Spalding Gray

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Cathleen McGuigan (essay date 28 July 1986)

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SOURCE: "Gray's Eminence," in Newsweek, July 28, 1986, p. 69.

[In the following essay, McGuigan discusses Gray's artistic concerns and Gray's performance in Swimming to Cambodia.]

Spalding Gray walks onstage carrying a spiral notebook with a cartoon cover and wearing the kind of plaid cotton shirt that a nerd would button up to his Adam's apple. He sits at a table with a pull-down map behind him, as though he's about to give a class report. And he begins to talk, the words spilling out of him with the speed and candor of a precocious child. But there's nothing juvenile about his intricately crafted monologue, Swimming to Cambodia. A funny, moving soliloquy that Gray has been performing at Lincoln Center in New York, along with another monologue called Terrors of Pleasure, it manages in 100 minutes to sketch the history of Cambodian genocide, recount the filming of The Killing Fields (in which he had a part) and evoke a technicolor travelogue of paradise. It also provides a hilarious guided tour of Gray's neuroses (can't make a decision), fears (big ocean waves) and superstitions (turn off the radio only on a positive word). Don't worry, he's had professional help. His therapist, he notes, "was like a drinking buddy, but we never went drinking and I paid for all the drinks."

Gray is not, he insists, a performance artist, but an actor who comes to the theater each night and repeats certain actions and gestures. Whatever he is, he has reinvented the oral tradition. Unlike such solo performers as Lily Tomlin or Eric Bogosian, who present a gallery of personae, Gray plumbs just one character, himself. His material, all autobiographical, shows a great eye for detail, and he has a narrative gift for digressing and snaking neatly back to where he started.

In Cambodia, he threads in anecdotes about a nasty Manhattan neighbor or about sibling warfare at the Gray family dinner table, decades back in Barrington, R.I. He'll describe a man whose ears are so tiny they're like "pasta shells," or the T shirts the The Killing Fields crew wore one day that said, "Skip the Dialogue, Let's Blow Something Up." He'd rather not memorize the material; he checks his spiral notebook for an outline and cues, and every night he tries to spin the story as if for the first time.

One day last week Gray, 45, sat in the Performing Garage in SoHo, his artistic home since 1970, and talked about his route from nonnarrative group-theater experiments to his solo work today. Trained as an actor, he worked with Richard Schechner's Performance Group, and it helped him overcome a fear of direct contact with an audience. "There were no seats," he recalls. "The audience would be perched on the edge of the set, like at a golf match." Later, with the Wooster Group, he developed a trilogy of autobiographical pieces; the most powerful, Rumstick Road, was about his mother's suicide.

With his first monologue in 1979, Sex and Death to the Age of 14, he was on his way to becoming the WASP Woody Allen. "It was a form of associative self-analysis," he says. Like the conceptual artist who lived in a storefront window in public view and called it a work of art, Gray's esthetic was based on extreme personal exposure—but his was artfully crafted and full of humor.

Decisions, Decisions

Although his work will remain personal, Gray is interested in monologues about "something larger than my own neuroses." He's much too busy for therapy, anyway. He's starring in David Byrne's movie True Stories, which comes out in October; director Jonathan Demme will film Swimming to Cambodia in November for theatrical release. Vintage Books has published a collection of his monologues and he's booked on the David Letterman show. But he keeps facing decisions: should he take his show to Broadway or go to the Mark Taper Forum for an intriguing project to search for natural storytellers on the streets of Los Angeles? Whatever he ends up doing, he's sure to be taking notes. "I'll never run out of material as long as I live," he says. "The only disappointment is that I probably won't be able to come back after I die and tell that experience."


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Spalding Gray 1941–

American dramatist, novelist, actor, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Gray's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 49.

Gray is numbered among the leading innovators of contemporary performance art. Through avant-garde experimentation with mainstream theater and media, Gray's improvised autobiographical monologues seek universal meaning in the absurd and often humorous particularities of white, middle-class American experience—especially his own. The stage performance of Swimming to Cambodia (1985), his best-known work, won critical praise, as did its film adaptation by director Jonathan Demme in 1987. While Gray's candid, self-deprecating public confessions dwell on the idiosyncracies of his own thought and personal crises, through such cathartic disclosures he attempts to bring about psychological healing and to raise social consciousness for both himself and his audience. An engaging storyteller and charismatic performer, Gray's insightful examination of the alternately mundane, personally embarrassing, and politically relevant illustrates the inseparable relationship between art and everyday life.

Biographical Information

Born in Barrington, Rhode Island, Gray and his two siblings grew up in a middle-class home. His father was a factory worker and his mother a homemaker who became a devout Christian Scientist after a series of nervous breakdowns. Upon graduating from Fryeburg Academy, a private secondary school in Maine, Gray attended Emerson College, where he studied acting and earned a bachelor's degree in 1965. For the next two years Gray worked as an actor in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Saratoga, New York, appearing in summer stock plays such as Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. In 1967, he travelled to Texas and Mexico, but returned several months later upon news of his mother's suicide, a family trauma that plunged Gray into a long depression leading to a nervous breakdown nine years later. In 1967, Gray joined Richard Schechner's Performance Group, an experimental New York theater company with which he was associated until 1979. Gray produced Sakonnet Point (1975), Rumstick Road (1977), and Nyatt School (1978) with Elizabeth LeCompte, with whom he co-founded the Wooster Group in 1977. The three works were later per-formed as the trilogy Three Places in Rhode Island (1979), to which Gray added the epilogue Point Judith (1979). After teaching a summer workshop at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California in 1978, Gray performed his first monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14 (1979), followed by Booze, Cars, and College (1979) and India (And After) (1979). He was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1979. During the early 1980s, Gray produced additional experimental monologues with Interviewing the Audience (1981), in which he solicits audience participation, and In Search of Monkey Girl (1981), a collaborative project with photographer Randal Levenson based on his experiences with carnival freaks at the Tennessee State Fair. In 1983, Gray appeared in the part of an American ambassador's aide in The Killing Fields, Roland Joffe's feature film about the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia after the Vietnam War. Two years later, Gray produced the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia, a monologue about his experiences during filming in Thailand, for which he won a Guggenheim fellowship. Next was Terrors of Pleasure (1986), a monologue about his purchase of a dilapidated house in upstate New York, and Rivkala's Ring (1986), an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's short story "Orchards." Since his film debut in The Killing Fields, Gray has appeared in a Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town and additional motion pictures including True Stories, Clara's Heart and Beaches.

Major Works

The origin of Gray's trademark stage persona and dramatic technique may be traced to the trilogy of autobiographical works produced with LeCompte and later performed together as Three Places in Rhode Island. The first two works, Sakonnet Point and Rumstick Road, deal with mental illness and Gray's efforts to come to terms with his mother's suicide. In Sakonnet Point, named after the Rhode Island resort town where Gray vacationed as a child, Gray employs non-verbal, dance-like actions to illustrate pre-verbal childhood consciousness. This work also reveals the influence of experimental European dramatists Antonin Artaud and Jerzy Grotowski. Rumstick Road, a more discontinuous and frantic work, probes Gray's childhood memories with audio recordings of actual family members and the psychiatrist who treated Gray's mother before her death. The third, Nyatt School, is a parody of T. S. Eliot's verse drama The Cocktail Party in which Gray deconstructs Eliot's text through the lecturing of a pedantic academic. Gray's role as the subject and leading actor in these early works prefigured his first monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, in which he discusses humorous anecdotes about his sexual awakening and Christian Science upbringing against the historical background of the Second World War, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the polio epidemic. Booze, Cars, and College chronicles his early adulthood and college misadventures up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, while India (And After) recounts events culminating in his nervous breakdown in 1976 after touring India with the Wooster Group. Gray similarly fused personal memory with contemporary American history in Swimming to Cambodia, a monologue based on his experiences during the production of The Killing Fields, a film about the brutal decimation of Cambodian civilians by Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas during the mid-1970s. Accompanied on the stage by only a desk, two maps of Southeast Asia, and a glass of water as props, Gray discusses a myriad of topics. His focus includes: life on the set of a major motion picture; Thai culture and prostitutes; American foreign policy in Vietnam and Cambodia; Khmer Rouge atrocities; and his own quest for spiritual epiphany, or a "perfect moment," which he experiences while floating in the Indian Ocean. With impressive sensitivity, irony, and wit, Gray's observations reveal him as a troubled individual, a professional actor, an American, and a human being outraged at the horrifying cost of war. In Monster in a Box (1990) Gray speaks as a writer struggling to complete an unwieldy novel about his picaresque adventures. Invoking his mother's suicide as a point of departure, Gray extemporizes about his travels to Nicaragua, Moscow, and both coasts of the United States. The "monster" is a massive manuscript that he is struggling to complete for his publisher. Gray adapted this monologue into his autobiographical novel Impossible Vacation (1992), changing the protagonist's name to Brewster North. Gray's alter ego reminisces about his dysfunctional family and perpetual search for enlightenment in theater, Zen. drugs, sex, and far-flung travels to Europe and India, promising himself a vacation to Bali once his life story has been recorded: Gray's recent monologues continue the chronicle of his personal life and neuroses. Gray's Anatomy (1993) deals with mortality and the artist's fear of going blind and Its a Slippery Slope (1996) relates Gray's compromising relationship with two women: his wife, Renee Shafransky, and a lover with whom he accidentally has a son.

Critical Reception

Gray is highly regarded as a brilliant performer and unflinching commentator on middle-class American self-consciousness. By openly dissecting his own shortcomings and existential despair with appealing humor, earnest bewilderment, and humility, Gray speaks to his audiences as a living example of the angst-ridden, self-obsessed modern person. Viewed as a mixture of avant-garde artist, "poetic journalist," and stand-up comedian, Gray has been compared to Samuel Beckett for the minimalist elements of his theater and Woody Allen for his neurotic self-absorption. While some critics find Gray's confessional monologues narcissistic and superficial, most praise his inimitable stage presence and great ability as a storyteller. Swimming to Cambodia is widely considered his masterpiece and received enthusiastic critical approval. Though faulted by some for elements of historical arrogance and misogyny, both the stage and film versions of this work are generally praised as an example of Gray's perceptive observations and remarkable talent for weaving persona! experience and memory into the tapestry of world-historical consciousness. While stage performances of Gray's subsequent monologues received favorable critical attention, film adaptations of Terrors of Pleasure, Monster in a Box, Gray's Anatomy, and his autobiographical novel Impossible Vacation were greeted with mixed assessment. Admired for reviving the ancient art of epic oral history in his stylized chronicling of late twentieth-century self and society, Gray is recognized as an important creative force in contemporary American theater and performance art.

Mervyn Rothstein (essay date 4 December 1988)

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SOURCE: "A New Face in Graver's Corners," in The New York Times, December 4, 1988, pp. 1, 10.

[In the following essay, Rothstein discusses Gray's artistic motivations and involvement in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.]

Thornton Wilder, in his 1957 preface to "Three Plays":

"Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death {that element I merely took from Dante's Purgatory). It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are 'hundreds,' 'thousands,' and 'millions.' Emily's joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents—what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living, and who will live? Each individual's assertion to an absolute reality can be only inner, very inner."

The doorbell in the street is usually anonymous, but this morning a 47-year-old resident of the SoHo section of Manhattan has scribbled something to its right to provide a guide for a visitor.

"S. Gray," says the scrawl on the wall. The visitor rings the doorbell and waits as S. Gray races down four flights of stairs to open the door to the loft building where he lives. It is just down the street from the Performing Garage, where, first with the Performance Group and then with the Wooster Group, Spalding Gray performed and began creating the monologues for which he is best known.

Now the author of Sex and Death to the Age 14, Terrors of Pleasure and Swimming to Cambodia has taken on a new role—that of the Stage Manager in Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the residents of Grover's Corners, N. H. … is directed by Gregory Mosher and has a cast of 27, including Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Stoltz, James Rebhorn and Frances Conroy. It is, Mr. Gray says, his first major role in a play since he was Hoss in Sam Shepard's Tooth of Crime at the Performing Garage in 1974.

"When I was mulling over whether to do it, my girlfriend, Renée Shafransky, was playing devil's advocate," Mr. Gray recalls. "So she says to me, 'How are they going to do Our Town in Calcutta?' She was referring to New York City as Calcutta, because that's how we've been experiencing it."

He is seated at a bare wooden table next to a rear window in his apartment. It is a table not unlike the ones he has used in his monologues, and from time to time he will lean forward, elbows on the table, just as he does on stage. "At first I said no to Greg," Mr. Gray says.

And he said, "Think it over for the day and call me back tonight." And I had said "No" because of the book I'm working on. It's a hardcover, autobiographic novel, and I was very anxious about it. So I went off for a walk to think it over. I always walk up to Barnes & Noble, on 18th Street—I have to have a point of reference to go to. And then I look at all the books on sale. I like to look at all the books on sale.

And there was this guy outside. I always carry change with me and give it out, and this guy had such a sad story. He had had his head bashed in in San Francisco, and had been in a veterans' hospital, and he left prematurely, and he had no place to stay. And I thought, "No, I can't do Our Town. This is the answer. I must work with the homeless."

And I went back all inspired. I thought I was going to go up to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And then I thought, "No, no, my talent is around the theater." And I know that doing this piece is in some way going to be important. In some way, this will create a dramatic dynamic between what is going on outside and what is going on on the stage; between the order of the theater and the absolute chaos of the streets.

His visitor asks for an example. "I don't think it's clear to me yet," he says.

It's evolving. But when I came to work the first day, there were people dealing crack in the stage entrance, because no one had used the theater for such a long time. They had a suitcase open and they had bags the size of a hardcover book filled with what looked like rock candy. And I said, "Excuse me," and I stepped over the suitcase. I said, "I'm going to work now." They're not there anymore, because people are coming and the whole thing's alive. But they were there then.

Sex and Discipline to the Age 21

Mr. Mosher, the play's director and the director of Lincoln Center Theater, has brought to this production his personal view of the work. It is a view that closely relates the play to the vision of Samuel Beckett, and especially to one line from Waiting for Godot: "… they are born astride the grave."

"Somehow, in the 50's and 60's, the play was turned into a Hallmark card," Mr. Mosher recalled earlier this fall, on the day he announced that Mr. Gray had joined the cast. "It was reduced, not necessarily by anyone doing anything, but by a consensus that it was a superficial, nostalgic, flag-waving poem to a lost America.

"On the contrary," he said, "I think it's a very particular vision of what life in this century has been. The first act begins in 1901 and projects out into the future about the deepest sort of spiritual concerns that people have. It's a magnificent play to be doing side by side with Godot.

"They were written 10 years apart," he said—Godot was completed in 1948—"and while Beckett's vision is certainly a darker one, there's a searching in Thornton Wilder's play that simply can't exist when it's performed in a high school theater, as it often is. The students don't know about death, about dying in childbirth. There's that most famous line in Godot about being born astride the grave. And here in Our Town there's the most beautiful girl in the world giving birth and dying in childbirth."

Mr. Gray acknowledges the Beckett influence on the production. But he says that he has his own, very different, connections to the play. "Certainly that Beckett imagery is there," he says.

But I don't relate to it as much as Gregory does. Beckett is not a favorite writer of mine, and Godot is not a favorite play.

I would say that the kind of existential angst that Beckett has is mildly there. But there's something else—a kind of spirituality. There are hints of New England metaphysical Hinduism and Buddhism, as in Thoreau and Emerson. My first take on the play, and I still hold it, is that it's a New England graveyard meditation. It's a very heartfelt, dark piece, and, in this production, it's combined with a nice mix of lightness and humor.

Gertrude Stein is kind of my muse for the play…. I can hear her "Making of the Americans" in it, the way in which she repeats simple details about living. But Wilder is more condensed. And almost certainly there's the way Hemingway was influenced by her. They were trying to write the most uncomplicated sentences that would deliver the most information. It reminds me of dense Zen haikus, where they go on and on and on, but it's always nondelving nonpsychological, nonpsychoanalytic. It's clean surface statements that what you're seeing is what exists and all that exists beyond that is in your imagination, and mine.

Mr. Gray's connections to the play are related to his childhood, he says—to his birth in Barrington, R.I., and to his memories of growing up in New England, a New England 40 years after the time of Our Town.

"I refer to Our Town as the tip of the iceberg," he says.

My book, my autobiographic novel, is the bottom. The book is like a parallel to Peyton Place, because it shows the more seamy, sordid side of New England, of why I left, of why I was driven out of it, and all the repressive aspects of it.

When I see some of the scenes in the play,… I think about going to the Christian Science Sunday school, which you had to go to until you were 21, if you made it that far. These are associations I have while watching the play, and I watch it every night from the wings. I don't ever leave the presence of the play. I don't go to my dressing room, because I always want to know what I'm coming into when I come in as the Stage Manager—the energy field.

I can remember my Sunday school teacher seeing me playing with my hands while I was listening, maybe nervously, and then him slapping my hands and saying, "We don't need that kind of distraction here." And I put my hands down, and then somewhere in the middle of the class, the same class, he got up and went over to the clock on the wall, an old pendulum clock, and he stopped it. And he said, "We don't need this kind of distraction either."

And the other thing that I remember is when my mother found all my pinups behind my door—Marilyn Monroe included, that naked shot of her on red satin. I had put them on the back of my door so that she'd never see them, but she went to dust behind the door, and she took them and put them all out on the coffee table down in the sun room. And she gave me a long lecture about how these would give me disturbing thoughts, bad thoughts.

So I think of that,… for instance, in the scene between Emily and her mother. When her mother says, Emily, "you're pretty enough for all normal purposes," I see this enormous New England repression around the idea of glorification of beauty. It's a wonderful line. It just brings home all of that puritanical stuff. It's the darker side, the one I always wanted to bust out of. It was meant to keep you in your place. The Australians call it the "tall poppy theory"—if you get too uppity, if you stand out too much, they cut you down.

But it had its good side too, he adds—"in the sense that it was always concerned with the enjoyment of very simple details, the Shaker aspect, the simple life.

"Wilder was writing it at the Macdowell Colony," he says, "and I was up there in March, so when I say the speech about the White Mountains I'm really seeing them, and it helps the connection. And I had climbed in the White Mountains—I climbed Mount Washington when I was 15 years old. It was the first mountain I climbed. So these connections mean much more to me than the Beckett one."

The Terrors of Performing

The play has in it something that he had not been in touch with for a while, Mr. Gray says.

It's a simple sense of heartfeltness. Taken over the edge, it would be sentiment, but we're not playing it that way. I don't think the play is a sentimental play, and I think the Stage Manager's role is to step in and cut the sentiment when it's right on the edge. I think of the Stage Manager as a kind of go-between between the audience and the piece. He interrupts all the scenes just before they can go into another realm—he brings it back to the point where he is saying, "This is a play we're doing." What I love about Our Town is I'm always saying that this is a play, and this convention feels good to me, because it's in a way working behind the scenes, which is the way I've always worked—telling the story under the story. When I'm trying to focus on "A," I think of "K."

But amid the love, there is a problem. "It's been a real project not to comment on what's going on around the production," he says—"which is the construction of a very large building right next door," at Broadway and 45th Street.

"We've canceled Wednesday matinees now," he says, "because of that. But last Wednesday was a very interesting and memorable experience.

The workers were supposed to stop at 3 o'clock—that was the agreement they had with the Shubert Organization. Well, at 3 o'clock, it got worse. So in the middle of these incredible scenes there were these wonderful juxtapositions. It reminded me of when I first came to New York City, in 1967, and I went to see Merce Cunningham at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Before the dance began, they said that they had no soundtrack, that the soundtrack was what's going on outside the Academy—the street sounds. As soon as they directed our attention there, of course, we accepted it and paid attention to it—it was a wonderful kind of John Cagean concept.

So here's this scene going on between Eric Stoltz—George Gibbs—and Jim Rebhorn, who plays his father, Doc Gibbs. They're talking about how the mother was cutting wood, how Doc Gibbs heard her cutting wood that morning, and how George should help his mother. And all you could hear was these buzz-saws cutting wood right next door—a big, big, ZZZZZZZEW, ZZZZZZZEW. And I thought, I hope it's quiet by the time we get to the cemetery and Emily's last speech.

Because I remembered that one night—there are no buildings next to the Lyceum now, so you can hear the sirens—and one night Emily was doing that "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you" speech, and there was full gridlock: sirens, police, ambulances.

Could all this be grist for a future monologue?

"Every monologue I've ever done was serendipitous," he says, "and came out of what I call a kind of leftover energy—things that weren't resolved, things that stood out, things that needed to be talked out to be understood. And they were always whatever I entered in my journal. And then I'll start to put together a fabric. I think that the next monologue is going to be very broad, and cover a lot of territory. It will be catching-up-with-what-has-happened-since-I've-last-spo-ken-to-you. Though Eric Stoltz is totally on guard about everything he says, because we share this dressing room."

He pauses and thinks for a moment. "I often think of the Lyceum Theater, when we're in it—and we've been in it a lot," he says, "as this huge, old cruise ship, going nowhere, in which the entire crew is condemned to perform Our Town every night. It's a strange experience, being with all these people and doing this piece, and I can't think that there won't be stories coming out of it."

The Killing Fields

"I'm thinking about Washington," Mr. Gray says. "I think that I'm going to move down there in the spring and begin to try to figure out what is going on there politically, because it's a foreign land to me. And I dislike it."

He pauses briefly. Onstage, he would probably take a sip of water. But there is no water on the table. "And this is why I want to go to Washington," he says.

Because I feel that if there's any juxtaposition between this play and the world outside, it's how far we've come from the original ideals, the ideals of our forefathers.

When I look at America now, I see a series of feudal states, feudal cities. You have your entertainment capital, in Los Angeles, your house of illusions; you have your drug city, in Miami; you have your bureaucratic law, lingo, policy-destroying-making city, Washington; you have the city of intellect and finance; you have the conservative breadbasket. You're so blown away now, and so dependent on media and press, which is the one unifier. And it makes me want to flee to Our Town.

And so my bone-chilling line in the play, as someone called it, is when I say: "Over there are some Civil War veterans. Iron flags on their graves … New Hampshire boys … had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they'd never seen more than 50 miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends—the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it."

