Donal Donnelly studied history of man he portrays
New York — Donal Donnelly is an uncommon commuter. Like many successful New Yorkers, he makes his home in Westport, Conn., and rides the train to work in Manhattan. But Donnelly has an unusual job: Eight times a week he dons a suit of Victorian clothes, walks onto a Broadway stage, and essays the role of Frederick Treves -- doctor, author, humanitarian, and central figure of "The Elephant Man," which is continuing its successful engagement at the Booth Theater.
Of course, "The Elephant Man" is an uncommon play. It tells the story of John Merrick, a real person who lived in London during the latter part of the 19 th century. Merrick was called "the elephant man" because of his severely deformed appearance, and earned his living as a sideshow freak. Treves befriended him and brought him to a London hospital, where he spent the last years of his life. In the play, Merrick is portrayed by an actor wearing no grotesque makeup or costumery. The emphasis is on Merrick's inner strength, not on his outward disorder.
Though the "elephant man" is the focus of the drama, written by Bernard Pomerance, the helpful Treves is its dominant personality. So it's not surprising that Donnelly finds him an uncommonly satisfying character to play.
"My duty is to Treves as Pomerance wrote him," Donnelly said during a recent interview in his dressing room. "But I wanted to learn something about the original person -- to absorb a few facts about him, and to learn whence he came.
"Treves was not an ordinary man," the actor continues. "Today, it would be a rare doctor who would pick up this extraordinary, brutalized creature and carry him forth. But Treves came from a humane educational background -- even though his age was not noted for gentle practices of schooling. He was a true humanitarian."
Donnelly seems mildly surprised, and mightily pleased, that an intelligent and positive show like "The Elephant Man" has scored a major success on Broadway. "In what they loosely call show biz," he laments, "everyone so wants the outerm -- the nice teeth, the permanently fixed hair, and all that. But the innerm creature is the important thing: the standard of values, or the attempt to develop this standard."
Donnelly recognizes that "Broadway has gained a reputation for escapist theater -- finely honed comedies and musicals. This show is different. It has a deep and heavy center, yet audiences have shown strong support and interest. It's a very elevating play; people come out moved, and elevated in the human spirit. It's a terrific sign: that a subject like this can succeed. In fact, it's encouraging beyond the theater itself. It shows that when the chips are down, human values can survive.
"Ashley Montagu wrote a book about the elephant man," Donnelly continues, "and the subtitle was, "A Study in Human Dignity." That captures the whole point. Audiences at the play are flooded with the potential of their species.
"Perhaps the best summation comes at the end of a journal kept by Treves himself, written many years after the elephant man died. Treves wroted: 'As a physical specimen, Merrick was ignoble and repulsive. But if his spirit could have been translated into physical form, he would have been tall, clean of limb, smooth of brow, with blazing eyes of courage.'"
Donnelly began his career as an apprentice at the Gate Theater in Dublin. "I spent the first three years working for everyone," he recalls. He first went to London to appear in "Shadow of a Gunman" with Jack McGowran's Irish Players. After working in a number of plays, including the world premiere of "Sergeant Musgrave's Dance" at the Royal Court, he began hopping between productions in London and Dublin. Eventually he came to Broadway with the Dublin Theater Festival production of "Philadelphia, Here I come" -- winning a Tony nomination, the Outer Circle Critics' Award for best actor, and the title of "most promising newcomer" in a critics' vote.
Since then his stage work has included "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," where he replaced Albert Finney, and "Sleuth" in several cities. On screen, his vehicles include "The Knack" and "Young Cassidy." He appears frequently on British television, and has starred in his own comedy series.
As for his philosophy of the theater, Donnelly is very much his own man. "I've always been shy of the Method," he explains, referring to the famous acting technique based on Stanislavsky's theories. "I know that's a sacrilege in some circles," he continues. "But I insist on thinking of actors as artists -- and not always interpretivem artists. Creative moments happen, too, and have enriched many evenings in the theater."
Donnelly is wary of artistic prescriptions. "I cannot become the disciple of them anything," he maintains. "If an actor is gifted and intuitive and creative, he'll have hism method. Or maybe manym of his methods."
Worst of all is getting trapped in someone else's mannerisms. "How many mini-Brandos have we seen?" asks Donnelly. "For years people thought, when in doubt, do a Brando. Or a Steiger. That's not even arrested development -- it's arrested opportunity!"
Though he believes strongly in his individuality as an actor, Donnelly also believes "passionately" in theater as a writer's medium. "I'll improvise if I'm in trouble," he says. "If I have to, I'll turn to improvisation instinctively; I don't need to read a book or go to a class about it. But, while I may be proved wrong. I don't think there will ever be an improvised great play -- although there may be improvised 'interesting evenings in the theater' .. . ..
"The academic people are full of theories. Well, all right. You can theorize forever. But ultimately that curtain's going up, and you'd better have some kind of a character ready. . . ."