Spalding Gray’s works are deeply autobiographical. He used both his own name and the names of those with whom he interacted in his monologues. When he performed, he did so behind a desk with a microphone, notepad, and glass of water as his only props. He made no attempt to disguise his identity the way an actor playing a role typically would. It was this transparency that raised the most basic question about Gray’s work: Was he just Spalding Gray, or was he an actor playing the role of Spalding Gray? Moreover, because he made an effort in his daily life to observe and remember every bit of minutia that happened to him as fodder for his next monologue, did he, as an actor, ever stop performing Spalding Gray?
Gray’s character is fairly easy to describe. Much like Woody Allen’s persona of the nebbishy New York Jew, Gray plays the nebbishy, New England WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) actor and docile male. It is this emasculated, paranoid persona of Spalding Gray that Gray took on in all of his monologues. It also become the persona that he took on in real life.
This is not to say that Gray did not take on a variety of characters in performing his pieces. To the contrary, he often assumed the voice and subtle body movements of the characters with whom Spalding Gray interacted. It was these changes in character that further call into question whether Gray was being himself or performing a role. Unlike impressionists who rarely interact as “themselves” with their impressions, Gray freely conversed with himself as someone else. Without differentiating between how he played others and how he played himself, Gray further blurred the lines that separate reality from history and from performance.
Many of Gray’s monologues reference his search for a “perfect moment.” This longing for the perfection that he sought in his life propelled many of his stories. This moment however, is almost always difficult to achieve and, as the name “perfect moment,” suggests, only lasts briefly. It is this search for perfection, no matter how brief, that drove Gray to action. The moments, when related to the audience, are almost always anticlimactic to the quest to achieve them.
Gray’s work is often referred to as “sit-down” comedy, as if the only difference between his work and the storytelling of a standup comedian such as Bill Cosby is his or her presentation to the audience. There are three major distinctions that should be made between the two art forms. First, Gray’s work was intimate, at times uncomfortably so. He spoke freely about his sexual anxieties, conquests, and misadventures; his philandering; his mother’s suicide; his paranoia; and a host of other issues that would seem to be off-limits, or at least unsavory, for a comic with the goal to simply entertain. Gray’s work, by his own admission, was a type of talk therapy for him to work out his personal demons in front of an audience. By extension, he hoped that his audience would relate to his misadventures and experience a similar catharsis. Second, Gray used his very personal stories to discuss greater issues that affect society. He expected that his very small story would shed light on larger issues affecting others. Third, Gray’s audience expected performance art, not standup. This may be the most significant difference between Gray and standup comedians. Expectations affected the way the audience interacted with him. These expectations also added gravity to his pieces that they may or may not have deserved.
Gray’s texts, as they exist in published form, are typically transcriptions of...
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a performance. He never performed from a finished script but rather followed an outline in his notebook to cue him from one story to another.
Sex and Death to the Age Fourteen
This was Gray’s first real attempt at an autobiographical monologue. Although highly entertaining, it is difficult to find any real line in the text. The monologue reveals some very intimate moments of Gray’s early life, and somehow the endless parade of dying pets and masturbation stories has a certain charm.
Gray’s stories here attempt to be both deeply personal and universal at the same time. Most members of his audience would be able to relate to these stories of growing up and loss. Although not yet attempting to broach some of the more global issues raised in later monologues, Sex and Death to the Age Fourteen as well as its sequel Booze, Cars, and College Girls attempts to place Gray as an archetypical child and adolescent.
Swimming to Cambodia
Clearly Gray’s most important work, Swimming to Cambodia offers the best of what Gray did in his monologues: a deeply personal story about his work on the film The Killing Fields; fantastic character sketches including Jim Bean, the cocaine-addicted sailor with his finger on the button; and a historical and political bend in his treatment of the bombings of Cambodia.
The monologue is equally funny and disturbing. Gray’s insights into human nature, at every point in the piece, cut very close to the bone. No one is spared his clear eye, including, perhaps especially, himself. In his quest for the perfect moment in Thailand (where The Killing Fields was filmed), Gray appears paranoid, whiney, misogynistic, indecisive, and arrogant. Gray equates the U.S. military’s bungling of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia with his shortsightedness in both his relationship with his then partner Renée and his search for an agent and further fame in Hollywood.
Gray raises many questions about identity in this piece. He draws attention to the different attitudes between westerners and easterners, New Yorkers and New Englanders, and men and women. More significant than his calling attention to these differences is his own embodiment of all of these personalities. In doing this, Gray suggests that all differences are performative, not essential. However, by embodying minorities in his white male body, Gray reinforces his hegemonic power. Perhaps it is Gray’s embodiment of minorities that made his piece palatable to mainstream audiences when a similar piece done by a non-hegemonic performer would have been more controversial.
It’s a Slippery Slope
The story of Gray’s relationship with Renée Shafransky runs through all of his monologues. Some have suggested that Gray’s stories act like a serial radio play with Spalding and Renée as the two main characters. In this piece, Gray exposes his infidelities to Renée and describes the end of their relationship. This is Gray’s most personal work since Sex and Death to the Age Fourteen.
Because Gray narrates his own story, his infidelity is less disturbing to the audience. This convention raises questions about the nature of love and especially calls into question the legitimacy of monogamy. The Gray character here is as unlikeable as he has ever been. Yet despite the cruelty that he showed Renée (here named Ramona for legal reasons), he expects his audience to buy into his main conceit that love is as involuntary as skiing, the sport that Gray learns over the course of the piece.