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.
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.
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.
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.