ANDRÉ GREGORY — Living With His Art

Review Essay of André Gregory, This Is Not My Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November, 2020)

Ah yes. My impulsiveness had its consequences, my dear Mr. Brack”
—Ibsen, Hedda Gabler

Theater director André Gregory has had an eye gouged out in the blockbuster Demolition Man, been ankle deep in Martin Scorsese’s holy waters, raving as John the Baptist, and menaced as the creepy missionary in Mosquito Coast; yet his truer to life screen persona is the ageing hippie twiddling his beads at the beginning of Vanya on 42nd Street, bobbing along merrily in the midtown throng to Joshua Redman’s jazz groove “Chill.”

In the late 1980s, Gregory began reenacting Chekhov in the boarded up Broadway jewel, the ruined Victory Theatre, giving the Russian country estate a grungy New York makeover. He’d persuaded a small group of celebrity actors—Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn included—to show up in their spare time to rehearse Uncle Vanya, actually for years, in a marathon odyssey that often performed complete run-throughs in front of family and friends. In 1994, Louis Malle shot the entire play, in the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre, a space that once housed the Ziegfeld Follies. Built in 1903, four years after Chekhov’s play premiered, there Malle and Gregory borrowed a little corner of the crumbling theater, gnawed away by rats, to create beautiful art in the ruins.

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Gregory himself is something of a maestro of ruins. He’s directed many plays in ruined theaters, ruined castles, ruined men’s clubs, ruined riding stables. Why so many ruins? he once wondered. Probably because he’s a director allergic to formal theaters. In New Amsterdam’s ruins, Gregory’s actors chat to each other, complain of being tired, pour tea, set up the table, arrange the bench, organize the chairs, the sofa. “Drink?” actor Phoebe Brand asks Larry Pine, who plays Doctor Astrov. “No. No thank you,” Pine replies. “I don’t want it somehow.” “A little Vodka?” wonders Brand. “Not today,” says Pine. “How long have we known each other?” Pine enquires. “How long,” Brand says, “Lord, let me see…Eleven years. More.” “How much have I changed?” Pine asks. “Very much I think,” says Brand, “your looks have faded.” “Ah,” Pine laments, “I have become a different man.”

Then, all of a sudden, Malle’s camera shifts. Now we can see what Brand and Pine were seeing: a tiny audience before them, with André Gregory on the front row. He’s grinning like the Cheshire Cat. We’ve been watching Chekhov for a while; the play had already begun, even before we realized it. Doctor Astrov and Marina were dialoging the opening act, in a brilliantly seamless shift between the street and stage, between modern life and modern art. Gregory said this “was what it feels like to live a life”—not just perform one. Now, he’s written a book all about it, about his theater of life.

***
The Cheshire Cat springs to mind because of Alice in Wonderland, Gregory’s first great experimental success of the 1970s. But we also sense this Cheshire Cat grinning at us in This Is Not My Memoir, Gregory’s new “autobiography,” written in collaboration with the theater scholar Todd London; his dizzy and wondrous life, “filtered over time through the prism of selected memory.” Occasionally, he’s just as elusive as Lewis Carroll’s fabled cat, vanishing when we’d like him to linger longer, to say a bit more about himself and his ripping yarns. On the other hand, this is what makes This Is Not My Memoir such a great read, so tantalizing, so wonderful in its lightness of touch, in the sort of fullness it conveys in its absence.

Maybe this is what Beckett meant by “Not I,” where his mouthpiece defines herself similarly through a negative, feeling inclined to let out a scream. Gregory knows this scream only goes so far: after all, This Is Not My Memoir is no Aristotelian catharsis, no emotional release, no bleeding heart laid bare on the page. The telling of Gregory’s life, like the performing of his theater, is more Brechtian in its “V-effekt,” keeping readers sufficiently at arm’s length, letting us understand rather than get too emotionally attached. Then again, perhaps this is just Gregory being mischievous with that other Brecht maxim: “SIMPLER AND WITH MORE LAUGHTER.”

