Spalding Gray Gray, Spalding (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Spalding Gray 1941-

Gray has won critical acclaim for his autobiographical monologues, in which he transforms the banalities and sometimes embarrassing intimacies of his personal life into larger reflections on contemporary society. Described by Don Shewey as "a hybrid of performance artist and standup comedian," Gray sits at a desk on a barren stage and improvises from a prepared outline. His performances have elicited comparisons to the work of such contemporary comedians as Woody Allen and Lily Tomlin and to the writings of Mark Twain. While some critics view Gray's monologues as self-indulgent and superficial, many applaud his insights and storytelling expertise. David Hirson has observed that "Gray's revelations tap into a collective worship of the mundane self: he titillates our narcissistic impulses by a titanic display of his own."


Born in Rhode Island to middle-class parents, Gray became interested in theater as a teenager. He studied acting at Emerson College, and after his graduation in 1965 he performed for two years in summer stock theater in New England and New York state. In 1967 Gray traveled to Texas and Mexico; upon his return several months later he learned that his mother had committed suicide. This loss and the consequent family trauma caused him to suffer a prolonged depression that resulted in a nervous break-down nine years later. In the late 1960s Gray moved to New York City, where he joined the Performance Group, an experimental Off-Broadway theater company. There he composed his first autobiographical dramatic works. In 1977 he founded the Wooster Group with Elizabeth LeCompte, with whom he wrote Sakonnet Point and Rumstick Road, two experimental dramas that explored his mother's mental illness and suicide and their effects on his youth and his family. Gray and LeCompte also composed Nayatt School, a satire of T. S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party. These three plays made up a trilogy called Three Places in Rhode Island, which Gray produced collectively in 1979.

Gray became interested in the possibilities of the dramatic monologue during his tenure as a summer workshop instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1978. The following year he performed his first monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, at the Performing Garage in New York. In the 1980s Gray continued to produce and perform monologues, and publicity from his performances resulted in his being cast as an American ambassador's aide in the 1983 film The Killing Fields.

The two months Gray spent filming on location in Thailand became the subject of Swimming to Cambodia, considered by many to be his masterpiece. Gray has followed Swimming to Cambodia with several more monologues, including Monster in a Box, Gray's Anatomy, and It's a Slippery Slope. He has also created film versions of Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box and a television adaptation of Terrors of Pleasure.


Swimming to Cambodia is Gray's best-known monologue and is widely regarded as his finest work. The piece premiered in 1985 and evolved improvisationally at the Performing Garage. Gray, who performed the monologue sitting at a desk with only a glass of water, a notebook, and two maps of Southeast Asia as props, narrated anecdotes and observations from several levels of his own experience—as an individual coping with personal problems, as a professional actor in a large-scale movie production, as an American facing the aftermath of U.S. policy in Cambodia since the Vietnam War, and as a human being learning of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, a guerilla group that terrorized Cambodia in 1975. The title is taken from Gray's remark that explaining the tragedy of Cambodia "would be a task equal to swimming there from New York." Gray's success with the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia inspired him to collaborate with his girlfriend Renée Shafransky on a movie version of the monologue. The film was produced by Shafransky, directed by Jonathan Demme, and released in 1987 to critical acclaim.


Swimming to Cambodia met with an enthusiastic reception. Critics admired the pace and fluidity of Gray's narrative, the numerous descriptive details in his recollections, and the honesty with which he presented his stories. Elinor Fuchs praised Gray's blending of personal and social events in the play, describing Swimming to Cambodia as "an artistic culmination for Gray as well as an impressive political breakthrough." Lydia Alix Gerson admired the way the piece creates "parallels between domestic and international outrage," viewing Swimming to Cambodia as a meditation on living in the modern world, which is "without moral compass." Other critics, including William W. Demastes and Jessica Prinz, have focused on Gray's roots in avant-garde theater. Summarizing Gray's unique position as an experimental playwright who has achieved commercial and popular success, Demastes has observed: "Gray's work appeals to middle America, but for those who can see more than vicarious experiences in the works, the pieces take on an ironic significance, revealing fragmentation and uprootedness that is a first step to political awakening."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Scales 1966

Sakonnet Point [with Elizabeth LeCompte] 1975

Rumstick Road [with LeCompte] 1977

Nayatt School [with LeCompte] 1978

Three Places in Rhode Island [comprising Sakonnet Point, Rumstick Road, and Nayatt School; with LeCompte] 1978

Point Judith: An Epilog [with LeCompte] 1979

Sex and Death to the Age 14 1979

Booze, Cars, and College Girls 1979

India and After (America) 1979

Nobody Wanted to Sit Behind a Desk 1980

A Personal History of the American Theater 1980

47 Beds 1981

Interviewing the Audience 1981

8 x Gray 1982

In Search of the Monkey Girl [with Randal Levenson] 1982

Swimming to Cambodia 1984

Travels through New England 1984

Rivkala's Ring [adaptor; from a story by Anton Chekhov] 1985

Terrors of Pleasure: The House 1985; as Terrors of Pleasure: The Uncut Version, 1989

Sex and Death to the Age 14 (collection) 1986

Swimming to Cambodia: The Collected Works 1987

Monster in a Box 1990

Gray's Anatomy 1993

It's a Slippery Slope 1996


Bedtime Story [with Renée Shafransky] (television play) 1987

Swimming to Cambodia (screenplay) 1987

Terrors of Pleasure (television adaptation) 1987

Impossible Vacation (novel) 1992

Monster in a Box (screenplay) 1992

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Perpetual Saturdays (1981)

SOURCE: Spalding Gray, "Perpetual Saturdays," in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1981, pp. 46-9.