"And every night that has a different reading for me," he says. "And a different meaning. I just let it hang there, as a meditation, on what is the United States of America. And the juxtaposition is between what we were, or what we thought we were, as Americans, and what we are—and between what we might have been and what we are."

Principal Works

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Sakonnet Point [with Elizabeth LeCompte] (drama) 1975
Rumstick Road [with Elizabeth LeCompte] (drama) 1977
Nyatt School [with Elizabeth LeCompte] (drama) 1978
Three Places in Rhode Island [with Elizabeth LeCompte] (drama) 1979
Point Judith (drama) 1979
Sex and Death to the Age 14 (drama) 1979
Booze, Cars, and College Girls (drama) 1979
India (And After) (drama) 1979
A Personal History of the American Theatre (drama) 1980
In Search of Monkey Girl [with Randal Levenson] (drama) 1981
Interviewing the Audience (drama) 1981
Seven Scenes from a Family Album (short stories) 1981
Swimming to Cambodia (drama) 1985
Rivkala's Ring (drama) 1986
Terrors of Pleasure (drama) 1986
Travels through New England (drama) 1986
Swimming to Cambodia: The Collected Works of Spalding Gray (drama) 1987
Monster in a Box (drama) 1990
Impossible Vacation (novel) 1992
Gray's Anatomy (drama) 1993
It's a Slippery Slope (drama) 1996

Peggy Phelan (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia: The Article," in Critical Texts, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1988, pp. 27-30.

[In the following essay, Phelan provides critical analysts of the stage, film, and text versions of Swimming to Cambodia. Phelan is critical of Gray's egocentrism and "opportunistic" discussion of Cambodian genocide as a foil for his own spiritual awakening.]

The most remarkable thing about Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia is its Zelig-like ability to change its form. First "an experience," then a memory of an experience, then an improvisational performance of a memory of an experience, then a performance script, then a book, then a film, Swimming to Cambodia is perhaps the ultimate postmodern text—ubiquitous, slippery, and apparently immune to the law of genre. But as Zelig soon discovered, such a Protean existence has its price. Swimming to Cambodia's easy mutation suggests that its ontology lies less in its ability to be taken as a "vessel for great themes expressed through mighty events," as James Leverett intones in his Introduction to The Book, and more in its hollowness—its extremely malleable surface appeal.

Swimming to Cambodia is a dramatic monologue about Gray's experience playing the U.S. ambassador's aide during the making of Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1983). In the three live performances which were combined in Jonathan Demme's superbly edited film, Gray expertly employs four props—a notebook, a glass of water, a map, and a pointer—to expound the history of U.S. intervention in Cambodia, the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the subsequent deaths of about two million Cambodian people. Along the way, Gray also tells the story of noise squabbles with Soho neighbors, stand-offs with Renée Shafransky (his lover and the producer of the film), and his indefatigable pursuit of "Perfect Moments." This pursuit leads him deep into the waves of the Indian Ocean, into a severe economic lust which sends him to a Hollywood agent, and eventually to the performance/film itself. When he experiences his first Perfect Moment it is in the Indian Ocean; for Gray Perfect Moments are timeless perceptions distinguished by a nostalgic transcendental "oneness" with his surroundings:

Suddenly there was no time and there was no fear and there was no body to bite. There were no longer any outlines. I was just one big ocean. My body had blended with the ocean. And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top bobbing up and down.

Gray wants to turn this perceiver into the performer and the "poetic reporter." He defines a poetic reporter in his "Author's Note" as:

… more like an impressionist painter than a photographer. Most reporters get the facts out as quickly as possible—fresh news is the best news. I do just the opposite. I give the facts a chance to settle down and at last they blend, bubble and mix in the swamp of dream, memory, and reflection.

Gray's theatrical minimalism and simple sentences fit well with his persona as poetic reporter in Swimming. Sitting behind a desk in a plaid flannel shirt and speaking for about an hour and a half. Gray seems more like a casual and slightly bemused academic than an actor with Hollywood aspirations. Gray's persona in Swimming, however, does not work as well with this material as it has in the past. Irony, his most congenial affect, is not a sufficiently complex attitude to treat the "gruesome period from 1966 to the present" which constitutes present-day Cambodia. In this monologue, Gray's ambition is greater than his skill.

In 1979 Gray explained that his move from acting in other people's plays to performing his own solo pieces was precipitated by the conviction that what he was doing on stage was akin to freestyle body-surfing: "The text was like a wave I was riding, and the way I rode that wave was up to me." As a member of Richard Schechner's Performing Garage and Elizabeth Le Compte's Wooster Group, Gray has had a long and distinguished career in avant-garde theater. In 1981, after playing Hoss in the Performing Garage's production of Sam Shepherd's Tooth of Crime, he remarked:

After I do the long monologue about the fighter Richard [Schechner—the director] said to just finish that, stand in front of the audience and allow myself to come to a neutral place so I'm no longer the character, and just look at the audience's eyes. That time I could feel the charge that had been building up peel away like an onion and I came to this extremely neutral state. Everything disappeared and the audience and I were one, and from there I went on to the next scene playing the old man, and that was such a wonderful transition.

For Gray, performative Perfect Moments consist of these experiences of "oneness" between himself and the audience. In Swimming to Cambodia, however, we hear so much about other Perfect Moments that there is little time or energy for creating a new one there in the theater/film.

In his exuberant "Author's Note" to Swimming, Gray outlines his aesthetic theory: "all human culture is art. It is all a conscious contrivance for the purpose of survival. All I have to do is look around me." In practice, unfortunately, the liberating claim that all of human culture is potentially "performable" (able to be represented "on stage") becomes in Gray's text only another opportunity to see himself. This visual/psychological claustrophobia does not seem to trouble him; in fact, he celebrates his endless self-seeking: "You never know when they're [Perfect Moments] coming. It's sort of like falling in love … with yourself." It seems never to have occurred to Gray that falling in love with someone else might be less than a Perfect Moment but more like a Textured History; nor does he consider that a psychological Textured History might be more suitable as a parallel narrative to the story of the tragedy of Cambodia. And perhaps most inexplicable of all is Gray's apparently unconscious exploitation of the history of Cambodia, which he uses essentially as a structure to frame his "poetic reports."

Pauline Kael's remarks in The New Yorker have succinctly outlined all the reasons why Gray's boyish irony about performing in a movie about Cambodia, finding an agent, struggling over weighty decisions about spending two weeks in Krummville, New York, or mainland Thailand, while also expressing outrage at the Khmer Rouge's decimation of the Cambodians, could be construed as opportunistic:

The high point of his monologue comes when he hears for the first time about our secret bombing of Cambodia, and what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people in 1975, driving them out of the cities and to their deaths. Mostly, his tone has been gentle mockery of himself and everyone else, but now he's upset, indignant. He's incredulous and horrified as he describes the exodus; he's an actor who has just discovered strong material and he builds the tension…. Is he effective? To judge from reactions to his stage performances and to the new concert-film version, definitely. Yet I can't be alone in feeling that he's a total opportunist, and so unconsciously that it never even occurs to him that there's anything wrong about using a modern genocidal atrocity story to work up an audience.

Although this unconsciousness has been apparent in Gray's previous performance work, it comes acutely to the forefront in Swimming to Cambodia because the monologue purports to be at least in part "a portrait of an artist" coming to political consciousness. But the structure of Gray's monologue inevitably leads one to measure the death of two million Cambodian refugees against his epiphany in the Indian Ocean. Such inappropriate measuring is more than aesthetically unfortunate; it also is historically arrogant.

Gray's task as a performer is to use himself as a kind of epistemological gauge; all experience and all representations of that experience must be filtered through him. Diametrically opposed to the Stanislavskian approach in which the actor emptied himself in order to let the character live, Gray's performances attempt to use the performance situation itself to fill himself with becoming/expressing/being Spalding Gray. The logical outcome of this impulse is manifest in his performance called Interviewing the Audience, in which he does just that.

In theory, Gray's project is important and interesting. Performance Art's most radical and innovative work often involves a thrillingly difficult investigation of autobiography. By rejuvenating the possible ways of presenting and representing the self, Performance Art has changed the notion of theatrical presence and widened the methods by and through which the self can be narrated, parodied, held in contempt, and/or made to be the source of revelatory vision and thought. The divergent work of Linda Montano, Karen Finley, Stuart Sherman, Chris Burden, John Malpede, and Lily Tomlin, to name only some of the best-known artists (as distinct from the most interesting) involved in this project, gives some sense of the scope and range of this re-investigation. Gray's work, perhaps more than anyone else's, has been able to bridge the gap between avant-garde and pop culture. Gray has made no secret of his eagerness to be "a star" and he seems to have less hesitation than one might expect about "crossing over":

I always wanted to be a star in the finest sense—to be there, to be brilliant…. [T]he only way to be a star in our culture is to enter into the media at large. You have to be a household word. I wanted to be in performance and also be a star.

The obvious risk in Gray's work is that this performed self will be inadequate, boring, superficial. In order to minimize that risk, Gray affects a blanket irony. But unlike most of the other performance artists engaged in rethinking autobiographical "texts," Gray's work consistently returns to one theme: his most consistently expressed emotion is one of loss. "I have had this feeling [of loss] for as long as I can remember. It is the feeling that the 'I' I call 'me' is only a visitor here. No, not even a visitor because a visitor goes elsewhere after he visits." The visits recorded in Swimming to Cambodia, paradoxically, are visits recorded by one who does not leave the tight moorings of the "I"; Gray never really swims off the shore that is Gray-in-Performance.

In Swimming, this paradox is heightened because the narrative chronicles Gray's increasingly desperate attempts to lose himself (and his money) while swimming in the Indian Ocean; the increasing desperation comes from the painful realization that performing in a movie about "a modern genocidal atrocity" keeps the performer successfully insulated from the effects/affects of that atrocity. Gray repeatedly marvels at the fake blood, the fake fire, and the expensive composition of the fake "historical record" everywhere operative and visible in making The Killing Fields. But while Gray finds all this artifice perversely marvelous and absurdly appropriate, he also recognizes that it does not quite provide him with the material he needs to become "a poetic reporter" of anything but "absence." Hence, he begins to concentrate his will on experiencing a Perfect Moment—a performative "oneness" that he can embroider, embellish, and repeat in the performance. So eager is he to lose himself that he manufactures losses where there are none: he jumps to the conclusion that he has lost his swimming partner Ivan, when Ivan is himself safely bobbing beyond a wave Gray cannot ride. Gray's ubiquitous sense of loss is so great, his performances suggest, that as a spectator I can admire his strength for speaking about them, but I had better not ask him to let them go. In Swimming, Gray's "speaking" is not in any way an authentic exposure, nor is it a sincere attempt to "share" his selfhood: Gray's cathartic exercises are self-enclosed. More troubling, however, is that Gray's work manipulates the spectator into feeling either empathic sympathy or profound impassiveness. These are the only choices. And neither of them advance or invigorate theatrical performance.

Gray is obviously an attractive and charismatic performer, but increasingly he is a "safe" one. His attempt to use himself as his own material is no longer unusual or raw; he himself has polished it and other performers' more radical self-explorations have inured us to the shock such an approach originally had. Increasingly, Gray's work seems quite far from his purported project of using art "as a conscious contrivance for the purpose of survival." I don't begrudge Gray economic or popular success, but I am disappointed that he has not faced the truly radical innovative edge in his project. To face this edge in Swimming would require that Gray abandon his boyish unconsciousness and explore his own misogyny, racism, colonialism, and economic imperialism, which run like sludge throughout his text. Such an exploration would not abandon irony, but it would add to it a more challenging intelligence. I don't care one bit that Gray has all of these embarrassing attitudes toward other people and other cultures, most of us do; but what I find disappointing is his assumption that this can be glossed over without comment in favor of some boyish charm or political naiveté. He makes it clear early on that being apolitical is a bonus in Joffe's eyes. After hearing Joffe's plot summary of Killing Fields, Gray tells him: "'I know nothing about what you've told me. I'm not very political—in fact, I've never voted in my life.' And Roland said, 'Perfect! We're looking for the American ambassador's aide.'" This kind of joke is funny at first. But the humor never gets any smarter or any deeper, despite Gray's assertion in the "Author's Note" to The Book that he "still understand[s] and love[s] America, precisely for its sense of humor…. Humor. The bottom line." Gray seems unable or unwilling to consider the politics of most of the humor in Swimming to Cambodia. This quick-take approach gives Swimming an appealingly polished surface and a completely unthreatening substance. It also is responsible for the easy and multiple transformations to which the text has lent itself.

The most successful of these transformations is the filmic one, and a large part of that success comes from Jonathan Demme's ability to critique Gray's unconsciousness. Relying only on a few slides, some remarkable lighting effects, several well chosen clips from Joffe's film, a zippy musical score composed by Laurie Anderson, and Gray's commanding physical presence, Demme is able to enhance Gray's "epiphanies," transforming them into visual/psychological wonders. Perhaps the best moment in the film occurs when Gray is narrating his Perfect Moment in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Demme's camera starts to rock back and forth as if it too were in the ocean. Gray's narrative is so thrilling, Demme seems to suggest, that the camera itself is carried deep into the waves just to find out "what happens next." Moreover, as Gray describes his little perceptor/performer bobbing up and down on the ocean the camera seems to position itself in a logically impossible but visually compelling space: we seem to see both what Gray is seeing and we continue to see Gray seeing—Demme seems to locate the spectator behind and in front of Gray's eyes. (Perhaps the most celebrated example of this dualistic camera vision is in Hitchcock's Vertigo, when Jimmy Stewart is losing his mind and we see him fall through mental space; but that sequence relies on animation while Demme's is "naturalistic") As Gray recites his narrative denouement—

And up the perceiver would go with the waves, then down it would go, and the waves would come up around the perceiver, and it could have been in the middle of the Indian Ocean, because it could see no land. And then waves would take the perceiver up to where it could look down this great wall of water … far below, and then "Whoop!" the perceiver would go down again—

the camera rocks back and forth. Gray, still sitting in the Chair behind the desk, practices yoga head rolls while the camera "bobs" along with his modulating voice. Demme manages to find the perfect cinematic device to express Gray's Perfect Moment. Moreover, Demme underlines the failure of Gray's own vision. By virtue of appearing to be both inside and outside Gray's eyes, the camera effectively underlines Gray's inability to see anything other than himself. While the camera can, as it were, forget its own ontology and see as if it were Gray, Gray himself lacks precisely this visionary grasp.

William W. Demastes (essay date March 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8603

SOURCE: "Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia and the Evolution of an Ironic Presence," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1, March, 1989, pp. 75-94.

[In the following essay, Demastes examines the development and significance of Gray's innovative performance strategies for contemporary American drama. According to Demastes, "Gray has singularly succeeded in bringing to life on stage a political agenda similar to that demanded by experimentalists of an earlier epoch—the 1960s and 1970s—but in a manner that assures a 1980s reception."]

Spalding Gray's career in the theatre has encompassed a variety of theories and practices. He was educated in traditional forms, then moved to Richard Schechner's Performance Group, and later worked with the Wooster Group. Gray's current involvement in auto-performance shows a tremendous debt to these earlier affiliations, yet many critics seem to have dismissed Gray's current work as indulgent, dilettantish, and no longer part of the serious avant-garde experimentalist's concern. He has, after all, been co-opted into mainstream American culture, as his critics are quick to note. This easy dismissal of Gray, however, seems premature. In fact, many of the reasons Gray is dismissed are exactly the reasons Gray should be reconsidered.

This essay is an effort to place Gray's work more clearly into a performance genre context by first outlining the general critical assessment that avant-garde theatre in the 1980s is dying, then considering Gray's debt to Richard Schechner and the Performance Group, evaluating Gray's affiliation with Wooster Group members, and then demonstrating how this rich background is evident in Gray's current auto-performance pieces. In these works Gray creates a sophisticated theatrical persona, who himself reenacts an awakening onstage designed to sensitize the audience to its own awareness. The awakening comes over the persona onstage, and the enactment undermines comforting surfaces, forcing the audience to face realities—political and others—that it perhaps would prefer to ignore. In Swimming to Cambodia in particular, Gray has singularly succeeded in bringing to life on the stage a political agenda similar to that demanded by experimentalists of an earlier epoch—the 1960s and 1970s—but in a manner that assures a 1980s reception.

Critical Concern for the Loss of a Political Avant-Garde Agenda

Richard Schechner's 1982 work, The End of Humanism, echoes the pain many practitioners and theorists have felt about the recent work of avant-garde American theatre, a theatre whose early vitality promised much but unfortunately soon dissipated. Schechner notes that this vitality centered around a political agenda, one particularly focused on the Peace Movement of the 1960s and opposition to the Vietnam War. But, as Schechner argues,

Once the war ended and the recession of the mid-seventies hit, artists fell into a formalist deep freeze. Great work was done, but it was cut off: it did not manifest significant content. Instead a certain kind of "high art obscurity" took over.

Moving away from efforts to produce a politically conscious, culturally uniting forum, avant-garde theatre turned isolationist and narcissistic.

In The Eye of Prey, Herbert Blau similarly notes the turn toward isolationist undertakings. Reflecting on his own work in the theatre, Blau describes this transformation from the 1960s to current practices

as a deviation from Brecht through Beckett into a highly allusive, refractory, intensely self-reflexive, ideographically charged process in which we were trying to understand, to think through, at the very quick of thought—words, words, unspeakably in the body—the metabolism of perception in the (de)materialization of the text.

Though Blau's style is (intentionally) oblique, he seems to be arguing that earlier efforts to fathom broader issues of community have been replaced by the pursuit of understanding individual means of perception. Blau adds, "As with the Conceptual Art of the late sixties—particularly that strain of it which jeopardized the body in the self-reflexive activity of thought—the subject of our work, and the danger of its becoming, was solipsism."

But where Schechner saw vitality and "community" in the 1960s, Blau goes so far as to argue that the activist work of that decade itself was solipsistic in that its dream of paradise was naive and little more than an enfeebled attempt at political and idealistic awakening. The theatrical "recession" of the 1970s and 1980s merely brought greater attention to the fundamental flaws of the ideologies of the previous decade. Whatever their assessments of the 1960s, however, the two critics would agree on one matter. As Blau notes, "What seemed to be left in the recession, along with the new conservatism, was the dispossessed subject of the postmodern, reviewing the disenchantments, as if through the solipsistic orifice of a needle's eye." For both Schechner and Blau the unfortunate result of this "high art obscurity" with its attendant "dispossessed subject" was that avant-garde theatre lost its cultural base.

The results have become manifest in what Blau observed in Blooded Thought as a sort of "advocacy of confession in acting," of which "[t]here is also the offshoot of explicit autobiography, more or less disciplined, more or less confessed." Interestingly, at this point, Blau notes that the best of the genre are Gray's Rhode Island trilogy (formally entitled Three Places in Rhode Island) and Lee Breuer's Animations, but he adds, "Originally, the impulse had something devout about it, a kind of penance, as in the monastic period of Grotowski…." Though he acknowledged that self-exposure is essential to powerful theatre, Blau insists that "[i]t is not mere authenticity we're talking about …, the self-indulgent spillover of existential sincerity"; rather it must be "a critical act as well, exegetical, an urgency in the mode of performance …, part of its meaning, that the Text be understood, though the meaning be ever deferred." Blau complains that too much of such work has thus far failed to go beyond documenting "authenticity." Exegesis of such events, or of the presentations of the events, has yet to be pursued to Blau's satisfaction.

The disenchantment that Schechner and Blau feel, however, is not shared by C. W. E. Bigsby. Bigsby does agree that the American avant-garde "became an expression of intensely private experience, moving from the gnomic tableau of Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman to the heavily autobiographical pieces of the Wooster Group (the Rhode Island trilogy) and the monologues of Spalding Gray." Bigsby agrees that the work of the isolated subject often "concern[s] itself with the nature of perception and consciousness," which on the surface may do little to establish community and more to increase isolation. But though the works may turn inwardly rather than reach outwardly, Bigsby points out that

it may well be that in requiring audiences to offer their own completions, in provoking a degree of aesthetic complicity and imaginative collaboration, such theatre practitioners may be reminding them [audiences] of their capacity to act and to imagine a world beyond the banality of appearance.

Such art subtly requires an audience involvement, an "imaginative collaboration," that may ultimately establish a bond more true than any tangible "hand-holding" could strive for. Overt physical involvement has been replaced by a more subtle imaginative involvement, and the substitution, says Bigsby, may in fact be for the better. That such a possibility for bonding even exists under these circumstances is something Schechner clearly ignores and Blau seems skeptical that he has ever witnessed—at least he has not seen it in the efforts of performers like Gray and Breuer. For Bigsby, however, not only does the possibility exist, but in rare moments, so does the reality.

Gray's Wooster Agenda: The Rhode Island Trilogy

What Schechner particularly confronts in his End of Humanism assault on the "lost" theatre is the work of the auto-performers, which has dominated theatre recently. Schechner argues that the work is "brilliant, but not enough; personalistic rather than concerned with the polis, the life of the City, the life of the people." He concludes: "With this personalism comes a passivity, an acceptance of the City, the outer world, the world of social relations, economics, and politics, as it is." In his book, Schechner focuses on the evolution of his own splintered Performance Group, now called the Wooster Group, and the further splintering of that group by the individual efforts of Spalding Gray. Ironically, it was Schechner's own liberating teachings that caused the split and led Gray eventually to work on his own.

Gray explains the process of overturning his dependency on written texts and directorial leadership, a dependency he had grown accustomed to in his earlier, more traditional training:

Richard Schechner reversed this process for me. He emphasized the performer, making him more than, or as important as, the text … [H]e was a liberator from assembly line acting techniques. The way that I interpreted Schechner's theories was that I was free to do what I wanted, be who I was, and trust that the text would give this freedom a structure.