And This is Not My Memoir is a genuinely funny book, even if sometimes it’s a painful read, a schizoid tale of two André’s: a struggling one, the portrait of a frustrated artist as an angry young man, and a mature Everyman, who later finds peace with himself, a way to live with as well as in his art. We can guffaw out loud at rookie André’s outrageous mishaps, at his theatrical birth-pangs and romantic excesses. But the main narrative thrust of this Bildungsroman is of a man at war, frequently with himself.

There’s another battlefront going on in This Is Not My Memoir: a war against Gregory’s father who’d gone so far as to escape tyrants, son says, only to end up as one himself. Dad was rich, Zelig-like, cozying up to both communism and capitalism, aiding Trotsky, exporting furs to the US, becoming Moscow’s main man for the dodgy German chemical cartel I.G. Farben (immortalized by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). He quit Soviet Russia for Weimar Berlin, made a fortune in Marlene Dietrich’s city, drove a fancy car, worked to reunite with his wife, stuck in Russia, while carousing with a glamorous girlfriend, a dancer at the Berlin Opera. After Hitler came to power, Gregory’s parents fled to Paris, where André was born, in 1934, later traveling to London, and onwards to America, to New York.

How did his father do it? son asks. “Did he cut deals to get out? Was he a calculating and lucky survivor, a rat, or both?” One problem for Gregory, and this emerges early on in This Is Not My Memoir, was guilt, that he was a privileged trust fund kid, a dependent, living off the back of a Jewish businessman father who may have collaborated with the Nazis. It’s a dreadful skeleton in the family closet. And yet, thanks to dad, never having to fret about earning a living, son could throw himself headlong into art. He could be absorbed by theater as dad had been absorbed by business.

Mother and father were great survivors, says Gregory, yet lousy parents, “negligent and self-absorbed, petty and often mean.” “My mother was witty, stylish, and sarcastic,” he says, “but for all the romance around her, she was, to me, unknowable.” Gregory’s father passed away a few years after his son’s global success with My Dinner with André. On the sly, he’d replaced the Marc Chagall he’d bought in Paris in the 1930s (fake as it turned out) with a My Dinner with André poster. Not long afterward, aged eighty-four, about to croak, father and son finally found some kind of reconciliation. “We are alike, you and I,” dad admitted. “You build a role the way I build a building.” Son could have been a great lawyer, dad commiserated. Dad hated son marching on Washington, protesting the Vietnam war. Yet it didn’t matter what side we’re on, dad said. “What matters is that we are both men of principle. And that we stand by our principles.”

Decades on, André has stood by his principles, though his lack of a real father figure has always had son on the look out for a mentor. Bertolt Brecht, the German director and playwright, was an early one, dead before Gregory got to him—only just. But Gregory did manage to get to Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel. A two-week pilgrimage to East Germany in 1958, to visit Brecht’s famed Berliner Ensemble, turned into a transformative two-month sojourn. Weigel found him a little apartment, introduced him to the actors, had him over for tea, was incredibly hospitable, maybe even tried to seduce him. Gregory, so wrapped up in Brecht’s theater of miracles, in a scary city, devastated by war, swarming with toughs and Soviet tanks and goose-stepping East German soldiers, hadn’t noticed. An affair with Weigel? What had he missed? He was only twenty-four, and “didn’t realize that women in their fifties had sex.” “Don’t pay any attention to Bert’s bullshit and theoretical nonsense,” Weigel teased him. “Just look at the work. Look at the work, and see what you see.”

Gregory’s other enduring influence was Jerzy Grotowski. His theories and provocative plays with the Polish Laboratory Theatre stunned audiences everywhere. Mythical and mystical with a long wispy beard, Grotowski was a guru who became Gregory’s friend, mentor and brother all rolled into one. At first, Gregory knew Grotowski only by reputation, and by the latter’s Towards a Poor Theatre, released in that heady year of 1968. By then Gregory had already experimented with poor theater himself, having a string of misfires in regional theaters.

