Spalding Gray, who died in 2004, would have been 79 on June 5, 2020. Here is my personal remembrance of a sadly missed storyteller and artist.
I was so excited waiting in line to enter. I was there early, eager and jittery. The line was long. People straggled out onto promenade next to the Thames. I hoped C. would arrive soon. It was our first real date together. Friday evening, the day after my thirty seventh birthday. I’d bought two tickets to see one of my heroes perform at Royal Festival Hall, on London’s South Bank, someone I’d never seen live before: Spalding Gray. The line was edging indoors, and I knew that once we were in, in our seats, and Gray had commenced, cleared his throat for the first time, nobody would be allowed late entry. I began to get tense as seven-thirty struck. The show was due off at seven-forty-five. Still no signs of C. anywhere. I got worried. I’d have to choose soon. Go in alone, or be loyal, wait for C., and, if she’s late, miss the show. I got really edgy as seven-forty approached. She wasn’t about. Maybe she’d mistaken the venue?
I remember the previous evening telling her all about Spalding Gray. Who was he? she’d wondered. How to describe what he did? I wondered. He was a monologist, I said. What’s a monologist? she said. Someone who sits behind a desk with a glass of water, I said, and, without props or fancy effects, for an hour-and-a-half talks about themselves in front of an audience. Oh, she said. He tells stories, I said, that make people laugh and think and sometimes cry. He tells of his everyday adventures, his inner thoughts, his doubts and hang ups, his euphoric moments. He’s hilarious, I said.
But, listen, I said, he’s no stand-up (or sit-down) comic: this is profound existential and psychological inquiry, “a way of taking full responsibility for my life,” Gray says, “and also a more therapeutic way of splitting off a part of myself to observe another part.” People can relate to what he says, I said. They find him funny—darkly, ironically, hypochondriacally funny. Here is ego and id dialoguing with one another, doing it in public. What Gray says is both rehearsed and improvised, structured and destructured, depending on his mood, depending on the audience’s reactions. No monologue is ever the same, even if it’s the same monologue. It’s always a work in progress; the wheels spin each night.
Gray comes from Barrington, Rhode Island, I said; but his angst, his self-dramatizing hyperbole, his arrogances and insecurities, make him, for me, quintessentially a New Yorker. “For thirty four years I lived with you,” he once said of his adopted home town, “and came to love you. I came to you because I loved theater and found theater everywhere I looked. I fled New England and came to Manhattan, that Island off the coast of America, where human nature was king and everyone exuded character and had big attitude. You gave me a sense of humorbecause you are so absurd.”
Gray made New York home in 1967. He got involved with its underground experimental theater community, under Antonin Artaud’s and Jerzy Grotowski’s spell; and with Liz LeCompte, Gray’s girlfriend at the time, joined Richard Schechner’s Performance Group. A few years on, he and LeCompte broke off to form the Wooster Group, headquartered at a grungy loft space, the Performing Garage, along Wooster Street in SoHo. The troupe and the venue quickly became the springboard for Gray’s monologue career. What if I spoke my own words, he wondered, instead of somebody else’s? What if I used myself to play myself? What if, he joked, “I began playing with myself?”
The Wooster Group became Gray’s first audience. He’d perform short monologues in front of its members, twenty-minute stints in which he’d unearth childhood memories and reminiscences of his mother, her decent into madness and eventual suicide at fifty two. These performances, sat behind a simple wooden table, became the beginnings of public autobiography. Each day, “when I’d come in for rehearsal,” Gray said, “they would ask me to tell it [the monologue] again, and I did, while Liz taped it. Each day it was embellished and edited and grew as a text until at last we transcribed it.”
The big break through came with Swimming to Cambodia, a watershed monologue, still his best-known, a virtuoso performance mixing personal and political history—the story of a genocide, a film about that genocide, and Gray’s bit role in that film about that genocide. Gray became the US Ambassador in Roland Joffé’s 1984 Oscar-winning The Killing Fields, about two New York Times reporters who’d uncovered the US’s secret bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s. The covert campaign was designed to drive the Vietcong out of Cambodia yet instead only stirred things up. The Vietcong retreated to the Cambodian bush, hitched up with a bunch of ruthless guerrillas—the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot—who then initiated the worst auto-homeo-genocide in modern history, the said Killing Fields.
Gray’s monologue was about this movie and this real human tragedy. Soon afterward, his monologue about this movie became a movie about his monologue. In November 1986, director Jonathan Demme shot two consecutive performances of Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia before a live audience at the Performing Garage, as close as you could get to being there without actually being there. At first Demme wasn’t turned on. “Before I’d seen Spalding perform,” he confessed, “I was horrified at the idea of being trapped in a room with just one person speaking at a desk. I didn’t want to see him, even though everyone kept telling me how much I’d love him. When I finally did go to one of his shows I was instantly won over.”
