Bernard Pomerance obituary

Other lives: Playwright and poet whose most famous work was the play The Elephant Man

My friend Bernard Pomerance, who has died aged 76, was a playwright and poet whose most famous work was the play The Elephant Man. It had its first run in Britain in 1977, then went over to New York and returned to the UK to be put on at the National Theatre.

I got to know Bernard when he moved from his native US to London in the late 1960s and, together with the director Roland Rees, we formed, in 1971, the Foco Novo theatre company. It produced, among other works, The Elephant Man, which told the true story of an Englishman, Joseph Merrick (referred to in the play as John Merrick), who was born with gross deformities and spent his early life in freak shows before becoming a darling of Victorian society.

The play initially went on tour around the UK and I recall going to see it for the first time in Manchester on a rainy Friday night with an audience of less than a dozen people. Then it was called Deformed, which might explain its lack of audience appeal.

By the time the play reached Hampstead theatre in London, through the insistence of Michael Rudman, the artistic director, its title had been changed and the play had become a sellout. David Schofield originated the role of John Merrick, the elephant man, and in my view his performance has been imitated but never bettered in later productions, a feeling I know Bernard shared.

Bizarrely, considering its subsequent success, no American theatre or producer was interested in the play until an aspiring young actor bought the rights and it was produced off-Broadway to such acclaim that it transferred to Broadway and swept most of the main awards in 1979, including a Tony award for best play. Since then it has been revived on both sides of the Atlantic on various occasions. The successful 1980 film called The Elephant Man, although about the same subject, was not related to Bernard’s play.

Bernard was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Leon and Harriet. He studied English and philosophy at the University of Chicago before moving to the UK in 1968 and shortly afterwards his first play, High in Vietnam, Hot Damn, was performed in London at the Interaction theatre. The first production by Foco Novo, one of the earliest touring fringe theatre companies in Britain, was a play called Foco Novo written by Bernard. The company put on many productions over the years until 1986, by which time it had run its course and closed down.

By then Bernard had returned to the US to live in Galisteo, New Mexico. One of the reasons for his move there was his deep interest in Native Americans, about whom he wrote his epic poem We Need to Dream All This Again, an account of Crazy Horse, Custer and the Battle for the Black Hills that owes much to Homer and in particular Christopher Logue’s War Music.

Bernard is survived by his two children, Eve and Moby, from his first marriage to the writer Sally Belfrage, which ended in divorce, and by two grandchildren. He was married four times; his fourth wife, Evelyne Franceschi, predeceased him in 2015.

David Aukin

The GuardianTramp

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