Gray agrees with Blau's assessment, noted earlier, that his early effort after he separated from Schechner, the Rhode Island trilogy, was narcissistically confessional, noting, "I am by nature extremely narcissistic and reflective. For as long as I can remember, I have always been self-conscious and aware of my everyday actions." Gray adds, "I began my own work out of a desire to be both active and reflective at the same time before an audience." This process, however, extended beyond self-conscious presentation of his private life, becoming, in addition, a therapeutic endeavor. For example, Gray describes one of the trilogy pieces, Sakonnet Point, as a

series of simple actions … that created a series of images like personal, living Rorschachs. These images were not unlike the blank, white wall in Zen meditations, nor were they unlike the mirror reflection of a good therapist.

Given this personal bent and its therapeutic design, such work could very easily be construed as isolationist. As Bigsby notes, "[F]or Richard Schechner this work [Gray's] and that of others implied a regrettable shift not merely from a public to a private art but from a concern with subject to a concern with subjectivity." In fact, Bigsby notes the obvious conclusion to such thoughts when he observes of Schechner, "As the title of his book, The End of Humanism, seems to imply, he [Schechner] saw this as in some sense a betrayal." Gray, however, disagrees that any betrayal occurred, arguing in his own defense: "Often, what the audience saw was the reflection of their own minds, their own projections." In other words, the private art reached the public, though in subtler ways than Schechner might have advocated. Instead of direct surface confrontation, undercurrents began to play a central role.

One of the central reasons Schechner fails to see—or acknowledge—this approach as promoting audience involvement is that Gray and the Wooster Group abandoned Schechner's more overt practice of environmental participation between audience and performer and returned to a clear distinction between performance space and audience space. Bigsby reports the shift that Schechner bemoans:

Where in the 1960s and early 1970s Off and Off-Off Broadway avant-garde theatre has seen itself as essentially a public art inviting the full physical participation of the audience, either as a gesture of solidarity with its political objectives or as evidence of a refusal of all restraints (including the special framing of the theatrical event),… the audience found itself excluded from the stage onto which it had once been invited and increasingly denied access to meaning.

The overall result, claims Schechner, is that "[w]ithout meaning to be, such productions became elitist: not necessarily for the economic elite … but for the artistically 'in.'" For Schechner, both the subject and the presentational methods have reduced the audience to coterie size instead of expanding it to build a larger sense of community.

That Gray's work is intensely personal is, of course, a given. But that it is more than just personal therapy is often overlooked, as is the fact that it does strive to embrace more than a coterie following. First of all, the techniques Gray used in the Rhode Island trilogy incorporate elements learned from Schechner, and they helped Gray overcome some of his intensely personal focus. Says Gray:

Through being part of this [earlier] process, I developed an integrated understanding of how a group could collaborate in the creation of a mise-en-scène. This led directly to being able to work with some Group members and some people outside The Group on my own work. The source of the work was myself, but the final product was a result of the collective conceptual actions of all involved. Thus, in the end, it is a group autobiography.

The "work was myself" idea escaped extreme solipsism since the work was reflected off of other "selves," such as Elizabeth LeCompte. Gray's confidante and directorial advisor. In that regard, at least, there was a nominal sense of community.

But the product was more than merely a blend and modification of selves isolated in a small group, as some would see it. It clearly entered the more universal realm of art in that it confronted aesthetic issues as traditional art did, though in a much more "open-nerved" manner. Says Gray:

[I]t became not the art of pretending I was someone else but an art that began to approach the idea that I was someone else. I wanted to give up the names, to close the gaps. It was no longer to be the "Stanley Kowalski self" or the "Hamlet self," but now it was a play of moods, energies, aspects of self. It became the many-in-the-one that had its source in the archetype of the performer, not in the text.

The connection between performance in life and in art became a central concern, but it extended beyond Gray's own isolated self. Again, this aspect of Gray's style is one he learned from Schechner. It allowed him to discover "self," but in this presentation and discovery of self, he discovered "other" as well.

By chance, I might suddenly find myself performing an action that was an aspect of me, and, upon reflection see it as an action belonging to Orpheus. Then, for that moment, I would be both Spalding and Orpheus. I was never one or the other and could be someone or something completely different for each audience member because they also live with their "names" and associations. It is their story as well as mine.

If the trilogy succeeds as intended, the piece should build foundations for community in the manner Bigsby describes, with results Schechner and Blau probably would finally approve. In requiring audiences to exact their own completions, as Bigsby describes it, Gray enables the audience to make contact with "self" and to communicate with "other" as well.

There is yet another aspect of Gray's trilogy work that could lead to charges of solipsism. Gray notes that "[a]ll of Sakonnet Point was built from free associations within the performing space. There were no 'ideas' about how it should be, nor was there any attempt to tell a meaningful story." James Bierman notes that the piece "is more evocative in style than expositional," and Arnold Aronson concludes that the play's "value lay not in any informational structure but in their capacity for evoking further images and moods. The creators did not intend to provoke thought but rather an inward contemplation." The result could very well be solipsistic.

The actors, of course, develop this inward contemplation, but communication transferral oćcurs when the audience feels the urge toward a similar development. According to Gray, "Often, what the audience saw was the reflection of their own minds, their own projections." But the process clearly requires an active desire on the part of the audience. Gray is aware of the need for active desire, having "desired" it himself while he viewed the works of other artists who strove to achieve the same subtle end. In fact, Gray identifies with a growing avant-garde tradition concerned with such involvement:

I think Sakonnet Point was like the work of Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk. I had found that while watching their work my mind was left free to associate and my eye was grounded in watching the execution of their chosen actions. It was this grounding of my eye that gave my mind a quality of freedom I'd not experienced in theatre before. For me, the work of Wilson and Monk was dealing with the use of, and investigation into the nature of, mind projections. This seemed to be getting to the roots of what theatre and life are about. It is a kind of therapeutic lesson about how we create our own world through our projections.

Gray concludes his observations with a performer's perspective by noting that Sakonnet Point "was very involving and seemed therapeutic for the audience as well as the performer." In this regard, Schechner's advocacy of physical involvement of the audience has been replaced by a perceptual, conceptual, emotional, and mental involvement of the audience.

Another part of the trilogy, Rumstick Road, focused on Gray's mother's suicide, but as Gray notes, "Although the basis of the piece was the voices and pictures of my family, the other performers were free to take off from this material and develop their own scores." He admits that the piece was "confessional," but asserts "[i]t was also an act of distancing." Through distancing, Gray became, to use Blau's term, exegetical. Gray observes,

Finally, if it is therapeutic, it is not so much so in the fact that it is confessional but in the fact that it is ART. The historic event of my mother's suicide is only a part of the fabric of that ART. Finally, the piece is not about suicide; it is about making ART.

Perhaps the clearest expression of analysis and exegesis in the trilogy's final piece, Nyatt School, which concentrates on the effects of being introduced to Freudian psychology. Gray argues that despite its distorted perspective on the world in general and language in particular, Freudian psychology is quite "real" nonetheless. Says Gray, "I felt and believed this at the time and wanted to make a theatre piece that was not only a reflection of that strange world, but the world itself."

Considering the trilogy as a unit, Gray states that he has moved beyond therapy and mere presentation of personal events to a realm of philosophical analysis of a more universal condition. His trilogy, he says,

reflect[s] upon themes of loss. They are not just about the loss of my mother but about the feeling of loss itself. I have had this feeling for as long as I can remember. It is the feeling that the "I" that I call "me" is only a visitor here. No, not even a visitor because a visitor goes elsewhere after he visits. I have no word for it, and the work is the attempt at giving expression to that absent word.

If Gray begins with personal experience, he moves with that experience to a plane that reflects more than just his own condition. Gray admits, "I fantasize that if I am true to art it will be the graceful vehicle which will return me to life." But in this process something more than personal therapy occurs, for "[t]he very act of communication takes it into a 'larger vein' and brings it back to community."

Gray's transition from Group assisted work to performing monologues recounting his life stemmed from a double realization, one part taken from the Group, that "[s]omewhere along the line, every action became for me a piece of theatre" and the other a new one that saw "employing the old oral tradition [as] a fresh breath in these high tech times … with all its human energy and vividness." Gray's work has simply developed from an age-old observation that life is performance coupled with a new realization that life's tools, therefore, are performer's tools as well and are complete in themselves.

Gray notes, in a pattern similar to Richard Schechner's, that "Theatre is about presence = Life = Death" and asserts that reviving an oral tradition is his new "hope for passing it all down." With this new realization about performance/presence came a new outlook on theatre: "The personal confessional, stripped of its grand theatrical metaphors, is what matters to me now." Past avant-garde efforts to create a new theatrical "language"—his own efforts or others'—have consumed energy that otherwise could have been utilized for more substantial ends. Perhaps using current tools will be sufficient, and perhaps even returning to simple monologue will be the most effective means of all. In one regard, at least, the return is fortunate. Being unable to establish a way to pass down the lessons and experiences of avant-garde theatre was one of Schechner's incidental concerns in The End of Humanism. Gray notes that an answer as simple as "oral tradition" was "one that Richard didn't mention." Since Gray's discovery of the potential of the oral tradition, it has been the avenue he has pursued.

The Wooster's L.S.D. Agenda

Returning to this traditional means of communication in avant-garde art, however, can hinder efforts to challenge the status quo. In particular, problems arise when an art form empowers a lone presence and when it empowers a tool—language—that has acquired a social or political tyranny over any liberating potential in that art. In this regard, Philip Auslander joins Blau and Schechner, expressing general concern that recent avant-garde theatre has turned apolitical or, even worse, reactionary. The concept of presence, and therefore of authority, according to Auslander, "is the specific problematic theatre theorists and practitioners must confront in reexamining our assumptions about political theatre and its function." He argues that "the theatre is precisely a locus at which critical/aesthetic and social practices intersect." The aesthetic of presence is necessarily entwined with the social, and therefore political, reality of presence, according to Auslander.

In addressing these issues, Auslander examines the work of the Wooster Group (without Gray) and in particular the piece L.S.D. (… Just the High Points …), arguing that the Group's efforts epitomize the as yet incomplete political efforts of the recent avant-garde to challenge authority as a socially/culturally entrenched power tool. The strategy the Group utilizes involves irony, in a manner that another critic, Elinor Fuchs, has described: "In the past, the Wooster Group's undercutting of one text by another, of one reading by another, and of both by the incisive use of segments of film, resulted in an almost wholly ironic dramaturgy." In the case of L.S.D., the text of Miller's The Crucible is undermined. Although Fuchs concludes of this recent work that Wooster's "irony now seems unclear," Auslander asserts that the Group's efforts are moving in the right direction. He notes with approval the fact that Wooster entangled itself in the well-documented debate over its own right to manipulate Miller's text versus Miller's right to control performance of his work: "LeCompte [the Group's director] correctly describes the conflict with Miller as 'an inevitable outcome of our working process' and as a part of the Group's 'necessary relationship to authority.'"

But Auslander adds that LeCompte has failed to realize fully that "confrontation with authority is a result but not the object of the Group's process," noting that "[t]he Group seems blithely, perhaps utopianly, to proceed as if the poststructuralist critical/theoretical concept of text as 'a tissue of quotations' belonging more to a culture than an individual were already in place as part of the social hegemony." The Group confronts the text as a product of a social/cultural power structure rather than the product of an individual "author," but before Wooster can attack the text as a social/cultural manifestation, it must first rigorously confront the authority of the individual—Miller—in its art rather than incidentally through outside litigation. So, rather irregularly,

The effect of the Group's action is not so much to question Miller's rights over his text as to show what would be possible in the realm of cultural production if those rights were not in force, thus emphasizing the importance of the connection between the cultural and the social/political.

According to Auslander, this assumption that as a text The Crucible asserts a social/cultural authority is accurate, but it needs further development, given the Group's naively utopian perspective on the issue.

As the Group undermines "authority" as a social/cultural manifestation, so must it strive to undermine "presence" itself—in this case presence of the author—since suspicion has been cast upon presence. According to Auslander, the suspicion "derives from the apparent collusion between political structures of authority and the pervasive power of presence." The Wooster Group needs to continue its "transgressive" behavior in order to overcome the

obvious inappropriateness of the political art strategies left over from the historical avant-garde of the early 20th century and from the 1960s, and by a widespread critical inability to conceive of aesthetic/political praxis in terms other than these inherited ones.

Continuing to refine means of undermining both authority and presence should remain part of the essential political avant-garde agenda.

A major problem arises, however, in the effort to realize that objective, and that has to do with the tool that conveys authority and confirms presence—language. Ideally, a new "language" needs to be constructed in order to free society from an old language rife with empowering prejudices. In response to Auslander's article, Schechner makes the following important concession: "Once I considered the Wooster Group nihilistic, and apolitical, but I was wrong." Though Schechner does not specify why he has changed his opinion, it can be assumed that he accepts Auslander's perspective on the Wooster Group, that the politics of L.S.D. pulls Wooster out of the depths of nihilism and empty aesthetics.

However, Schechner calls attention to a central problem inherent in Auslander's progressive goal of undermining presence and authority in the theatre. Moving away from theatre in particular and seeing what he calls "several kinds of 'progressive' thinking going on simultaneously" in the world at large, Schechner identifies "the problem's nub: translation is impossible; meaning is not separate from or prior to expression."

By translation, Schechner means transferring meaning from one cultural (or professional) idiom to another. He concludes that "[t]he problem today is that ways of speaking are mutually untranslatable." Idioms themselves have become isolated in their very efforts to undermine the old and create new systems. In this regard Schechner notes that even a possible dialogue between a "progressive" artist (LeCompte), theorist (Auslander), and politician (he uses Jesse Jackson) would be difficult, if not impossible, because their languages are so self-confined and so untranslatable into the others' idioms. The solipsistic dilemma arises again, this time out of a progressive agenda that strives to challenge power itself, which entails challenging the language that enforces that power. For even those who have actually tried to challenge the power (LeCompte, Auslander, Jackson) have difficulty uniting under one flag, given the particular sources of power (and language) they are working to challenge. So, if in undermining current language and current cultural power in general these groups cannot unite and make significant contact during the struggle, what is the hope for more general cultural unity if such a progressive "revolution" succeeds?

Simply put, since language is a source of cultural/social power, any direct efforts at substantively changing the culture's/society's power structure entails reevaluating and "re-creating" language itself. The efforts that Auslander and other similar thinkers espouse seem fated to lead to an impossible cultural/social order, since without communication there can be no community and since the lines of communication have already been severed in the very attempt to communicate this challenge of power. And in regard to art, such efforts can lead only to an impossible theatre. Finally, efforts such as those espoused by Auslander at creating a new cohesion lead to greater solipsism. Schechner seems quite rightly to concede that his earlier "environmental" efforts could be replaced by more subtle means of presentation, but he also quite accurately observes that the idealistic goals of this new generation of theorists/practitioners may ultimately be unattainable. Spalding Gray, however, provides an alternative.

Gray's Auto-Performance Agenda

Gray left Schechner's Performance Group at about the same time Schechner himself left, and the Performance Group reformed as the Wooster Group. Gray then separately collaborated with Elizabeth LeCompte, the current director of Wooster. The Rhode Island trilogy bears many marks of both groups' ensemble styles and can be considered one of many predecessors of the Wooster Group's later works, which culminated in L.S.D. (… Just the High Points …) But on a superficial level, at least, Gray's unscripted monologues bear little if any resemblance to the Group's work, since he relies almost completely on a single "presence" seated at a table verbally communicating to an audience, instead of opting for a more nondiscursive style that relied less heavily on an empowered language. As Don Shewey notes, "Unlike his colleagues in the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, whose experimentation took them further into high-tech performance, Gray reclaimed the ancient art of storytelling, simply sitting at a desk and addressing an attentive audience in the intimacy of the Performance Garage." In fact, Vincent Canby notes that Gray's reliance on language has eliminated virtually any other form of communication, noting that "it would be a coup de theatre if he [Gray] just stood up." Ostensibly, Gray has given up on any idea of creating an alternative form of language for the theatre—technology assisted or otherwise—turning as he does to oral tradition as his means of communication.

This difference between Gray and his former colleagues, however, is more apparent than real. Though Gray is literally "telling" his story, there are indications that he is carrying on the Wooster tradition, utilizing a different approach to achieve virtually the same end. Reviews regularly have made note of Gray's WASP background, and Gray himself openly acknowledges in his monologues his comfortable middle-class, New England heritage. Given his privileged upbringing, it would seem that Gray had two options in pursuing an avant-garde, political agenda. He could reject his personal history and join the ranks of those out of power in an effort to enact change from without, and thus come to the theatre as less than a historically genuine spokesperson—a "have" joining in with the "have-nots." Or he could accept his personal history of privilege and work from within, accepting, at least for rhetorical purposes, his position of authority—"to the manor born"—complete with the empowering tools of that system, language certainly included. This second option, at first glance hardly a position for an avant-garde performer, is the option Gray has chosen. Choosing that option, it seems, was the cause for his split with his former colleagues.

If nothing else, Gray's separation from the Wooster Group and acceptance of his position of privilege circumvents one criticism Auslander advances concerning members of the Group who have been lured, however temporarily, away from the political/aesthetic theatre of the Group and into various commercial media. Such shifting, according to Auslander, "was not considered a worthy objective by the sixties generation," and now that it has occurred, "it could be seen as implying an alarming lack of integrity on the part of young experimental artists." Lack of integrity is, of course, a serious charge. Given Gray's decision to remain in the realm of the empowered, however, he can move from one format to another, and this mobility is the basis of his dramatic method.

In this method, several Spalding Grays are at work. First, the "observer-of-events," Spalding Gray the private citizen, works in a nearly reportorial fashion to uncover the system's shortcomings as he lives the life of a privileged middle-class male. The results of this espionage, in turn, are handed over to Gray the artist to create a work offering a critical perspective on the system. The piece is presented by Gray the naive performer, who appears fully incorporated into the system and is unaware of the ironies introduced into his presentation by the artist Gray, who shaped the material reported by the observer Gray. Who is the actual Spalding Gray? As far as his Wooster-rooted agenda is concerned, such a question is irrelevant. Gray's onstage work finally presents material, seemingly without comment, in an ironic manner that confronts the same power structure exposed by Wooster's L.S.D. Thus while Gray's work may appear supportive of the status quo, it presents a persona who ironically utilizes an empowered naivety to undermine itself and the authority it seems to uphold.

Gray's ironic approach apparently owes something to his association with Wooster. In fact, as Wooster's irony attempts to do, Gray's ironic posturing confronts both authority and presence, as Auslander hoped the avant-garde in general would do. But given the potential power of "presence" in performance in general and in Gray's work in particular, it would seem that auto-performance—especially monologues—would strengthen the hold of presence rather than weaken it. However, Fuchs has observed a kind of "revenge of writing," as she calls it, in many recent works of the avant-garde, a revenge whose aim, it seems, "is the undermining of theatrical Presence." Though she does not discuss Gray, Gray's performance "text" seeks just that end—the undermining of the performer's presence. Then what of Gray the behind-the-scenes author? The authority of Gray the author would be expected to assert itself. One must look back at the actual performance to understand how the text in turn undermines Gray the author's authority. One must realize that the performer has "misread" the text as he presents it, thereby undermining any of its discursive "meaning" in favor of a meaning that works to undermine textuality itself. For the audience, there may be—and usually is—a "pleasure in the text," but there is little real didactic substance that ultimately demands attention, and so there is even less attention paid to the authority of the text. Reaching beyond both written authority and physical presence is the design of Gray's works. Each consumes the other, leaving a void that forces the audience to doubt the power of either and search within itself for a replacement, empowering the audience, then, in the process.

In one regard, Gray's work can be seen, superficially, as an unconventional affirmation of the "conventional" itself. But going beneath surfaces, it becomes evident that the work is an attack on empowering convention in general, effected by high-lighting the ultimate empowering convention—language. The possibility for confusion is fortunate, for it has allowed Gray to enter the mainstream of popular culture, since his "hidden" agenda has been misread by the mass of socially/politically empowered literalists who have been unable to penetrate beneath Gray's surfaces. As a result Gray has been able to influence the order's very consciousness.

In Rivkala's Ring, his adaptation of a Chekhov story for the collection of short dramatic works entitled Orchards, Gray offers advice to others on how to perform the piece, advice that sums up his view of his own persona on stage:

I see the character [in Rivkala's Ring] as a manic-y paranoid person who's spinning off these kind of paranoid delusions, trying to make order out of a very frightening and chaotic existence. So I see it fashioned after my character, the character of Spalding Gray that I do in the monologues.

The passage both acknowledges Gray's awareness of at least two Spalding Grays and outlines the personality of the stage persona Gray. Frank Rich sees the same split and notes,

What makes Spalding Gray so theatrical in his seemingly nontheatrical way is not only his talent as a storyteller and social observer but also his ability to deepen the mystery of the demarcation line between performer and role.

Thus, although it may at times be difficult to distinguish Gray the private citizen from Gray the performer, Gray himself insists on drawing the distinction.

The "manic-y paranoia" is a deliberately manufactured characteristic. It renders the persona harmless and disarming, enabling him to draw the audience into the monologue, overcoming the defenses with which it would resist a political manifesto on the stage. As Novick notes, "Although he [Gray] was artistically nurtured by that company of screaming meemies, the Wooster Group, his art as a monologuist is the art of understatement." Gussow adds, speaking of the difference between the Rhode Island trilogy in general and a monologue like Gray's 47 Beds in particular, that "[w]hile the performance pieces often sacrifice intelligibility in the interest of visual and aural stimulation, the solo work is as entertaining as it is eccentric."

The strategy is subtle yet effective in evoking the audience involvement Gray desired in his more frenetic Rhode Island trilogy but attained in a different manner. The audience is drawn in with entertaining twists, and the pleasure and attendant complacency are undermined through the same entertainingly palatable means. The man/presence who has charmed the audience onstage often is also drawn into the process of realization that the audience eventually experiences. It must be emphasized, however, that the language itself undermines, not any empowered presence. As Maslin notes, Gray the performer is "never inclined to talk with ironic detachment, no matter how absurd or strange or painful the circumstances he describes." Gray the performer is immersed; it is the behind-the-scenes artist Gray who is ironically detached and subtly confrontational. But that is not clearly seen in the performing area. Rather, since the persona onstage is guileless, it is left to the audience to deduce the ironies. Signals from either an empowered physical presence or from an unseen authority are virtually nonexistent.