The film’s prologue is my favorite scene. There, we track Gray pacing Lower Manhattan’s streets, notebook under arm, en route to his performance. He looks like the struggling artist he is, or at least was then: forlorn, a bit down at heel, traipsing across Canal Street amid speeding traffic, piled up garbage and graffiti, greatcoat collar turned up; a Dostoevskian underground man fighting off his existential chills. But there’s a slyness about him, too, a sprightliness to his gait, an air of anticipation and optimism, bobbing up and down merrily to Laurie Anderson’s jaunty soundtrack. Moments later he approaches the steel entrance door of the Performing Garage, with its green sign overhead almost winking at us. Next thing he’s on stage, sat at trademark desk, sipping water, taking a deep breath, ready to begin.
This was 1980s New York. Living for the city in that decade had been rough. Fiscal crisis still bit deep into public budgets; factories were closing; decline and hard drugs expressed themselves out on the street, scarred the city’s fabric, even as Wall Street boomed and financiers laughed all the way to the bank. Ironically, crisis meant that abandoned old industrial spaces, like the Performing Garage itself, were affordable for a while, to struggling artists who sometimes made great art amongst the debris, in these ruins, without hot water.
I remember seeing this same 1980s New York cityscape before, elsewhere on film, in My Dinner With André, which similarly starts off with a theater guy—Wally Shawn—trudging through Lower Manhattan, similarly in a greatcoat, similarly surrounded by blight, litter and bleak emptiness, similarly crossing Canal Street. As Wally walks we hear his voice-over dialoguing with himself, telling us of his artistic woes: “The life of a playwright is tough,” he says. “It’s not easy, as some people seem to think. You work hard writing plays, and nobody puts them on. You take up other lines of work to try and make a living—acting, in my case—and people don’t hire you. So you spend your days crossing the city back and forth doing the errands of your trade.”
I told C. that evening how my acquaintance with Gray first came about through Marshall Berman, through All That Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall said Gray’s early play, Rumstick Road, developed between 1975-8 as part of the Wooster Group’s Three Plays in Rhode Island, was “a powerful confrontation with home and with ghosts.” Rumstick Road, after Gray’s childhood home address, tries to understand his mother, her malaise and gradual disintegration, his family as well as Gray himself, as a child and as an adult, as a man-child—“to live with what he knows and with what he will never know,” Marshall said. Its dialogue speaks to anybody who’d lost somebody, especially one’s mother. In Rumstick Road, Gray for the first time talks directly to the audience, dramatizes his dreams and reveries; there’s dance, abstract movement and music; original reel and audio recordings of his mother and father and grandmother, even of his mother’s shrink (with Gray miming his words); and photos and slides of his family and two brothers, all seemingly hunky dory in suburban Rhode Island, circa 1950s.
Rumstick Road, said Marshall, suggests that “a kind of liberation and reconciliation is possible for human beings in this world.” This liberation can never be total, Marshall thought, “but it is real, and earned: Gray has not merely looked into the abyss but gone into it and brought its depths up into the light for us all. Gray’s fellow actors have helped him: their intimacy and mutuality, developed through years of work as a close ensemble, are absolutely vital in his labor of discovering and facing and being himself.” Still, the play, and the actual experience of his mother’s suicide, would remain an open wound for Spalding Gray. How could it be otherwise? For much of his youth, he remembers trying to help his mother through long periods of depression. She might suddenly turn to him and ask: “How shall I do it, dear? How shall I do it? Shall I do it in the garage with the car?”
An emerald apparition approached, flapping in the breeze, a blast of verdant light, arriving just in the nick of time, with barely a minute to spare. She was wearing her new green jacket, bought that very afternoon, especially for the occasion, a special occasion almost missed. But she’d made it, apologized for her tardiness. So much to do today, she said, and she took time out to go clothes shopping, too. Had to run all the way across Waterloo Bridge. She was here, C., and now we could both go in, take our seats, ready ourselves for the monologue Spalding Gray was calling It’s a Slippery Slope.
It was a packed house, over a thousand people. I never knew he had so many UK fans. The atmosphere was electric. I had to admit, and did admit it to C., that I was terribly nervous; not about being with C. so much, but nervous that she might be disappointed with Spalding Gray, that she wouldn’t like him. And I was nervous he’d fluff his lines, that something would go wrong, and I would be disappointed. There was a sudden hush, and then he appeared, discretely, very unspectacularly. Yet there he was, sure enough, Spalding Gray, in the flesh, wearing a red and gray checked flannel shirt. He sat down and paused, calmly took a sip of water, looked up, and then, in a dulcet voice very familiar to me: “The first mountain I ever remember seeing was framed in the pane of my geometry class window at Fryeburg Academy in Maine in 1956.”
