant Man' Playwright, Dies at 76

Courtesy of David LeShay
Bernard Pomerance

His 1979 Tony Award winner for best play featured leading-man performances from David Bowie, Billy Crudup and Bradley Cooper.

Bernard Pomerance, the American playwright who wrote the 1979 Tony Award-winning play The Elephant Man, has died. He was 76.

Pomerance died Saturday of complications from cancer at his home in Galisteo, N.M., his longtime agent Alan Brodie announced.

Pomerance wrote The Elephant Man for his theater company, Foco Novo, and it became one of the most successful plays to ever come out of London. Set in the Victorian era, it opened in April 1979 on Broadway at the Booth Theatre and went on to play 916 performances, capturing the Tony Award for best play.

The leading role of the disfigured John Merrick has been played by actors including David Schofield (the originator of the part), Philip Anglim (Broadway's first Merrick), David Bowie, Billy Crudup and most recently Bradley Cooper, who starred in The Elephant Man's latest major revival in 2015 at the Booth in New York, and at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London last year.

In a 2014 interview, Pomerance said that the actors who take on the part face a special challenge.

"There is something about Merrick that creates in many people a sense of vocation," he said. "It’s a curious phenomenon, because I don't think it's common in many roles. Certainly when I was writing the play, I had the same impulse: I have to do something right for this figure, to do justice … but I suspect that it has something to do with making the audience see past the surface of the figure and the man. And to be able to see a human being or a spiritual being. Or something that is beyond appearances."

The story behind The Elephant Man, of course, also became a 1980 film that collected eight Oscar nominations, starred John Hurt as Merrick and was directed by David Lynch and produced by Mel Brooks.

Pomerance also wrote Quantrill in Lawrence, produced at the ICA London in 1981; and Melons, produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984. Grove Press published a collection of his plays in 2001.

His longform 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.

Born in Brooklyn, Pomerance studied at the University of Chicago before moving to London in 1968. His first play, High in Vietnam, Hot Damn, was directed by Roland Rees, and they (along with David Aukin) launched Foco Novo in 1972.

Survivors include his children, Moby and Eve; grandchildren William and Gabriel; and brother, Michael. His wife, Evelyn, died in 2015.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Christus St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center in Santa Fe, N.M. A memorial is planned for December in Galisteo, followed by services in New York and London.
 

 
 

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