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Revisiting David Bowie’s star turn in ‘The Elephant Man’


Sometimes I think my head is so big because it’s so full of dreams.

David Bowie once said: “I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir.” No matter which artistic output he turned to, this notion held true. In fact, Bowie, in general, always drew on as many influences as possible throughout his work. In his music, he didn’t merely provide songs but exhibited a full artistic gestalt. As he said of Ziggy Stardust: “I’m very happy with Ziggy. I think he was a very successful character, and I think I played him very well.”

Thus, it might seem like a pop culture vogue when certain stars cross over from music to acting, but Bowie was already a character thespian before he hit the big time. As a result, he was no stranger to the art form, and the experiment of The Elephant Man was one that appealed immensely to the star. It would be a challenging role for anyone to take on, but Bowie was nothing if not daring; as he said himself: “Unless you take things to extremes nobody will believe or pay attention to you.”

The brilliance of Bowie’s stage performance, however, still came as somewhat of a shock to the masses. Some theatre snobs expected a pretentious flop, but as Clive Barnes of the New York Post was quick to write: “David Bowie in The Elephant Man is giving one of the greatest acting performances I have seen in years. He has also made the most brilliant Broadway debut in recent memory.”

Bowie opened as John Merrick in the Jack Hofsiss stage show for the first time in 1980. He soon garnered unanimous praise wherever the show travelled, and it proved a hugely rewarding experience for him. 

Like most of his career, Bowie hurtled into it a blaze that would’ve left mere mortals looking like bumbling underprepared idiots. As he told the BBC’s Andy Peebles: “The whole thing happened so fast when they finally decided to take me as Merrick. I’d forgotten about the whole thing after Hofsiss had seen me. But I got a call within two weeks of having to go over and start rehearsal. So I couldn’t do very much. So I went to the London Hospital and went to the museum there.”

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Adding: “[We] found the plaster casts of the bits of Merrick’s body that were interesting to the medical profession and the little church that he’d made, and his cap and his cloak. Nothing much that you can get from that, just the general atmosphere. We didn’t know if I was going to get to New York, but for me, it was the idea of doing a straight play that had the greater appeal.”

It is a mark of Bowie’s unwavering artistry that he decided to commit to The Elephant Man just as his commercial star was finally rising musically. It is perhaps even more indicative of his artistry that in the end, he decided to play the role without any make-up or prosthetics whatsoever. He simply contorted his body in painstaking ways and moved in broken tempos throughout the duration of the shows.

As it happens, Bowie had recently sobered up at the time and the role allowed him to throw himself into his work headlong. The result was a performance that was not only meticulous, but it also displayed vulnerable introspection that audiences instantly recognised as a transcended force.