The above analysis applies best to Swimming to Cambodia, but to a lesser degree it applies to most of Gray's monologues. David Guy notes that the collection of early auto-performance pieces (polished transcriptions of his stage work) entitled Sex and Death to the Age 14 reveals a "belief on Mr. Gray's part … that there is more substance in the simple telling of stories than in more self-conscious art forms." Guy adds, "There is also a belief that the real truth in life lies in its most banal and embarrassing moments, that to pretty things up is to falsify them." The pieces go beyond mere documentation. Such works as Interviewing the Audience, for example, reveal an underlying motive even in Gray's most purely and simply confessional pieces of the period. Namely, they work, as Shewey notes, at "drawing others into his philosophical obsessions (is there a heaven? does true love exist?) and imparting to unbelievers the rewards of the examined life." As with Gray's trilogy agenda, "self-examination" is the essential point Gray tries to put across in these performance pieces. But here he has shifted approaches, presenting an insubstantial substance that works as bait to draw in his audience. Says Gray,

There are two audiences for my work … There are people who live in the kind of life I have. They're very unrooted, they do a lot of different things, and they experience the world as fragmented. The other extreme is the householder who is my age now … who's right in the midst of raising two or three children, who's keeping down a job, and who's able to enjoy the stories vicariously, the same way he would Kerouac's On the Road.

Gray's work appeals to middle America, but for those who can see more than vicarious experience in the works, the pieces take on an ironic significance, revealing fragmentation and unrootedness that is a first step to a political awakening.

Having truly made the leap into mainstream American culture with his Swimming to Cambodia—first for the stage and recently as a screenplay—Gray has contributed to the postmodern blurring of high art and popular culture that Auslander discusses. But that is only an incidental result of his work. What is central is that the piece clearly moves toward a political agenda in a manner more obvious, it seems, than his earlier work. In this piece Gray clearly observes that he has moved beyond simple narcissism, if even he were merely narcissistic. With Swimming to Cambodia, Gray reports he found an objective situation that freed him from any narcissistic spell: "People writing reviews have called me a narcissist, and I would certainly admit to that…. But with Swimming to Cambodia I found a larger issue outside of my personal neuroses." Concerning this move to a "larger issue," Fuchs remarks, "Swimming to Cambodia, especially Part I, represents an artistic culmination for Gray as well as an impressive political breakthrough." Gray's method of presentation has finally found matter that allows him to exhibit his form's ironic agenda fully.

The work, in fact, succeeds in a way that led Fuchs to make the following comment; "Throughout, Gray's story proceeds by daring 'leaps and circles' … as if his perceptions of reality now imitated his earlier Cage-ean experiments." For Fuchs, Gray's presentation of multiple levels in the work clearly demonstrates the fruits of his "Cage-ean" Rhode Island, Wooster, and Performance Group exercises. It acknowledges processes that go beyond chronological construction and reflect psychological emphases expressed in apparently chaotic ramblings. In truth, however, the apparent rambling reflects a unity: A surface—and narcissistic—goal of finding a "perfect moment" is pursued—while a deeper underlying "moment of understanding" is exposed, and the critical instincts of the audience are required to discern the revelation beneath the naive presentation of Gray the stage persona. It is what Fuchs calls a "projection of Gray's WASP persona … onto the world scene" in an ironic manner that not only contributes to the piece's humor but also allows it to present historic and political verities without smelling of didacticism.

Looking for a "perfect moment" is one of the central pursuits in Swimming to Cambodia. In the tale Gray recounts, he refuses to leave Thailand because, as he says, "I hadn't had a Perfect Moment yet, and I always like to have one before I leave an exotic place." Amidst all the revelations of suffering and death Gray experiences while in Thailand, looking for a perfect moment remains his central obsession. This self-indulgent (or perhaps "therapeutic") end prevents the performer from becoming a reliable political spokesman; in fact, it positions Gray in the role of mindless American oppressor, a part of the problem rather than part of a cure. Gray can even happily report in performance, "I'm not very political," which obviously undermines his authority. But one sees even more than Gray's undermining of himself when he turns into an American "Everyman" in the story by Roland Joffe, director of The Killing Fields, who hires Gray for the movie because of this comment: "Perfect! We're looking for the American ambassador's aide."

The event that triggered Swimming to Cambodia was the filming of The Killing Fields, in which Gray had a small part. The film, shot in Thailand, documents the holocaust in Cambodia under Pol Pot. Gray's participation in the film provided the opportunity for Gray the artist/reporter to present Gray the performer in circumstances that allow that persona unwittingly to present material transcending both his personal narcissism and the narcissism of the filming group, all egocentric artists and craftsmen whose work is undermined by Gray's artistic response. Even though he is a minor figure in the movie, Gray is pampered and coddled during production, given the impression that he is important, while he lacks any sense of awareness whatsoever.

But some of Gray the reporter/author infuses itself. For example, Gray the performer reports about when he learned of American involvement in Cambodia, first observing, "leave it to a Brit [Roland Joffe] to tell you your own history," and then tellingly adding, "as Roland reminded me, we're not living in a democracy." Messages from Gray the author slip through, but ever so subtly, and never supported by the authority of Gray the performer. The comment seems offered as little more than a curious bit of information for the audience to react to. As another example, when discussing the possibility of nuclear holocaust, Gray drops a line reminiscent of something Schechner himself would say: "Mother Earth needs a long, long rest." But the point is not developed any further; it is merely tossed out for the audience to consider.

Gray even directly addresses the issue of language and power that so concerns Auslander, through an anecdote set in New York in which he cannot communicate with his disorderly neighbors, observing: "I don't know the language. I knew the language when I was with my people in Boston in 1962, in whitebread homogeneous Boston, brick-wall Boston." He lifts this personal dilemma to a larger question when he concludes:

I wonder how do we begin to approach the so-called Cold War (or Now-Heating-Up War) between Russia and America if I can't even begin to resolve the Hot War down on Northmoor and Greenwich in Lower Manhattan?

To a point Gray the performer seems to grow up, becoming more aware of the world around him. But the moments when he "pronounces" judgment on the world are relatively rare, and even those are regularly undermined by his continual return to the narcissistic search for the "perfect moment." So too is any possible authority undermined, since the moments of awakening are little more than subplot behind the obsession about the "perfect moment." And Gray the performer loves that search for the "perfect moment," hungers for it.

Fuchs notes that "the actual story of the making of the film becomes a hallucinogenic recapitulation not only of the tragedy in Cambodia but of the universal torment by those who wield power over those who don't." Maslin notes, "What elevates this [monologue] above the realm of small talk is Mr. Gray's round-about—and peculiarly suspenseful—way of dramatizing the episode's [filming's] moral and political repercussions." These go beyond demonstrating the political power of some abstract government force over the oppressed in general to include the "innocent" abuses of the power-wielding camera crews, directors, and actors who manipulate the local inhabitants of the various film sites.

This control is illustrated by an innocent observation by Gray the performer. Recalling an ascent in a helicopter, he states, "I saw, my God, how much area the film covered!" In fact, the film controlled more than the physical territory Gray observed from above; there was economic and from that psychological and ethical control as well. As Gussow notes, among other things, Swimming to Cambodia "is a close-up, on-location analysis of the monumental absurdities of moviemaking." In making this point, Gray the artist has moved from a narcissistic and subjective perspective. He reveals the outside, well-intentioned efforts to portray the monumental destruction of war and revolution upon a culture as an invasion of that same oppressed culture. The effort to document the cruelties of oppression also is oppression.

Though the Gray persona's narcissistic shell hides overt commentary, Gray the artist clearly has abandoned narcissism. The piece makes the point that oppression is endemic to American culture, whether or not it is intentional. It is multi-layered, even in the performance, for Swimming to Cambodia challenges the oppression of The Killing Fields even as The Killing Fields documents the oppression of Pol Pot. Dika comments on this effect in Swimming to Cambodia: "What in The Killing Fields had seemed a complete, integrated rendition of reality is now disrupted. Gray's words serve to break the seamless flow of images, cracking them open like eggshells." The authority of The Killing Fields itself is undermined, very much the same way Wooster's L.S.D. worked to undermine The Crucible. The result is what Lisa Zeidner calls "a hall of mirrors because nothing is quite real." Determining the route through this hall of mirrors, ultimately, is left up to the audience.

Finally, at the end of the shorter version recorded as the movie, Gray makes a cryptic observation about the dangerous indulgences he has been part of when he pronounces, without further explanation: "And just as I was dozing off in the Pleasure Prison [what he calls the cast's hotel], I had a flash. An inkling. I suddenly thought I knew what it was that killed Marilyn Monroe." Gray the performer momentarily cracks here to reveal Gray the reporter (or maybe Gray the reintegrated self). The insider's view that Gray the artist has experienced has revealed exactly how destructive/oppressive the indulgences of the power elite can be, even/especially within their ranks.

An even more compelling tale concludes the transcription of the longer stage version. It is of a dream Gray has in which he witnesses a straw boy consumed by flame. The dream takes place in Hollywood, where Gray wanders the streets trying to tell the event to anyone who will listen, including several members of the Wooster Group. Gray concludes both the dream anecdote and the entire piece, with:

And I knew all the time I was telling this story that it was a cover for the real story, the Straw Boy Story, which, for some reason, I found impossible to tell.

The text, finally, avoids the central issue, never even announces the issue, and thus the validity of the performer's presence is undermined, as is the entire text itself. Finally, Swimming to Cambodia strives to ground itself in some "other" that it cannot present because it cannot be presented. To fill the void, Gray has presented exactly what is not to be valued, which impacts on the audience all the more, since it has been valued, to some degree, throughout the performance. It is now all shown to be the very thing that destroys. In some ways what really needs to be told is too horrible to tell except by indirection, even if there were a language to tell it.

Gray has undermined a great many of the cultural icons that Wooster and many other more confrontational groups strive to undermine, but Gray clearly avoids doing so with any alienating revolutionary contempt; rather he employs a disarming process that works its way into establishment sensibilities with an alarming allure that charms as it undermines. But Gray goes even farther, having his own stage presence mesmerized as it mesmerizes the audience. The effect is that audiences are left not with a sense of betrayal, but with a sense that they have developed even as the onstage presence has developed; something of a community has been achieved.

The fact that Gray's work is art prevents it from exhibiting no authorial or presence power whatsoever. However, Swimming to Cambodia succeeds in minimizing that power in performance while, more importantly, it points out exactly how dangerously engulfing that power is. It critiques The Killing Fields and simultaneously undermines the perceived power of its own presence, whose spell has temporarily controlled the audience. Gray observes that we've all been consumed; in fact, he demonstrates it by "leading" with his own presence. Though Auslander's wish to see a movement toward no "power" at all seems fated never to occur, minimizing "power," undermining it, and demonstrating its danger seem to be the next best set of options, real options substituting for unreachable idealities.

The directly confrontational political agenda that many have looked for—and perhaps found elsewhere—does not exist in Gray. It is an agenda that owes a debt to the efforts of the 1960s and early 1970s but has indeed moved beyond those efforts. It is indebted to Schechner and the Performance Group, to Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group, and, though execution and performance does redirect itself, Gray's agenda follows directly, if sometimes obliquely, from the efforts of his predecessors.

Further Reading

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Hornby, Nick. Review of Impossible Vacation, by Spalding Gray. Times Literary Supplement (14 January 1994): 20.

An unfavorable review of Impossible Vacation.

Johnson, Brian D. "The Talking Cure: A Performer Bases His Career on Confession." Maclean's (13 July 1992): 44.

Offers a brief overview of Gray's career and favorable assessment of Impossible Vacation and Monster in a Box.

King, W. D. "Dramaturgical Text and the Historical Record in the New Theatre: The Case of Rumstick Road." Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 7, No. I (Fall 1992): 71-87.

Examines the composition, structure, and performance strategics of Rumstick Road.

Queenan, Joe. Review of Monster in a Box, by Spalding Gray. National Review (20 July 1992): 43-4.

A tempered review of Monster in a Box.


Panjabi, Gita. "Spalding Gray: Writing the Spoken, Speaking the Written." In In the Vernacular: Interviews at Yale with Sculptors of Culture, edited by Melissa E. Biggs, pp. 151-88. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Gray discusses his early influences, creative processes, and the artistic concerns of his monologues.

Lee Lescaze (review date 18 May 1992)

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SOURCE: "A Storyteller's Attempt at a Novel," in The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 1992, p. A8.

[In the following review, Lescaze offers a tempered assessment of Impossible Vacation.]

Spalding Gray is a comic storyteller in the rich tradition of American naifs to whom amazing things happen. He is a spinner of tales for the angst-bitten and the confused, for whom a part of life's basic joke is that they understand what's happening, they just don't know how to cope with it.

He became known first on stage and then on screen with his witty theatrical monologues, notably Swimming to Cambodia, relating his adventures as a bit player in the powerful Roland Joffe movie The Killing Fields.

Now, Mr. Gray has written his first novel, Impossible Vacation. The book has much in common with his works for the theater, and at its best it is sharply observed and amusing.

Impossible Vacation begins as though it were to be Mr. Gray's version of the coming-of-age novel. But it soon abandons structure in favor of the rambling—often charming—technique Mr. Gray has used with such success in the theater.

Funny things happen. Brewster North, the protagonist, joins an experimental theater group that takes its show on the road to the St. Louis suburbs. For its trouble, the group is judged obscene and banned from Missouri for life. There were too many rips in the impoverished cast members' leotards and too much physical contact for the Show Me State's taste.

Brewster's retreat to a Zen center in the Poconos goes no better. During daily sessions of staring at a white wall, Brewster sees it come alive with pornographic images. When he finally achieves a moment of the sought-for "big mind," it quickly vanishes, leaving him back with the "small mind" of porn.

A Fourth of July barbecue with Brewster's father, stepmother and girlfriend is a nightmare out of Cheever by way of Bunuel. Dad and stepmother sniff the air expectantly as cocktail hour arrives. A barbecue turns into a blood ceremony.

"The more I chewed, the more I wanted. The more I ate, the less satisfied I felt. It was chew, chew, chew, angry chew, and then big gulps, swallow, wash down with more and more Lite beer … Dad drank the steak blood from a serving spoon. Babs killed flies."

In Mr. Gray's hands, the barbecue would make a great theater piece. So would Brewster's first LSD trip or his efforts to save drowning bugs from a swimming pool, or his venture into acting in X-rated films.

Sex, death and travel are Mr. Gray's major preoccupations. His tone, as in his monologues, is friendly, almost puppyish. The typical Gray protagonist avoids making accusations, never gets angry. He is a mostly good boy who sometimes does bad things in order to experience the sweetness of being forgiven. (This is often not a swell deal for his female companions.)

Mr. Gray has a gift for comic detail. When Brewster lands a job supervising a bunch of moving men, he finds they ignore his instructions until he takes to smoking cigars. When an Ohio woman tells her life story, it turns out the critical moment came when her husband learned about free love. How? By reading an article in that swingers' bible, Time magazine.

Perhaps none of Brewster's experiences would play better in a Spalding Gray monologue than the moment he and loyal companion Meg arrive at Agra to see the Taj Mahal, only to have Meg collapse, suffering the worst pain of her life. Does Brewster run for a doctor? Call the police? Seek out the nearest U.S. Consulate?

Hey, he's come a long way to see the Taj. He dashes off to sneak a look, leaving Meg moaning on the ground. "Of course I couldn't enjoy it. With the thought of Meg lying out there in a sick heap on the lawn, I could hardly see it."

By the time Brewster gets back, an Indian holy man is trying to force-feed Meg a dirty glass of vile liquid.

The good boy has been truly bad. But he is very charming about it—mostly to us, his readers, less to Meg. Meg sticks by him and we chuckle and smile.

Still, writing novels is very different from writing monologues. A novel needs characters and character development. A novel requires complexities. But make a theater piece too complex and the audience loses contact. Once in a while, a monologuist is well advised to throw his audience an obvious bit of summation just to make sure it is keeping up. On the page, such lines seem awkward and unnecessary.

A talented actor like Mr. Gray might be able to send an audience home with a smile after a resolution no greater than he gives his novel. After all, what structure Swimming to Cambodia has comes from Mr. Gray's claim to be searching for a "perfect moment." Mr. Gray has a fondness for water-based therapeutic moments, not so much a return to the womb as a return to the Leboyer birthing tub. In Impossible Vacation, he would have you believe that after 35 or so years of manic-depressive and immature behavior Brewster is cured by a soak in the chilly stream at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Not only cured, but filled with a new determination to take hold of his life and become a writer.

If you find that easy to believe, you'll trust that Thelma and Louise's 1966 T-bird convertible is still floating over the Grand Canyon just as you saw it last.

Stanley Kaufmann (review date 6 July 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Monster in a Box and Impossible Vacation, in New Republic, July 6, 1992, pp. 26-8.

[In the following review, Kaufmann offers a mixed assessment of Monster in a Box and Impossible Vacation.]

Most of the comment about Spalding Gray, admiring though it rightly is, seems to me slightly skewed. He is praised for his heterodox, adventurous films, but that adventure of his begins in the theater. Why is Monster in a Box any more adventurous on film than it was on stage? (Likewise his previous film, Swimming to Cambodia.) It's assumed that Gray is more daring when he transfers his monologues to the screen because film demands greater visual variety than the theater and because film is inimical to language. Both of these assumptions are dubious (as plentiful examples show). To put it crassly, Gray runs just as much of a risk of tedium in the theater as he does on screen. The risks alter somewhat from one medium to another, but the success in the first venture emboldens the second.

Other one-person shows have been effectively transferred to film, Richard Pryor's and Lily Tomlin's, for prime instances, but Pryor deals in a series of riffs and Tomlin does a series of sketches. In thematically continuous, comic seriousness, I can think of only one forebear of Gray's work, Wallace Shawn's My Dinner with Andre, which, too, was done first in the theater by Shawn and Andre Gregory, then filmed under Louis Malle's direction. And this is a farfetched choice, of course, because next to Gray, Shawn's cast of two seems immense. But Gray, like Shawn, is earnestly funny and, above all else, articulate.

Gray sits before us at a desk—most of the time, anyway—as a companion, rather than a performer, not really old though with fluffy white hair, and recounts his adventures. He chooses where to begin, then (seemingly) free-associates for eighty-eight minutes. His previous monologue, Cambodia, was built around his engagement for a small role in The Killing Fields. This one is built around his signing with Knopf to write a novel. He has the monster 1,900-page manuscript on the desk, together with the box in which he carried the growing pile around, as he moved through New York, to Houston, to Hollywood, to the Soviet Union, to Nicaragua.

In all those places, Gray reveals himself as the sort of person to whom odd things happen; but then we see that the real difference between him and others is not really the oddity of the events but that he perceived them oddly and relishes them retrospectively. True, not many of us have been sent to Nicaragua by Columbia Pictures or have been engaged to play the Stage Manager in a Broadway production of Our Town, but he makes us feel that even if we had done those things, we wouldn't have picked the fruits of those experiences as he has done.

He begins by telling us blandly that, when his mother committed suicide in 1967, he was off vacationing in Mexico. That opening sets the key: a grim fact put in a bland context. A performer who was out only for boffos wouldn't have mentioned the suicide, and the way he mentions it relies on our understanding of why he gives those two facts almost equal weight. Further, the suicide, which comes up again later, serves as backdrop to this chronicle of a hip Candide.

The strongest elements in the piece is also the subtlest. If we ask what the purpose of the monologue is, what it really accomplishes, the answer is before us the whole time. What we are hearing about are some of the events that helped to create the person who is telling us this story.

Swimming to Cambodia was directed by Jonathan Demme, who did as little as possible, relying on Gray—writer and performer—to hold us. Demme's directing (as I recall) conceded very little to the specific difficulties posed for film by Gray's form. Nick Brumfield, however, who directed Monster, starts with an inferiority complex toward the theater and a constant need to prove that film can deal with the piece. Every time there's a chance for a sound effect—traffic, earthquake rumbles, whatever—Bromfield lays it on. Every time there's the slightest excuse for a lighting change, sometimes even when there isn't an excuse, Bromfield pounces. And with the editor, Graham Hutchings, he does a lot of that arbitrary cutting from one side to another that TV frets about, in order to avoid the "talking head" charge. When a head can talk as well as Gray's, why not leave it alone as much as you can? Why inflict on it the strictures derived from lesser heads?

Only one quibble about Gray. He performs his piece on a stage in front of an audience (though we see them only at the beginning), thus he talks to them throughout. But from time to time, he looks at the camera, which is especially noticeable when it's directly to his left or right where the audience could not be. These looks are small fractures of the theater effect. If they are supposed to make the film more cinematic, they have the opposite effect. They reveal a worry that Gray should have been above.

Note on the Monster. Gray's novel, the ostinato of his piece, is called Impossible Vacation, has been condensed to 228 pages, and has just been published. It's a peculiar experience. After seeing Gray on stage and screen, it was difficult merely to read the book: I kept hearing it. Like his monologues, it's a first-person narrative and is couched in his customary "voice." For some reason, he has changed the narrator's name to Brewster North, but there is every intent to have us think the book autobiographical, especially since a few episodes—including his mother's suicide—are much the same as in Monster in a Box.

From time to time, markedly in the boyhood sections, the writing is lovely. ("I remember being there in bed thinking, or imagining—because back then there was no difference between thinking and imagining …") Very often through the book, the tone is pure Gray—quiet joy at having discovered how to savor life's smaller opportunities as well as the larger ones.

Example: he is in a Zen retreat where the diet is only vegetables with brown rice. "I'd never had such a pure and intense taste sensation before. Original sin, I began to think, was not Adam eating the apple but Adam not eating it slowly enough really to enjoy it."

But the colors in the novel are quite different from the monologue. It's as if, when he was preparing Monster (and even Cambodia), Gray had winnowed out all the dark, troubled, frantic elements and saved them for this book: a lot of heavy drugging; a lot of wandering around the world in search of self, as far as Tibet; a jail term in Las Vegas; gay baths in Amsterdam; performing in a porno film in New York. (North/Gray was born in 1941, and some of these episodes are pure '60s.)

