“Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams…” – John Merrick
These pages take a look at David’s role as John Merrick in the 1980/1 staging of the play ‘The Elephant Man’. John Merrick was a real person who was born in South London in the 1860′s. He died in 1894 at the age of 27. He suffered from appalling physical disabilities and deformities, probably due to the medical condition Neurofibromatosis. What made John Merrick unique was his wit and ability to charm, despite his terrible appearance. He was rescued from a carnival freak show by a compassionate doctor, and became quite famous and well-liked in high society.
David took over the role of Merrick in July 1980, and he travelled with the show via Denver and Chicago to New York, where the run ended in January 1981. David’s hugely innovative interpretation of the role used no make-up or prosthetics. Instead, drawing on his training as a mime artist, he contorted his own body into unlikely shapes to give the effect of profound disability (a task which left him covered in obvious bruises spotted by a fan who spoke to him after a show in Denver). He also researched the diction of the handicapped and altered his voice to convey the elephant man’s suffering. At a dress rehearsal in the Booth theatre, even the stage hands burst into spontaneous applause at his remarkable performance.
To set the performance in its time period, David was between movie performances in Just a Gigolo and Christine F. He had recently got divorced and his 14th album, Scary Monsters … and Super Creeps was just released. Many people felt that David’s performance in The Elephant Man established him as a true actor.
The trouble is, I always look for parts with an emotional or physical limp, and I always seem to get them.” - David Bowie
“It is undoubtedly the biggest single challenge of my career. Going onto Broadway is the fulfilment of a great dream.” (Daily Mirror) – David Bowie
“Its the idea of putting over various points of view which intrigues me – seeming illusions, creating enviroments that aren’t really there” (Record Mirror) – David Bowie
“David…won the respect of both the critics and the audience” - Record Mirror
“shockingly good” – New York Post
“piercing and haunted” – New York Daily News
“preternaturally wise” – New York Times
“The role that made stagehands stand up and cheer” - Daily Mirror
“wordless and unmoving, he is nevertheless an electric presence.” – Rolling Stone
“commands the stage” – Village Voice
“exquisite stillness” and “physical precision” – Theater Magazine
“Bowie.. had the audience.. in the palm of his hand.” – Andy Peebles, BBC Radio 1
“Bowie succeeds in extracting a dramatic maximum out of the part” - NME
what a blast from the past spaceface! Yes I saw it, in Denver…and what a day it was.
I think Elephant Man ran for about two weeks and we got tix to one of the final shows. I was soooo furious because everyone I knew was telling me stories of ‘ohhh, we saw David Bowie at the Rainbow Club last night’ or oohhh, we saw David at such & such restaurant last night’…and I was out at those places and never saw him…damn! At the time I was working at a record store so I called my friend who worked as an RCA rep and asked if she could get me backstage after the show…and she said yes. So we go to the show, it was brilliant. A fabulous audience of punk kids and senior citizens, a wonderful mix of all types. My friend takes me backstage only to find David has left for the evening. I was crushed! CRUSHED! So we head across the street to the Executive Towers hotel bar for a drink. We’re sitting there pissing and moaning when I look up and see our beloved David sitting at the bar …alone. My friends dared me to go talk to him..and I’m not one to back out of a dare, so I did. He was incredibly gracious and we talked for quite a while. He told me about the new upcoming album…Scary Monsters. He bought me a glass of wine. Some stranger took our picture…I never saw it..and when I was getting ready to leave, didn’t want to overstay my welcome, David actually hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Really interesting thing that Bowie didn’t use “special equipment to look like real John Merrick, and maybe this is magic of this piece of art. He wanted to show that anomalies that John Merrick had wasn’t his recogntion and how people who knew him remember him. John Merrick was real hero.