Spalding Gray

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

Spalding Gray, actor, writer, and monologist, has been hailed by critics as one of America’s outstanding storytellers. Born and raised in Rhode Island, his experiences in New England have served as the foundation for much of his autobiographical writing and performance. He moved to New York City in 1959 to become a writer but got involved in theater instead. In his works, he blends personal and social history, which affords his performances a diverse universality, resulting in what he refers to as “poetic reporting.”

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Gray began his writing career as a cofounder and performer in the experimental theater company The Wooster Group in 1975. Prior to that, he and Liz LeCompte had worked with Richard Schechner in the Performance Group. While with the Wooster Group, Gray’s personal stories comprised the bulk of a trilogy titled Three Places in Rhode Island. The success of the trilogy and, more important, the finding of his own voice convinced Gray that, for him, the end of the collaborative group process’s usefulness had come.

In 1979, Gray returned to the Performing Garage in New York City to present his first major monologue, Sex and Death to the Age Fourteen. This was followed by five additional pieces about growing up in New England. Contained in the same volume, the pieces are titled Booze, Cars, and College Girls; Forty-seven Beds; Nobody Wanted to Sit Behind a Desk; Travels Through New England; and Terrors of Pleasure: The House. These monologues were performed throughout the United States and Europe during the early 1980’s.

Gray’s work as a performer has also appeared on Off-Broadway and in film. His most notable live theater credits include the revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938) and the New York premiere of The Tooth of Crime (1972) by Sam Shepard. His thirty film credits include the feature films Kate and Leopold (2001), Beyond Rangoon (1995), Beaches (1988), Clara’s Heart (1988), and The Killing Fields (1984). In addition, he has filmed four of his own works: Monster in a Box (1991), directed by Nick Broomfield; Terrors of Pleasure (1988), an HBO special; Swimming to Cambodia (1987), directed by Jonathan Demme; and Gray’s Anatomy (1996), directed by Steven Soderbergh.

It was his role in Roland Joffe’s feature film The Killing Fields that provided the impetus for Gray’s monologue Swimming to Cambodia, a “poetic documentation” of his experiences in Thailand while shooting the film. This piece marks a distinct shift in Gray’s writings to the more immediate, personally intimate events of mid-life. Monster in a Box chronicles the saga of writing his first novel; Gray’s Anatomy deals with the existential torment of discovering that the human body is a fragile entity; It’s a Slippery Slope explores skiing as a concept about the balance between body and mind, and Morning, Noon, and Night extols the newfound joys and anxieties of fatherhood. To date, Gray has developed and performed eighteen monologues, eleven of which appear in print.

His major work of fiction, Impossible Vacation, is a lightly veiled biographical piece in which the main character, Brewster North, is a New England puritan who finds it difficult to take pleasure when in very pleasurable places. In other words, Brewster cannot bring himself to take a vacation. When he finally does, his mother commits suicide. The novel then explores the guilt and angst Brewster encounters as a result.

With the exception of Impossible Vacation, Gray’s books are written after he has exhaustively performed the material before a live audience. He works from notes during performance, telling and retelling the material until it solidifies into a unified whole. He then publishes the work. As a result, the reading audience receives a text that reads as a stream-of-consciousness novel, easily blending the past with the present. Gray has stated that all of his stories are a reporting of actual events, sometimes slightly embellished, a memory of a memory. It is blending of memory and reflective reporting that makes his work compelling. Spalding Gray has received critical acclaim for his writing and his performance both on stage and on screen. He received an Obie Award for Swimming to Cambodia.

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