“‘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…”
One steamy summer day in Boston, Jared Mann stared into the mirror and practiced a poem for his audition. He managed to sail through the first stanza, but for some reason, blanked out halfway through the second.
“Damn!” He closed his eyes and tried again.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with my span…”
Good! He was home free.
“I would be measured by the soul
The mind’s the standard of the man.”
Perfect. These beautiful lines were by Joseph Merrick, better known as “The Elephant Man” and adapted from a longer poem called “False Greatness,” by Isaac Watts.
Merrick used to sign his letters with this poem, called “Measured by the Soul,” and it must have meant a lot to him. He had a terribly disfiguring condition that caused tremendous overgrowth of bones, nerves and skin. People were so terrified by the sight of him that he was forced to wear a mask in public. Yet his sensitive soul craved dignity and humanity. The poem gave him the strength to feel he was a man, not a monster.
Back in 1980, a film about Merrick had taken the world by storm. The title was “The Elephant Man”, starring the wonderful British actor, John Hurt, who played the role beneath pounds of makeup. But the film was somewhat fictionalized for drama’s sake, so a new one was in the works. The new film would portray “John Merrick,” whose real name was “Joseph,” as a rough-and-tumble young man from Leicester who ran his own life and was never owned by any man.
The new version of Merrick’s life would be called “Measured by the Soul,” and the producers were searching for a skillful young actor who could see into Merrick’s heart and bring him to life again. Along with thousands of eager actors around the globe, Jared Mann wanted to prove he could do the job.
On the day of the audition, Jared took the T downtown to the swank River Plaza Hotel on Dartmouth Street. The bus was late, and the train was packed. Naturally, the air conditioning was busted. Jared tried to stay cool. He'd done this a million times before on his way to dozens of acting gigs.
His dark good looks sometimes landed him lead parts, but being short, he mostly ended up in character roles. This time he had a fighting chance. If he did get the role as Merrick, he would have big shoes to fill. There had been an award-winning play about Merrick as well, starring all kinds of famous Hollywood stars as the Elephant Man. Everyone would be comparing this new film to those interpretations.
At last the train reached Copley Station. Jared bounded up the escalator to the street, already late for the audition. Outside the hotel, he saw a long snake of guys waiting to go in. Some were sitting on the ground staring at their iPhones. Others leaned against the wall, smoking and trying to look like Marlon Brando. What the hell? This wasn't "On the Waterfront," for chrissakes. Jared shrugged and joined the line.
Inside, the air conditioning was busted too, and the sweaty crowd pushed towards a banquet hall, where a frazzled receptionist signed them in and sent them towards a table to fill out forms.
Jared leaned against the wall, ponded the role of Joseph Merrick. Should he be like John Hurt, sweet and dignified? Or should he try something different?
Jared almost dropped his phone.
"Present," he called.
"They're ready for you now."
A young woman with a bright blue ponytail and a nose ring stood close by. Her name tag read “Kira Atkins, Director’s Assistant.” She smiled and ushered Jared down a long carpeted hall to an office.
"Here's Number 61," Kira announced. Jared felt more like Prisoner #24601 and had to resist the urge to say, "My name is Jean Valjean."
A silver-haired man lounging in a leather office chair said, "Thank
you, Kira. Could you filch more muffins for us from the Dentists' Convention?"
"Sure thing, Mr. Shay." She smiled at Jared as she left the room. He gulped and almost tripped on the carpet.
Mr. Shay scanned Jared's resume. "Jared Mann. I see you had the title role' in "The Charles River Stalker," Emerson College. A student production?"
"Er, it was their master's thesis."
A blonde woman sitting next to Shay played with her hair and sneered slightly. Jared tried to backpedal. "It took first prize at the Back Bay Film Festival in 2015."
"Are you SAG?" The Screen Actors' Guild. Most actors didn't stand a chance of landing a role without a union card.
"Not yet but I'm planning on it."
"What do you know about Joseph Merrick?" asked Shay.
"He was a young Victorian man with something called Proteus Syndrome and possible neuro-" Jared stumbled a little." -fibromatosis I. It caused massive deformities in his bones, nerves and skin. He had a rough start in life--"
"That's putting it mildly," commented the blonde.
"And so he signed up for a sideshow career as "The Elephant Man."
Shay interrupted. "You say he signed up? He wasn't sold to a cruel 'owner?'"
The casting director smiled slightly. "Good lad. You've got it right." He handed a script to Jared. "Read the highlighted lines on this page."
His eyes ran over the lines, first skimming and then absorbing. As Jared read them, his thoughts flashed back to the impromptu research he had done What was Joseph Merrick thinking and feeling during this scene?
It was THE poem. Good thing he had memorized it.
