Spalding Gray

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Introduction

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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."

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

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.

MAJOR WORKS

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...

(This entire section contains 822 words.)

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the tragedy of Cambodia "would be a task equal to swimming there from New York." Gray's success with the stage version ofSwimming 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.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

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

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PLAYS

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

OTHER MAJOR WORKS

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

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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 way of transmitting dramatic knowledge was orally. Like the Irish before the English and Tibetans before the Chinese, he was employing the old oral tradition. I like that. It's a fresh breath in these high tech times and it was there, present with all its human energy and vividness.

For me there is nothing larger than the personal when it is communicated well. The very act of communication takes it into a "larger vein" and brings it back to the community. The personal confessional, stripped of its grand theatrical metaphors, is what matters to me now. I am trying to redefine what is significant for me. I am trying to write and speak from my heart, or as my lines from Walden went in Commune: "I want to speak some-where with out bounds, a man in his waking moment to men in their waking moments." (Of course, I have to, and want to add, "women in their waking moments.") This personal exploration has made me more politically aware because now that I've come to myself as authority I have found that I still feel repressed and because of this feeling of repression I am forced to look further into the outside world for its source.

After ten years of working in that windowless hothouse, art house, backyard of a Performing Garage, I began to wonder what was outside. What about "the people?" I longed to be with them. I longed to do what they did and feel what they felt. I thought the group was an artificial "polis" and I wanted out. And at last, when I did get out, I found myself in another group. It was the downtown community of New York and I looked around for "the people" and instead I saw a group trying to survive in a corrupt world that contained a corrupt country that contained a corrupt "City" that was controlled by the rich and I realized that all of us, not just Robert Wilson, but all of us in the "arts," are pets of the rich. We may be different breeds, some mutts some pedigrees, but we are all pets of the rich.

Often I have the fantasy that my work will lead me back full circle to where I started and I will know the place for the first time. I fantasize that if I am true to art it will be the graceful vehicle which will return me to life. Oh, what longings; I will move to Oregon. I will teach sixth grade. I will fall in love. I will marry. I will have three children and I will not reflect. I will die when I die. It will go on without me and without my endless commentary.

I know it's a fantasy because I know I have lost my innocence. Somewhere along the line, every action became for me a piece of theatre. At first it was a protection against the deep and painful realization that every act is a futile act. Every act is a ridiculous dance on the toothy edge of the jaws of time. Then it became more studied. It became art. It became the crazy guy who waves goodbye just before he goes down into the jaws.

Finally, for me, the whole issue is not about choice. I never felt I had a choice. Theatre has been my affliction and my salvation. I do it because I have to and I can clearly say this need, this affliction, this salvation, is neither declining, nor is it falling.

Author's Note to Swimming to Cambodia (1985)

SOURCE: "Author's Note," in Swimming to Cambodia, Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1985, pp. xv-xviii.

[The following essay prefaced the published version of Swimming to Cambodia. Gray characterizes himself as a "poetic reporter" who, unlike traditional journalists, prefers to "give the facts a chance to settle down until at last they blend, bubble and mix in the swamp of dream, memory and reflection."]

In Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges the author relates, "I remember my father said to me something about memory. He said, 'I thought I could recall my childhood when we first came to Buenos Aires, but now I know that I can't. … Every time I recall something I'm not recalling it really, I'm recalling the last time I recalled it, I'm recalling my last memory of it.'"

Swimming to Cambodia evolved over two years and almost two hundred performances. It was constructed by recalling the first image in my memory of each previous performance, so it evolved almost like a children's "Round Robin" game in which a phrase is whispered around and around a circle until the new phrase is stated aloud and compared with the original. The finished product is a result of a series of organic, creative mistakes—perception itself becoming the editor of the final report.

It is this subconscious way of working, rather than any conscious contrivance or manipulation, that captures my imagination. I am interested in what happens to the so-called facts after they have passed through performance and registered on my memory. Each performance becomes like another person whispering a slightly altered phrase. My job is then to let my intuitive side make choices—and there is never a lack of material, because all human culture is art. It is all a conscious contrivance for the purpose of survival. All I have to do is look at what's around me.

So I like to think of myself as a kind of "poetic reporter," 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 until at last they blend, bubble and mix in the swamp of dream, memory and reflection.

It was almost six months after the filming of The Killing Fields that I began my first reports, and more than two years passed before I made my last adjustments. Over that time, Swimming to Cambodia evolved into a very personal work in which I made the experience my own. Life made a theme of itself and finally transformed itself into a work of fiction.

I titled this work Swimming to Cambodia 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. Still, in spite of how horrible it seems to allow entire nations to be wiped out, I opted for tolerance, and beneath tolerance, my bottom line, humor. If ever I thought that God could understand American, I would pray and the prayer would go, "Dear God, please, please let us keep our sense of humor." I still understand and love America, precisely for its sense of humor.

When, in Woody Allen's film Stardust Memories, a group of extra-terrestrials lands in his proximity, Woody hopes to get some answers. He asks, "Shouldn't I stop making movies and do something that counts, like helping blind people or becoming a missionary or something?" The otherworldly reply: "You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes." Humor. The bottom line.

I'm convinced that all meaning is to be found only in reflection. Swimming to Cambodia is an attempt at that kind of reflection.

Overviews And General Studies

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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 ofhis 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 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 until at last they blend, bubble and mix in the swamp of dream, memory and reflection.

Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray is a virtuoso rememberer. He takes raw memory and sculpts it into finely wrought performances of epic autobiography. Sitting at a table and talking directly to the audience, Gray performs feats of poetic recall that are remarkable in their clarity, resonance and wit. In a culture where collective memory has atrophied and been replaced by a television tube, audiences respond with rapt attention to the simple authenticity of Gray's personal chronicles.

There are moments in Gray's low-keyed monologues when he seems to be caught in the act of remembering. His voice and gestures create the impression that he is conjuring up the past as he speaks, as if his memory were leaving tangible traces of its efforts. The rhythm of his delivery is peppered with hesitations. The lines in his face wrinkle with concentration. His hands move out in front of him as if they are reaching for images on the verge of being forgotten. Although it all appears spontaneous and casual, each nuance is artfully crafted. Gray has mastered the art of self-performance so completely that even his stammers are planned.

In the process of giving his memories a physical shape, Gray sifts them through the filters of contemporary culture. His stories reach the audience through a series of prisms. Gray performs himself remembering himself, as if he were seeing himself in a movie or reading about himself in a newspaper or watching himself on television. His exercises in hyperautobiography are shaped by the popular media that dominate American society. Gray's stories reflect collective as well as personal anxieties. He remembers his past in terms of his relationships with other people and those relationships are mediated by the demands of their shared culture. Gray's stories are full of vivid portraits of people he has met, and each of those portraits is conveyed in a narrative style rooted in the rhetoric of mass communications. Gray is a one-man newspaper reporter, cinematic auteur and television talk-show host. His multiple roles give even his most intimate memories a sense of ironic detachment. He narrates his past like a man who has difficulty believing it, but is determined to re-play it in an effort to make sense of his era.

Gray began performing his autobiographical monologues as an outgrowth of his work with the Wooster Group at New York's Performing Garage. In 1975 the company began work on a trilogy of plays based on Gray's recollections of growing up in Rhode Island. The success of these ensemble productions led Gray to investigate the possibilities of performing his past as a sit-down monologist. The first of these efforts, Sex and Death to the Age 14, was presented at the Performing Garage in 1979. Since then he has performed the collected chronicles of his life in theatres all over the country. A Personal History of the American Theatre was broadcast on the PBS Alive from Off Center series. Terrors of Pleasure appeared on HBO. And Swimming to Cambodia was released in movie theatres as a feature film directed by Jonathan Demme.