The book's interest—which it certainly has—depends on the novelty and variety of the episodes, as related by the narrator in the wide-eyed yet serene tone of an intelligent man discovering what it's possible to get into just through the accident of living. But inevitably it lacks what the monologues have throughout: the physical presence of Gray himself.

Benedict Nightingale (review date 12 July 1992)

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SOURCE: "He Is a Few of His Favorite Things," in The New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1992, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review, Nightingale offers a generally favorable assessment of Monster in a Box and Impossible Vacation.]

According to Monster in a Box, the author and performance artist Spalding Gray's mother lowered her Christian Science Monitor one morning and looked him in the eyes more clearly, steadily and uncrazily than she had for a long time. "How shall I do it, dear?" she asked. "How shall I do it? Shall I do it in the garage with the car?"

It is almost exactly the same question the fictional Brewster North's fictional mother directs at him in Impossible Vacation, and it turns out to be no less ominous. Spalding Gray's mother gassed herself with exhaust fumes while he was on holiday in Mexico. Brewster is in the same place when an identical suicide occurs. Each young man returns home to Rhode Island to find his mother's ashes in a cardboard box beside his father's bed. Clearly the relationship between Gray and North, book and book, is in some ways as close as that between two Siamese twins whose nervous systems have become symbiotically enmeshed.

Spalding Gray's admirers have been aware of Impossible Vacation since 1990, when he opened Monster in a Box, the 13th of his autobiographical pieces, at Lincoln Center (it was recently released as a film). As always, the reminiscences and ruminations drifted this way and that; but the monologue mainly concerned "a man who can't write a book about a man who can't take a vacation." By way of emphasizing the hopelessness of this enterprise, a mass of paper crammed into a large, corrugated carton remained on the table as Mr. Gray sat and confided his secrets in his wry, mournful way. It was the book-to-be in unfinished and seemingly unfinishable form, an organism whose pages would go on chaotically multiplying until they filled first the stage and then the theater, a proliferating monster from the outer spaces of Mr. Gray's mind.

Well, at long last the manuscript has been not merely finished but edited into a novel that may be more than usually quirky but is only averagely long. The "monster in a box" has become Impossible Vacation, a 228-page exercise in what might be called neurotic picaresque. It would be impudent, and possibly libelous, to assume that it is wholly autobiographical. Suffice it to say that its protagonist's sometimes anguished adventures have the rambling, confessional feel of the memoirs Mr. Gray has so often presented onstage.

"To my mother, the Creator and Destroyer," reads the novel's dedication; but the destruction is more evident than the creation. Brewster's conventionally happy New England childhood is ruined by the "mad bird" in his mother's mind; his first halting attempts to achieve an adult identity are ended by her suicide; and he is left to roam America and the globe in search of his self and sexuality. The novel variously finds him appearing in a pornographic movie being filmed on East 86th Street, getting flung into jail in Las Vegas, ecstatically joining a group orgy in India, having a brusque encounter with a German man in a bathhouse in Amsterdam, shouting crazily to himself as he walks up Broadway, and everywhere sharing his internal mayhem with his long-suffering mistress, who has the same name as his mother and looks rather like her, too.

To accuse Brewster's narrative of being self-absorbed is as helpful as accusing glue of being sticky. Yet his attempts to unravel his Oedipal fixations can become a bit wearisome, and at times perhaps specious as well. How seriously can we take his claim, on befriending a wild, beautiful young woman and her wild, handsome son in California, that "I wanted to be the mother of this child, and for a moment I was"? The hurried and highly personal style means that characters other than the protagonist and, to a lesser extent, his mad mother seem shadowy and elusive. The emotional inadequacy of Brewster's father, a doggedly unimaginative rationalist, is not very vividly shown, and the old man's "almost fascistic craving … for order and control at all costs" is not shown at all. Nevertheless, several episodes are quintessential Gray, unique in their rueful blend of curiosity, self-mockery and panic.

You can hear Mr. Gray's singsong New England voice as Brewster describes painstakingly rescuing drowning bugs from his father's swimming pool, only to watch his stepmother slaughtering them with an antique fly gun; or desperately toiling with a woman named Janice and a man named Gray to insure that the pornographers do not have to wait all afternoon to film the scene they want; or being run out of St. Louis by a school principal shocked by the improvised tale of the Tower of Babel he and some equally earnest performers have brought from New York. Like Mr. Gray, Brewster is an aspiring actor and, like him, he first finds success by doing monologues in which, as someone says, his "subconscious is so close to the surface I can see its periscope."

Actually, the genesis of that remark is a psychiatrist to whom Mr. Gray introduces us in Monster in a Box, itself just published in book form and as hilariously glum as any of his previous monologues. He accompanies an American fact-finding team to Nicaragua and tries to get hold of that increasingly rare commodity, vodka, in the old Soviet Union; he interviews a woman who claims to have been kidnapped by spacemen, begins to brood that he might somehow have contracted AIDS, and is attacked by the New York critics when he plays the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In the interstices of all this he struggles with Impossible Vacation, at one point deciding to throw the whole "so-lipsistic, narcissistic, self-indulgent pile of poop" off the Brooklyn Bridge.

The adjectives may be merited, but the nouns are not. This is the continuing paradox of Spalding Gray; the reason audiences, and now readers, should value him.

Spalding Gray with Dan Georgakas and Richard Porton (interview date Fall 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Art of Autobiography: An Interview with Spalding Gray," in Cineaste, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 34-7.

[In the following interview, Gray discusses the production of his stage and film performances, the evolution of his monologues, and his literary influences.]

In many respects, the success of the film adaptations of two of Spalding Gray's more crowd-pleasing monologues, Jonathan Demme's Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Nick Broomfield's Monster in a Box (1992), represents the ongoing 'mainstreaming' of portions of the downtown New York avant-garde, a trend which could also be observed in the solo film debuts of performers such as Laurie Anderson and Eric Bogosian. Yet, unlike Anderson or Bogosian, autobiography is Gray's chosen genre, and this choice has been both the source of Gray's appeal and the source of confusion. Autobiography can be naively understood as pure self-revelation, or more cannily recognized as cleverly wrought subterfuge. Gray's unabashedly autobiographical monologues seem like uncensored emotional outpourings, but are actually the result of carefully calculated artifice. The monologues' sudden shifts in tone from uproarious comedy to unmitigated anguish have stymied critics who, rather clumsily, compared Gray to such unlikely precursors as Mark Twain and Frank Harris. While realizing the risk of attempting similarly farfetched analogies, it might be said that Gray tempers the down-to-earth irony of humorists such as Jean Shepherd and Garrison Keillor with a manic-depressive lyricism that resembles the confessional zeal of his fellow New Englander, Robert Lowell.

Both Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box integrate what would otherwise be a somewhat random series of ruminations into a decidedly comic picaresque structure. In the following interview, Gray acknowledges his debt to Jack Kerouac's version of the roman a clef, although in the monologues, unlike On the Road, there is no attempt to invent fictitious names for recurring characters such as film director Roland Joffe, Gray's wife Renee Shafransky (once a programmer at the late, lamented Collective for Living Cinema in New York), and, of course, 'Spalding' himself. The reference to Kerouac is a reminder of the fact that Gray has distinctly countercultural roots that become glaringly obvious when his past affiliation with Richard Schechner's Performance Group and Elizabeth LeCompte's Wooster Group is considered. The Performance Group shared the overtly Dionysian orientation of avant-garde theater during the late Sixties and early Seventies. The Wooster Group, a theatrical collective that promoted a somewhat more introspective esthetic, fueled their self-anointed "decon-structions" of hallowed theatrical texts such as The Cocktail Party with an anarchic spirit that was indebted at least as much to Lenny Bruce as to Artaud and Grotowski. Gray and LeCompte's trilogy, Three Places in Rhode Island, was the launching pad for many of Gray's subsequent autobiographical musings, although the somber tone of a performance piece such as Rumstick Road (the suicide of Gray's mother was the piece's departure point) contrasts sharply with the comic buoyancy of the later monologues, a cycle initiated at New York's Performing Garage with Sex and Death to the Age 14.

Spalding Gray has become something of a cottage industry, since his staged monologues have spawned published transcripts and compact discs as well as films. The 'monster' of Monster in a Box is, of course, a novel (Impossible Vacation, 1992) that borrows heavily from recollections previously featured in numerous monologues. Gray likes to emphasize that he is primarily an actor, although he has not always warmed to the roles doled out to him in lackluster Hollywood films such as Stars and Bars and Beaches. When Cineaste talked to Gray last fall, he seemed considerably more excited about his work in two soon-to-be-released features—Paul Mazursky's The Pickle and Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill.

[Cineaste:] Moving a piece conceived for the stage to film often involves opening up the material in some way. Neither Swimming to Cambodia nor Monster in a Box adopts that strategy, yet they are more than just filmed performances.

[Spalding Gray:] What I did in both cases, with Jonathan Demme and Nick Broomfield, was to give over to their knowledge of film and the way they wanted to put it together. It was never my idea to put them on film. I always knew they worked best live. But I also knew and absolutely discovered after Swimming the value of putting them on film. It's less expensive to see, so you get an audience that cannot afford a theater ticket. Second, you get an audience that would never go to the theater at all, but which does go to the movies. The surprising thing that happened in retrospect is that because the film is so minimal, because there are no cutaways, the audience is required to make their own film. That's not to say that doesn't happen in the theater, but it happens differently in the movie theater. I think you come to film with certain expectations and conditioning. You have seen so many movies before that offer a kind of literal representation of reality. When it's not there, there is the motivation for the audience to make self-cinema.

Nick seems more or less to have followed Jonathan's formulas. The film is made from three performances and some pickup shots at a fourth session. It was a simple setup. We had three 35mm cameras. The idea was to have the cameras going at all times so I wouldn't have to interrupt the performance and break the flow. That was very important to me. I couldn't see breaking the flow. That's one of my objections to film acting, particularly when you have a running theme. So the film magazines were being changed all the time by runners. The pickup shots were things we couldn't get during the performances. We had one afternoon of that for Monster. Before that we had three whole performances shot with a live audience.

The idea of having a live audience was essential for me. I learned this doing Swimming. The first two nights of filming I was looking past the camera to find the audience, because I felt so guilty. Jonathan's only comment was "be generous to the camera" and I came to realize that the camera was the audience. So when we shot Monster, I informed the audience beforehand. I went out and thanked them for coming and told them that they would be looking at me looking at a camera and I hoped that would be interesting for them.

I like working with cameras but I prefer having an audience present. The best commercial example of that was recently when I did a small role with Dolly Parton in Straight Talk. We had to do it in front of a small studio audience in Chicago. When I was talking with Dolly I was supposed to be a guest on a live TV show. I could just feel the difference in the way Dolly responded and was energized.

Do you now have the sense that, with the piece on film, you need never perform it again?

Well, I can't do it for quite some time. That's in the contract. I'm thankful for that. In both cases I needed to have someone put their hand over my mouth because I didn't want to go on doing it, yet I could book it again and again. You go crazy at the idea of turning down a lucrative offer and you just do it. So the films saved me. The recent film shut me up and now I'm open again which is terrifying but productive. Before the films I always had the notion that people would stop me in the street and say I'd lost it. I'd be able to let it go at that point. It would be like dying. There would be no problem.

But in regard to your question about the form of the films, I think they are radical in the sense that they demonstrate that a talking head can be interesting. When I first started doing monologues, a guy at PBS who had a grant to do a film on storytellers asked me, "What are you going to do with your head?" What kind of cutaways did I suggest? I said, "Just keep the story going." He said, "We can't do that. That's a no-no." When I was doing Swimming in Los Angeles, I had film people calling me all the time to get it on tape. No contracts were offered. They just wanted to preserve it. So Renee thought, "Why don't we keep it in the family? I'll produce and you can choose a director." I got Jonathan, but it took two years to get the $400,000 needed to do it. The whole thing started with the film culture of L.A.

Your third monologue-like film, Terrors of Pleasure, had cutaways rather than just the talking head.

I would call that a comic interlude. It came between Swimming and Monster. It was done for HBO. I was annoyed with them because they cut out a whole half hour, but I didn't fight for it. I was excited that they were doing it at all and paying me so well. The director wanted to do something different than what Jonathan had done with Swimming. I allowed him to do cutaways, but I don't think it works. I think the cutaways distract the audience and make them ask, "Why not a movie?" They seem random to me. Of course, some of them are very funny. I would have liked to have done that as a genuine film with all the real people playing themselves.

The essence of your monologues is that they are constantly changing. Putting them on film seems to be a way of having your cake and eating it, too.

That's right. Monster was in the can for a year before it was released. The amount of changes that occurred through natural evolution was so enormous that, when I saw the film, I thought that if I were leaching a class I would use the film and then show a tape of a recent performance and just look at the differences. I'd see how it had changed its colors, its subtleties, its details, its rhythms. My monologues are not prewritten. They are developed with audiences. The new one has been done four times. It's still struggling to get information across in logical order. When you begin to know the information, you can play with it and comment on it and reflect on it and then you can turn it into music and begin to play all the rhythms. The last stage is getting the phrasing, like, "The banana being shot across the room almost hit me in the eye." "… almost hit an Australian housewife in the eye." "… almost hit me in the head." "… shot across the wall." "… stuck." "… slid down the wall." "… stopped and was instantly devoured by an army of giant cockroaches." You play phrases like a jazz musician might. It would never be there the first night. There would just be the struggle of telling a story.

Along the same lines I've noted the huge discrepancy between the novel Impossible Vacation and Monster in a Box. The novel only went through eight rewrites. That's all I could deal with. But the monologue has been rewritten a hundred times because every performance is a rewrite. The audience doesn't know that. It knows what it sees, and what it sees is not a rewrite, it's what the monologue is at that point. My process is to tape for the first three performances and then listen and listen and, after that, it begins to swing.

To make a monologue is a long process. That's why I'm resisting moving into this new one. I just don't want to get rolling in it too fast. One of my problems with it is that it's about my eye operation. I've now gotten adjusted to the way my eye is. So I have to go back and remember how I was feeling at the time and then act. When I'm working with existing reality or dealing with insecurity or chaos, that's an ongoing thing with me, it's nothing I have to do a lot of emotional recall about. The eye operation and the conditions leading up to it are over, so that's different intellectual and emotional process.

You've had a lot of negative things to say about most of your acting in films.

Well, I'm very pleased with one that I've just been involved with, so I can speak about that. I've just finished shooting King of the Hill with Steven Soderbergh. This is a big breakthrough for me, because Steven is the first person who has not cast me as a professional WASP or as a doctor. I think I have a problem in Hollywood because in the monologues I said the only reason to do a Hollywood film is for the health insurance. So the producers said, "Fuck him. We'll make him a doctor for the rest of his life." In Paul Mazursky's The Pickle, I am a doctor who goes into the Ritz Hotel to help Danny Aiello. Now, Paul has a great sense of humor and gave me a small doctor's card that reads, "Edward Spalding, M.D." What a beautiful in-joke! I get to rush in, open the door, and say, "Hello. I'm Doctor Spalding. Where's the patient?" My fans will roar and the rest of the audience won't get it.

But this new role in King of the Hill is different. I'm a real character named Mr. Mungo. The film deals with a thirteen-year-old boy growing up in the Great Depression. He lives in a hotel and has all these kinky neighbors, of which I am one. I've been successful at one point but I've declined. I wear linen suits with suspenders and hang out with the local prostitute. I'm always looking for cigar bands for the kid and I also get him to do whiskey runs for me. Eventually I kill myself by slitting my wrists in the sink. Blood and water run out under the door. Soderbergh pretty much shot in sequence and works very fast. The other good thing for me was that he wasn't giving me a lot of notes. He let me figure it out myself. I was ten days in St. Louis in the middle of August in a Hyatt Hotel located in a mall. When you opened the windows, you saw the mall. That was the air you were breathing. Believe me, by the time my scenes were shot, I was very disturbed.

Then I feared I had overacted. After the last setup, I rushed to go to the airport, but then I got so worried I told the taxi driver to take me back. I had to see the dailies. I was pleased to see that I had made a real character. It was me, but it was a soulful, sad part of myself that was coming through, the suicidal side, all the stuff that Steven allowed to surface by choosing me. And I was his first choice which I'd never had happen before. I asked him why he chose me. He said, "Mungo is ruled by regret." I asked how he knew that about me. He replied, "Your novel." So I got cast through my book.

I'm definitely ready to act again. I've been given the script of And the Band Played On. They were so vague with me that they said, "Tell us what role you want to play." Well, there are a hundred gay men and a hundred doctors, so what choice have I got? I'm going to be a doctor again.

How would you compare yourself with other performance artists who have gone into film? Eric Bogosian comes to mind, but Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg might be other examples.

First of all, I don't think of myself as a performance artist. Artist I am not. I am a humorist. I don't think many artists have a good sense of humor. I do first person narratives. There are very few people doing that. Wally Shawn is one and Josh Mostel is directing a guy from San Francisco doing Red Diaper Baby, and those are fairly true stories. Lily and Whoopi don't do monologues. They do cabaret acts as characters. I like that kind of work. I like Bogosian's work, but he does not get up and say, "I'm Eric Bogosian and this is what I'm going through in my life." There are very few critics who make these distinctions. They call everything a one-person show.

The other thing to remember is that I was trained as an actor. Bob Dylan used to say, "I may look like Robert Frost, but I feel like Jesse James." I say I may look like the American Ambassador's aide, a pediatrician, or a gynecologist, but I feel just like Woody Allen. I have all this stuff inside which isn't what my face is. Hollywood is always seeing the WASP. They cast from image. But I've been in fifty plays. Paul Mazursky told me he thought I was a very good actor but what I ought to do was the John Cheever Story. I said, "Sure. You direct and we'll raise the money on my name. We'll sell the story to the American public as the bisexual, alcoholic writer by the Hudson." I was being very facetious. But that's America. Hardly any films, just movies.

You could be a great CIA man.

Odd you should say that. I was just in Iowa with my agent and he kept telling me what a great CIA man I could play. I said, "That is just what I do not want to do. I want something with heart in it. I don't want to play a cold, straight CIA man." He said it would be a CIA man who sees the light, but those films don't come very often and, when they do, they hire someone from the club, someone like William Hurt.

But this can be a silly business. Two years ago my agent got word that Woody Allen wanted to audition me. I was told not to bring lunch as I'd probably be in there for thirty seconds. Renee said that, "Whatever you do, act cool, he'll want you if you're a cold, withholding WASP." But I don't want that. I don't want to be Sam Waterston. Anyway, I got there and Woody comes over looking like a pale mole. He said, "I saw your picture and I just wanted to see you in person. I'm doing a new film." He won't tell you more than that. I thought he had seen a photograph of me, but he was using the old term for movies. I said, "But did you see Swimming to Cambodia?" He said, "Yeah, I saw your picture and I wanted to see you." Withhold, withhold, withhold. So I turned in a circle and said, "Well, now I've seen your picture and I've seen you," and I left. I went outside to sit in the lobby to see how long other people were going to be in there. A minute was about the average. I came home and Renee asked what I had done. I said, "I just turned around." She said that most people did that. They turned around. Rotated.

How much of the Spalding Gray of the monologues and the 'pictures' is the real Spalding Gray?

Up until recently I'd have compared myself to Woody Allen. I have an enormous sense of humor in a public space and I can make people laugh. I help people laugh. But I don't laugh a lot myself. I'm rather morbid and have a somewhat depressive nature. I read heavy books to get to sleep. So there is a kind of taciturn, not really open person, a rigid New Englander who wishes he had been on Ken Kesey's bus but knows he would have been kicked out. I'm a Gemini. Split. The name Spalding in Old English means a meadow cleft by a spring.

I'm one thing on stage and some people think I'm like that all the time. A short time ago, I was honored at a party in Southampton. About seventeen people came. I don't know if I was supposed to be the Belle of the Ball, but I barely spoke. People are usually surprised by that. But that's how I am unless I have a lot to drink. Then I can get very loquacious. There is the extroverted side, the me of the performances, and then the me who retreats and listens and tries to get in touch with what is going on. I have to take things in. I'm not like Robin Williams. As soon as he perceives, he responds. He's right in the groove, just like that. I've been around him enough to have seen that. That's a big difference between us.

How did the Spalding Gray of the performances come into being?

The first confessional monologue was in 1971 with the Performance Group. Each of us was asked to go to a member of the audience and tell them a personal story about death. The immediate reference was the My Lai massacre which the director was trying to personalize. I whispered the story of my mother's suicide in Mexico in 1967 when I came home and found my mother's ashes and a note in a box on my father's bed. That's now in the novel and in Monster and it was the germ of my first active address.

The breakthrough came in 1977 when I was in the Wooster Group. I was able to get up and say, "My name is Spalding Gray. Spalding 'Spud' Gray. This is what happened to me and this is my house in Barrington, Rhode Island." Then the slide came up. A year later I had to get away from the Group. I rode a Greyhound bus across America. You could go coast to coast for $69 and get on and off as often as you liked. I was in Boulder at a cafe where people were all doing their version of Jack Kerouac's prose poetry. I knew I had to get up. I just had to. I had no idea what I would say. I got up and talked about everything that had happened to me since I left New York on the Greyhound and arrived in Boulder. Then I just got out of there. That was the first monologue outside of the Performance Group.

The confessional voice in American literature is often traced to writers like Walt Whitman and Henry Miller. Did they have any impact on you?

Whitman is a bit too romantic for me. I prefer Robert Lowell. He's more existential. The tortured, alcoholic, overbred Irish Setter. I felt threatened by Miller. I've had to read him again, but I was left thinking he was boasting too much. He wouldn't show his vulnerability the way Kerouac would. He was not an anti-hero but a braggart. Miller's writing is like Paul Theroux's My Secret History which I hated because Paul refused any doubt about his sexuality.

You've referred to Kerouac often. Were there other influences from that time? It was a period when we relearned that poetry was something to be spoken, not just silently read.