Slowly, Jared allowed his body to fall into Joseph's twisted posture. His right arm drooped down until his crumpled hand rested just above his knee, while his back doubled-over. In a matter of minutes, he felt a dull ache in his spine and shoulders. Good Lord, was this what Merrick had felt every hour of every day?
Jared thought of scrunching up his face to imitate Joseph's deformity, but decided against it. That's what makeup was for. Instead, he adjusted his voice, not only giving it a thoroughly English accent, but also angled it into a semi-high pitched tone. As he recited “Measured by the Soul,” he put his whole heart into it.
He waited for the response from the casting directors, only to be greeted by silence.
As Jared slowly straightened up from his contorted position, a bolt of pain shot down his spine. He had to massage his back for several minutes before un-corkscrewing and rising up to his normal stance. Only then could he look Shaw and his companion in the eye.
The blonde woman was staring down at her half-eaten muffin. Jared thought he saw a tear in her eye but told himself it was wishful thinking. Mr. Shay was leaning forward with one hand covering his eyes.
Jared heard the other actors joking and horsing around in the other room. Kira was leaning against the door and smiling that megawatt smile right at him. If nothing better happened that day, it was worth it.
Finally, Mr. Shay sat up and cleared his throat. "Thank you very much, Mr. Mann. We'll be in touch. Kira, bring in the next one, please."
As she closed the door behind them, Kira whispered, "He really likes you. When he says he'll be in touch, he means it."
After a mercifully hassle-free ride home, Jared climbed the stairs to his modest apartment. A pleasantly chubby tabby cat slept serenely on the sofa he had bought at a Scratch-and-Dent establishment years ago.
"Busy day, Bear?"
The cat responded by stretching leisurely and curling back up into a furry ball on the cushion.
Setting his backpack down, Jared sagged onto the couch and reached for his trusty laptop. He made sure to keep his phone by his side. Though he was reassured that the audition had gone well, he wasn't 100% sure he had landed the role.
Still, even if there was the slightest possibility of him getting the part, Jared clicked Youtube and typed in "The Elephant Man" in the search bar. At once, he was greeted with a multitude of videos, some from the David Lynch film, some from documentaries, and some from theatrical productions.
As Jared pored over the videos, he suddenly felt very tired, but didn't find it out of the ordinary. After all, it had been very hot out that day, and he DID have to put up with a lot of annoyances. Plus, he nearly dislocated his shoulder trying to emulate a character he had a hankering to play.
"Why not..." he figured. "It's early. I can always microwave something."
Before he knew it, Jared was fast asleep.
In the sticky humid night, strange dreams zigzagged through his brain. He was back in Pasadena, California again, watching the New Year’s Day Rose Parade with his little brother Archie. The floats were fantastic and all were made of flowers. Some had Disney characters, or surfer scenes, or giant balloons. A Harry Potter float nearly blew off its moorings and the truck had to stop. Finally the parade started again.
Suddenly there was a rumbling in the ground. It sounded like army tanks. But it turned out to be a line of elephants. Real elephants, parading trunk to tail, decked in glittering streamers and colorful blankets. Ladies in spangled costumes sat astride each of them, waving to the crowd.
The excited crowd pushed closer to see. Jared grabbed Archie’s hand but his brother got pulled away and knocked to the ground just as an elephant marched by. Archie screamed, “Jerry, help me!” Jared lunged between the forest of people’s legs and dragged Archie to safety just before the giant animal’s foot came down. It would have crushed his little brother’s head like an egg.
The blasting of U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” in his ear shattered the dream. Thank God. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and saw sunlight outside. He fumbled for his cell phone and croaked, “Hello?”
"Mr. Shay would like to schedule a meeting regarding your audition. Are you able to come today?"
His voice got caught in his throat. "Oh. Oh yes, that will be fine."
"Do you have a ride? We can send somebody to pick you up."
Jared blinked in astonishment. Sure," Jared blurted. "Thank you."
"Great! We have your address, so somebody will be around your apartment complex shortly. We'll be in touch."
"Thank you very much."
Almost shaking, Jared hung up the phone. He was breathing hard. Once the magnitude of the situation began to wear off, he turned and regarded the cat dozing next to him.
"This could be big, buddy."
Bear responded by sleepily pushing his head against his owner's petting hand.
Back at the hotel, Jared nervously ran a hand through his hair as he followed Kira down the corridor. He hoped his hair was looking okay. He spent more time than usual taming it that morning. It felt like he didn't have enough time to make himself look presentable.
"Right this way, Mr. Mann."
Opening the door, Jared entered Shay’s spacious office again. This time his gaze zeroed right on a large blown-up photograph of Joseph Merrick that was hanging on the wall.
Shay held out his hand. "Thank you for coming on such short notice, Mr. Mann."
Embarrassed at ignoring him, Jared shook hands. "Glad to do it, sir."