The stories in Gray's monologues are always centered around his personal experiences, but he places them in the context of characters and events that mirror the rich landscape of American dreams and nightmares. A Personal History of the American Theatre is as much about the success ethic of American artists as it is about Gray's own life as an actor. Gray simply recounts stories about the plays in which he has performed, but he has worked in enough different settings to make his oral memoirs representative of the profession. He moves deftly from the excesses of Stanislavsky-styled realism in Texas regional theatre to avant-garde experiments with grunting and groping disciples of Grotowski in Manhattan, providing oblique insights into the state of the arts in America at the same time that he casts light on the origins of his own storytelling impulses. He says that as a child he discovered that acting things out was "a kind of ontological state. … Life was kind of boring for me in Barrington, Rhode Island, and I would dramatize it by taking any cue from life and blowing it up a bit, theatricalizing it." Theatricalization of his experiences includes putting them in a social and historical perspective. His childhood memories as retold in Sex and Death to the Age 14 are framed by the atomic explosion at Hiroshima and the first test of the hydrogen bomb.

Swimming to Cambodia (1984) is an example of Gray's multileveled narrative style at its most complex. It began as a monologue about his involvement in The Killing Fields, a movie based on a magazine article about a war that most people saw only on television. Gray's performance technique is as densely textured as the layers of media memory in which the story has been wrapped. With a few maps and a pointer as his only props, Gray never moves from his chair, but he presents his tale in a style that subtly incorporates elements of each media through which the incidents have been recalled.

Gray opens the theatre version of his piece with a journalistic dateline: "Saturday, June 18, 1983. Gulf of Siam. Thailand." Then he fleshes out the details with verbal and gestural imagery that is cinematically arresting in its specificity. The colored maps he uses enable Gray to convey history and background information with the entertaining ease of a Sunday newspaper magazine supplement. And all the way through he cuts from one story fragment to another with the startling velocity of a television newsreel montage. Having assimilated the rhetorical devices of mass culture without losing the intimacy of old-fashioned storytelling, Spalding Gray transforms personal memory into a miniature spectacle with epic overtones.

While many performers have been reduced by entertainment technology into shells of vapid personality, Gray uses his understanding of mass media to sharpen his senses of perception and heighten his performance of the things he perceives. His gestures and vocal intonations are deeply influenced by the media through which his memories are filtered. Recounting the filming of a helicopter scene in The Killing Fields, Gray visually creates the sense of leaving the ground by tilting his head and torso. The illusion of television immediacy is furthered when he begins to shout as if his voice had to carry over the sound of the spinning copter blades. Shifting perspectives quickly, he paints word pictures of the jungle stretching out below him that are the equivalent of a cinematic long shot.

Gray's seemingly random jump cuts are carefully spliced into his monologues to provide the story with texture and resonance that transcend the cross-media grab-bag effect of the story's surface. A poetic writer with a vibrant sense of language, Gray creates cross references that are novelistic as well as cinematic. The tragicomic portrait of Thai peasants hired to imitate the Cambodian dead by smearing chicken blood on their bodies echoes an episode Gray spoke about a few minutes earlier. To pacify Cambodian villagers who had been accidentally bombed by American B-52s, U.S. Embassy officials gave out hundred-dollar bills to families of the dead and fifties to people who had lost arms or legs. Gray's deadpan juxtaposition of these two events satirizes the absurdity of equating the loss of limbs with a cash bonus. Linking the callous values of the filmmakers with those of the American government, Gray's disarmingly simple story-telling begins to assume the dimension of a spoken epic novel.

Gray's oral epic is full of sophisticated literary devices, but his performance language is informed with implicit references to modern media. The filmic quality of Swimming to Cambodia was established before Gray ever considered making a movie of the piece. Crosscutting, montage and closeups are embedded in the structure of Gray's visual memory and have nothing to do with Demme's camera work, which is notable primarily in the way it enhances the cinematic qualities that Gray had already built into his stage performance. In the part of Swimming to Cambodia where Gray mocks the parallels between movie production and government policy, he makes his points with acting techniques that demonstrate the blurred boundaries between the realms of film and politics. Gray combines the cool detachment of a politician working a crowd with the emotional intensity of a director zooming in for a closeup.

Making a movie about the bombing of Cambodia reminds Gray of demonstrations against the war in Washington and Kent State. He interrupts his description of the movie shoot to remind us that Nixon watched reruns of Patton while students demonstrated outside the White House. Gray flashes Nixon's famous double-V sign with upraised arms as he describes the President's midnight visit with the protesters. In a rapid succession of words and gestures, Gray creates a montage of images that recreate that moment in history as if it were a TV movie. Nixon on the phone asking advice from Norman Vincent Peale and Henry Kissinger. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge eating nuts and berries in the countryside outside Phnom Penh. General Alexander Haig declaring Cambodian President Lon Nol to be mentally unstable because he wept openly when he saw that his nation's downfall was at hand.

Gray presents this potpourri of past events with a vocal tone that suggests the objectivity of documentary realism at the same time that it hints at irony. The rhythmic pace of his story builds to a series of urgent crescendos. Every so often he stops unexpectedly, as if to reflect on the outrageous incongruities inherent in what he has just reported. The pauses encourage us to reexamine the implications of the particular image that has just passed before us, as if it were being singled out for an instant replay. Nixon, for example, inanely asking one of the student demonstrators, "How's your team doing?"

Like a good journalist, Gray uses direct quotes to help dramatize his story, but his objectivity is only an illusion. His information is factual, but his opinions seep through in the editorial shifts of his intonation and facial expression. With subdued tones of empathy and respect, Gray reads a letter from a Cambodian prince to the American ambassador refusing the offer of safe passage when the American troops withdraw from Phnom Penh. "I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion," writes Sirik Matak. Gray dutifully reports that five days later the prince's liver was carried through the streets on a stick. Choosing that moment to take a sip of water, Gray creates a silence in which to begin his account of the Cambodian genocide. Detailing the nightmares of the "worst autogenocide in modern history," Gray hypothesizes a cloud of evil that comes down on the earth and drives men to unthinkable actions: "… babies torn apart like fresh bread in front of their mothers." His voice seems muted by the horror of what he describes, as if the same dark cloud were muffling his words.

Next, in an artful cinematic cut that hints at the connections between the Cambodian atrocities and the anti-Communist prejudices of individual Americans, Gray moves from the killing fields of Cambodia to an Amtrak lounge car. There he meets a Navy man who tells Gray he spends most of his time chained to a chair in a waterproof missile silo waiting for orders to push a green button that will launch a nuclear attack. Recreating his conversation with the man, Gray turns his head from side to side as he switches from the booming certainty of the sailor's militaristic anti-Russian prejudices to the incredulous confusion of Gray's stammering responses. The dialogue plays like a television talk show with Gray as the befuddled host.

Audiences accustomed to perceiving experience in electronically condensed bits of packaged information are fascinated by the compelling power of Gray's artistry. The public's interest in his technique becomes apparent when Gray performs a piece entitled Interviewing the Audience. He invites members of the audience onto the stage to talk about their own lives, but when they are given a chance to ask questions, they want Gray to tell them how he makes his stories so intriguing. "How do you make your life sound so interesting?" "How do you get people to say such funny things?" "How do you get people to pay attention to you for so long?" These are some of the questions Gray is asked one evening at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The concerns of the audience are symptomatic of a society that has surrendered its communication skills to its television sets. Everyone wants to learn how to make their own life as funny and appealing as the monologues of their favorite celebrity talk-show host. They feel insecure about their abilities to reach out to one another through the simple exchange of conversation, and Gray offers them a model of a man talking about himself with a grace, charm and humor that draws people close to him. His style of storytelling satisfies the part of their nature that hungers for direct human contact, unmediated by technological intervention.

