Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
While primarily a director and actor, André Gregory has coauthored several dramatic pieces of great significance, most important the classic film My Dinner with André. Born in Paris, Gregory, the privileged son of a fur merchant, moved to the United States as a boy, where his parents took up residence in New York and Hollywood. Both cities fueled Gregory’s dawning theatrical interests. Hollywood would especially inflame his passion to act, as from his bedroom windows Gregory could catch glimpses of film greats Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Errol Flynn, who were frequent guests of his parents. Years later, Gregory recalled seeing his mother kissing Flynn on the sly, and he received thyroid treatments for childhood obesity at Dietrich’s suggestion.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1956, Gregory studied theater and dance under such luminaries as Sanford Meisner, Martha Graham, and Lee Strasberg. Still, his early attempts to become an actor were unsuccessful, so he tried directing plays. As a director of avant-garde theater, Gregory would win an international reputation. He began his career in New York City, where in 1959 he coproduced John Millington Synge’s play Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910) and, in 1961, Jean Genet’s Les Nègres (1958; The Blacks, 1960) in 1961. At this time he married, and his wife, Mercedes, would also become an important avant-garde director. Their children, Nicholas and Marina, would have careers as actors.
Between 1963 and 1967, Gregory became the artistic director for the Seattle Repertory Company, Philadelphia’s Theatre of the Living Arts, and the Inner City Repertory Company in Los Angeles. Gregory quit the Theatre of the Living Arts over a controversy concerning nudity in his productions.
In 1968, Gregory began teaching at New York University and formed with his students the Manhattan Project. This theater group created an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which they presented in 1970. Their version, a modern deconstruction of the famous children’s tale, established Gregory’s reputation.
In 1974, Gregory and Wallace Shawn teamed up when the Manhattan Project presented Shawn’s Our Late Night. As a result, Gregory and Shawn became lifelong friends and creative partners.
However, just after this production, Gregory went through a long hiatus from the theater, wandering the world in search of meaning for his life and work. He journeyed to Tibet, North Africa, and other exotic locales, attempting to heal a growing unease. On the edge of a nervous collapse, he attended a Polish theater workshop run by his mentor, Jerzy Grotowski. With this event, Gregory reached his journey’s bottom, and he returned to New York. There he encountered Wallace Shawn, and the two talked for hours about Gregory’s experiences. The playwright realized he had the makings of a film script.
Shawn began to tape his conversations with Gregory and ended up with twenty-two hundred pages of transcript, which he carefully crafted into a ninety-minute film—My Dinner with André, an encounter between Shawn and Gregory at a high-class restaurant. While My Dinner with André is based on Gregory’s adventures and metaphysical speculations, Shawn has exaggerated the characters of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory to create tension and narrative movement. In the film, Shawn’s character is more pragmatic and querulous than the real playwright, and Gregory is more wild and speculative than the real director. The film becomes a dialogue between two distinct points of view—the rational and the unconventional, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. Thus, My Dinner with André, directed by Louis Malle, has become a beloved portrait of a debate central to the late twentieth century cultural matrix.
After the release of My Dinner with André in 1981, Gregory found himself busily engaged as a character actor, appearing in such major films as The Mosquito Coast (1986), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Shadow (1994). In 1994, Gregory again became the subject of a Malle film, Vanya on 42nd Street, based on Gregory’s 1989 rendering of Anton Chekhov’s Dyadya Vanya (1897; Uncle Vanya, 1914) for invitation-only audiences of thirty members. Malle decided to do a film about the play’s production, with Gregory once more playing himself and creating his own dialogue.
However, in 1992, before the film’s release, Gregory’s wife, Mercedes, died of breast cancer. This tragic loss may have been the cause of Gregory taking another break from theater. Then, in 2000, he returned to his vocation by directing Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, which examines the loss of philosophical and artistic depth in the late twentieth century United States.
As a director and actor, André Gregory is a major figure. While he has written little, his few collaborative pieces—Alice in Wonderland, My Dinner with André, and Vanya on 42nd Street—are classics. In particular, My Dinner with André has become an enduring archetypal encounter between two important worldviews.
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