Shay said, “We’ve been auditioning for two months now, and I must say, I was very touched by your work yesterday. Even Courtney liked it, and she's very hard to please.
The blonde who never once looked him in the eye? Well, that was a point in his favor.
"Now we'll be running cattle calls--I mean, auditions--for another two months at least. We're looking for an unknown actor to play Joseph Merrick. This could be the break they're looking for, but no one will recognize them."
Jared said, "That didn't bother John Hurt."
Shay blinked, then laughed. "You do know your facts. Now, let's see what you can do. We've found a boy to play Joseph from age 10 - 15. You would take over until Joseph's death at age 27. Are you up to the challenge?"
"I sure am. I mean, I'll give it my best."
"Good." Shay stood up and handed Jared a script. "Here's Scene Nine. Read it for me, please. I will be Joseph’s father, Rockley Merrick."
At once, Jared's mind raced back to his research. He remembered Rockley Merrick. The father might have loved his first born son at one point, but wanted nothing to do with him once he became too to work. Standing in the plush office and getting into character, Jared suddenly felt a twinge of fear at the thought of facing such a titan.
He gulped nervously in spite of himself. "Yes..."
Shay cleared his throat, his voice becoming booming and Cockney.
"Where's the money, boy!"
"It... isn't it all there?" Jared read. For some reason, he was feeling genuinely scared. It was making acting painfully easy.
"No... no, no, no, this doesn't add up. You sold five guineas worth of merch, but you're missing tuppence. So where's my tuppence, boy. Did you steal from me?... ARE YOU STEALING FROM ME!?!"
"I... I was hungry."
Shay’s voice was soft and dangerous. "What did you just say?"
"I was hungry. Mrs. Antill didn't... didn't give me anything to eat today, and--"
With a striking swipe, Shay mimed a savage punch. Had it been real, he would have struck Jared in the eye and sent him careening against the wall. The actor responded, falling to the floor, quivering and moaning.
"I knew you were worthless. I told Mary she should ‘ve ripped you right outta her and tossed you away. And you know what? She agreed with me. She said you were worthless too, she did."
"No she didn't!"
That was not part of the script. Jared kept going.
"Mum would never say that. She loved me and you're a liar, and liars burn in hell, father!"
He was panting now. Was it his imagination, or did it really feel like he had just gotten hit?
"Easy, son, easy." A gentle hand touched his shoulder. "We're done now."
Jared opened his eyes. Shay was leaning over him. Jared recoiled as if he were Rockley Merrick, then came to his senses. Shay offered a hand to help him up, but he stood up on his own. He brushed off his nice trousers, struggling to come back to the present.
"Please sit down, Jared. You look all done in."
Shay poured a glass of sparkling water and offered it to Jared. He took a sip, and the glass rattled against his teeth.
"You were quite a spitfire. I wasn't quite expecting it. Usually we think of young Joseph as a victim who bore his sufferings in saintly silence. You gave him a bit of backbone just now."
Jared found his voice. "Yes sir. He was strong, in spite of his condition. He had a fighting spirit and that's how he lasted as long as he did."
Shay smiled. "You seem to know him well. I like the method approach. It has its limits sometimes, but in this case, I think we'll need an actor who can become Joseph Merrick, as much as possible, anyway. No one can really fathom how it felt to be him."
He stood up. "Thank you so much for your time today, Jared. As I said, we'll be auditioning for another month or two, so please get on with your routine in the meantime. We'll let you know one way or the other."
They shook hands. Jared was still out of breath. Kira escorted him back to the car. “Good luck, Jared!”
Only three weeks later, Jared’s phone rang while he was in the shower. “Christ!” He grabbed a towel and ran to his room, dripping wet. “Hello?”
“Mr. Mann, it’s Kira Atkins.”
Jared’s heart started pounding.
“You’ve got the role. Congratulations!”
Jared collapsed on the bed and kicked the air like a little kid. “Yippee!” Then he felt the full weight of portraying Joseph to a whole new generation.
He sat up and raised his right hand. “Joseph, I swear I'll never let you down.”
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Wonderful story! I never realized how untrue-to-life the movie with John Hurt was. I was quite young still when I watched that movie for the first time, and I remember the cruelty of it affecting me greatly. You did a great job with the anxiety of auditioning. I was so rooting for Jared. Well done!
Thanks for your kind comments, Jon! Yes, the movie was pretty fanciful but I have to admit it was incredibly moving. John Hurt made us weep for Merrick and his sensitive soul - such beautiful acting. It would be such big shoes for a young actor like "Jared" to fill. I hope they really do make a new movie about Joseph someday.
This was amazing! So well connected and Jared was a really natural and believable character. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for your kind comments. Tabetha! I'm glad Jared seemed real to you. It was a fun story to write, having been through those "cattle calls."
Nice tale dear Swan. I love it.
Thank you, Boutat! Glad you enjoyed it.