One of Gray's interviewees that Cambridge evening is a reporter for the Boston Globe. She laments the fact that she can never get people to say interesting things when she interviews them for her articles. Furthermore, she fears that she herself has nothing very interesting to say and wonders aloud whether anyone in the audience has really had a good conversation lately. A few people claim to have had satisfying discussions about movies or politics. One man said he had a good talk about reincarnation after reading about it in the National Enquirer. But most people seemed to agree that conversations in their personal lives left much to be desired. For both the reporter who wants to get more informative details from her interviews and average people who want more spice in their private gossip, Gray is a source of envy and inspiration.

His answers to the audience's questions are enlightening. He tells them that he develops his monologues by listening to them over and over again on tape. Each night he tapes his show, and tries to improve it, basing each new performance not on the original monologue, but on the most recent version of it. Eventually he dispenses with the tape recorder and constructs each new performance on the memory of the one that has preceded it. Ultimately his show becomes a memory of a memory of a memory of a story that has been distilled down to its essence through the process of continually being retold. Gray appears so natural on stage not because he is just being himself, but because he is so well practiced at impersonating himself as he remembers himself performing himself. This is similar to what politicians do when they make public appearances impersonating the images they have carefully cultivated to win the approval of voters.

But while politicians play their roles in earnest, Gray impersonates himself with a clearly self-deprecating sense of ironic detachment.

This self-reflexive irony is the key to Gray's keen sense of humor. While the humor of a master self-performer like Ronald Reagan is calculated to lull the listeners into a reassuring state of acceptance, Gray's ironic humor is designed to encourage thoughtful reflection and critical questioning. He makes things funny by asking us to examine their credibility. In Terrors of Pleasure Gray plays a tape recording of a message left on his answering machine by an unscrupulous real estate salesman. The tone of Gray's voice when he introduces the recording and the expressions that pass across his face as he listens to it generate a mood of comic skepticism that makes the man's declarations of trustworthiness howlingly funny. Even more ludicrous, Gray makes clear, is the fact that he actually bought property from this man. Gray is so skilled at conveying this sense of self-mocking irony that he often casts a comic sense of doubt on his own words as he speaks them. A perfect example of a Brechtian actor, Gray has mastered the art of speaking in the first and third person simultaneously. He projects a sense of thinking about the significance of what he says, even as he is in the process of saying it.

The quality of thoughtfulness at the heart of Gray's ironic acting style makes him an undesirable candidate for typical commercial acting roles. In Terrors of Pleasure Gray tells the story of auditioning for a part in a television movie opposite Farrah Fawcett. The director liked him but was disturbed by something he noticed about Gray's acting in the screen test. A quality that he could only describe as "thinking" seemed to pass across Gray's face whenever he was supposed to make romantic advances towards Fawcett. That reflective quality prevented Gray from projecting the ail-American "go-for-it spirit" the director was looking for, so he didn't get the role. Apparently Gray's thoughtfulness created the appearance of doubt, hesitation and ambivalence, tones that are not conducive to selling the products advertised on television, but are essential for generating the kind of disturbingly ironic humor at which Gray excels.

Gray's tones of human ambivalence are what distinguishes his memories from the mass media's versions of the past. There is an illusory objectivity to cameras and newsprint that Gray's style avoids. He may borrow the jumpcuts of cinema or the direct quotes of journalism, but he never pretends to be certain about anything. His stance is one of perpetual doubt. In Swimming to Cambodia he approaches the Vietnam War with a questioning tone that penetrates past the video pictures of network news and the deceptive myths of Hollywood war films. He uses these common images as a starting point, but transforms them into a kind of personalized multimedia narrative about the awakening of a political conscience. As he talks about flying up in the helicopter on location in Thailand, and describes the film producer's re-creation of dead bodies and burning villages below him, the cadences of his story accelerate markedly. His gestures pulse with the chaotic urgency of battle. There is no door on the helicopter and he is dangerously high above the ground, but he isn't afraid because he's in a movie and is comforted by the camera's power to eroticize the space it aims at. "Like Colgate Gard-All," he blurts out ridiculously, invoking the protection of an old television-commercial toothpaste shield.

Gray speaks and moves with an even greater velocity as he realizes that the movie version of the war is almost as terrifying as the real event. In a flash of intuition he comes up with the idea of "War Therapy." Countries could heal the traumas of war by reenacting it in fictional form. Gray describes his newly invented form of social healing as if it were a demented version of The Dating Game. Gray has lost the ability to distinguish history from the image of history he remembers in the media. He remembers seeing B-52s in the television coverage of Vietnam in the sixties but when he tries to imagine a connection between himself and the real war, Gray can only think of himself as riding a helicopter in Apocalypse Now. The closest association he can make to the real war is a scene from another movie.

Gray's portrayal of his frenzied condition in the helicopter gathers a breathless momentum. It is full of irony, ambivalence and mental doubletakes. The producer hopes his experience in the film will teach Gray that "morality is not a movable feast," but Gray maintains that he "sees it moving all the time." In the swirling complexity of his imagery Gray makes his audience see morality move as well. He generates a whirlwind of cross-media references that dizzy our senses. His arms move back and forth as if he is literally trying to maintain his moral equilibrium in the blur of game shows, TV commercials, film and history. His awakening conscience has to contend with a media blitz that dulls his senses into forgetting that actions have consequences that outlast the closing credits.

In Swimming to Cambodia, as in Gray's other monologues, there does not seem to be any source for the kind of conflict found in traditional drama. Gray's theatre is fueled by a different kind of conflict: the conflict between memory and forgetting. Remembering the real implications of war as distinct from the media's manufactured implications is crucial to Gray's awakening conscience in Swimming to Cambodia. The interdependence of memory and morality is central to all his work. Gray's portrayal of the struggle between individual memory and the forgetfulness induced by mass media is a potent dramatization of one of our era's most troubling dilemmas. Gray enacts this struggle each time he pulls a surprising detail out of the past and makes us believe it has just occurred to him at that moment. His stammers, his pauses, and the visible traces of thinking that pass over his face are the tangible manifestations of his unwillingness to let history slip away from him undigested. Memory is a recurring character in every one of his performances. It is pitted against the dangerous human tendency to forget the past without reflecting on its meaning.

The drama in Gray's monologues is not born out of emotional clashes. It comes from the excitement of watching him analyze, question, ridicule and embrace the details of the incidents he so artfully recalls. The audience is witnessing an intimate act in the mind of a rememberer, made visible by the power of Gray's extraordinary performance skills. They are enraptured, not because they necessarily identify with the story he is telling, but because they identify with his need to tell it. Responding to a society in which the individual is bombarded with so many images that he runs the risk of forgetting their significance, Gray stages modern morality plays, with memory as the self-reflexive hero slashing away at the dragon of mass-media oblivion. Appealing to his audience's deep collective need to remember, Gray's performance suggests the possibility of salvaging the past simply by caring enough to think about it.

Swimming To Cambodia

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PRODUCTION REVIEWS

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 perspicacity of a master travel writer, he acts as reporter, comic and playwright of his own life.

His latest and best work is called Swimming to Cambodia, presented in two parts, in repertory, at the Performing Garage. The double-barreled dose of Spalding Gray was inspired by his experiences as an actor in the movie The Killing Fields. The film is a screen adaptation of a magazine article by Sydney H. Schanberg, the New York Times correspondent, concerning his friendship with his assistant Dith Pran while covering the war in Cambodia. Mr. Gray played the small role of an assistant to the American ambassador, and from that vantage point was able to see the movie, whole, and—using his own reading and research—also to comprehend the military and political complexity of our Cambodian involvement.

On the one hand, Swimming to Cambodia is an informative supplement to the heat and fire of The Killing Fields. On the other hand, it is a close-up, on-location analysis of the monumental absurdities of movie-making, of people and places in Thailand (where the movie was shot) and of the interpersonal relationships of men and women in film combat. One of Mr. Gray's several provocative theories is his concept of "war therapy." He suggests that every country should work out its militaristic aggressions by making "a major war film once a year." He also believes in "displacement of anxiety"—a small worry substituting for a great pain.