I am a fan of the spoken word. When I listen to authors on tape I can visualize better than when I'm just reading the words. In college I didn't read Shakespeare, I listened to the plays on records. I listened to Dylan Thomas every night. I let it wash over me. Ginsberg was a great influence, but Kaddish, not Howl. I had a photograph of Kerouac on my wall and a friend of mine took a photograph of me reading Howl. I liked listening to cantors. There was also a jazz influence. I collect jazz. On the Road was one of the first books I ever sat down to read. What I liked was that he was alive. He had voice. All of that became clear to me when I was working on my novel at the McDowell Colony. I found that I was working from memory and I'm not that kind of writer. I'm not one of those guys who's read the complete works. I've read one or two things of authors I like.

What I came to understand in the late Seventies was that I wanted to control the whole thing—to be director, author, performer. I first formally tried that in 1979 after returning from the West. I speak rather than write. My words on a page are like everyone else's, but when you give it voice, it's different. The Spalding Gray of the monologues is a combination of Huckleberry Finn and Candide.

Jessica Prinz (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia: A Performance Gesture," in Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 156-68.

[In the following essay, Prinz examines Gray's attempt to communicate and understand "the fantastic and seemingly impossible facts of history" in Swimming to Cambodia.]

Laughter today—and this helps to explain why it often has a hollow sound and why so much contemporary humor takes the form of parody and self-parody—comes from people who are all too well aware of the bad news but have nevertheless made a determined effort to keep smiling.

                              —Christopher Lasch

Spalding Gray walks onstage at the Performing Garage in Soho. He sits down at a simple wooden table, takes a small sip of water, and begins to talk. He talks about his role in the making of The Killing Fields; he talks about Thailand, Cambodia, New York, and mostly he talks about Spalding Gray. Richard Schechner defines Gray as a pioneer in the new experimental theater of the 1980s, with its tendency toward the personal, the private, the monological, and the narcissistic. "By the 1980's," Schechner says, "the definitive mark of experimental theatre was one person alone in a small space." Neither classic theater, film, or literature, Swimming to Cambodia is nevertheless available to us in all of these forms—as drama, film, and text. Certainly we can read the book Swimming to Cambodia, but we would miss the essence of Gray's performance: his presence, his intonations, his facial expressions, vocal inflections, dialects, and gestures. These are indispensible elements of the new performance mode that Gray is helping to generate.

In Swimming to Cambodia Gray explores what it means to confront the fantastic but nevertheless true and tragic history of Cambodia. Within the performance, the simple set and staging, the minimal props, and quotidian talk are all, I will argue, a reaction to or defense mechanism against the fantastic and seemingly impossible facts of history. Tzvetan Todorov's definition of the fantastic is the most pertinent here: the fantastic causes the spectator to hesitate between supernatural and natural explanations of an event. "The fantastic," he says, "confronts us with a dilemma: to believe or not to believe." If in the "uncanny," supernatural events are explained as natural, in the "marvelous," supernatural events are accepted as such. But the fantastic hesitates between these two poles. While Swimming to Cambodia does not treat the supernatural, per se, it does describe and produce an epistemological hesitation of this kind. Gray is uncertain about where to locate "reality." The real history of Cambodia is impossible to understand and "much too far to swim to." The discussion of these issues will begin with an analysis of that quintessentially dramatic element: gesture.

As a concept addressed by psychologists, anthropologists, semioticians, and theoreticians of the theater, gesture is an interdisciplinary concept especially suited for an analysis of Gray's intermedial art. Interestingly enough, theorists in all of these disciplines strive in varied ways to separate gesture from language. Motivated by objectives defined by their own fields, they nevertheless almost univocally and universally dissociate the verbal from the gestural.

Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, and Jerzy Grotowsky, despite their differences, all celebrate a drama that is primarily gestural and only secondarily linguistic. Artaud, for instance, is opposed to the dominance, indeed tyranny, of speech in the theater and argues that theater is poetry in space, not in language. Brecht's A-Effect, or alienation effect, calls for a heightened self-consciousness to gesture, as in Chinese acting, where the actor is seen to observe his own gestures, or through purposeful contradiction between gestures and speech. Thus in his study of Brecht, Benjamin repeats: "Epic theatre is gestural…. The gesture is its raw material." For Grotowski, too, theatrical gesture is not subordinate to a language that it illustrates. Gesturality is supposed to free itself from discourse and form an autonomous semiotics for itself. According to Grotowski, it is only the "hypersensitive professor" who expects the theater to be a realization of a text.

Ray L. Birdwhistell is an anthropologist who has founded the science of gesture, kinesics. Although his work continuously draws analogies between gestures and language, Birdwhistell emphasizes repeatedly that gesture is an extralexical activity. In a 1968 essay on gesture, Julia Kristeva even more emphatically argues for a nonlinguistic model of gesture. For her it is important to see gesture as nonrepresentational; it is, she says, indicative but not signifying. This nonlinguistic and nonrepresentational concept of gesture allows her to create a semiotics that does not privilege language.

Finally, if we turn to the analysis of gesture by psychiatrists and psychologists, the conclusions are surprisingly similar. John P. Spiegel and Pavel Machotka begin their book Messages of the Body with this assertion: "To say that the communication system of the body is not like a linguistic system is not to deny that it is a set of coded messages; but its code and the program of encoding and decoding its messages probably bears a closer resemblance to music, drama, and the plastic arts than to words and language."

What these various theories do is help to foreground the surprisingly linguistic quality of Gray's acting in Swimming to Cambodia. In this performance piece, Gray's gestures mirror and reinforce the spoken text. Using the ordinary language of everyday talk, including its slang and sometimes profanity, Gray's facial expressions and gestures almost always translate the verbal into a visual and gestural code. This code switching merely produces a semantic redundancy.

There is a consistent reciprocity of gesture and text in Gray's work. Why, we might ask, does such a contemporary, even avant-garde artist, use gesture in such a traditional way? Why is gesture here an accessory to speech?

In her essay "Redundancy and the 'Readable' Text," Susan Rubin Suleiman reminds us that, despite the negative connotation redundancy has in ordinary speech, linguists and information theorists view redundancy as a positive term, for without some redundancy communication is impossible. Clearly, Gray is determined to communicate with his audience, and as many theorists have noted, the postmodern audience is a wide one. Unlike the modern avant-garde, which was determined to antagonize, provoke, and even cancel its relation to the audience, along with other contemporary performance artists, Gray is determined to engage and communicate with it. Scholars as different as Harold Rosenberg, Fredric Jameson, Andreas Huyssen, and Umberto Eco have all noted this shift in postmodernism—the merging of high art and popular culture, fine art and mass media techniques, a shift in the relation to the audience so that the purpose is, as Eco says, to "reach … a vast audience."

The intermedial redundancy of Swimming to Cambodia ensures coherence and disambiguation, effecting greater communication between the performer and his audience. Yet the performance itself outlines numerous parables of failed communication. What does it mean to live in Manhattan, where people do not have a common language? The implications, for Gray, are finally political.

But I say … how … how does a country like America, or rather how does America because certainly there is no country like it, begin to find the language to negotiate or talk with a country like Russia … if I can't even begin to get it with my people on the corner of Broadway and John Street?

                             (Swimming, film version)

Acutely aware of the problematics of communication, Gray devises a performance mode that will establish communication with his own audience as effectively as possible.

The gestures within Swimming to Cambodia, like all gestures in the theater, help to extend Gray himself as an actor. In an excellent analysis of gesture, Patrice Pavis writes:

The essential function of gesture is its capacity to designate the situation of the utterance, its being deictic, [or] a sign which refers to the presence of the stage and the actor…. Gesture is not dissociable from the actor who produces it … the actor is always anchored on the stage of innumerable corporal deictics, beginning with attitude, glance and mere physical presence.

Hence a primary function of gesture in Swimming to Cambodia is deictic, pointing to Gray's central presence in the action. In keeping with the narcissism built into the monological and autoperformative mode, many of Gray's gestures are self-directed. The focus of the performance is Gray himself as performer, character, and actor. Not only is he at the center of the narrative but symmetrical gestures often locate him at the center of a visual field.

Paradoxically, despite all this signaling of the self, Gray is presented in a way that also calls presence into question. Both Richard Schechner and Philip Auslander have noted that Gray enacts various Gray personae, creating a scene for his multiple selves. James Leverett writes, "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." This self-diffraction is most pointedly expressed when Gray describes his excitement at the beach at Phuket, where he goes swimming with his friend Ivan: "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…." (Swimming, film version)

Gray's performance is self-reflexive at a variety of levels and in many ways concerns its own involution. The narrative offers a metaphor for its own self-reflexivencss, as Gray describes a teak table he saw at the Vietnamese embassy:

This table was exquisite…. On the surface there was a hand-carved, three-dimensional relief of elephants tearing down teak trees with their trunks in order to make the table—so you see, it was a reflective table—it told a story about itself. In fact, it was doubly reflective, even reflexive, because it had a piece of glass over it and every so often I would catch a reflection of myself in the glass.

Like the teak table, Gray's narrative is about itself, and it is also about his trying to catch glimpses of himself within it.

Swimming to Cambodia is a film about a film, a performance about performing, and a dramatic event that analyzes and describes acting. The Stanislavski "method" is satirized throughout the monologue, especially in Gray's description of Ira Wheeler trying to do an emotional memory and being on the verge of tears and in a deep funk all day, while the car in which they sit systematically falls to pieces. When Gray starts talking to the driver, Wheeler gets outraged and yells, "Will you stop talking…. I'm trying to have an emotional memory." Gray responds, "This man is about to get killed by an elephant. Try that one." "You would be amazed at what some people went through to get into character for this film," says Gray. The spoofs on Stanislavski accomplish at least two things in the narrative.

First, they emphasize how nonnaturalistic Gray's own acting style is. We never for a moment forget that his gestures in Swimming to Cambodia are the artificial products of a staged body. While his gestures are surprisingly linguistic, they are not therefore naturalistic or realistic (in the Stanislavsky mode). Rather the impetus of Gray's acting style is to undercut and resist realism in the way that many theorists of the theater advocate (Artaud, Brecht, Meyerhold, Witkeiwicz). In the performance piece The Terrors of Pleasure, Gray talks about the desire to find a piece of property with streams and rivers and describes how he became obsessed with water; then he pauses and takes a sip of water from a glass. The heightened literalism does not serve realism but undercuts it.

Second, and more important, the Stanislavsky method does not work in a situation, like that described by Gray, in which the boundaries between the illusory and the real have disintegrated:

You don't have to Method-act. When those helicopter blades are whirring overhead, you shout to be heard. You don't have to Method-act when you look down and see a Thai peasant covered with chicken giblets and fake blood in 110-degree weather for fifteen hours a day for five dollars a day. (If they're real amputees they get seven-fifty.) It's just like the real event!

Where does acting leave off and reality begin? For Gray, life is an arena in which everyone acts for others. The Thai prostitutes deserve Academy Awards for their performances—they are so apparently happy. When Athol Fugard advises Gray to go home (saying there's no difference between Thailand and Krumville), Gray wonders with whom Fugard has been studying acting. "I wanted to say goodbye like a man," says Gray, "and if I couldn't be one, I was going to act like one…. And I went around to each person and acted as though I'd made up my mind." People don't have to act naturalistically. Gray seems to be implying, because they always are acting naturally already.

But the confusion of illusion and reality is even more pervasive and profound than this in Swimming to Cambodia, and it is this confusion that produces the "fantastic" within it. Here the distinction between the real and the simulated has dangerously dissolved. Gray gets into a helicopter and says, "I felt like I was in a movie, like I was in Apocalypse Now, and then I realized that I was in a movie!" The beautiful beach at Phuket is like "one big piece of calendar art" and Gray goes swimming on "a perfect Kodachrome day." Walking into a bar with Pat Pong is like stepping into a scene in The Deer Hunter. The producers of The Killing Fields build a real swimming pool and tennis court at a hotel in Wahen in order to better simulate the Hotel Phnom Phen. Spalding Gray points to a map of Cambodia, duplicating an image from The Killing Fields; it appears when Sidney Shanberg watches a video that shows Richard Nixon on television pointing to a map of Cambodia. "Are those burning villages or burning tires set out by the special effects crew?" asks Leverett; "Is this history or just another take?" (Swimming, film version). Certainly we are in the realm of Jean Baudrillard's "Precession of Simulacra," where the mass media neutralize reality and the hyper-real and simulation supplant it.

Postmodern works like Swimming to Cambodia enact and describe the simulation process that Baudrillard describes. Throughout Swimming to Cambodia Gray struggles with the relation between reality and its replica, more specifically between the real history of Cambodia and its simulation in The Killing Fields. One might say that his monologue is an effort to kill the field of simulation produced by The Killing Fields in order to apprehend the "reality" behind it. In this sense it is an effort to "real"ize the fantastic, to make it real, to achieve a sense of reality. But that reality threatens to slip from Gray's grasp—and ours—intertwined as it is with the media and mediated images.

In his fascinating account of contemporary culture entitled The Minimal Self, Christopher Lasch maintains that the confusion of illusion and reality in contemporary media culture contributes to the narcissism of the 1980s. Epitomizing this wide cultural phenomenon, Swimming to Cambodia is narcissistic in both its form and content. Gray tells us that John Swain was the most narcissistic of the reporters, because he had come to watch himself being played in The Killing Fields. Then how much more narcissistic is Gray himself who creates a two-hour monologue concerning his own bit part in the film? The first scene in Swimming to Cambodia describes a hotel that Gray calls "the pleasure prison," where the crew is indulging in what the Thais call sanug, or pleasure. Gray's search for a perfect moment is a narcissistic urge to merge with the environment. At one point he says it is "like falling in love … with yourself." One form of self-indulgence is replaced by another, but pervading all is irony and self-parody: "What am I doing lying on the beach like an old hippie at forty-two years old, trying to have Perfect Moments in Thailand? What am I doing searching for Cosmic Consciousness?… Go directly to Hollywood and get an agent! Go! Get an agent!" Exhausted from this "epiphany," Gray falls asleep only to be awakened by the words "Boat people! Boat people" which someone is shouting on the shore. Thus the search for self-fulfillment and self-gratification is both presented and ironized as Gray questions what it means to pursue pleasure in the context of suffering.

Lasch's book is especially helpful, for it allows us to see contemporary narcissism not as an idle, meaningless self-absorption but as an understandable and justifiable survival or coping mechanism in the face of historical barbarism. The narcissistic age is beset by fears that develop not only from its historical awareness but also from the realization that the holocausts of the past may prefigure even more radical atrocities, including the annihilation of humanity itself.

Thus Gray's character, Jack Daniels, who is chained in a waterproof chamber, high on coffee and blue-flake cocaine anxiously awaiting the moment when he can finally fire his nuclear missile at the Russians, allows Gray to voice his own anxiety about nuclear war. Gray is directing his satire not at the U.S. Navy, or patriotism, or the military, but at a casual, irresponsible desire to use atomic weapons. "I can tell you I thought I was looking my death in the face," he says. The threat of nuclear war, the memory of holocausts in Germany and Cambodia, the fear of ecological disasters create a climate of crises in which narcissism itself, according to Lasch, becomes a form of survivalism. Gray's perfect moment is not a romantic transcendence but a brief instant freed from "phobias," anxieties, and fears; when it is over, he is back in "fearful time" again.

Swimming to Cambodia negotiates the relation of the political and the personal, the historical and the biographical. The double-layered backdrop of the performance captures this tension between personal, even narcissistic, experience (in the blue sky) and historical/political awareness (in the maps).

The central activity of Swimming to Cambodia is memory—both personal and collective. Our way of coming to know and understand history is entirely problematic ("We don't know what went on," he says). "I titled this work Swimming to Cambodia," he explains, "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 truth is beyond our imagination. Hence history is portrayed in a curiously mediated way. Facts are presented as reported discourse, information is gleaned from eyewitness reports, and even American history is conveyed by an outsider. Swimming to Cambodia does not deny the existence of the past; it does question whether we can ever know that past in any other than a mediated way—like the forms of mediation (books, videos, films) through which Gray's own performance may very well come to us.

How does one comprehend the history of the twentieth century, with its holocausts in Germany and Cambodia? As Lasch observes, the only art appropriate to such atrocity is a minimal art, an art stripped bare and reduced to its simplest counters. A desk. A map. A glass of water. A single man talking:

And they were laughing. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of laughter. And eyewitnesses said that if you pleaded for your life, they laughed harder. If it was a woman pleading for her life, they would laugh even harder. And they would take the half-dead bodies and throw them into American bomb craters, which acted as perfect graves. It was a kind of visitation of hell on earth. Who needs metaphors for hell, or poetry about hell? This actually happened. Here on this earth. Pregnant mothers disembowelled, eyes gouged out, kids (children) torn apart like fresh bread in front of their mothers. And this went on for years until two million people were either systematically killed or starved to death by the same people. And nobody can really figure out how such a thing could have happened.

                            (Swimming, film version)

Viewed in this way, history is difficult if not impossible for the psyche to assimilate. It seems both real and fantastic, so Gray must repeat, "This actually happened. Here on this earth." According to Kristeva's analysis, the abject—the horrible—borders the fantastic, fuses the imaginary and the real: "The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part…. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us." The abject is experienced both inside and outside the self: "Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death." Rather than repressing the abject and the horrible, Gray exposes them—both within himself and outside. Swimming to Cambodia begins with a story about a bad drug trip:

Up it came, and each time the vomit hit the ground I covered it over with sand, and the sand I covered it with turned into a black gauze death mask that flew up and covered my face … until I looked down to see that I had built an entire corpse in the sand and it was my corpse.

                             (Swimming, film version)

The abject thus operates at a variety of levels within the monologue: physical (nausea), personal (death), and political (autohomeogenocide). Gray's laughter is not empty laughter, but a "way of placing or displacing abjection." His humor confronts and contains the abject of history and of the self. Spalding Gray is a comedian of crises who is not trivializing the tragic but bodying it forth. "After all, what is this film about? Survival! Whose survival? My survival" (Swimming, film version). And ours.

David Montrose (review date 8 January 1993)

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SOURCE: "This Is Real Serious Talk," in Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 1993, p. 17.

[In the following review, Montrose offers an unfavorable assessment of Impossible Vacation.]

Introducing his autobiographical monologue, Monster in a Box (1991), Spalding Gray mentions how, at the age of eighteen, inspired by Thomas Wolfe, he vowed to become a writer. More than thirty years later, he came up with a truly Wolfean manuscript: 1,900 handwritten pages, the aforesaid "monster". Assuming the Max Perkins role, Gray's American editors have helped to cut and adjust "that sprawling mess" into the relative dwarf now published. Although primarily an account of the interruptions which beset Impossible Vacation, Monster in a Box does provide a synopsis of the original text. From this, it is apparent that the ending has been substantially truncated; a sudden jump earlier in the narrative—from 1968 to 1976—is also presumably the result of editing.

Although commissioned to write a novel, Gray was careful, in the monologue, always to call Impossible Vacation a book: "I don't know how to make anything up." (Wolfe, similarly, refused to call Look Homeward, Angel a novel.) It began as a "simple travelogue" about Gray's inability "to take pleasure when in very pleasurable places". But, partway through, he realized that his first foreign vacation, in Mexico during 1967, coincided with his mother's suicide. This illumination made him realize that he was "working with very classical themes": how every boy, to achieve manhood, "must first … kill his mother off." To emphasize this big subject, Gray dedicates the book "To my Mother, Creator and Destroyer" and appends a portentous epigraph. What subsequently meets the eye, however, primarily bears the marks of travelogue.

The book's opening sections are the most effective, dealing with the New England childhood and youth of Gray's narrating alter ego, Brewster North, with particular regard to beach summers and Mom, a progressively deranged Christian Scientist, to whom he was so attached that, at twenty-two, while yearning to "hang out" in Provincetown, he found himself unable to leave her: every day, he would drive a few miles down the road and then turn back. Despite oedipal hints, the attachment appears to spring from emotional affinity: she was his best friend; they would watch Bergman films together and, afterwards, "stay up late talking all of this real serious talk about loss of faith…." Sensing that their relationship is "too sticky and warm to be right," Brewster blames Mom: his failure to "fly the nest" proves she is not "a good mother." Later, after he has flown—to New York, Texas, Mexico—she is held responsible for his fear of intimacy with others: "Because Mom … couldn't get enough intimacy from her family," she ensured, albeit unconsciously, that they could never find it elsewhere. Brewster's attachment—which survives Mom's suicide—is largely asserted, rarely exhibited, and proves correspondingly unpersuasive. The same applies to Mom's culpability, although the point here may be that it exists mainly in Brewster's imagination; certainly his two brothers seem unaffected.

From childhood, too, date Brewster's fantasies about visiting Bali. The adult Brewster promises himself a "perfect vacation" there; first, however, he must find a life—free of the past, of Mom—from which to take that vacation. The remainder of the book follows his spiritual and geographical wanderings in pursuit of meaningful existence: Theatre, drugs, Zen, sex (especially), pornography, the Bhagwan, psychotherapy, Amsterdam, India, the Himalayas, California, and Grand Canyon (finally), where, in a moment of satori, he determines to write his "true story": "I would dare to remember my ghosts. Then maybe, after I captured them, I could take that vacation…."

Gray's reminiscing style, in which telling prevails over showing, narrative over dialogue, has worked admirably in his published monologues (snippets of which reappear here). Impossible Vacation has little of their artistry, however, being carelessly and dully written, a series—the early episodes aside—of inconsequential tales without Gray's usual humour and charm: a section dealing with America's Bicentennial, for example, is both querulous and snooty. Gray's ostensible themes, meanwhile, are generally submerged; references to Mom provide the only evidence that Brewster is not a mixed-up Way-seeking butterfly, but the victim of a more profound wound. The consolation is that Gray should be able, if he wishes, to rescue some fine monologues from this still raw material.

Elizabeth Young (review date 29 January 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Impossible Vacation, in New Statesman & Society, January 29, 1993, p. 47.

[In the following review, Young offers a favorable assessment of Impossible Vacation.]

