Spalding Gray Gray, Spalding (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Cathleen McGuigan (essay date 28 July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mervyn Rothstein (essay date 4 December 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peggy Phelan (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William W. Demastes (essay date March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Lee Lescaze (review date 18 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stanley Kaufmann (review date 6 July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Benedict Nightingale (review date 12 July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jessica Prinz (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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David Montrose (review date 8 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Young (review date 29 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gay Brewer (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Laurie Stone (review date 23 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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