Mr. Gray's stream of experience has the zestful, firsthand quality of a letter home from the front. One could enjoy his narrative in print, but it gains enormously from the fact that he is recounting it in person, acting it out and commenting—with a quizzical look as he tells us about a particularly grotesque Asian sexual practice. In performance, Mr. Gray is a one-man theatrical equivalent of the movie, My Dinner with Andre.

Most of his previous monologues have been drawn directly from his personal life. With Swimming to Cambodia, he expands his world view. He observes a panoply of others as well as himself, bringing back pithy commentary on his producer, his director (a combination of "Zorro, Jesus and Rasputin"), his fellow actors (Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich) and the lesser known people on the project, who walk around, at least in Mr. Gray's mind's-eye, wearing T-shirts that say, "Skip the dialogue, let's blow something up."

He weaves his observations with aspects of his inner life—as an insecure actor with a "very confrontational" girlfriend and as a man who has two desperate, equally important wishes. He wants to get an agent and to experience a perfect moment. In the second part of his monologue, Mr. Gray embraces the mystical; he is a Holden Caulfield seeking nirvana on a Thai beach, while never losing his self-mocking sense of humor or his gift for telling a shaggy story.

Some of the reportage is so bizarre, it must be fantasy—or is it? In any case, acting in a war movie was clearly a mind-expanding time for this impressionable actor. Completing his brief role in The Killing Fields, Mr. Gray remains land-locked on location—in contrast to his colleagues who fly home at the first opportunity. He feels like a poor relation who has stayed too long as a house guest, but he cannot help himself. He is obsessed by the filming, and he transmits his fascination to the audience.

Elinor Fuchs (review date 27 November 1984)

SOURCE: "With the Stream," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIX, No. 48, 27 November 1984, p. 123.

[In the review below, Fuchs considers Swimming to Cambodia "an artistic culmination for Gray as well as an impressive political breakthrough."]

Spalding Gray has created eight autobiographical monologues since 1979. Initially charming in their intimacy, they later wearied as we followed Gray into various formal experiments, such as selecting words randomly in a dictionary (India (and After)) or holding up cue cards (A Personal History of the American Theatre) to generate memories. The last few seemed so slight that one wondered whether the vein had run out. One longed for the Spalding Gray of Three Places in Rhode Island, the performance-art trilogy created with Liz LeCompte and the Wooster Group, in which his autobiographical self somehow became the material of an entire dramatic universe. It seems now that Gray was in practice all these years to create in the monologue form the capaciousness of the earlier ensemble work. Swimming to Cambodia, especially Part I, represents an artistic culmination for Gray as well as an impressive political breakthrough.

Gray plays a small role in The Killing Fields, the ponderous recent film that attempts to tell the story of the Cambodian genocide. Despite its feints at documentary, the film is really—horrible to say—a soap opera. Swimming to Cambodia, built around the making of the film, and thus another layer of artifice removed from Cambodia's death agony, is nonetheless more serious politically, and more artistically shaped as well. Like several of Gray's earlier monologues, it tells the story of a journey, but moves beyond anecdote. Here the journey to Thailand to shoot the film is simultaneously Gray's awakening to personal responsibility in a grotesque political world. Gray doesn't announce his consciousness raising, but rather enacts it.

We first learn of Cambodia distantly, through the character of film producer Roland Joffé, whose words summon up a Shangri-la so joyful "they had lost track of evil." Later we learn in Gray's own blunt account how the Khmer Rouge cut out the livers of countrymen who worked with the Americans, gouged out eyes, disemboweled pregnant women. This horrific awakening is echoed moment to moment, as in the opening of Part I, where a glorious marijuana drug flight into a gold-leaf tunnel turns suddenly ominous as Gray gets sick on the beach creating "a death mask of my own vomit."

Throughout, Gray's story proceeds by daring "leaps and circlings," as my companion remarked, as if his perceptions of reality now imitated his earlier Cage-ean experiments. A documentary level, complete with maps, traces the rise and fall of Cambodian governments, the involvement of the Viet Cong, U.S. military policy in Southeast Asia and the Khmer Rouge whirlwind. A powerful story in its own right is the exploitation of Thai women, as bought "wives," ordinary prostitutes, and burlesque performers who cannonade bananas from their vaginas. It is an inspired stroke—in what would be Act Three if this were, as it often seems to be, a five-act play with dozens of characters—to bring in an apparently unrelated drunken encounter on a train with a U.S. Navy man who spends eight hours a day in a waterproof chamber of a nuclear submarine chained to a panel that controls a doomsday rocket. Gray couples this with a digression on his personal difficulties in handling anger. ("How can I think about the Russians if I can't solve a problem with a woman at Greenwich and North Moore?")

In such a tapestry, 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 of those who don't. Film itself is not merely a reflector but a performer in this dance of death, as when the crew of The Killing Field is greeted at a San Diego military base by overjoyed marines (is this Gray's fantasy?) "singing the 'tune' from Apocalypse Now."

The projection of Gray's dislocated WASP persona (the kind who has friends named 'Puffy') onto the world scene makes his black humor funnier than ever. Part II stays closer to the conflicts and anxieties of this familiar Spalding Gray, but portrays him as an Everyman in comic moral anguish. Should he stay on the film set long after his part is done, maintaining a kind of crazed witness to the world's suffering—though even here he writhes in what he takes to be unequal competition with film star John Malkovich—or should he return to the land of oblivion and get a West Coast agent? After all, says Gray, the Cambodian refugees blown by history to Long Beach want agents too. He is tortured by missiles and starving Ethiopians; the bluefish at a fancy party in the Hamptons is cooked with napalm. But there is Alan Watts's soothing echo in his ear, "Life is a party. So you happened to come in at the end of it," Gray's search for a "perfect moment"—a theme floating through both parts—could be an escape from reality or an ultimate reconciliation with it.

Swimming to Cambodia is shot with dreams and visions. Part II ends with the most powerful of these, Gray's dream in which a Cambodian boy, perhaps a straw effigy, burns from the legs up. As his smile is consumed by flames the room is filled with an "intelligent joy," but now he is gone forever, and Gray realizes that he will never be able to tell the boy's story. This disappearance even in the moment of greatest intensity grasps in an image the artist's shamanistic powers and pitiable frailty, a fitting end for a conflagration of ideas, characters, and motives pouring through a single performer seated at a wooden table with a glass of water.

John Howell (review date March 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Swimming to Cambodia, in Art-forum, Vol. XXIII, No. 7, March, 1985, p. 99.

[In the following evaluation of the Performing Garage production of Swimming to Cambodia, Howell admires Gray's "deceptively simple storytelling."]

For nearly ten years Spalding Gray has been performing autobiographical monologues as an adjunct to his activity with the Wooster Group, the seminal experimental theater troupe. Unlike the work of that ensemble, which is multilayered, emotionally distanced, and relentlessly deconstructive, these solos are informal, vernacular, and, in form, an admiring direct quote of a basic storytelling mode. Wearing L.L. Bean-ish street clothes Gray appears as "Spalding Gray," seats himself at a nondescript table, and reels off a picaresque monologue which has been rehearsed into a script. Within this stripped-down format he weaves tales with considerable skill, combining raconteurial expertise, comic shticking, and elements of cosmic teaching, autotherapy, and the confession.

Over time the monologues have become more elaborate—less monothematic bead strings and more interwoven and associative—and Gray's performance of them has become more varied, more animated. He has an unusually broad theatrical background, from classic '60s Off Broadway to cutting-edge experimental theater, and his considerable training, apparently discarded for these "modest" efforts, in fact permeates his deceptively simple storytelling. In fact, it now seems that the monologues are less a low-keyed alternative to the Wooster Group productions than a parallel search for similar dramatic truths on an individual scale.