In Seattle, he’d put on Max Frisch’s Firebugs, a drama about two clown-faced arsonists pretending to be traveling salesmen, modeled on Hitler and Goebbels. Everywhere they went ended up in flames, like Gregory’s production—brilliant yet excessive, it was too much for a little theater to take. In Philadelphia came Rochelle Owens’s Beclch, about a bored suburban housewife who runs off to “an Africa of the subconscious,” where she fucks the locals and eats them. Gregory’s audience wore masks to transform them into jungle natives; musicians stood in a mud pit; a chemist friend of Gregory’s created a magic potion smelling of rotting flesh; a few drops gave a putrid smell so intense that it permeated the theater’s carpets and upholstery; people vomited. It created such a scandal that Time magazine ran a four-page spread on Beclch; the drama became a big drama, an overnight sensation, and Gregory an enfant terrible. The play sold out for weeks. But the theater’s board, terrified by its notoriety, fired him.

Then Watts, an African American neighborhood in Los Angeles that had revolted in 1965. There they wanted a director who could work with the school board, put on a few quality productions to turn kids as well as adults on to theater. André was their man, hand-picked by none other than Hollywood icon Gregory Peck. André opened with Molière’s Tartuffe, casting the young unknown black actor Lou Gossett to play Tartuffe, who would kiss Elmire, his white lover. The scene bothered the powers that be. Gregory took the kiss out. But the repressed desire only aroused audiences even more, such that the Catholic Church shut the play down.

He planned Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle next. But wasn’t Brecht a “dirty commie”? So Gregory switched to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie; how could that offend? Only after he had cast a black actor as the Gentleman caller. People in high up Hollywood places didn’t approve. The mogul George Cukor tried to persuade Gregory to ditch the black guy; Gregory, appalled by the racism, told him where to go. Peck got wind. They met. He, too, tried to gently dissuade. Soon a heated argument erupted, and Peck “slugged me,” Gregory says; “another regional theater, another disaster. Three strikes. I was out.”

***
Every great artist, it’s said, has the sense of provocation. Gregory knew he was provoking, knew he was challenging theatergoers as well as theater owners; he probably knew he was blazing a trail of scorched earth for himself, coming across like Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s young artist hero: arrogant, angry, and arch. “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely and as wholly as I can,” Stephen had declared, and journeyman André concurs. He would never kowtow to any power, institutional or otherwise. Not so fast: Stephen’s friend Cranly reminded how all budding artists come to grief against reality’s hard facts. Thus for Gregory: “I was thirty-three,” he says, “and couldn’t get a job as a dogcatcher.”

As his dream of being the new Stanislavski lay in tatters, the dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts invited our dogcatcher to do a six-week workshop with the school’s first class of graduating students. What could he teach? Why what else but Grotowski, improvising and doing drills with a well-thumbed copy of Towards a Poor Theatre. “If the theater cannot be richer than cinema,” said Grotowski, “then let it be poor. If it cannot be as lavish as television, then let it be ascetic. If it cannot be a technical attraction, let it renounce all outward technique.”

Grotowski’s productions, like Gregory’s, never played to the mass theatergoers. Rehearsals lasted for months, sometimes years; actors underwent fiercely disciplined training, learning how to use their bodies in strange and demanding ways, contorting them, becoming the props as well as the stage; voices were adapted to create disturbing sounds, used as music in the face of an elimination of music. Audiences, too, were compelled to overcome themselves, to transcend their limitations, to enter into an emotional and metaphysical dialogue with the actors.