Spalding Gray and Scott Bradfield are both writers who are extremely sophisticated about fiction. They know exactly what it is and what it should do, how it should be constructed, written and read. They also seem to have a faint, sad sense that most of it will soon be forgotten, that it is all perhaps a doomed endeavour, yet both continue to believe that people need stories. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," wrote Joan Didion, and Gray's first novel turns on this realisation.

It is difficult not to see Gray's novel as autobiographical. Like the author, the narrator, Brewster North, is a New England Wasp, an actor by profession, whose mother commits suicide and who starts a career in dramatic monologues by talking about her death. Gray, of course, went on to incorporate other material into his act and eventually to publish Swimming to Cambodia.

Although it presumably contains fantastical elements, Impossible Vacation is probably best read as an additional emotional subtext to the author's public revelations. It is the story of a tormented young intellectual who seeks escape from his "Boston Brahmin" family by maniacally chasing enlightenment down all the well-worn 1960s culs-de-sac. He studies Zen and yoga, drops acid and vitamins. He travels to India and joins Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's tasteless free-love Poona commune. He listens seriously to people who live in tepees. All the while he is haunted by memories of his almost parodically John Cheever-type family, with their antic high-jinks, insanity and tight-lipped alcoholism.

Gray brings an unusual degree of insight to familiar themes. Brewster North is a very perceptive narrator who understands that at the heart of his quest is a desire to achieve the fashionable 1960s state of "just being". He yearns to attain what seems to be a hassle-free state of harmony. This move away from the old world of clocks and rules and delayed gratification into what Fredric Jameson has termed the "endless present" has come to be seen as one of the fundamental definitions of postmodernist consciousness.

Gradually, North comes to realise that his whole self, his talent, his purpose in the world, lies in his ability to tell stories and that in stories one is always connected to the past and to "the great and always present sadness behind words." The "endless present" eschews language. Consequently, what appears to be a light and amusing Bildungsroman is not only less oppressive than Gray's dramatic monologues but also actually more revealing of the author's life and times than his autobiographical work.

Gay Brewer (essay date Summer 1996)

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SOURCE: "Talking His Way Back to Life: Spalding Gray and the Embodied Voice," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 237-58.

[In the following essay, Brewer examines Gray's attempt to integrate the mind and body in his autobiographic monologues. According to Brewer, "The reciprocity between life and stage, audience perception and validation of the 'real,' is crucial to Gray's art and its complexity."]

Spalding Gray's art is the autobiographic monologue, a composite of reality and artifice. His works, most prominently Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, share adventures achieved in the pursuit of artistic expression and colored by an obsession with the unattainable—life as art, encapsulated and preserved. The vanity of the unceasing voice—neurotic, amusing, revelatory, self-indicting—conflates with the artist's purpose, the eventual formulation, with practice, of perfect autobiographical "moments." In interviews, Gray realizes the illusoriness of such a goal, "the search for paradise and perfect moments and the mistaken idea of paradise as being a place outside of the mind." The achievement of the perfect moment is to be both sought and avoided, the imperfection of contemporary society being a primary impetus for Gray to be wandering voyeur and raconteur. "Perfection" in this context constitutes a release from the restrictions of Gray's hyperactive mind. The integration of mental and physical then approaches a rare spiritual gratification. Gray's artistic process of organizing his life into public performance parallels a movement that his monologic stories generally demonstrate in content, from isolated experimentation to reunion with audience, and finally, in Gray's Anatomy, to the central importance of the body. Despite being a performer ostensibly empowered by "talk," Gray in his latest work reveals the body to be as crucial as the voice to his artistic quest. The body centers the performer and offers itself to be witnessed and adored. Without a foundation in the physical, "perfect moments" sought by the mind/voice cannot be sustained.

In Swimming to Cambodia, the author reacts with paradoxical relief to a barely failed "moment" that would have ended his adventure by fulfilling it. "Oh My God!—almost. About a number nine on my scale of ten for Perfect Moments." If this ambivalently sought "perfection" had been achieved, he "would have had to go home that afternoon." Nevertheless, a coalescence of persistent themes shortly follows; water, baptism, and male initiation all manifest Gray's attraction-repulsion to immersing himself uninhibitedly in the waters:

Suddenly, there was no time and there was no fear and there was no body to bite. There were no longer any outlines. It was just one big ocean. My body had blended with the ocean. And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top, bobbing up and down. And up the perceiver would go with the waves, then down it would go, and the waves would come up around the perceiver, and it could have been in the middle of the Indian Ocean, because it could see no land.

This passage offers insight into Gray's central preoccupation—the loss of self and submersion of the "I." Here nature is the catalyst, and escape from narcissism, albeit momentarily, marks the event's special quality. Richard McKim notes that the "unstated … irony" of the scene "is that he, like so many of us, finds it easier—and more pleasurable—to experience oneness with the universe than with other people." What is particularly interesting in Gray's case is that he continually defines and grounds himself in the context of others, in being "perceived" more than in "perceiving." The two are integral for him, and inescapable. As soon as the "perfect moment" is achieved, Gray rushes to an audience to validate his experience.

For Gray, this dependence upon audience is crucial to the crafted persona of his monologues. The author makes no distinction between the necessity of audience to his performing stage self and to his living, "real" self: "I tend to disappear when I'm alone. It's hard to explain. It feels like I'm not there, like I'm psychically disappearing, that I don't exist…. I think the eyes actually inflate you, make you larger than you are through their energy. When you lose that, it's almost like withdrawal. No one's seeing you, so you're not seeing the things around you." Gray traces his discovery of the importance of the audience's "eyes" to his long run as Hoss in Sam Shepard's Tooth of Crime. He realized that rather than work with and off of fellow actors, he preferred the relationship between himself and the audience, the bathing glow of uninterrupted attention on his physical body in the theatrical space: "I even found I was more intensely alive during the performance than I was when I wasn't performing…. Everything disappeared in the room and the audience and I were one…. That was the most exciting point for me because it allowed a confrontation with the audience's eyes that I would never forget." Such a response clearly led to the blooming of Gray's monologic style, a theatrical device by which he is "interested in working my way back to life through theatre…. Now I'm trying to use theatre as a tool to come back to reexamine my everyday life as Spalding Gray."

In his seminal essay "Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia and the Evolution of an Ironic Presence," William W. Demastes establishes that Gray indeed "creates a sophisticated theatrical persona, who himself reenacts an awakening onstage designed to sensitize the audience to its own awareness." Demastes usefully divides the "several Spalding Grays" at work into the private citizen "observer-of-events," working in a "nearly reportorial fashion," who turns his results over to Gray the artist; the piece is then "presented by Gray the naive performer, who appears fully incorporated into the system and is unaware of the ironies introduced into his presentation by the artist Gray, who shaped the material reported by the observer Gray." The result of what Demastes sees as this "espionage" is that "while Gray's work may appear supportive of the status quo, it presents a persona who ironically utilizes an empowered naivety to undermine itself and the authority it seems to uphold." For the purposes of discussing Gray's monologues, the "Spalding Gray" referred to is the "naive" raconteur, the "character" Spalding Gray relating his picaresque episodes. The more complex intentions of Spalding Gray the self-conscious artist are behind and implied by the actions of the stage persona, with the audience left to infer the subversions. Demastes offers the distinction that "Gray the performer is immersed; it is the behind-the-scenes artist Gray who is ironically detached and subtly confrontational." This style "charms as it undermines," mesmerizing both self and audience by the development of a community feeling. "Gray observes that we've all been consumed; in fact, he demonstrates it by 'leading' with his own presence." Recently, Gray applied a dance analogy to his stage work: "it's like dancing with a partner. You're reciprocal, you're going back and forth, you're leading sometimes, sometimes they're leading you. It's interactive."

The reciprocity between life and stage, audience perception and validation of the "real," is crucial to Gray's art and its complexity. Gray denies being a writer in any traditional sense, and he has also shied from the term "artist": "First of all, I don't think of myself as a performance artist. Artist I am not. I am a humorist. I don't think many artists have a good sense of humor. I do first person narratives…. The other thing to remember is that I was trained as an actor. Bob Dylan used to say, 'I may look like Robert Frost, but I feel like Jesse James.'" In the tradition of his self-claimed profession, Gray bears the sadness of the clown. The audience may laugh, but he is not allowed to: "I can't tell the difference between the world's sadness and my own." Gray equates the elusive dichotomy between humor and sadness, between his responsibility to his audience and a talent divisive to his own personality, with an essential division in his psyche: "I have an enormous sense of humor in a public space and I can make people laugh. I help people laugh. But I don't laugh a lot myself. I'm rather morbid and have a somewhat depressive nature…. I'm a Gemini. Split. The name Spalding in Old English means a meadow cleft by a spring." Gray acknowledges that the psychological causes of such a split are elusive, perhaps rooted in his severe upbringing and in a discomfort with the physical body often present in his work: "Growing up a Christian Scientist, it took so long for me to realize I had a body. I had to use a mirror to prove I had a body … the mirror is a witness. You become a lover of yourself."

The analogy is obvious: the audience as mirror, the self-reflection seen in hundreds of eyes the amplified reflection of a child in his mother's bedroom. The term "witnessing," moreover, lends a religious implication to theatrical appearance and to the revelation of personal experience: "For whatever reasons, it seems to me that nothing is real until it's witnessed. That's part of why I work in front of audiences…. A terrific need for witness, and when it's not there, I have the witness within me, which is the writer, the writer's eye that watches." This internal eye, for Gray, is the constant monitor and recorder that he knows will transform what it witnesses into monologue and then performance. An elaborate paradox emerges, essential to this continuing voice—the dependence upon an audience to test and validate experience, which in turn heightens the dangers of experience turned directly into product: "I turn things into a story so quickly that I don't feel them…. Often, if someone asks me how I feel I tell them an anecdote rather than the feeling, because I'm so fast, I'm so good at it…. When I'm not in front of an audience, I tend to need one so badly that I get in situations where I just begin to perform." Ironically, Gray turns himself into pure perceiver, a filtering, theatrical machine that produces story from experience, leaving individual human feeling and reaction stranded. Performance is integral to a manic attempt at definiteness, at an impossible wholeness approachable only through public witness, the witnessing itself the very culprit of the experience's susceptibility to disintegration. David Denby senses much of this in his apprehension of the fleeting, frantic quality of Gray's delivery:

In Swimming to Cambodia, the actor and monologuist Spalding Gray talks fast—faster than an evangelist working a country fair, faster than a stand-up comic in Las Vegas, or a late-night-TV appliance salesman, or a patient on an analyst's couch trying to make himself interesting. Gray, who bears a fleeting resemblance to all those American types, gives the impression of someone trying to express everything he's ever felt or thought—at once, before it flies away…. Although he always comes back to himself, he cannot be accused of narcissism and monomania. Before our eyes, his ego shreds.

This sympathetic, inescapable cycle of neurosis renders Gray's talking head—and its preoccupation with self—tolerable, troubling, and endearing. Live audiences are bound up and incriminated in this process, if only unconsciously. The act of artistic expression is, for Gray, inseparable from the notion of composition and revision: "My monologues are not prewritten. They are developed with audiences…. You play phrases like a jazz musician might. It would never be there the first night. There would just be the struggle of telling a story…. The audience doesn't know that. It knows what it sees, and what it sees is not a rewrite, it's what the monologue is at that point." Performance is both validation and purgation, with the audience cast as therapeutic testers, "perceivers" of the artist's ongoing "life" art. Gray is his own most accomplished creation, a tiring commitment that partially explains his attempt to create a more distanced Fictional voice in the novel Impossible Vacation. The impulses to be "perceived" and to be the released "perceiver" are equally necessary to artistic assimilation. Throughout Gray's work he surrenders to the voices of others, often with no more judgment than a flat recollection of events that supplies its own irony. Always Gray is a willing audience, and his willingness suggests, again, the reciprocal attention the audience receives from any speaker. Indeed it is difficult to maintain, in Gray's world, a meaningful distinction between perceiver and perceived. In Swimming to Cambodia, a large portion of the material is derived from reenactments of conversations in which Gray is a passive, secondary participant: with the director Roland Joffe, Jim the coked-up Marine, the U.S. ambassador, Ivan the "devil," the actors and technicians on the set, his girlfriend Renée, and so on, a stream of characters already recorded, placed, selected, and returned to Gray's audience as offered experience. In other words, what Gray often witnesses is his own not-quite passivity, an acute ear and mind enlivened by the circle of its apprehension-performance-response.

The idea and nature of film and its technology constitute another important issue framing Gray and his relationship to his audience. Both Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box were filmed live, although with the oddness that Gray performed chiefly to the lens. "The idea of having a live audience was essential for me." With Monster, he "went out and thanked them for coming and told them that they would be looking at me looking at a camera and I hoped that would be interesting for them. I like working with cameras but I prefer having an audience present." For the audience watching the films, the peripheral "live" audience lends an added dimension of theatrically to the viewing, but as several critics pointed out, film viewers can't get over the experience that the performances aren't quite live to them, that the technology of the camera causes a separation from the performer. For Gray, this gives the film audience a requirement "to make their own film…. You have seen so many movies before that offer a kind of literal representation of reality. When it's not there, there is the motivation for the audience to make self-cinema." In Swimming to Cambodia, the actor relates a similar revelation about his own performance in The Killing Fields. On camera "[i]t didn't matter what I was thinking, so long as I was thinking something. Because everyone looking at the film would be thinking their own thoughts and projecting them on me." As an actor, Gray eschews a psychological approach. Performance is about surrendering to the rhythms of spoken language; audience reaction is imagination and projection. This self-revelation, too, can be pinpointed to the Tooth of Crime production: "The fact that the language was so well constructed allowed me a sort of private self within which to daydream, to have my own associations." The primary triangle of performance—and indeed of energized, sustainable existence—is "the audience movement, my movement, and the rhythms of the language."

Fluidity of speech is paramount for Spalding Gray, and J. Hoberman is correct in the assessment that Gray's frantic delivery is symptomatic of a voice barely controlled, a verbal release valve for a tumultuous psyche: "Like America itself, he's at once affably self-absorbed and eerily detached—he gives the sense of watching his life unreel like a movie"; the monologues' "natural subject is an anxiety seemingly held in check through a combination of pithy detail and cascading language." The stage version of Swimming to Cambodia is severely edited for the eighty-seven-minute Jonathan Demme film. Roughly, the film is focused on the actual filming of The Killing Fields and Gray's performance in the eroticized camera space. In the published monologue, the entire second section takes place after filming is completed, detailing difficulties Gray has both leaving Thailand and reintegrating into America. Within this section the actor says farewell to "Joy … my Pal Pong girlfriend." Neither speaks the other's language, and what Gray has perceived as an easy enjoyment of the body, beyond language, erodes into self-incrimination:

but there were times when I was able to steal a secret glance and then I would see another side of Joy. I would catch her in a slightly drained and more reflective melancholy state, and I realized … how little I knew or wanted to know. Most of all realized that I could never get to it without language….

… And when the stage lights went out and the house lights came up at quarter to one, I could see everyone scatter like cockroaches under fluorescent light. And I could see the bruises like rotten fruit on the girls' legs.

Stranded by silence, the Gray persona can detect only the glossy sheen of the Asian pleasure houses, staged performances of which he is a willing, guilty audience. This scene culminates, on the personal level, the themes of American culpability persistent throughout the monologue, with Gray himself representing the emotional and geographic isolationism for which he indicts his country.

"I am a fan of the spoken word," asserts Gray, and "spoken word" should be interpreted as referring to both his own words and those of others. This issue of language, however, is problematic. On the one hand, the spoken word suggests dialogue, openness, avenues of communication and, perhaps, understanding between peoples. On the other, it leads back to Gray's primary dilemma, the separation from a direct experience with life. The inability to distinguish between play and real and the difficulty of living in the present are bound up with the predominance of a torrential, omnipresent language which cannot be quieted. Near the end of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia, Gray, summering in the Hamptons, is overcome with regret about his failed "mission" in Thailand. Always he desires the other place, the lost perfection approachable only in memory and language. "And I looked up from the hammock to see Tom Bird, this mighty Vietnam veteran, standing over me saying in a deep strong voice, 'SPALDING! BE HERE NOW!'… And Tom bellowed again, 'SPALDING! BE HERE NOW! Do you think I want to be here?' And suddenly I realized that this strong, silent man was also suffering. He just knew how to shut up about it." Torn between self and other, between experience and recollection, between media and history, between the practical and the exotically spiritual, Spalding Gray's dichotomous, conflicted, neurotic voice cannot be silent. This is both his affliction and his salvation. In the monologue Terrors of Pleasure, Gray recounts auditioning for a television movie, a love story in which he plays an artist. Trying to find his character through his sketching, Gray is chastised for overreliance on a simple prop. Isn't what he truly desires the flesh-and-blood woman in front of him by the fire? His response epitomizes the paradox of his monologic persona and perhaps the "real" man as well: "'Oh, you mean I'm not really an artist?' Because any real artist would rather sketch than make love."

Gray followed Swimming to Cambodia with Monster in a Box (1991), a monologue that deals extensively with the author's anxiety in trying to complete his novel Impossible Vacation. Much of Gray's difficulty with his nineteen-hundred-page "monster" is rooted in the central concern of all his work: the relationship of performer with audience, the blurring of perceiver and perceived. The monologues, "written" with audiences, represent a very different process from the isolated activity of novel writing: "It felt too much as if I were losing my body; why would I want to turn a well-choreographed eyebrow into a word? I was also losing silence: a theatrical pause always gives space for the ineffable, and there's no place for that in print." Gray's point is a cogent one, stressing not only the importance of audience but also the crucial significance of the actor's physical body during performance. Although Gray's "talking head" on-stage offers an ocean of pure language, the importance of the present living body cannot be overstressed. Critic Stanley Kauffmann sees the lack of Gray's physical presence as the primary deficiency of the filmed monologues. Anyone who has witnessed a live Spalding Gray performance would be unlikely to argue with such an assessment. The live shows are funnier and more vivid and moving than the films, and the films more than the printed texts, as if the words are vitiated as they move farther from the performer's body.

Gray anticipates this problem of distance, romantically attempting to incorporate the physical into the creative process: "I write in longhand, because it's the closest to speaking; it feels like an extension of my body, coming from the muscles, like painting." In Monster in a Box, Gray explains beginning the novel as a kind of experiment in regression, an inward-seeking attempt at private therapy: "I thought the monologues were making me too extroverted. I wanted to pull back into my more introverted self and go back in and explore the private self, the shadow self." The result is a novel notably darker in tone than the Spalding Gray of stage, but a text only truly effective to the extent that the well-known monologic voice nevertheless informs one's reading. The title Monster in a Box itself suggests the antagonism between Gray and his venture into fiction. Painful physical limitations imply the experiment's failure: "Then I got down to the writing, and it was awful. I don't know why anyone would want to do it. It stinks. It's like a disease. It's an illness, writing. It steals your body from you. There's no audience. You're alone. My knuckle was swelling up. I had an arthritic knuckle from the pen pressing against it so hard while writing longhand." Even in this situation, the author transferred the written word into the spoken: "I really had no idea what I was writing until I read it aloud for the tape. I saw how I had split myself—I'd become my own audience."

Gray accepts the offer of a Nicaragua fact-finding expedition as a happy interruption: "I would much rather be actually going to Nicaragua than staying in L.A. not being able to write about not being able to go to Provincetown." However, the performer's anxiety is far from ended. Although Monster in a Box assumes the comic picaresque structure that has become Gray's trademark, its particular recurring theme is the actor's separation from audience and the neurosis that ensues from this estrangement. While Swimming to Cambodia finds Gray continually in the company of other actors and artists, Monster in a Box deals more with a persona increasingly isolated by its growing celebrity. The subplots of writing the novel and of life in Hollywood—the movie capital where much of the monologue is set—suggest that these other arts intrude on a life in the theater. As he stares at a blank page or into a lens, where is the audience that Gray has always depended upon as "my receptor, my editor, my therapist"? One reviewer noted that "much of Monster in a Box shows Gray confronting a culture that's just as self-absorbed as he is: Hollywood." A recurring joke in the work is Gray's despairing attempts to locate anyone to interview on-stage who isn't involved in the movie industry. Even an earthquake only momentarily interrupts the universal topic of one's "project." The moment in Swimming to Cambodia when Gray feels invincible in the eroticized space of the camera is recalled by a similar experience in a movie theater: "And what's amazing is that every time I notice a celebrity looking at me, and I'm in their gaze, I'm not afraid of death or dying." If recognition within the gaze is crucial to the author's integrated existence, then this power is heightened within the gaze of the celebrity elite in Hollywood, the world capital of celebrity worship. The image on the film is immortal, and if Gray feels inexplicably safe in the camera's lens, then by extension why not in the refracted gaze of its stars? One reviewer commented, "Gray appears to have identified a 20th Century strain of hubris—the arrogance of pride that, in Greek drama, was a provocation to the gods—peculiar to moviemakers: They feel immortal and infallible on a shoot." For Gray, who finds health and solidity before an audience, what safer haven than the eyes of the movie gods?

"I speak rather than write. My words on a page are like everyone else's, but when you give it voice, it's different. The Spalding Gray of the monologues is a combination of Huckleberry Finn and Candide." As critics have occasionally pointed out, Gray's monologues are essentially novelistic in their narrative emphasis and languid, circular structure, making Gray's venture into proper fiction, while perhaps inevitable, nevertheless unnecessary. The Spalding Gray of the monologues—a creation identified by its author as part fiction and part real, a synthesis of innocence, wit, and adventurousness—suffers through the first half of Monster in a Box without the audience that relieves and defines him. With no pressure released through performance, Gray is overcome with too much raw experience:

By now I'm hysterical and desperate. I come back to the house saying, "Renée, they told me I should find a therapist. I don't know what to do. They're probably right, but I have to interview the L.A. people. I don't have time to find a good therapist. I'd have to look at so many—and the Monster and—K.O.'s outside—and the mothers of the heroes and the martyrs want me to go tell President Reagan—!"