In Swimming to Cambodia,Parts I and II, 1984, two related tales broken apart for convenience, Gray tells about his experiences as an actor in The Killing Fields, the recent movie about a New York Times correspondent's friendship with a Cambodian colleague caught in the genocidal madness that swept the country under the Khmer Rouge. Gray's part as a State Department assistant was small, allowing both an entrée to big-time movie-making and plenty of time to observe its inevitable zaniness. Throughout Swimming to Cambodia Gray uses a persona carefully cultivated since his earliest solos, that of the astonished, bewildered man-child trying to understand the "real" world. The pose lends itself well to the old tradition of the comedian as a fumbling schlemiel, and in fact these monologues are screamingly funny, as Gray outlines all kinds of misunderstandings, mixed motives, crazed conduct, and confusion at every turn, not least in his own behavior and in his reactions to the antics of others. Gray's existential ironies emerge easily from the particular to the general—in the contradictions between sex-drenched Thailand and the ravaged Cambodia for which it stood in as a movie set, between courage and death-wish patriotism, between anesthetized Long Island suburbia and exotic Indochina. His conclusion: the "real" world isn't more real, it's just bigger.

A unifying thread through both monologues is Gray's search for "the perfect moment," the instant of oneness with self and universe that would put a spiritual gloss on the animal absurdities he finds saturating himself and every situation. Like a great comic, he lays out some avenues for real thought between his black-humor gags—and through them too, as when he describes the appalling damage done to Western "civilization" by its interventions in the Far East, or the craziness of life imitating art imitating life (styling themselves after Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now!, real Marines used as extras sing "The Ride of the Valkyries" when helicopters zoom in to film an action scene). Later, Gray tells of a ridiculous encounter with TV Land in which he was sent to audition for a sitcom that had already been canceled (of course he didn't get the part—his reading of the banal dialogue had "too much edge"). Strangely enough, some of the characteristics of Gray's experimental-theater background—absorption with self, a distanced approach to role-playing, a humorous skepticism—would seem the ideal qualities for a television actor. Such ironies will no doubt remain grist for the finely tuned, engaging, and often mocking stories of this character "Gray," who reports from the front lines of the search for self in such a selfless way.

Mona Simpson (review date 8 March 1987)

SOURCE: "Somebody to Talk About," in The New York Times Magazine, 8 March 1987, pp. 40, 92-4.

[In the following article, Simpson contends that "most of all," Swimming to Cambodia "is about what it's like to be Spalding Gray. " She also discusses with Gray the making of the film version of the piece.]

As the movie opens, a middle-aged man in an unimpressive coat walks through New York traffic, hands jammed in his pockets. He enters a street-level door below a small sign that says "The Performing Garage." Inside, at one end of a large room, an old wooden table holds a pitcher and glass of water. The man, now in a plaid shirt, minus the coat, sits down, places a Ronald McDonald spiral notebook on the table, takes a sip of water, faces the camera and begins to speak:

"Saturday, June 18, 1983, Hua Hin, Gulf of Siam, Thailand. It was the first day off in a long time, and about 130 of us were trying to get a little rest and relaxation out by the pool in this very modern hotel that looked kind of like a prison. If I had to call it anything I would call it a 'pleasure prison.' It was the kind of place you might come to on a package tour out of Bangkok."

The man is Spalding Gray, a 45-year-old performance artist whose name—which is, by the way, real; Spalding has a brother named Channing—has been known for a decade among followers of experimental theater. The film, Swimming to Cambodia, which consists almost entirely of Gray sitting at the table and talking, brings to the screen for the first time a theatrical form that Gray has created—the epic monologue. For an hour and 28 minutes, Gray expatiates on the subject, more or less, of his involvement as a bit player in the production of the 1984 Roland Joffe film The Killing Fields. Shot in Thailand, The Killing Fields, based on an article that appeared in this magazine by a former Times reporter, Sydney H. Schanberg, focused on the genocidal aftermath of the occupation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1975 by the brutal guerrilla group, Khmer Rouge. But Spalding Gray's monologue, with its elements of standup comedy, psychoanalytic free association and old-fashioned wrestling with conscience, ends up revealing its subject to be the monologist himself.

Directed by Jonathan Demme, who made Melvin and Howard, the Talking Heads rock-concert film Stop Making Sense and, most recently, Something Wild, and with a score by Laurie Anderson, Swimming to Cambodia will open Friday in New York and in at least 20 other cities within the next few weeks.

A critic for The Boston Phoenix once described Spalding Gray as "a Wasp Woody Allen, a spaced-out Norman Rockwell, a male Lily Tomlin," and The Minneapolis Star called him the "new wave Mark Twain." What makes Gray different from all of these figures is that he swears everything he says is true. "I'm interested in creative confession," he says. "I would have made a great Catholic."

Gray has been performing monologues since 1979, and a collection of them, reworked for print, Sex and Death to the Age 14, has been published in paperback by Vintage. But by almost all accounts, including his own, Swimming to Cambodia (also available in paperback, from Theater Communications Group) is his masterpiece. For more than two years, he has performed the piece around the country, including a three-month run at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. "I was spreading the word," he says. "The only way I could do it was me doing it. It's like a Johnny Appleseed thing. I went out across America and every place I made friends."

An associational, looping narrative that skips back and forth in time, Swimming to Cambodia is the story of one man learning to see himself in a larger context. Gray's subjects include and somehow connect the invasion of Cambodia, fights with his girlfriend Renée, the history and tradition of prostitution in Thailand, the killings at Kent State, disastrous Hollywood auditions, the American support of the former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and the nature and depth of liberal ideology. But most of all, the monologue is about what it's like to be Spalding Gray, a struggling New York actor affected both by the content of The Killing Fields and the glamour of being a pampered actor. His developing social conscience battles his career aspirations as he tries to decide, as he puts it, "whether to become a social worker for the Cambodians or to get a Hollywood agent."

As Gray tells it in the monologue, before The Killing Fields, he was fundamentally uninformed about recent history in Southeast Asia. "I'm not very political," he admits. "In fact, I've never even voted in my life." But being in the middle of a war movie forces Gray to bone up on the region's history; and he shares what he learns, in his quirky, pedantic way, with his audience. The film could be thought of as a whimsical high-school history class geared for adults, a session with Dear Spalding about America's relationship to Cambodia.

Gray owns up not only to high moral feelings, but also to the seductions of glamour and good food on the set. For Gray, there was more to Thailand than moral consciousness. When his stint on the film is complete, he ponders what he'll miss: "Farewell to the incredible free lunches under the circus tent with fresh meat flown in from America every day … Farewell to the Thai maid and the fresh, clean cotton sheets on the king-size bed. Farewell to the cakes and teas and ices at 4. Farewell to the single fresh rose in a vase on my bureau every morning in my hotel."

With its limited cast, essentially theatrical nature and Gray's penchant for digression, Swimming to Cambodia may evoke memories of director Louis Malle's 1982 film, My Dinner With Andre, or the 1961 screen version of Jack Gelber's play, The Connection. Yet it stands a chance of gaining a larger audience. The humor of the piece, Gray's stance as a willing innocent, struggling with a nascent social consciousness in the face of Hollywood's temptations, may, in fact, make the film closer to Richard Pryor's concert work.

Like Pryor, Gray introduce's odd, resonant characters, and through his canny ventriloquism, they seem to come more alive than if they were played by actors on the screen. We meet, for example, a young, hysterically bigoted Navy man named Jack Daniels, whom Gray once encountered on a train to Chicago. "He was cute enough," Gray says. "He was in his civvies, not his Navy outfit. The only kind of weird, demented thing about him was that his ears hadn't grown. They were like those little pasta shells. It was as if his body had grown but his ears hadn't caught up yet."

Then, red-faced and several keys lower, Gray does Jack Daniels, yelling his American jingoism in all its vivid profanity, and concluding, "I love the Navy, though. … I get to travel everywhere. I've been to India, Africa, Sweden. I … didn't like Africa, though. I don't know why, but black women just don't turn me on."

"Now here's a guy," Gray says, back in the narrator's voice, "if the women in the country don't turn him on, he misses the entire landscape."

"You won't believe this," Spalding-as-Jack confides, "The Russians don't even have electrical intercoms on their ships. They still speak through tubes!"

Spalding-as-narrator concludes: "Suddenly I had this enormous fondness for the Russian Navy, for the whole of Mother Russia. The thought of them speaking, like innocent children, through empty toilet-paper rolls, empty paper-towel rolls, where you could still hear confusion, doubt, envy, brotherly love, ambivalence. …"

Throughout, Swimming to Cambodia is political in just this way. Gray makes grand, inductive leaps to social and moral philosophy from isolated, personal experience. But if this sort of emotional testimony resonates with naïvete and even sentimentality, there is, nonetheless, considerable dramatic power in the monologue, which comes from Gray's seamless transitions between the ridiculous and the tragic. We are not far removed from the self-important Jack Daniels when suddenly we're hearing the beautifully simple and forthright words of Cambodia's Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, the text of a letter informing the American Ambassador in Phnom Penh that he will stay with his countrymen and not leave Cambodia with the Americans:

"You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it," it says in part. "You leave and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky. But mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot, and in the country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must one day die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans. Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments."

"Five days later," Spalding-as-narrator says, plainly, "their livers were carried through the streets on sticks."

I've never been one to look out for the star role," Spalding Gray says. "I've always been a great supporting actor." He is sitting in the small communal dressing room at The Performing Garage, a theater space in the SoHo section of Manhattan that has been his home as an actor since 1970. The dressing room is dark, cluttered with old furniture. On the wall is a framed letter from Jacqueline Onassis to Gregory Mosher, the director of the Lincoln Center Theater, about Spalding Gray: "What a genius he is!"

Gray says he is happy with any role, however small, providing it furnishes sufficient inspiration to write about later. The monologues, he says, are the product of what he's always doing anyway, "reporting on my personal experiences. Journalism, I call it." Indeed, he seems extremely economical, using most of his professional and personal experiences twice, so to speak. He recently wrote a piece about his Christmas vacation in Miami. "Of course, that's my hope for dying," he says, "that I'll find the right medium and come back and write about it."

Gray's first monologues were created here, improvised in front of audiences at The Performing Garage. He still works improvisationally, starting with notes, talking his stories through and responding to the audience. Later, he'll use a tape recorder to refine and revise them. People who have seen Swimming to Cambodia on stage will find subtle changes in the film's text. No two performances have been duplicated. "Spontaneity and serendipity are the guiding principles of my life," Gray says.

If it weren't for the plaid shirt and sneakers and his somehow Balinese-like hand movements, Gray, who is tall, with patrician, silvering hair and balding a little in the back, would look like a middle-aged businessman in, say, insurance. He is a storyteller even when not on stage. Questions such as "What was your childhood like?" elicit long, spiraling answers, punctuated with actorlike pauses for laughter.

"I was born in Barrington, R.I.," Gray says quickly, "I was a quiet child, as my father said recently in an interview. It was very interesting because when they asked him was he surprised to see what I'd become, he said, 'Very! He was a quiet, backward boy!' He kept referring to me as a 'backward boy.'

"My mother has told me that when my cocker spaniel died, I stopped talking for months. They thought of taking me to a psychiatrist. I wouldn't push ahead in lines. I was dyslexic, didn't know it. Oh, everything was fine up until I was moved to the junior high school, and I think at that point I was overwhelmed by the 'others'—the kids from the other side of the tracks, the Italians, and by the fact that there were so many people in the world. I didn't have any girlfriends in high school and I was doing bad and I was a juvenile delinquent and I was failing everything and they sent me away to boarding school and that's when I got interested in theater. It was the only interest I ever had."

A graduate of Emerson College in Boston, Gray first got his Actors Equity card at the Alley Theater in Houston. But he felt disillusioned by the limitations of traditional theater. In the summer of 1967, he went off to live in Mexico. "I was really despondent because I wasn't facing the fact that my mother was breaking down for two years in Rhode Island," he says. "I'd been there for part of it, but I'd fled a good part of it to go to Houston. So that was a dreadful summer—I came back to find she had committed suicide without them being able to notify me. And then I moved to New York and tried to get back on the track."

During his first years in New York, Gray lived with the actress and director Elizabeth LeCompte, her sister and her sister's roommate on 6th Street and Avenue D. "I would spend the days, all day, walking New York, getting to know it," he says, and it's clear that he's talking about the birth of the monologist in him. "I'd come back at the end of the day and I'd fix dinner for them. I remember particularly chicken hearts and cheap red wine, that Spanish burgundy you could buy for 99 cents. And while I was fixing dinner I would just tell my whole day and they were a great audience."

Gray remembers that time as "turbulent. All that stuff was going on in the counter-culture, and I just felt like the real fear of insanity was upon me. I needed a haven." He found it at The Performing Garage, the home of The Performance Group, a theater collective that included many of the seminal forces in the experimental theater, including its founding director Richard Schechner and the actor Willem Dafoe, currently featured in Oliver Stone's film Platoon. Among other projects there, Gray played Hoss, the lead in the 1973 New York premiere production of Sam Shepard's play, Tooth of Crime.

"Talk about rhythms," Gray says. "That for me was one of the last operatic plays of Sam's, one of the last great ones, in which I'd step into that thing and never stop talking. It was the rhythms that carried me through. And I think that really opened me up and gave me this operatic sense of rhythm that I carry through into my own work."

Gray now lives with Renée Shafransky, a 33-year-old screenwriter and journalist whom he met in 1979 at the then-fashionable late-night club, Studio 54. Ms. Shafransky has been a major character in many of Gray's monologues; in Swimming to Cambodia, she is presented as something of a nag, trying to persuade Spalding to leave his paradise in Thailand and return to their house in the unfortunately named town of Krumville, N.Y. "She gave me an ultimatum," Gray says in the monologue. "'Either give me a date when you're coming home—or marry me.

Ms. Shafransky doesn't mind. "I know the truth behind the truth," she says. She signed release forms so her real name could be invoked in the film. And it was she who helped Gray trim the original monologue down to its filmable shape. (Gray remembers, "She would say, 'Lengthwise, I think the whorehouse scene is too long.'") But then, Ms. Shafransky, an animated, dark, Jewish beauty, sometimes returns the favor, as in the piece she wrote for The Village Voice about living with a Wasp, headlined "The Goy of Sex."

"My fantasy," says Ms. Shafransky, "is that our life is like Nick and Nora Charles, or Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman—all the great romantic sparring partners."

Not incidentally, Ms. Shafransky is also the producer of the film of Swimming to Cambodia. In the fall of 1984, Gray was approached by someone who called himself a fan and a producer. "I sort of trusted him because he wore L.L. Bean boots," Gray says. "But I did not trust his partner. We went to this restaurant. And his partner kept jumping up to go to another table."

The alleged producer kept calling. "But it didn't feel right," Gray continues. "And Renée said, 'If there's going to be a film made of this, why don't you choose the director and producer? Or I'll produce it. You choose the director.'"

Gray had just seen Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads film that Jonathan Demme had directed. "I thought it was a good example of a director's ego being very much out of the material," he says. "And I'd been acquainted with Jonathan, too, socially. So I called him and he had seen the monologue and he was immediately responsive. That was over two years ago. It's taken that long to get the money and the distributor balanced. We'd get a distributor, we'd lose the money. Renée could do a whole monologue on the money that has come and gone. One of the most ridiculous stories was why we went to Florida for Christmas—to meet with a guy who had washing machines in Miami, laundromats."