Inspired by Grotowski, Gregory and his loose cohort of graduating NYU students formed the Manhattan Project, after the US’s atomic weapons program of the 1940s—as peace-loving irony and because they were sure they’d bomb. Instead, they created one of biggest theatrical hits of the 1970s: Alice in Wonderland, bringing a little Polish Laboratory Theatre verve to New York’s shoestring avant-garde scene. Reworking the kids classic as post-’68 adult agitprop, actors and audience took a giddy psychic trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. The stage became a dream space in which explosive laughter and delinquent lunacy mingled with a sinister atmosphere of edgy unease; those present plunged deep down into unconscious terrors.

If the madness was exaggerated, if the Mad Hatter really was mad, it was only to stress the reality of our scarily mad world. A cast of six invited you into Alice’s underground; audiences entered a bleak converted Lower Manhattan chapel via a makeshift rabbit hole. Alice’s sudden size changes were achieved through skilful body manipulation; umbrellas became trees; people croquet balls; actors descending underground literally did fall; legs became rungs on ladders; tables a house; arms a hookah puffed on by a caterpillar who’s an actor on the backs of four others, forming a mushroom. “Our production concept might be said to be this,” Gregory says: “How could a group of children limited to a padded cell create an entire world.”

Alice in Wonderland ran for four rollicking years. The Manhattan Project had eight years of “mind-bending fun,” of experimental globetrotting, playing in a Berlin Riding Rink, an abandoned Italian 17th century dungeon, and an onion and garlic packing factory in Persia. Days and nights were full of laughter and wonderment, bringing hysterics to audiences wherever they went. But somehow, by 1975, the music was over; there was no other side to break on through to. Fun and magic gave way to argument and resentment. The crew disbanded, acrimoniously. The end of the Manhattan Project was André’s end, “a death for me,” he says. At least for a while. He gave up directing, seemed to give up everything. “I had had success after success, internationally and at home,” he muses, “but something was wrong. There was something I was still unable to express.” So began the wilderness years, his journey into a midlife crisis, closer and closer to mental collapse.

Curiously, around this time Grotowski had also walked away from theater, dropped out, entered into a new phase, experimenting with what he was calling “paratheater.” He retreated to a site thirty miles outside Wroclaw, the staging for his “Laboratorium” paratheatrical projects. A lost Gregory went there to find himself, discovering a huge, magical forest “with a group of forty Polish rebels and hippies Jerzy had gathered for me.” “I was unmoored from anything I knew,” he says. They camped out together, started work at sunset, improvised throughout the night, formed and reformed groups, played out small scenes, communicated with their bodies and sounds, not with words. When the sun rose, they sang and danced and went off to eat a breakfast of bread and jam, cheese and tea. Nothing ever tasted as good.

What was amazing about these workshops, Gregory recalled in My Dinner with André, “was how quickly people seemed to fall into enthusiasm, celebration, joy, wonder, abandon, wildness, tenderness. Could we stand to live like that? I mean, maybe we’re just simply afraid of living?” These encounters had people follow the “laws of theatrical improvisation”—do whatever your impulse as the character tells you to do—except now, André says, in the improvisation, the theme is oneself: you are character; you have no imaginary situation to protect you, no other person to hide behind.

My Dinner with André was Gregory’s own paratheatrical interlude, his most famous work, a crucial transitional point; “poor cinema,” we might call it, a low-budget adventure. This is Not My Memoir is reserved about My Dinner with André. It’s almost as if Gregory is conscious that it is well-trodden ground, that he’s said a lot about it already, that the film speaks for itself, now more than ever, that he never stops talking about himself there, tells all. Besides, Gregory is clear: his current book isn’t a memoir; he didn’t want to work over the past again, not in its entirety, that this was selected memory on show. Why read this book when you can just watch the film. Everything he says in My Dinner with André is true anyway: he really did go to Grotowski’s forest, did eat sand with a Buddhist monk in the Sahara, was buried alive in a mock Montauk graveyard. He really was a husband and a father who put himself, and his art, before everything else, before anyone else.

