Tucked away in one of 2.3 Diary entries, Ned Rorem suggests that “inside every artist is a banker struggling to get out.” Though Rorem was merely penning another one of his inversions-for-inversion’s-sake, the particular aphorism he derived here seems curiously relevant to Spalding Gray.
In his evolution (some would call it his “perfection”) of the “Me” monologue, Spalding Gray makes us mindful that inside the contemporary personality there is an artist struggling to get out. But if in recent years we have lost sight of the truth that no man is an island, is it really true that everyone is an artist?
Gray has fashioned an artistic career for himself on making the “inner” voice “outer,” which is, it must be said, no mean achievement. Though many claim that Gray has reinvented the monologue, Gray takes his place in a long line of solo performers, a line that includes Ruth Drapper, Lenny Bruce, and more currently Quentin Crisp, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Eric Bogosian. Although Gray prefers to see himself as “a combination of Huck Finn and Gandide—the kind of naive, open, slightly paranoid, often randy searcher”—and though he describes his technique as “poetic journalism,” what makes Gray unique is that he doesn’t assume any other persona or impersonate anyone other than himself But herein resides the paradox that is Spalding Gray, a paradox reminding us that an appearance remains deceptive by design. A visit with Gray leaves nothing so much as the uncanny impression that he is trying forever to impersonate himself, and in some ineffable way, missing the mark, Here, too. Gray seems to mimic a distinctly contemporary, post-self-conscious personality, one that shuttles from the quotidian reality of daily life to the yearning for a sense of accomplishment, with a visit to the therapist’s couch in between.
As the world turns, Gray has not reinvented the monologue or even reshaped any of its spokes—the multiple tangents which typify the intimate staged confession—so much as he has tapped the new religion. Aligning himself with the Wooster Group and the Performing Garage (an avant-garde and experimental theater company). Gray developed his routine during the early 1970’s, or precisely when a name was given to the fervent, cultural upheaval that affected all of us sooner or later, directly or indirectly—the “Me” Generation. In an interview with Don Shewey, he reveals the extent of his self-interest: “When anyone refers to my work as self-indulgent, I take it to mean it just wasn’t interesting for them. . . . I think there are positive aspects to solipsism and narcissism, and I’m interested in putting myself into more rigorous objective situations in order to get beyond my own neurosis.” There is frequently something embarrassing and awkward about watching this man unravel his “neurosis” no matter how methodical and “scripted” his ploy.
A session with Gray becomes a sort of new wave, performance confessional. At worst, we become voyeurs to his schizophrenic theatrics, hearing him purge himself of his guilt. At best, we serve as the Father Confessor, absolving him with our applause, our laughter, our empathy. There are, let it be said, some magical moments along the way. There is no denying that he works hard to win our approval, an approval which we quickly deliver in gratitude for his articulating so well the contemporary angst of modern life.
But if angst proves the common denominator connecting him to his audience, and if Mel Gussow in the New York Times summarizes the “Spalding” impact by updating the medieval “Everyman” to “Every-Spalding,” the problem is that Gray remains as his name implies. He represents the “gray” in all of us. He is neither black enough nor white enough to tell us anything definitive, precise, or new. With a completeness that seems both circular and angular at the same time, he circumscribes the media-prompted issues he raises into a foolproof system of the first-person narrator. Though not exactly counterfeit, his authenticity is finally no more nor less than what gets presented: a cipher confronting the cosmic void. If he seems courageous, it is only because he has the audacity to vent the deepest fears we sometimes harbor. His self-doubt and self-deprecation backfire and become a form of self-aggrandizement, although they are designed to win our favor by giving expression to the very impulses we avoid.
A precisely “Gray” irony, and one which he maybe innately understands: Gray’s success relies on his not being too famous, on a perpetually retarded celebrity. He gets phone calls from David Letterman’s booking agent and tertiary roles in important films—in short, he gets close to the fame that many crave to validate their very existence, according to the terms laid out by Andy Warhol’s now famous prophecy. But Gray remains on this side of the fame. If he were to cross over the line that separates “us” from “them,” the jig would be up. No longer would he be “one of us” or EverySpalding. And now that he’s actually been on David Letterman’s show and had a more fundamental role in a film (True Stories), he has come perilously close to doing just that.
A more positive explanation of all of this is offered by James Leverett in his fawning introduction to the published version of Swimming to Cambodia, perhaps Gray’s best-received monologue. “It has gradually become Gray’s chosen lot simultaneously to live his life and to play the role of Spalding Gray living his life, and to observe said Gray living his life in order to report on it in the next monologue. Perhaps this hall of mirrors, this endless playoff between performance and reality, has always been the situation of the artist. . . . But has it ever been more plainly the predicament of everyone else in this media-ridden age of instant replay? Conditioned by McLuhan and Warhol, Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue, we are all to an extent the subject of our own self-writing life story, our shoot-as-you-go movie. The possibility of celebrity for everyone seems to grow with each newscast.” More succinctly, Leverett refers to the Gray “persona” that “could be characterized as an incorrigible witness, mirror or, well, sponge.”