After a couple of moments I knew he was going to be just fine. Skiing no longer became a gray area: now it was a Gray area, a tale of a mid-life crisis, of a man trying to find his balance in life and on skis, a man who, no matter what, “was always a little bit not present.” “I’m tired of being a VICARIAN,” Gray told his partner Renée. “I want to live a life, not tell it! I want to turn right on skis!” At a ski lesson, he’s the only one in class who can’t turn right. Right, left, right, left, they all went, snaking gently down the bunny slope. While he: left, left, left, then right, left, right…then bam, down he went, into the snow. Just a simple shift of weight was all you needed, and you could turn right, then left, then right again, and left—“Oh my God, Spalding,” his inner cheerleader voice began saying, at those rare moments of equilibrium, “you’re skiing!” Then: CRASH! He’d be in the snow again. “If I was not whole and completely there and balanced on my skis,” Gray said, “I would be DOWN! The mountain would HIT me hard.” A metaphor about existence, maybe, for a life full of sharp twists and turns, hard bumps and tight corners. You need to be able to wiggle every which way to keep your balance.
There was a lot going on in Gray’s life just then. Before long, the monologue took on a serious, almost painful tone. Off piste, things were more unbalanced. He spoke about his own suicidal tendencies, fantasies about how he was going to do it, now that he was fifty two himself, the age his mother ended it all. “I was reversing my history,” he said. “Mom was no longer going mad, my inner kid was going mad and saying, ‘Hey, Mom! Hey, Renée, look at this—look at what it looks like to go crazy.’ The craziness manifested itself in imitations of Mom’s behavior, or my actually becoming like her.” He said he was beginning to act up in public places, much the same way his Mom acted up. “I’d be muttering to myself,” he said, “and involuntarily shouting out.” Yet this was New York City, and nobody really noticed or cared. Or if they did notice, they joined in. “I can remember screaming in the streets at night,” Gray said, “and hearing my scream picked up by other people who passed it on down the street for blocks and blocks. What started out as real panic was turned into a performance by the people.”
When I heard this, I thought it a tremendously affecting eulogy to New York. The city could participate in a collective reenactment of Aristotle’s Poetics: acting out tragic drama, people engaged in a public catharsis, like Aristotle suggested theater should be—a communal release, a cry for HELP, a cleansing of tragedy. “When Mom let out a few of these yelps in a Rhode Island supermarket,” Gray said, “they put her in a straight jacket and gave her shock treatments. If Mom had lived in New York City, she’d still be alive today.” This was the killer line. Cities should release repression rather than enforce it. There, in the streets, we bring our worst feelings to the surface and work through them as a public.
Gray’s personal life was getting complicated and self-destructive. He confessed to an affair he’d had, was still having, with a younger woman called Kathie; and she was pregnant with his child. But he doesn’t want the kid, doesn’t want to be a father, tells Kathie “get rid of it.” He acts crummily, is in denial. On a whim he marries longtime girlfriend Renée, consummating a relationship they’d begun in 1979, hoping it would extinguish the burning hot affair, and refreshen a stale relationship—Renée, like Liz LeCompte before her, wasn’t only Gray’s confidante and lover; she was also his theatrical soulmate and creative advisor, almost his business manager. Yet the affair hots up even more. Renée has had enough, hears about the pregnancy, leaves Gray, clears out of their SoHo loft. Gray goes to see Kathie and his eight-month-old son, Forrest, and suddenly has the exhilarating experience of fatherhood; a new life as a family man beckons. “Bending over him, I looked down into his eyes, and fell in. I did not expect the gaze that came back, it was absolutely forever. Long, pure, empty, mere being, pure consciousness, the observing self that I’d always been trying to catch was staring back at me; they were no-agenda eyes.”
Kathie moves into his loft with her seven year old daughter, Marissa. Now, with Forrest, they were a foursome; domestic chaos is thrust upon him. But it’s maybe a first glimpse of real happiness, even of contentment, of being there and only there. And there it seems like he’s come to life again, earned the sort of liberation that Marshall had hinted at; never total, but real. Out skiing in Vermont, at the end of the day, at the end of his monologue, alone in contemplation, he skis through the twilight like a demon. Left, right, left, right he goes, tucking behind a seventy year old man, who is “skiing the most beautiful, carved, Tai Chi-like turns.” “And later I bid him farewell,” Gray said, “knowing I have seen both a person and an apparition, the spirit of the future.”
