Knopf publishers have released The Journals of Spalding Gray in remembrance of the gifted actor, orator, writer, storyteller and artist. While not the inventor of autobiographical monologues nor of experimental theater, he was certainly one of its champions. He is an important part of American oral history and among my favorite “voices” in storytelling, which also includes his contemporary, Joe Frank, and more recently, David Sedaris.
A very close friend took me to see Spalding Gray for his “virgin monologues” about Swimming to Cambodia. I’m not sure what shocked me more: Spalding Gray’s “crazy rants,” that he was on tour during this “festive” time with other holiday performances such as, The Nutcracker, or that this was my “Christmas present,” but it was enjoyably one of my more memorable gifts, as well as poignant recollections.
I was struck by Spalding’s nonchalant demeanor of self-deprecation. His talent was in animatedly taking those “heart on your sleeve” and “open book” clichés to the melodramatic extreme. As he read from his journals, openly sharing highlights of his adventures, as well as the inner dialogue of his mind, it was apparent that he was a case of intelligence on overdrive: the madness of a man that was too smart for his own good, obssesive-compulsive, highly imaginative and as he has been lovingly described, “neurotic.” The darkness was veiled by his brillant sense of humor towards unpredictable outcomes and an “improvised” approach to both life and performance. It seems personal stories can be even more quixotic than created ones and people are always looking for self-assurance that we are not the “only” crazy ones.
Among his performance attributes were his “narrator’s” voice, to ironically retell his own life, and he also had a comic’s great sense of timing and delivery. While his facial expressions and gestures were good, it’s his voice, recounting those absurd situations, that remains in my mind. It could be said he was the antithesis of physical comedy, using primarily his voice and ironic delivery to entertain. No doubt his abilities as an actor and performer brought life to his stories, and as with many re-telling of tales, certainly there was dramatic embellishment to each account. I empathized and identified with many of his self-conscious insecurities, and probably we all have inner dialogues that others would find crazy, but I wondered if his acute self-awareness and over-analysis was “theraputic” or destructive. Not to psychoanalyze, but was he “relating” or “disassociating” himself from reality?
It made me sad to hear he had committed suicide in 2004. I had wanted to believe that it was just an “act” but he must have been very hard on himself. He was courageous for sharing those less than polished human traits and disappointing outcomes of life. I could tell by the audience’s reaction that we all identified with his sentiments because while there were moments when we laughed “at” his situations, there were more times that we were laughing “with” him and anyone as aware and introspective as Spalding was, would have recognized the difference. While it seems his open monologues were not able to help him exorcise his demons, it at least opened the discourse for cultural enrichment. Surely performance, minimalism, art and cinema have all drawn from his revelations and I look forward to reading his newly released journals.
Video clip of Swimming to Cambodia:
Video of Spalding Gray explaining Modern Life: