Spalding Gray 1941-
Gray has won critical acclaim for his autobiographical monologues, in which he transforms the banalities and sometimes embarrassing intimacies of his personal life into larger reflections on contemporary society. Described by Don Shewey as "a hybrid of performance artist and standup comedian," Gray sits at a desk on a barren stage and improvises from a prepared outline. His performances have elicited comparisons to the work of such contemporary comedians as Woody Allen and Lily Tomlin and to the writings of Mark Twain. While some critics view Gray's monologues as self-indulgent and superficial, many applaud his insights and storytelling expertise. David Hirson has observed that "Gray's revelations tap into a collective worship of the mundane self: he titillates our narcissistic impulses by a titanic display of his own."
Born in Rhode Island to middle-class parents, Gray became interested in theater as a teenager. He studied acting at Emerson College, and after his graduation in 1965 he performed for two years in summer stock theater in New England and New York state. In 1967 Gray traveled to Texas and Mexico; upon his return several months later he learned that his mother had committed suicide. This loss and the consequent family trauma caused him to suffer a prolonged depression that resulted in a nervous break-down nine years later. In the late 1960s Gray moved to New York City, where he joined the Performance Group, an experimental Off-Broadway theater company. There he composed his first autobiographical dramatic works. In 1977 he founded the Wooster Group with Elizabeth LeCompte, with whom he wrote Sakonnet Point and Rumstick Road, two experimental dramas that explored his mother's mental illness and suicide and their effects on his youth and his family. Gray and LeCompte also composed Nayatt School, a satire of T. S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party. These three plays made up a trilogy called Three Places in Rhode Island, which Gray produced collectively in 1979.
Gray became interested in the possibilities of the dramatic monologue during his tenure as a summer workshop instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1978. The following year he performed his first monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, at the Performing Garage in New York. In the 1980s Gray continued to produce and perform monologues, and publicity from his performances resulted in his being cast as an American ambassador's aide in the 1983 film The Killing Fields.
The two months Gray spent filming on location in Thailand became the subject of Swimming to Cambodia, considered by many to be his masterpiece. Gray has followed Swimming to Cambodia with several more monologues, including Monster in a Box, Gray's Anatomy, and It's a Slippery Slope. He has also created film versions of Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box and a television adaptation of Terrors of Pleasure.
Swimming to Cambodia is Gray's best-known monologue and is widely regarded as his finest work. The piece premiered in 1985 and evolved improvisationally at the Performing Garage. Gray, who performed the monologue sitting at a desk with only a glass of water, a notebook, and two maps of Southeast Asia as props, narrated anecdotes and observations from several levels of his own experience—as an individual coping with personal problems, as a professional actor in a large-scale movie production, as an American facing the aftermath of U.S. policy in Cambodia since the Vietnam War, and as a human being learning of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, a guerilla group that terrorized Cambodia in 1975. The title is taken from Gray's remark that explaining the tragedy of Cambodia "would be a task equal to swimming there from New York." Gray's success with the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia inspired him to collaborate with his girlfriend Renée Shafransky on a movie version of the monologue. The film was produced by Shafransky, directed by Jonathan Demme, and released in 1987 to critical acclaim.
Swimming to Cambodia met with an enthusiastic reception. Critics admired the pace and fluidity of Gray's narrative, the numerous descriptive details in his recollections, and the honesty with which he presented his stories. Elinor Fuchs praised Gray's blending of personal and social events in the play, describing Swimming to Cambodia as "an artistic culmination for Gray as well as an impressive political breakthrough." Lydia Alix Gerson admired the way the piece creates "parallels between domestic and international outrage," viewing Swimming to Cambodia as a meditation on living in the modern world, which is "without moral compass." Other critics, including William W. Demastes and Jessica Prinz, have focused on Gray's roots in avant-garde theater. Summarizing Gray's unique position as an experimental playwright who has achieved commercial and popular success, Demastes has observed: "Gray's work appeals to middle America, but for those who can see more than vicarious experiences in the works, the pieces take on an ironic significance, revealing fragmentation and uprootedness that is a first step to political awakening."