“People think I’m a nasty piece of work,” Ralph Steadman claims. That’s because of how his satirically morbid illustrations brought Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo acid trips to life and captured the atrocities of the Nixon era, such as when he depicted the president’s face melting and rotting on the cover of Rolling Stone. (He’s still listed in the magazine’s masthead as our “Gardening Editor,” a title he picked for himself because he thought it was funny.) Yet here he is, 82 years old, seated in the cafe of a SoHo hotel, a bolo tie around his neck, his fingers stained with black ink, smiling broadly and chuckling as he leans back in his chair. He’s the picture of kindness.
His latest tableau of the terrible is the promotional art for Gary, the Broadway comedy which opened on Sunday night that serves as a sequel to Shakespeare’s infamously gory Titus Andronicus. In the Bard’s original, most of the principal characters lose limbs, heads and get baked into pies. So Gary, which playwright Taylor Mac dreamt up, focuses on the Cockney cleanup crew — the titular character, played by Nathan Lane, and “Janice,” played by Kristine Nielsen — who must contend with disposing of all the dead bodies piled up in mounds, getting a little help from midwife Carol (Julie White). Without seeing the play, Steadman drew mountains of corpses with Gary and Janice doused in blood as they try to sweep up the mess.
The art surrounds New York’s Booth Theatre and includes doors that sport blood splattered faces scowling, wincing in agony and looking confused. There’s even a big, Steadman-esque blood splat on the venue’s front door.
“It’s a bit disturbing, isn’t it?” Steadman says with a little Welsh flare on the “isn’t it.” “It’s upsetting to people. Did it upset you?” When I tell him no, he says, “I’d rather be upset by this than Trump. He’s a hideous man.”
When it came to getting started on the Gary art, Steadman started with the corpses. “I did loads of bodies piled up,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s where they got the idea [for the staging] from, but I said, ‘You can take any section and use it.’ The only bit of instruction they gave me was that it was about dead bodies.”
The bloody faces for the theater’s doors, however, were a more fluid process — literally. For these, Steadman poured the water he’d cleaned his brushes in onto a sheet of A1 paper and just watched the way it moved; he calls this technique his “dirty water work.” It takes about three days to dry and, along the way, he’ll add elements of color (in this case, lots of red) until he reaches the desired effect.
“It’s all of the dirty water I use from black inks and muck,” he explains. “When it dries, you get textures you’d never be able to make by drawing them. It’s good for making a really well worn, textured face, and then you add color in. It’s wonderful watching the color looking for its home.”
With a smile, he adds, “Some of it smells. If it’s been in the bottle for a few weeks, it’s gone ‘off’ for a bit, and you get better, more interesting textures appearing the more it smells.” It’s a win-win process, too, because he says the stink goes away when it dries. “It’s locked into the dirty water,” he says. “You wonder what will be in the dirty water, then somebody like Trump emerges out of it and becomes president of the dirty water.”
For one of the more stomach-churning faces, he waited until it was dry to add in cartoon eyes with what he calls Chinese white. It gives the poor soul a confused look that fits right in with the ink blotch.
The day after the interview, Steadman’s voice beams with pride over the phone. Last night, he went to the theater for an event based around his art. He took a paintbrush and a palette and went around splattering ink on everything and everyone in flinging distance. He drew around the eyes on the theater’s doors and added some extra blood splatter. He even wrote “Happy Doom” on one of them for some extra irony, and before he was done, he flung some ink on the cameraman who came to document it.
“It exhausted me,” he says with a laugh. “People kept saying, ‘Put some on me.’ I was throwing ink all over my trousers, on my shoes, everywhere. It was genuinely meant to be a mess. Some lady wanted it done on her T-shirt, and the bloke who organized the splat [event] asked, ‘Could he do it on my blazer?’ I was running out of ink by this time, but I did as much as I could. It was so lovely and an anarchic thing to be able to just splat everybody. It’s not often you get invited to do so much mess. It’s a very refreshing, exhilarating thing to do.”
That night, he finally got to see the play. It was funnier than he expected it to be. “It was beautifully irreverent,” he says. “The ruder and messier the characters were, the better. It wasn’t sneering; it was just so damn funny. Nathan Lane was so bloody funny. All of them were.”
Some of the highlights for him — and here’s your requisite spoilers warning — include the way the corpses farted from head to toe and the dancing Romans with jitterbugging erect penises in the third act. “I can’t get the images of legs and dicks out of my head,” he says. “It filled my dreams. It’s so funny. And then when the legs farted, I fell apart. And those young men who came on dancing towards the end, the soldiers in costumes with big dicks, I don’t know how you could put on a serious face and do a critique of that for a newspaper. The ambience of rude, naughty, old legs is just funny.”
Still, he says he has one edit for the staging. “All of the bodies could have been Trump,” he says. “That would have been fantastic. If it had been all that with yellow hair. They ought to do one with Trump.”