He does tell us that the film’s genesis was a phone call from old friend Wally Shawn, saying something like, “Listen, I know what you’re going through, and when I’m your age I don’t want to go through it myself. So in order for me to prevent that, what do you think of the two of us sitting together, you telling me your stories, and out of that we might create a talking heads TV show?” Wally spent countless hours transcribing Gregory, paring down his dialogue into a script—one of the longest screenplays ever, perhaps the longest speaking role in the history of film! They managed to raise enough money, and persuade Louis Malle to film it.

Malle told Gregory that the camera sees everything, that Gregory needed to “talk faster.” This would take his mind off acting. He needed to become “André,” “a character who is driven, obsessed, and narcissistic, who delights in the sound of his own voice.” Was this the real Gregory, or an actor pretending to be “André”? One major reason why My Dinner with André touched audiences, challenged and charmed in equal measure, was that this process of finding oneself isn’t the exclusive domain of André: it’s the plight of all of us. Are we playing roles in our lives, performing in front of others? Or are we being true to ourselves, affirming our authentic selves?

When My Dinner with André appeared during Ronald Reagan’s first-term, Gregory thinks the film’s alarm bells about creeping fascism and corporate totalitarianism went unheard. We thought it bad enough then under a Hollywood B-actor’s watch. What to make today of André bemoaning the modern world’s incapacity to express real feeling, overwhelmed by air-conditioning and political-conditioning, by feverish right-wing demagogy. People no longer have time to think, André said, no longer want to think. André spoke about alienation like a young Karl Marx, only now its twenty-first century mystification: “We’re all bored, and somebody who’s bored is asleep. And somebody who’s asleep will not say no.” “But has it ever occurred to you, Wally,” André confronts his friend, “that the process which creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money?”

“You see, Wally, the trouble with always being active and doing things is that it’s quite possible to do all sorts of things and at the same time be completely dead inside . . . if you’re just living mechanically, then you have to change your life.” It’s time to stop acting, quit performing, be done with the clatter and bullshit around you, inside you. “I think there comes a time when you need to do that,” André says at the end of My Dinner with André; the restaurant has emptied out; all the other diners seem to have left hours ago; Satie’s Gymnopédie #1 starts to play. “Now maybe in order to do it, you have to go to the Sahara, and maybe you can do it at home. But you need to cut out the noise…”

***
Sitting on the beach at Truro, Cape Cod, an octogenarian Gregory has finally learned how to cut out the noise—from his life and from inside his head. The noise has been silenced by radiant light, flooding into his twilight days, now shared with his second wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine, the creator of “powerful, weird and wonderful documentaries.” She’s twenty-four years his junior. Yet they’re both talkers, love the same movies, laugh at the same things, love one another enough that an ageing André at last loves his life, appreciating what Picasso said as the Grim Reaper haunted: “It takes a very long time to become young.” Kleine has given Gregory something Scott Fitzgerald thought impossible in America: a second act.

1F0E11EE-BF7E-4E06-B641-F9D9887CB061It was she who’d brought him to Cape Cod, where, from Longnook dunes, he now stares out to sea, overwhelmed by its beauty, by an ocean reflecting the blue of the sky, by the reddish hue of the sand. “The water’s azure and aquamarine mix with colors I’ve never seen before. I weep.” He gazes at the light; it’s pure Edward Hopper, who’d similarly adored the light and colors, building his little house nearby, in South Truro, perched on a cliff overlooking the bay; “and, again,” says Gregory, “tears come to my eyes.”

That light has even illuminated the artist in him—not the director of plays, which tend to be sad affairs, but the novice painter, joyously engaging with the world anew, even as it politically falls apart, undergoes a Biblical meltdown with tyrants and plague. In painting watercolors and drawing in pencil, Gregory has learned how to look again, at trees and bicycles, at old typewriters, at telephones and film-projectors, at colors and tones, looking in childlike wonderment. To paint is to love again, Henry Miller had famously said, at a similar ripe old age.

