Tony-Award winning writer of ‘Elephant Man’ known for compassion, wit

Bernard Pomerance, via Alan Brodie Representation (alanbrodie.com)

Tony Award-winning writer Bernard Pomerance, who challenged the depths of modern society’s humanity with the 1977 play The Elephant Man, died at his home in Galisteo over the weekend.

Pomerance’s death at the age of 76, confirmed Monday by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, followed what friends described as a years-long struggle with cancer that, while exhausting, did not seem to wear down the mind of the acclaimed writer.

Born and raised in New York City, Pomerance attended the University of Chicago and moved to London in 1968.

In England, he co-founded the Foco Novo theater company, which won a reputation for its innovation and experimentation. Pomerance’s play of the same name, Foco Novo, was the group’s inaugural production in 1972. And the company became a fixture of the country’s alternative theater scene, taking translations of plays by Bertolt Brecht and Georg Büchner to unlikely venues such as youth clubs and union halls.

A few years later, what would become Pomerance’s most famous work premiered on the stage of the Hampstead Theatre in London.

Based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a young man with severe deformities who ended up as a freak show attraction in late 19th century England, The Elephant Man confronted society’s treatment of “others” and outsiders. In the play, Merrick is admitted to a London hospital under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves. No longer subjected to the stares of gawkers, he becomes a cause for the hospital’s urbane aristocratic donors. But he is still denied the freedom of living as a man like any other. Instead, as a critic for The New York Times wrote, he is always a mirror to a flawed and frightened society.

The play won Pomerance a Tony Award as well as a series of other accolades. It has recently enjoyed a successful revival on Broadway, with a 2012 production starring film actor Bradley Cooper.

But the production also led to a court battle, with its financial backers and Pomerance suing Mel Brooks’ company over its release of a film under the same name in 1979. The filmmakers settled out of court.

Pomerance went on to write several other plays, including Someone Else is Still Someone and Melons, which centers on two Native Americans in 1906 New Mexico.

Close friend N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, said Pomerance was greatly influenced by Native American cultures and Indians’ relations with white westerners.

Pomerance lived off and on in New Mexico for several years, he said.

“I talked him into moving to Galisteo and he’s been here ever since,” Momaday said, recounting their first meeting over breakfast in New York City shortly after he saw The Elephant Man for the first time.

Pomerance married twice. He wed the writer Sally Belfrage in 1965. They had two children, Eve and Moby, before divorcing in 1976. Pomerance married again in 2008 to Evelyne Franceschi, who died in Galisteo in 2015.

A former smoker, the author struggled with cancer for the last four or five years, Momaday said.

But Momaday said he visited with him as recently as a week or 10 days ago when Pomerance dropped by Momaday’s home with pastries and stayed for a chat.

“He carried on. He was a brilliant man, had a great heart, was compassionate. He was one of the greatest wits I’ve ever encountered,” Momaday said. “He was himself but he was weak.”

Juan Ríos, a spokesman for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, said Monday that Pomerance’s housekeeper reported finding him dead at his home off N.M. 41 near Galisteo around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday. Deputies did not report any signs of foul play, he said.

Though he wrote five plays and a book, We Need to Dream All of This Again, Pomerance will be best remembered not just around the world but locally for The Elephant Man.

In an unusual public appearance, Pomerance sat down in 2013 with students from Santa Fe High School who were staging the play.

Reed Meschefske, the school’s theater director, said he arranged the visit after learning Pomerance lived in the area. While the chance for students to speak with the writer made for a special day, Meschefske said “it was not sappy, it was not over the top, it was not disingenuous.”

Instead, he said, what came through from Pomerance was an empathy that is at the core of the play.

Paraphrasing Merrick’s appeal to be viewed not as an animal or a monster but as a human being, Meschefske said: “It doesn’t get any simpler of more profound than that.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

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