[In the essay below, Gray offers his observations on performance and on experimental theater, which he calls "backyard theater. "]

I never could relate to the term "avant-garde." When I see a term like that I automatically want to make my own American translation. I want to translate it into, "The Theatre of the Backyard," or even more American, "backyard theatre."

As a boy, growing up in America, I loved Saturdays. Saturday was my favorite day of the week and my secret ambition was to make every day into Saturday. With this attitude, it took me fifteen years, instead of twelve, to get out of school but I did get out and I did eventually find Elizabeth LeCompte, Richard Schechner, the Performing Garage and the whole group. I found them. They found me. We found each other.

To make a long story (The Drama Review, Autoperformance Issue, T81) short, I found my backyard. I found my perpetual Saturdays.

Other than being a part of the human race, I have never been aware of being a part of any movement. The radical child in me searched for a place to play. I call it "radical" because the pursuit of play in our culture is a radical act. It is also a very political act as everything we do with any kind of full commitment is political. And by "play," I don't mean weekend leisure activity, I mean viewing one's life as a total act of constructive play. The abolition of weekend consciousness. The decline and downfall of Saturdays.

Backyard theatre is an impossible kind of theatre to make without a backyard and the Wooster Group/Performance Group only grew up because it had the Performing Garage as its backyard. Also, the group grew up realizing how fragile a thing real adult "playing" is. We needed a special time and place in which to play and soon realized we had to work to preserve that place and time. So, Saturdays blended into Mondays and the whole thing took off into a really creative balance of work and play.

Liz LeCompte and I first began Sakonnet Point by playing with flashlights. Nothing more, nothing less. If we had any idea of being a part of the "avant-garde" we were not conscious of it. What we were conscious of was that we were inspired by, and wanted to imitate, some of the best American backyard theatre in the world. We saw the groups that Richard mentioned in his article. It was a wonderful experience for Liz and me. Before we came to New York, we never dreamed such things existed or could exist. Seeing it gave us the courage to do our own work. We quickly realized that when you do not make much money for what you do, you better be sure that you're doing what you want to do. In fact, that is the most positive aspect of a lack of funds. It makes you question yourself down to the bone. What is it we want? We kept asking and we made one piece that turned into four. We struck a rich well of personal imagery. We spread seeds. We got fruit but the seeds we spread were not in marked packages and that was all the better because the fruit was such a surprise.

I can't imagine wanting to work if I knew what it was I wanted to make before I made it. I can't imagine stopping a productive process in order to develop a system about a past part of that process in order to teach it. Try to develop a system about American backyards? Try it. Maybe a system about English, French or Dutch back-yards but American?

I don't want to slow down or stop in order to teach and yet I am teaching a course in autobiographic composition at New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing this fall. What I do when I "teach" is to bring in present work/play problems. I take what's on my desk or in my head or body and bring it into class. It's about what's going on for me now. It's not about specific significant knowledge of the past. It's about giving energy and presence to the class with the hope that one student might be lucky enough to find a backyard.

Because theatre is a temporal art, you've got to be there for it. No amount of reading Artaud can tell you what he did. His works are not literature. They are descriptions and scenarios of temporal events. Events that needed to have their being in time. Theatre is about presence = Life = Death. The Wooster Group/Performance Group has played, over the years, to large audiences. People came. People saw. They can't say they didn't. If there is a future for the world there is a future for backyard theatre. There is no more a system to this theatre than there was a system to my Saturdays. They were random and chaotic.

Also, there is hope for passing it all down. It's one that Richard doesn't mention. A few weeks ago I was in a bookstore and a man who worked there came up to me and began to tell me how much he had loved the Wooster Group's production of Nayatt School. His description was so intense and so vivid that he began to turn me on to the piece. He brought tears to my eyes and I wanted not only to be doing it again but I could also see it from his outside view as he told it. It was at this point that I realized that his...

(The entire section is 2183 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Ron Jenkins (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Spalding Gray," in Acrobats of the Soul: Comedy and Virtuosity in Contemporary American Theatre, Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp. 123-41.

[Focusing particularly on Swimming to Cambodia, Jenkins emphasizes the importance of memory in Gray's work. "Memory is a recurring character in every one of his performances, " Jenkins states. "It is pitted against the dangerous human tendency to forget the past without reflecting on its meaning."]

I like to think of myself as a kind of 'poetic reporter,' more like an impressionist painter than a photographer. Most reporters get...

(The entire section is 3810 words.)

Swimming To Cambodia

(Drama Criticism)


Mel Gussow (review date 16 November 1984)

SOURCE: "Spalding Gray as Storyteller," in The New York Times, 16 November 1984, p. C 3.

[In the following review of the premiere production of Swimming to Cambodia at the Performing Garage in New York, Gussow characterizes the play "a virtuosic evening of autobiographical storytelling. "]

Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form. Sitting at a card table and talking to the audience, he offers a virtuosic evening of autobiographic storytelling. With the...

(The entire section is 15812 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Gray, Spalding. "About Three Places in Rhode Island." The Drama Review 23, No. 1 (March 1979): 31-42.

Recollection by Gray of his early experiences in the theater and the development of Sakonnet Point, Rumstick Road, and Nayatt School.


Dace, Tish. "Monologues in the Making." Plays and Players, No. 389 (February 1986): 16-17.

Admiring profile that praises Gray's style: "his phraseology, his structure, his relatively uninflected voice and relaxed face, a tempo of rapid patter punctuated by purposeful pauses."


(The entire section is 801 words.)