“To live and love, and to give expression to it,” Miller reckoned, “one must be a true believer. There must be something to worship.” Gregory has become a true believer, has learned how to do both, to paint and to love, perhaps is still learning. He’s found something to worship, a woman and an avocation. “I love doing something I don’t know how to do, returning to a ‘beginner’s mind’.” He’s again like Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s young artist, only now Gregory’s an old guy, a Bloom; in Ulysses, the protofascist headmaster, Mr. Deasy, fears Stephen won’t last long as a teacher; it wasn’t his vocation. “A learner rather,” Stephen rejoins. “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”

Sixty seemed to have been the turning point for Gregory, some kind of ontological break, a rift between an angry man and an Everyman, a wiser man who’s graduated with honors from life’s great teachings. It was a turning point punctuated by grief, by the death of wife Chiquita, after half a decade’s battle with breast cancer. Some of the most moving parts of This Is Not My Memoir have Gregory tell about his marriage to Chiquita, “the quality and taste of life with the woman I shared it with for thirty-three years.” They were always terrific friends and supportive of each other’s desires and needs. And yet, the poignancy jars, when he admits: “We didn’t, though, talk about the most important things: what was going on between us.” We dug a hole for ourselves, he says, “a hole of silence and evasion.”

When Chiquita died, Gregory had already been rehearsing Uncle Vanya for a while. Could he return to it? He felt so alone, so grief-stricken, that he called the Vanya actors to see if they might work again, maybe for another eight weeks, do it for sad André, help release him from the pain of mourning. Malle himself was ailing, had undergone open-heart surgery. But he agreed to come, to film the valedictory run-through. (It would be Malle’s own cinematic farewell, dying the following year from lymphoma.) It was “an exquisite experience,” Gregory says, filming our Vanya, New York-style, not just recording the play but capturing the company’s walk to the theater, the coffee breaks between acts, the exit afterward, the whole spontaneous feeling of an event that had been rehearsed for years.

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“Great!” says director André, re-entering the frame right at the end, putting his arms around his actors, smiling. It’s our Cheshire Cat again. Malle’s camera continues to run even as the curtain goes down, or would have gone down had there been a curtain. It was Gregory’s greatest theatrical achievement, and somehow he knows it, even back then, talking brilliantly about it in This Is Not My Memoir, the best section of his endearing book. (Grotowski knew it, too. After watching Gregory’s Vanya, he’d said, himself staring death in the face, “you don’t need to see any more theater. See this film every day, and you will understand the nature of theater.”) It was like Gregory had said all along: “Vanya is a rehearsal that gets deeper and deeper until you forget it’s a rehearsal.” “What can we do, Uncle?” Sonya wonders at the close. “All we can do is live,” she sighs. “We will live through a long row of days,” she says. “And through endless evenings. And somehow we’ll bear up.”

Gregory is bearing up to the final countdown rehearsing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, his ongoing project, a sequel to the Master Builder’s great fall. Gregory is still standing, planning on premiering Hedda at 103. If he doesn’t make it, his wife, he says, will kill him. There’s no promise he’ll ever finish. But no matter. Isn’t the joy of work in the doing? he asks, in the process itself? In Ibsen’s play, the eponymous heroine says, “I mean, for me, it’s a liberation to know that an act of spontaneous courage is yet possible in the world. An act that has something of unconditional beauty.” Hedda is talking about the suicide of a former lover; but for Gregory this act of spontaneous courage has been life itself, an unconditional beauty—in spite of it all. It’s taken him a long while to realize it, to watch himself blossom, finally be himself. We see his late Blooming self unfold before us at the close of This Is Not My Memoir. What kind of scandal might old man Gregory stir up with Hedda Gabler? We’ll have to wait and see, be as patient as his rehearsals, knowing that, if nothing else, by opening night there’ll be one less virus in the world to contend with.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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