Attending a Gray monologue is tantamount to believing that only Gray could deliver the relentlessly autobiographical material. Comeuppance came last spring, however, when Orchards, a collection of seven one-act plays based on Chekhov short stories. toured a network of college campuses throughout the country and arrived in New York in early May, under the auspices of John Houseman’s Acting Company. Gray’s contribution, Rivkala’s Ring, loosely derived from Chekhov’s tale “A Witch,” was performed with remarkable success by Aled Davies. In this tour de force monologue—perhaps the best in Gray’s repertoire of 12—the passion of Gray’s paranoia is pronounced. Although little remains to suggest connection with the original Chekhov story on which it was ostensibly based, the narrator reminds one instead of the internalized meanderings of a Celine, a Beckett, or a Zeno, with “clues” that take us back to Dostoevsky and Kafka. Gray’s narrator is a Hollywood writer who ideally emerges as an overly sensitive soul lost in the limbo and perpetuity of California corruption. Whether describing his experience at a roadside Oriental restaurant or literally and metaphorically sharing a “glimpse” of his less than successful relationship, his banal thoughts give way to metaphysical musings centered around the advice to “embrace your fear.”
But as fine as Rivkala’s Ring is in comparison to Gray’s more extended monologues, it is still a discursive and verbally athletic attempt to substantiate vacancy. His black-hole fantasies benefited here from the distance he achieved while composing this piece, no doubt anticipating that someone other than himself would deliver it. Some similar objectivity is needed in all of his other monologues with which I am familiar, where the content, ephemeral to begin with, is subservient to the ego that relays it and finally no different.
To return to Leverett’s metaphor, as a “mirror” of the vacuum, the sweeping emptiness by which Gray and his ilk characterize our age, Gray’s material is ultimately without content and meaningless. It is necessarily mediocre, a 1980’s version of “Life in These United States” as it used to appear in Reader’s Digest (and for all I know, still does). Whether he’s describing his involvement in the filming of The Killing Fields (in Swimming to Cambodia) or building a monologue on the hazards of becoming a home-owner in Upstate New York (in his newest piece. Terrors of Pleasure), he is pitting himself with us against the capitalist powers-that-be and the media overkill that infect the context of contemporary life. It’s a formula for automatic collusion.
But what he’s lacking in content. Gray sashays in technique. His mind works like a fly’s eye with each lens focusing separately, taking in the experience from innumerable angles and then regurgitating it for the sake of amusement. The danger is in expecting more than amusement or taking him as seriously as he takes himself His reasoning isn’t logical or sequential so much as it is angular and cubist, facile and free-associative. It builds on itself in the way a maggot feeds on its host, now twisting this way, now that way, in its struggle to climb upwards and develop wings. But it never really takes off. It zooms outward only to circle back on itself and implode.
Gray’s fragmentation is similar to the device sustained by Renata Adler in her two “novels”—Speedboat and Pitch Dark. In fact, Adler’s customary concerns with deliberately mundane subject matter as well as her deadpan tone, her casual voice, bear a fleeting, deceptive resemblance to Gray. But while Adler discovers some metaphysical insights along the way, Gray is too much the victim of his own conceit. The effect he has on us is not unlike his description of a moment in Swimming to Cambodia: “I’d run down the beach and look back to try to see us there in the surf and each time I’d miss myself and then run back to try to be in it all again. Then down the beach and back and down the beach and back and the third time back. . . . ” He is, ad infinitum, trying to catch up with himself, to see himself, to arrive where he already is.
Whereas Jonathan Reynolds at least considered his experience on location during the filming of Apocalypse Now and constructed a sturdy drama from it (Geniuses), by comparison Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia is a longwinded travesty of undigested recollection, neither transformed nor transforming. The irony, of course, is that The Killing Fields is the superior film: not because it is based on fact but because it exists as powerful testimony to the human capacity for compassion and for perseverence. One is attentive to Gray’s version and awaits some insights or commentary on what helped to make the film great. The closest he gets is offstage, in his preface to the published script, where he explains that he derived the title Swimming to Cambodia “when I realized that to try to imagine what went on in that country during the gruesome period from 1966 to the present would be a task equal to swimming there from New York.”
The monologue itself has a focus (of sorts) on Gray’s quest for a “Perfect Moment.” He describes how he shanghaied himself and remained in Thailand after his work on the film shoot was finished. “You see, I hadn’t had a Perfect Moment yet, and I always like to have one before I leave an exotic place. They’re a good way of bringing things to an end. But you can never plan for one. You never know when they’re coming. It’s sort of like falling in love . . . with yourself” At one point, he’s so desperate to realize a Perfect Moment that he’s almost willing to compromise the integrity of the event by inducing it through drugs. Though predictably centered around paranoia, his marathon descriptions of hallucinogenic incidents are among his most shining, his wittiest moments.
Swimming to Cambodia originally developed as two discrete parts during a two-year period and over, according to Gray, “almost two hundred performances.” As far as I could tell, its recent revival at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater merged sections of Part II into what is predominantly Part I. It still ended with the same enigmatic closing to Part I: “And just as I was dozing off in the Pleasure Prison, I had a flash. An inkling. I suddenly thought I knew what it was that killed Marilyn Monroe.” At this point, I feel like taking Gray’s lead.
Gray is one of the few natives of Rhode Island to have made good in recent years. As such, it comes as no surprise that his Broadway debut at Lincoln Center this past summer was followed up by his performing the same three monologues (Swimming to Cambodia, Sex and Death to the Age H, and Terrors of Pleasure) at the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence this fall. His career as a film actor has also progressed—he has a leading role in David (“Talking Heads”) Byrne’s film. True Stories. Sounds like grist for the Spalding Gray treadmill.
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