In the end, it was independent producers Lewis Allen and Peter Newman—"my white knights," Ms. Shafransky says—who provided initial funds for preproduction, and then secured a deal with Cinecom, a film distribution company, for full financing. Swimming to Cambodia was made for $400,000, a very low budget, by any standards. Allen and Newman receive screen credit as executive producers.

Already, Gray and Demme had mutual friends. Each had worked closely with the leader of the Talking Heads, David Byrne, Demme in Stop Making Sense, Gray as an actor in True Stories, the feature film Byrne wrote and directed. Both had been involved with the music of the performance artist Laurie Anderson.

Demme had first seen Gray perform years earlier, at a reading at the Public Theater in New York. "I thought he was fantastic," Demme says. He was "deeply flattered" to be asked to direct Swimming to Cambodia.

Demme's directorial vision in Swimming to Cambodia is oddly subdued. In feature films like Melvin and Howard and Something Wild, his style had been markedly idiosyncratic. But this show is always Spalding's. There are few cuts or oblique angles; the camera tends to view Spalding straightforwardly, face front. Even short inserts of footage from The Killing Fields, and Laurie Anderson's percussive, beautiful score with its hints of Asian melodies and some briefly emphatic visual effects, don't seriously diminish the camera's apparent reverence for the monologist. In fact, the most identifiable touch of pure Demme can be seen in the syncopated, hip, color credits. Of his plain style, Demme says, simply: "It's a perfect collaboration. A love affair."

"It's a documentary of me," Gray says, in a low voice, with some conscious irony. Though the film will bring his work to a larger audience than it's ever had, he still considers it a byproduct of his live monologues. In them, he says: "I am always working my audience. I am working to keep them attentive and awake, just like a good minister would do in a Puritan church in a long Sunday session. If I see someone nodding, dozing, I will begin to address them to energize them with my voice and presence. I've had very few walkouts ever—maybe there was one at Lincoln Center. Someone gets up and it's the most obscene gesture possible. It almost makes me not able to go on."

At a French restaurant a few blocks from The Performing Garage, Spalding and Renée order steaks and joke about making a film called The Big Break, a spoof on the mythology of luck and success. In a low, husky voice, Renée intones, "The chances were one in a million, but through hard, hard work and a combination of luck, circumstance and …"

Much of Spalding's work has been about missed chances, the underside of the Horatio Alger story, but these days plenty of opportunities are turning up.

"Lincoln Center made enormous changes in my life," Gray says.

"It's only in the past two years that he's been able to make a real living doing what he wants," says Renée.

Currently, Gray is filming a second movie monologue, this time for Home Box Office, a version of his Terrors of Pleasure, about the disasters attendant to his purchase of a house in the country. The working title for his next major project is L.A.—The Other. Gray will go into Los Angeles ghettos—the barrio, Watts, one Asian community and the San Fernando Valley ("a ghetto of sorts," Gray says)—and try to discover and work with local storytellers. The results—"I was going to call it a talent show, but I just want people to tell their own stories"—will be staged next fall at the Taper, Too, a satellite facility of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

As Renée borrows his knife, Spalding takes out a package of The Three Castles, a mild Virginian tobacco. He rolls himself a cigarette and confides his real wish, which is to work with that other quintessential monologist, Woody Allen. "It's the only project I'm really interested in," Gray says. "I met him once in an audition for 'The Happy-Sad Train'"—a reference to a scene from Allen's film, Stardust Memories.

He lights up, inhales. "I smoke one a day," he says. "I love Woody Allen."

Finally, Gray is also writing, for print, not performance. "I'm working on what looks like my autobiography," he says. "And I'm determined that it's not to be spoken. It's based, really, on how I've theatricalized my life. I thought it was about my mother's suicide but the suicide seems to be like Brueghel's Icarus. Icarus is falling into the water, everyone's going on doing their tasks around him and it's one incident in the landscape."

Much of the book-in-progress is, apparently, about sex. It has been the subject of some debate at home. Renée would like to see him begin to fictionalize. "So far," she reports, "he's holding out. He feels he has to write what he needs to write. So I'm going to let him write it, and then we'll see."

The two have found a buyer for the troublesome Terrors of Pleasure house and bought another one in upstate New York. They plan to live and work there part of every year. "Sane comfort," Gray says. "Something that's not provocative on an absurdist level. The final house, a real house. There won't be any story in it."

"It's the first normal thing we've ever done," Ms. Shafransky says.

Marriage does not seem to be an issue for them. When the subject of children comes up, however, a loud squabble breaks out. Shortly, though, the disagreement subsides, and Renée kisses him on the ear.

"I always figured I could do a great monologue about having a kid," Gray concedes.

Lydia Alix Gerson (review date March 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Swimming to Cambodia, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 39, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 96-7.

[In the following assessment of a performance of Swimming to Cambodia, Gerson interprets the piece as a meditation on the loss of shared morality in the modern world: "We live in a world without moral compass, a world in which small outrages rank with large ones simply because we have lost all sense of scale in evaluating human affairs."]

Swimming To Cambodia, a monologue written and performed by Spalding Gray is the last of a series of three such works offered by the Mitzi Neuhaus Theatre at Lincoln Center. Ostensibly, the piece is a fever chart of Gray's work on the film, The Killing Fields, and as such is an impressionistic, introspective revelation. Yet in interweaving his experience from his film work in contemporary Cambodia, his knowledge of the genocide that took place under Pol Pot, and his understanding of life in contemporary America, Gray outlines a continuum of atrocity between the American and Asian continents.

The monologue, ranging freely in time and space, is comprised of fractured, discontinuous episodes. The several stories do not seem to be moral equivalents, moving as they do from urban nuisance to Cambodian genocide. Yet this technique serves to force parallels between domestic and international outrage—and, perhaps more importantly, to point up their connection. Within the same hour and a quarter, the audience is treated to a numbing span of contemporary and historical events: a Nazi mass execution; a verbal portrait of the savagery unleashed by the Khmer Rouge; an offensive upstairs neighbor in New York City; mass prostitution in Bangkok; the prolonged United States' bombing of Cambodia. Gray reports all noncommittally; none of his tones trill in outrage. Nor does he state any of the obvious conclusions. The positioning of the pieces makes the historical point.

Although the moral issues raised in Swimming to Cambodia are of global significance, somewhere embedded in all this narration is a specific indictment of the United States for creating the requisite conditions for atrocity in Cambodia. The unspoken question in the piece seems to be: what kind of nation have we become to bestow automatic moral probity upon a Pol Pot simply because he answers to the tag of non-Communist?

By way of an answer, we are offered an episode concerning a young naval recruit named Jim. Gray meets him aboard a train bound for Pittsburgh. En route, Jim expounds on the special dynamics of his existence. He explains his predilection for threesomes, domination, submission, that whole "power thing." Spouting a Cold War litany, he tells Gray of his firm commitment to stop the Russians. His job is ideally suited to this imperative: he is tied to a wall in a nuclear battleship, his finger on a green button, just waiting to launch Armageddon. When Gray points out that Jim could easily destroy the whole world, the latter reveals that the Navy has provided him with a list of places that will be safe from radiation in the event of a blast. As Gray dourly notes, Jim will be safe while the rest of us are vaporized. Jim feels no compunction over the many millions that will die in a nuclear exchange; we must prevail over Communism. We leave him contemplating megadeath.

The monologue also focuses on the expendability of human life in a more quotidian context. Gray's upstairs neighbor makes incessant noise into the wee hours. Neither civility nor threat has dampened her enthusiasm for nocturnal riot. Over the course of time, the woman has become, in fact, progressively more offensive. Frustrated, Gray heaves an empty beer bottle through the offender's window. The action nearly precipitates a battle to the death with the woman's allies.