Gray the author is fully aware of his dependence on performance, and the fractured, suffering Gray depicted in Monster in a Box can only be cured by one method. Busy with the "L.A. Other," in which he is forced to move outside of his own neuroses and question others in front of an audience, Gray escapes for the interviews' duration his own introverted fragmentation: "I didn't find a therapist, but I completed the project. And I went and collapsed in front of my dressing room mirror and I thought, now that's interesting. I haven't thought about death or dying for two weeks. Isn't it therapeutic to surround yourself with people weirder than yourself!" Both his mental and physical states are improved, clarifying the notion that it is not merely monologic performance that restores Gray but also the ameliorative effect of dialogue, interaction, and discovery in a theatrical space. Shortly after the interviews, perhaps enabled by them, Gray finds his therapist, a Freudian psychoanalyst comically anachronistic in Los Angeles. Gray recognizes the rightness of "the old slow talking cure" for his hypochondria. The doctor dismisses Gray's physical symptoms—sweating feet, dry mouth—as psychosomatic and suggests to his patient that "your problems have to do with what's in that book. Would you tell me the story of that?" As Gray has already demonstrated to us, writing the novel is a failed therapeutic exercise. In an interview, he has added that "[a]t one point I thought that in order to write my book I'd have to have my therapist in Los Angeles come over and sit in a corner of the room, so he could witness me, as a writer." Telling the novel to an audience is in essence the purpose of Monster in a Box. The monologue addresses Gray's need, if not to "talk" his novel as he does to the doctor, at least to "talk about" the work and thereby complete and validate it with an audience. Apparently, the method works. Dr. Peter announces that Gray is "much better" and "able to relate to me now in a non-performance mode." He clears his patient for the next episodic adventure, a Russian film festival. Gray is ready to assimilate and take notes on more experience.

In Russia, Gray quickly locates an audience, as is always his concern, but this section of the monologue continues to discredit the notion that Gray is primarily dependent upon language. While one might assume that the performer would be at a disadvantage in front of a volatile foreign crowd, an opposite truth emerges. Only the film of Swimming to Cambodia, which loses its Russian translation, is sabotaged by faulty language. "I said, 'Stop! Stop the film, please!' People were walking out in droves, the place was a shambles, everyone was talking. 'Stop! Misha, please tell them to stop. I want to get up and apologize.'" Once Gray locates his audience and is able to initiate a spontaneous live performance, he is seductive and confident within his body: "I thought, maybe I should stand up and show the Russians my body. So I stand up. It's cabaret situation…. I myself would like to just get up and moonwalk, if I could, for the Russian audience—but, I don't know how to moonwalk—or do a body roll from the sixties with a little B. B. King music, you know." The story he finally communicates through his translator Misha is archetypal Gray—"flocking" through the Hermitage in the safety of movie stars and being recognized by a group of American high school students. It is a slapstick treatment of familiar themes: the self-defining empowerment of celebrity, the American worship of flash—literally, with the children's cameras—over art and history, and finally, Gray's compulsion for recognition to validate his presence. "I've been recognized—thank God I've been recognized—for being on the David Letterman show. They are over there asking me, 'What is David Letterman really like?'"

Throughout Monster in a Box, the Gray persona finds, through his need to be physically seen, a hyperreality on the stage, a heightened sense of the "now." Paradoxically, this discovery conflates the present with a realized past, artifice with reality. For Gray, insight happens only in the context of performance. He explains the attraction to his novel's fictional protagonist Brewster North of playing Konstantin, the young writer in Chekhov's The Sea Gull: "he likes the fact that Konstantin gets to shoot himself in the head at the end of every performance and then come back the following night to play himself again." Play, therapy, repetition, rebirth—these are the salve for a dislocated psyche. In the film Clara's Heart, Gray plays a grief counselor signing books. "They want me to sign his name on camera? I won't do it—I won't sell my soul for that price. I'm keeping the book off camera and signing my name across the picture and then handing it out to all the extras, pretending it's my book, finished at last." The problems of "real" life are solved in the camera's eye, and for the duration of performance the actor is cured. He knows who he is.

Gray realizes the therapeutic repetition of performance in his role as the Stage Manager in the Broadway revival of Our Town: "And now here I was going to a funeral—Emily's funeral—eight shows a week and this was giving me a sense of closure around the issue of having missed my mother's funeral." It is appropriate, perhaps inevitable, that a monologue about the necessity of audience and the preferred "reality" of stage ends with a lengthy retelling of Gray's involvement with the Wilder production. Through the play's language, Gray is "swept back to New England where I used to believe in God and eternity and all the things the play is about." This "softening up" that the play causes allows him to purge himself of the novel and to transcend the failure of isolated writing. Gray has been "on-stage" continuously during the last episode, and the self recalled is by far the most peaceful, calm, and integrated to be found in Monster in a Box. Performance is existence: "And as I pull the curtain closed at the end of the play—I'm not acting—I'm crying." Not coincidentally, the closing of the Wilder play marks the conclusion of Gray's monologue, and in turn the "monster" is also quieted. Its protagonist wonders whether he should write his own story or "skip the story and try to take a vacation instead." The peace found on-stage has passed into the fictional world, implying that the best vacation is an escape into the reality of theater.

The importance of the body in Gray's theatrical performances emerges as the primary theme of his most recent monologue, Gray's Anatomy (1993). In this work, the human body, with its imperfections and frailties, literally and thematically takes center stage. Through Gray's discovery of a debilitating eye condition, his mortality is rendered immediate to him. As the author searches for alternative healing, he meditates on his own existential doubts and fears, on his desire for magic over the "real," and on the relationship of his self-consciousness and his language to the failing ability of clear sight. Gray has noted that he wavers "from a very practical, cynical, hard-core view of life and then am drawn towards flighty, more spiritual things…. I am a doubter, and I haven't doubted my doubt yet. But I am curious about ways of thinking, ways of coping. I'm most interested in how someone deals with the fact that at any moment they could disappear forever." These are the conflicting pulls, and the fearful curiosity, that inform Gray's Anatomy.

Gray's attitudes toward neurosis and the unsatisfiable longing for the "other" place isolate the separation between mind and body central to his predicament: "I'm a Freudian to that extent, that I believe culture breeds neurosis…. The way that I would define neurosis—I think really it has to do with not being present. If I think of anything that's neurotic in me it's the inability to be in the place that I'm in when I'm in it, with my body and mind, and that I'm longing for someplace else." Such a separation happens not only in daily life but in the nightly life of theater, where the body is present but the actor's mind casts back to the other place: "That's the shadow side of my work, because my work is recollection…. What I quite simply mean is I mine my neurosis, that's the thing that I'm chipping away at." While the mind is engaged in the mazelike recalling of the previous night's memory, the body remains present and central: "So when I sit down at a table now, all I'm doing is centering myself at the base of my spine to that chair. And I'm moving out of that all the time. I'm coming up. I'm three inches off the chair. My feet are moving, my arms are moving. I'm sweating. It's a physical event for me to tell these stories. They're very animated." In the newest monologue, the author admits he can see only the "internal film of the place I've just left." Such is the "disease" of which he wants to be cured. The prescription he receives from a bemused healer is a drawing of a Balinese icon, a headless man: "His eyes are twinkling in his chest and his nose is in the center of his body. He had no mouth, which I could relate to." The little man is an appropriate companion for Gray—a being without spoken language whose centrality and intelligence originate from the chest. Gray finds himself "embarrassed" and "self-conscious" talking aloud to the drawing. Their relationship is founded on faith, magic, and the body.

Spalding Gray has increasingly focused his work on the physical. Gray's Anatomy, as its title suggests, moves slightly away from Gray's motifs of performance and language except as they contextualize his failing sight and an exploration of doubt realized in the body. In his recollections of Christian Science healing, Gray delineates an upbringing that equated health with the power of language: "Look, when you're dealing with a Christian Science practitioner and you're talking about the disease, you really have to be quite careful not to name it…. because to name it gives it power. You're supposed to refer to it as 'an error.'" Gray contacts a healer, who insists on ambiguous references to the eye problem and to fidelity—no other treatments are allowed. Gray rejects him. "I hung up, realizing why it was I had left Christian Science in the first place." For Gray, despite his superstition and doubts, the "not naming" is impossible. The predominance of language in his self-absorption—and his livelihood—makes "naming" unavoidable and amplifies its danger: "I listen enormously to the spoken word and have a more vivid image from the spoken." Later in the text, a Filipino psychic surgeon again warns of the danger of fixating—a form of internal naming?—on an illness: "Also, if you are thinking of the AIDS all the time, and I'm sure you do, you will get it. You will manifest it through your thought, you see." Gray responds with the story of "the man who was told that if he stirred a pot of water long enough without once thinking of elephants, it would turn into gold." Hypochondria is therefore made real. Sickness originates in the body through the mind. If Gray cannot escape the self-consciousness that may induce his illness, he can nevertheless seek a similarly mystical cure. He considers possible first causes of the eye's injury. Tellingly, all suggestions of cause are mental or psychological rather than physiological. An explosive "tear" of mourning over his mother's suicide? Too much "I" in his novel's first-person? Or as his "New Age friends" suggest, "Well, what is it you don't want to see …?"

Gray realizes that his livelihood is dependent upon his sight and ability to discern the physical specifics of the world: "This is what I totally depend on in order to tell stories. I tell stories about the details of things. If I lost the detail in my right eye, what could I possibly do?" In Monster in a Box, the performer needs an audience; in Gray's Anatomy, the failing body needs an outlet of physical labor. In a bizarre anecdote that culminates in Gray cleaning up debris at a Jewish synagogue, the author is liberated by work that draws him out of the mind's self-concerns. He is "pretending" to be a Bowery bum, "Peter with perfect eyes," and is energized by the character's new identity and strong body: "I'm feeling great. I'm raking up the leaves, I am sweeping up the broken white plastic knives and forks, and paper cups and plates left over from parties, and I'm whipping it up!" He refuses a ride back from Williamsburg and walks "over the Brooklyn Bridge back to the city feeling triumphant! I think, there is something I can do if I lose my sight in my right eye. I can do something other than tell stories!" Repeatedly in the monologue the emphasis is on the present human body, usually Gray's own. When Azaria Thornbird recounts her astral projections, Gray's response is one of physical self-adoration: "Didn't you ever consider making love to yourself? Because, I mean, that's the first thing I would want to do if I found myself leaving my body." Instead of being able to move outside of the body, however, Gray feels trapped within its condition, isolated by the peculiarity of his affliction and his entrance into the "Bermuda Triangle of Health" between fifty and fifty-three years old: "I was coming into it, and I was feeling lonely, because I was the only one I knew with a macula pucker."

The theme of vision in Gray's Anatomy is an effective metaphor for the author's delving into notions of doubt, darkness, uncertainty, and a pervasive chaos. One critic notes Gray's talent for making "grand, inductive leaps to social and moral philosophy from isolated, personal experience … [his] seamless transitions between the ridiculous and the tragic." The comic revelations perpetuated by increasingly arcane healing treatments symbolize the refusal to age gracefully, to adapt to decay, and to acknowledge the whole notion of chaos and fuzziness—that is, uncertainty—that the subject of failing eyesight inevitably produces. Gray is informed by his therapist that "[a]ll things are contingent, and there is also chaos…. In other words … shit happens. Give up on this magical thinking and this airy-fairy Disneyland kind of let's pretend and your Hollywood la-la fantasy, please. Do the right thing. Get the operation." A "joke" throughout the piece is that not only are Gray's psychological explanations for his illness misguided, but that his "condition is idiopathic. Meaning, no known cause."

Gray's Anatomy is one of the author's most universal and timeless pieces. The monologue's themes are two: aging rendered graceless by the fear of meaningless death, and the acceptance of "reality." These may signal the beginnings, at middle age, of maturation beyond the child's world of hope and magic. Gray grasps at every slim chance of faith and ritual—an Indian sweat lodge, palming, a Brazilian healer, a Filipino psychic surgeon—to ward off aging, entropy, and death. These treatments are highly theatrical, with comic yet compelling "performances" by the participants. Nevertheless, they supply no cure to Gray as actor or audience. The palming treatment, which leaves its patient in a self-created and self-imposed darkness, exemplifies his anxiety: "I also realize that the more I look inside, the more I don't see a self to heal. I can't get any sense of such a thing. There's no core, no me. All I see is darkness, which is more and more frightening for me. It feels just like death." Gray acknowledges, employing the appropriated term, "I don't know who my Creator was. I always thought I was idiopathic. You know. No known cause." Shortly afterwards, in the doctor's waiting room, he admits that he has grown "used to this by now, waiting in the fuzz." Even after Gray has exhausted every alternative and undergoes traditional surgery, no miraculous recovery occurs. "After fourteen days, I go into the hospital to have the patch removed. I know this is supposed to be the dramatic part of the film: Will the man see again or not? It's nothing as dramatic as a movie." He sees as if "driving in a rainstorm" or looking through "the bottom of an empty Coke bottle." He has chosen a solution free of magic, but the results are "not great. Things are less distorted, but they are really blurry." That is as good as he can expect "it"—the eye, the life, the doubt—to get; the operation brings neither crippling disaster nor clarity and true resolution.

The complementary subplot to the play's subject of physical isolation is the engagement of Gray and his long-time companion Renée. Her practical reason for wanting commitment is to assure access to Gray as he grows older: "you're going to get sicker a lot more and you'll be in the hospital again. I think it's time we got married." The impending marriage centers the monologue and its concerns of mortality, adult responsibility, and self-doubt. The movement from boyfriend and girlfriend to husband and wife—"It sounds so serious. It sounds so biblical, so Old Testament"—is a difficult semantic leap for the fifty-year-old man, one which epitomizes the journey from magic to reality and from childhood to maturity, a journey not fully desired. When the topic of marriage is initially broached, Gray gets "fuzzy" trying to think about it, linking the subject with vision. Not until he has had the eye surgery is he able to agree to the reasonableness of the union. The two acts represent a necessary movement toward acceptance of mortality and the limitations of human life: "I begin to realize that there are tricks in the world, and there's magic in the world. But there's also reality. And I have to begin to cope with the fact that I'm a little cockeyed…. But I don't have a whole lot of time to dwell on it. Because Renée—who is over to my right—wants to get married." His fiancée is aligned with the right, the right eye, the blurry, cockeyed quality that Gray begins to recognize as life.

As the wedding day approaches and Gray's anxiety predictably escalates, he turns a final time to the body to alleviate the tension of his overactive mind: "The one thing that kept me sane during that time was bodysurfing. I love to bodysurf, particularly when the water's cold; it really grounds me and wakes me up at the same time. I was in the water bodysurfing every day." This activity culminates in the play's hilarious and poignant climax, in which Gray, caught in a "sea puss" that threatens to drown him, turns his cry for physical survival into a wail of human angst: "HELLLLLLLLLLLLLP! I'M DROWNING! HELP, I'M GETTING MARRIED! HELP, I'M GROWING OLD! HELP, I'M GOING BALD! HELP, I'M GOING BLIND! HELP, I'M GOING TO DIE! HELP, I'M GOING TO LEAVE THIS EARTH FOREVER ONE DAY! HELLLLLLLLLLLP!" Gray is the hyped-up Everyman, a Prufrock drowning in a sea of his own hysteria, fear, and regret. The scene parodies the "perfect moment" from Swimming to Cambodia. The men who rescue Gray recognize his bobbing head from the earlier movie poster and turn the near-tragedy into a photo opportunity. One senses that what Gray identifies as the center of his neurosis, the inability of mind and body to be integrated in the present, has somehow been addressed. He has been "rescued" from the danger of a disintegration that he has pursued and cultivated in earlier works. The body, preeminent throughout Gray's Anatomy, here returns as a symbol of the entire person's inadequacy and uncertainty, suggesting a moment of terrified unity with the mind.

Gray goes through with the marriage, indulging in pleasures which may have contributed to his eye problems: "We run down to the sea together to look out, and then we went back to the house to celebrate. I drank vodka and I drank white wine and I ate big fish. I ate steamed vegetables and I ate wedding cake. I drank coffee and I smoked a cigar." Despite the context in which the marriage takes places—the irreparable blurring of Gray's vision, the hurricane damage that nearly postpones the wedding—one can't help but notice that Gray's Anatomy concludes on a note of union and qualified optimism. It is perhaps Gray's funniest work, despite its theme, and ultimately may be his most life-embracing. Despite the limitations of body and language, despite the continual disappointments of the ideal versus the real, life is livable and can be enjoyed. "And I ate and I drank and I smoked … everything that could make me blind." The pleasures which destroy us also sustain us; death is part of living. Gray implies that in moving over the threshold, to traditional medicine and traditional union, he has faced and accepted this central paradox. He brings the drawing of the Balinese man down to the beach wedding "to be a witness"; there is after all magic in the world to offset reality, and finally the body and mind will not be separated.

Laurie Stone (review date 23 December 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105

SOURCE: "It's a Slippery Slope," in The Nation, December 23, 1996, pp. 33-4.

[In the following review, Stone offers a generally unfavorable review of It's a Slippery Slope.]

Spalding Gray is our bard of self-absorption. He's learned to see it with detachment, turning it into a subject, a hot tub big enough for a group soak. In Monster in a Box, he found the measure of his talent: his eye for irony and incongruity; his capacity to show himself as vulnerable without undercutting the effect with aggression; his ability to weave story elements into charged arrangements, so that even details that at first seem random eventually gain significance. He presented his prurient, blabbermouth personality as the deviant spawn of his tight-lipped, undemonstrative, alcoholic WASP nest; the leakage that diminished him in childhood was transformed into comic strength.

The serious trouble chronicled in his next monologue, Gray's Anatomy, made him funnier. A retinal malady that threatened blindness to his left eye was like a discipline or calling. The blur was focusing. Training on a real infirmity rather than hypochondria, Gray entered a space cleared of self-importance and whining. He was naked and intimate, no membrane protecting him, so we were transported to his side of the eyeball. The sufferer was aware that his ordeal was enormous and ordinary, and he juggled these irreconcilables without dropping either.

His new piece, It's a Slippery Slope,… is a scrapbook of his narcissism, and damned if he doesn't deepen the gaze—at least for the first sixty minutes. Spalding is nearing 52, the age at which his mother committed suicide, and he's tempted to meet her in Valhalla. Instead he takes up skiing, exchanging his anxious, New York boho head trip for an in-the-moment flight from consciousness. On the mountain he's home, embracing his New England heritage, clambering up and slithering down the big mom-tit in the sky he has longed to join ever since mooning out the window of his high school geometry class.

The monologue is bravura stand-up unreeled with grand minimalism-his acting honed to a Beckettian simplicity that ripples out levels of meaning from a sip of water or the slight rearrangement of his feet beneath the desk at which he's stationed. His plaid shirt is as much clown garb as Bozo's red nose; his circumflex eyebrows shoot asides to the audience, like bubbles of thought above a cartoon character's head. His writing is spare as a haiku and galumphing as a shaggy dog, as he embellishes his themes: the laws of triangles, emotional depression and geological elevation, acting instead of living, the evasion of consequences.

Between monologues he wonders if he creates crises for material. He feels his life is becoming one big memory and that he's lost touch with sensation. He questions why each day he forgets that you only live once, while white-knuckling through existence dreading mortality. There are hilarious set pieces, among them a ski lesson in which he unprotestingly permits himself to be called Sterling. Cast as a suicide in a Soderbergh film, he strolls through his hotel with bloody makeup on his wrists and fails to get a rise out of anyone until, seized by a "diabolical 11-year-old Halloween energy," he waves them before an astonished old woman and cries, "Have you got anything for my wounds?" Classically stalled, conversations with his father are sporadic, but he reports one as the old man nears his end, a follow-up to their last chat, conducted on a golf course, when 14-year-old Spuddy was told the facts of life. Loosened by a couple of beers, Gray gropes for a Hallmark moment. "You had three sons, and I'm the middle. Why am I the only one who isn't circumcised?" Father: "You're not?" There is more dick-waving here than in previous works, and this is where the piece goes slack (or, if you prefer, plows into a snowdrift). We've been on the road with Spuddy for years, but those were the days when he was with his "girlfriend" (and later wife) Renee Shafransky, who was not only a character in his pieces but the director of several of them. He didn't confide, as he does now, that he used to have wild affairs on his tours. Unlike the "impingencies" of Monster in a Box, about a man who can't write a novel, and of Gray's Anatomy, about a man who may be going blind—both struggles with the self—the crisis at the core of Slippery Slope is Gray's affair with a woman who bears him a son and the subsequent dashing of his bond with Renee.

Faced with the consequences of his impact on others, Gray loses his thread. He stops spinning tales of fear and loathing—and psychobabblcs: "Renee and I fused, she became very involved with my work…. I had to propose to Renee in front of my therapist, who knew I was having an affair with Kathy…. Kathy was simple, she liked the outdoors…. Kathy had no leftover mothering energy." The unrealness of Renee to Spalding has fogged other narratives. Apart from being devoted to him and resourceful, she is always shadowy, instrumental to Spalding rather than palpable in her own right. At the end of Anatomy, when Renee presses to solidify their union with marriage, the gallant self-observer becomes a kvetch. Fear of aloneness and illness have made him passive, and in that state he has agreed to the wedding. Once he's through the operation, however, he wants to escape. This, too, could have been a subject: the way we make regrettable promises while feeling helpless. Instead he portrays himself as the reluctant bridegroom and casts Renee as the old ball and chain. In Slope, we can see why the marriage in Anatomy comes off false—he was still fucking Kathy!

But spilling the beans doesn't turn him honest. Renee's suffering is mentioned but not taken in by the narrator or presented to the audience. Gray has no impulse to protect the women. He admits that, over both of them, he chooses the mirror of himself he sees in his offspring—"There is always another woman, but never another son." Instead of satirizing this peak act of narcissism, Gray squanders the best chance thus far of his career and waxes reverential, declaring his boy a "little Archimedes [who] had the geometry to split up me and Renee." It's not a crime to love your kid, even to prefer him above others, but Gray speaks as if reproduction in itself is ennobling—redeems all that filthy stuff he was doing when it was just his dick and pleasure. Talk about returning to your Puritan roots.

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Gray, Spalding (Drama Criticism)