Gray thought he was undergoing a meltdown, was self-destructing, disintegrating. But instead he brought new life into the world, rejuvenated, grew up, accepted responsibility for his new creation, and for being a grown up. There was a split and then a fusion, a passionate embrace. For that he gave himself a big high-five. “I knew now,” he said, “that I had to stay alive to help this little guy through.”
Exiting the auditorium I was dying to know what C. thought. She could see I was ebullient, thrilled by the experience, absolutely not disappointed. But what about her? I’d heard her laugh a few times, giggle at Spalding a bit. Then she turned to me and said she’d really enjoyed it, didn’t understand everything, but that he was great. She said he was special. He was brave, she said. You mean confessing in public? I said. No, not really that, she said. It’s just the idea of sitting there alone, at a desk, talking to lots of people without anything. That was a brave. There’s nothing to protect you from flopping. It’s so low-tech, isn’t it, I said, in a world saturated by technology. Nobody would ever believe it possible. Engaging an audience like that.
We’re so used to seeing flashing images, shifting images, loud, pulsating music and dramatic effects and gimmicks. We’ve almost lost the ability to sit still and listen to somebody tell a story, one human being communicating with other humans beings, without mediation, through language and nothing else. It was how Wordsworth said a poet should address their audience: “using the language of real men,” “a man speaking to man.” It was why Gray didn’t really like his monologues becoming films. It was real life he was after, not reel life. Although, you know, he’s a bit weird, isn’t he, C. said, a bit strange. I guess it was true. Most people I love are strange, a bit weird somehow.
Years later, she told me what she liked most about things then, about seeing Spalding Gray and others, was how it was all new and unknown to her, a great adventure; being exposed to it was a thrill and a pleasure. That was what was most important, even if she didn’t get it all, or even if she didn’t like everything. I mean, she said, he was a shit toward his old girlfriend, Renée, wasn’t he, how he’d betrayed her, cheated on her, abandoned any sense of loyalty. It was all immediate gratification for him. Selfish, just about him, she’d said, any woman could see that. His monologues were definitely stories for guys. He’s a bit too obsessed with sex, she’d said.
We did see Spalding Gray perform again a couple of years on, at the Lincoln Center, after we’d moved to New York, a new monologue, Morning, Noon and Night, about a single day in the life of his new domesticity, Gray’s Joycean moment. Now, he became a sort of Leopold Bloom, an ironical Everyman. He’d had another kid, another boy, Theo, only a few months old, moved to east end of Long Island, to the quaint town of Sag Harbor, buying an old house next to a whalers’ church, straight out of the opening scenes of Moby-Dick. It was a strange Odyssey he’d recounted that night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, a charming, less conflicted and angst-ridden tale about the daily round of fatherhood, bike riding with Forrest, eating ice cream together, meals and bath time with Theo, an ordinary life made a little less ordinary through the wave of Gray’s magic wand.
But then something terrible happened. In June 2001, he was in Ireland celebrating his sixtieth birthday, out driving one night with friends, along a deserted country road, with Kathie at the wheel and Spalding in the back. Out of nowhere, at a sleepy junction, a speeding mini-van, driven by a local vet, struck them head-on. Gray, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, broke his hip and smashed his forehead against the back of Kathie’s head; both were unconscious for a while. Kathie seemed okay, suffering only bruises and minor injuries, nothing permanent. But Gray couldn’t walk; his head swelled up. He had hip surgery, sciatic nerve damage, which left him with a numb foot.
Bone fragments pressed against the right frontal lobe of his brain, the part that enables you to think reflectively and maintain steady focus. It seemed he had brain damage. Titanium plates were fitted. His face was disfigured and he could no longer walk properly, no longer hike nor ski. Nor, apparently, could he do his monologues as before. Gray sunk into a deep depression, deeper than ever. Meanwhile, he decided to sell his old Sag Harbor house, the one lovingly depicted in Morning, Noon and Night, buying another newer and bigger property nearby, more practical for his enlarged family. Immediately, though, regret seized him. Selling it had been “catastrophic.” He tried to buy it back. But the new owners weren’t interested. His depression worsened. Then he started to leave suicide notes on the kitchen table.
Gray had been a depressive most of his adult life, like me. In early 2004, when I was living in France, I learned he’d finally gone through with it, had committed suicide. It was a bitter blow, crushing for my own wobbly midlife. With his watery disappearance in New York Harbor, after throwing himself off the Staten Island Ferry, in bleak mid-winter late one night, part of my New York drowned, too. Poor Spuddy Gray. He could tell a life but couldn’t quite live a life. How he tried. I hope it doesn’t happen to me.