The unifying theme of the piece seems to be the relative value assigned to human life. In Pol Pot's Cambodia, there was no value assigned at all. In Pat Pong, Bangkok, bodies are fractionalized according to a schedule of escalating fees for prostitution. In New York City, human life may well be worth the price of a beer bottle.

This disparity confuses Gray, and it is at this juncture that sociological comment becomes ontological reflection in his piece. What has become of the cultural fraternity that existed in Gray's native Boston where a phone call appealing to mutual civility could accomplish détente? With the lack of a consensually defined humanism, we have lost a common notion of humanity and with it, all sense of proportion. We live in a world without moral compass, a world in which small outrages rank with large ones simply because we have lost all sense of scale in evaluating human affairs.

As usual, Gray's set is a black backdrop and some simple furniture: a desk, a chair, a couple of maps. He relies on himself and is, for the most part, riveting. If at times he lapses into the routine of a stand-up comic, it is because such kitsch is the only relief to the anomie which Swimming to Cambodia relentlessly expounds.

CRITICAL COMMENTARY

William W. Demastes (essay date 1989)

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 argues that while Swimming to Cambodia is rooted in the principles of experimental theater, it undermines and transcends those principles.]

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" [A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century Drama. Volume Three: Beyond Broadway, 1985]. 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 [in "About Three Places in Rhode Island," The Drama Review, No. 1, 1979] the process of over-turning 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 arche-type 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 [in "Three Places in Rhode Island," The Drama Review 19, No. 4, 1975] notes that the piece "is more evocative in style than expositional," and Arnold Aronson [in "Sakonnet Point," The Drama Review 19, No. 4, 1975] 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 transferrai occurs 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 avantgarde 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 is in the trilogy's final piece, Nayatt 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 [in "Perpetual Saturdays," Performing Arts Journal 6, No. 1, 1981], "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 avantgarde 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 [in "Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre," Theatre Journal 39, 1987] 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 "Performance Notes," Performing Arts Journal 23, 1984]: "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—Mill-er—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" ["Ways of Speaking, Loci of Recognition," The Drama Review 31, No. 3, 1987]. 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 re-formed 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 [in "The Year of Spalding Famously," Village Voice, 13 November 1984], "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 story-telling, simply sitting at a desk and addressing an attentive audience in the intimacy of the Performance Garage." In fact, Vincent Canby notes [in "Soloists on the Big Screen," The New York Times, 22 March 1987] 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 [in "Presence and the Revenge of Writing," Performing Arts Journal 26/27, 1985] 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 highlighting 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 [in "To Play Oneself May Be The Greatest Illusion of All," The New York Times, 29 June 1986] 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" [Julius Novick, "A Lighter Shade of Gray," Village Voice, 27 May 1986]. 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" [Mel Gussow, "Stage: Spalding Gray as Storyteller," The New York Times, 16 November 1984].

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" [Janet Maslin, "Film: Spalding Gray's 'Swimming to Cambodia'," The New York Times, 13 March 1987]. 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" [David Guy, "From the Heart: Sex and Death To The Age 14. By Spalding Gray," The New York Times, 4 May 1986]. 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 [in Don Shewey, "A Spinner Of Tales Moves Into the Main-stream," The New York Times, 11 May 1986],

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 experiences 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 ever 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 [Deborah Mason, "New Wave Confidence," Vogue, May, 1986]. 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." [Elinor Fuchs, "With the Stream," Village Voice, 27 November 1984]. 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 movie-making." 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" [Vera Dike, "Cinema: Critical/Mass," Art in America, January, 1988]. 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" ["Swimming to Cambodia. By Spalding Gray," The New York Times Sunday Magazine, 12 January 1986]. 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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AUTHOR COMMENTARY

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.

OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES

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."

D'Erasmo, Stacey. "Gray Matters." Harper's Bazaar, No. 3365 (May 1992): 46, 135.

General appreciation of Gray and his work. D'Erasmo states, "Gray deserves an award for making the spoken word terrifying and spectacular to a mass audience."

Gentile, John S. "Spalding Gray." In his Cast of One: One-Person Shows from the Chatauqua Platform to the Broadway Stage, pp. 148-52. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Links Gray to the solo performance tradition "that is rooted in the art of storytelling and the basic human need to hear and to tell stories."

McGuigan, Cathleen. "Gray's Eminence." Newsweek CVIII, No. 4 (28 July 1986): 69.

Declares that Gray "has reinvented the oral tradition."

Shank, Theodore. "Spalding Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte: The Wooster Group." In his American Alternative Theater, pp. 170-79. New York: Grove Press, 1982.

Focuses on the autobiographical content of Gray's work, particularly Three Places in Rhode Island.

Shewey, Don. "The Year of Spalding Famously." Village Voice XXIX, No. 46 (13 November 1984): 99, 107.

Profile of Gray that stresses his status as an "underground celebrity."

Siegle, Robert. "Spalding Gray and the Colorful Quilt of Culture." In his Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency, pp. 252-59. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Examines the ways in which Gray's works "disrupt the traditional relationship between a passive audience and method actors preserving the illusion of reality on a raised stage."

THREE PLACES IN RHODE ISLAND

Aronson, Arnold. "Sakonnet Point." The Drama Review 19, No. 4 (December 1975): 27-35.

Examination of the structure, images, action, and other performance-related elements of Sakonnet Point.

Bierman, James. "Three Places in Rhode Island." The Drama Review 23, No. 1 (March 1979): 13-30.

Detailed analysis of the dramaturgy of Gray's trilogy.

SEX AND DEATH TO AGE 14

Brustein, Robert. Review of Sex and Death to Age 14. The New Republic 195, No. 1 (July 7, 1986): 36-7.

Favorable evaluation that claims "Gray creates an erotic history of early adolescence that does for New England Protestants what Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth did for New York and New Jersey Jews."

SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA

Canby, Vincent. "Soloists on the Big Screen." The New York Times (22 March 1987): II, 19.

Review of the movie version of Swimming to Cambodia that places it in the genre of "concert film."

Carr, Cindy. "Spalding Gray." American Film XII, No. 7 (May 1987): 62.

Profile of Gray and an appreciation of the film version of Swimming to Cambodia that declares it "an epic meditation on illusion and reality."

Dika, Vera. "Critical/Mass." Art in America 76, No. 1 (January 1988): 37-40.

Argues that the film version of Swimming to Cambodia is not "a mere recording of a previously staged event but a new work, one that actually extends and completes the original aspirations of the performance piece."

Maslin, Janet. Review of Swimming to Cambodia. The New York Times (13 March 1987): C 8.

Describes the film of Swimming to Cambodia as "a twoman undertaking, one that shows off both Mr. Gray's storytelling talents and [director] Jonathan Demme's ability to frame them."

Prinz, Jessica. "Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia: A Performance Gesture," in Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, pp. 156-68. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 156-68.

Argues that in its attempt to come to terms with the horrors that took place in Cambodia, Swimming to Cambodia represents "a reaction to or defense mechanism against the fantastic and seemingly impossible facts of history."

Rich, Frank. "To Play Oneself May Be the Greatest Illusion of All." The New York Times (29 June 1986): 3, 25.

Includes a review of Swimming to Cambodia, in which Rich observes: "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."

MONSTER IN A BOX

Leslie, Guy. Review of Monster in a Box. Theater Week 4, No. 16 (26 November 1990): 34.

Finds Gray's storytelling in Monster in a Box "highly entertaining" but observes that "some indication that storytelling cannot neatly tie a ribbon around all of life's experiences is called for."

Simon, John. Review of Monster in a Box. New York Magazine 23, No. 48 (10 December 1990): 109.

Very mixed assessment asserting that some of Monster in a Box "has a fey, off-the-wall charm, [but] some of it is just self-indulgent blather."

Additional coverage of Gray's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 128; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 49; Discovering Authors: Modules—Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Module.

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Gray, Spalding (Contemporary Literary Criticism)