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The Mask Behind the Voice

And Everything Is Going Fine

a film directed by Steven Soderbergh
Ken Regan/Camera5
Spalding Gray performing Swimming to Cambodia, New York City, 1986

In 1981, while teaching a class in the Experimental Theatre Wing of New York University, Spalding Gray asked his students to walk twice around the block and report what they saw. Listening to their stories, he began to panic:

Slowly it dawned on me that they saw what I saw and that we are all alike and that I’ve had some investment in being special and now I have to face the fear and realization that I am basically like all the rest; a lost confused human being….

Here we have one of the many contradictions that guided Gray’s life and work: extreme narcissism paired with crippling insecurity. When Gray wrote this diary entry it was still two years before he began performing Swimming to Cambodia, the monologue that would bring him a devoted international following, moderate wealth, and appearances on David Letterman and The Nanny. But by 1981 he had already experienced some success, having written and performed, throughout the United States and abroad, ten one-man productions. In the process he had introduced a new dramatic form to modern theater: the confessional monologue.

In his first monologue Gray sat at a desk, facing the audience, with a glass of water and a spiral-bound notebook. For eighty minutes he told the audience everything he could remember about his childhood experiences with sex and death. He called it Sex and Death to the Age 14. This was followed by Booze, Cars, and College Girls, which might as well have been called “Sex and Death Between the Ages of 15 and 22.” For the rest of his life he remained loyal to this approach: desk, water, notebook, sex, and death. When Gray delivered his first monologue in 1979 at the age of thirty-seven, his stories began as memories of a relatively distant past. But as the monologues proliferated, he ran out of past. Late in his career, past tense gave way to present, and the monologues increasingly came to be seen by his audience as a live play-by-play: what’s new with Spalding on the sex and death fronts. In his final piece, life at last caught up to work: the composition of Life Interrupted was itself interrupted by his suicide in 2004, at the age of sixty-two.

Gray lived a life that was unusual in many ways, but it was neither shocking nor exemplary. He was a lost confused human being, like all the rest. So how did he manage to speak for so many? And why, seven years after his death, do his monologues retain their power—a power that, were Gray not such a dogged atheist, could best be described as spiritual?

In the preface to Sex and Death to Age 14, a collection of six early monologues, Gray seemed to suggest that the answers to these questions might be found in his private journals:

The performances became my public autobiography and my private thoughts went into diary form. I felt the diary might be a way of taking full responsibility for my life, and also a more therapeutic way of splitting off a part of my self to observe another part. It was the development of a writer’s consciousness. I tried to write mainly about detail of fact and action, rather than emotions.

His journals therefore seemed to hold great promise. They would reveal how Gray transformed the raw facts of his life into dramatic incantation—how life became art. Unfortunately the biggest surprise of The Journals of Spalding Gray, now published for the first time, is how far they fall short of his intentions. As it turns out, they are exceedingly light on fact and action, while heavy on emotions. Even more frustrating, Gray neglected his journals at exactly the moments when his life was busiest. He doesn’t mention Swimming to Cambodia, for instance, until he had been performing it for eighteen months.

The journals’ editor, Nell Casey, mindful of this deficiency, has filled the breach with detailed biographical chapters, drawing from research and interviews with friends and family. She begins twenty-six years before the first journal entry, at the source of Gray’s great psychological trauma: his relationship with his mother, Margaret Elizabeth Horton. A devoted Christian Scientist in Barrington, Rhode Island, Horton believed that illness was caused by negative thinking. As a result, says Gray, “We were always afraid of being afraid.”

Sex and Death begins with a memory of the family’s cocker spaniel taking a chunk from Gray’s wrist “like a bite out of an apple.” When he runs to his mother crying, she replies, “You had it coming to you, dear, for harassing the dog with a rubber submarine.” At fourteen, Gray passed out next to his radiator; he woke to find that his arm had a “dripping-rare-red roast beef, third-degree burn.” His mother, sitting in front of the television, barely glanced up from Gunsmoke. “Put some soap on it, dear, and know the truth.”

That is enormous distance,” Gray later told an interviewer. “Any mother, I don’t care what religion she’s in—I would think her intuition would be to fly to that child.”

After suffering a nervous breakdown Margaret Horton paced incessantly through the living room, repeating a religious mantra (“God is all loving and I’m His perfect reflection”), while she pulled the hair out of the back of her head. But nobody in the family, including her grimly taciturn husband, acknowledged her condition. It was, as Gray put it, like living with a ghost. Her “alternating currents” of neediness and coldness would haunt his every romantic relationship, his work, and his sense of self. She would even haunt his death.

In Monster in a Box, the monologue that confronts most directly, and most painfully, their relationship, Gray recalls a memory from the summer of 1965, after she had suffered her final nervous breakdown. He is lying beside her on the couch at the family home, reading aloud Alan Watts’s Psychotherapy East and West, “laboring under that romantic R.D. Laing idea that was so popular then that everyone who has a nervous breakdown is so lucky, because they get to come out at the other side with such great wisdom.” It was a warm July day:

And she had the Christian Science Monitor between us, like a Japanese paper wall. And I got so annoyed at not being able to get through, I just reached down and popped the paper with my finger.
And she pulled the paper down and looked me right in the eyes and said, “How shall I do it, dear? How shall I do it? Shall I do it in the garage with the car?”

She did it in the garage with the car two summers later. At the time Gray was traveling in Mexico. In his diary he describes learning of the suicide from his father when he returns home to Barrington:

have been told that my mother has killed herself my father asked me to pick up her ashes at the post office tomorrow—“a box,” he said, “Would you pick it up, because it’s probably your mother.”

His mother, it appears, was not the only Gray to adopt “enormous distance” as a parenting strategy.

A straight line can be drawn between the trauma of Horton’s suicide and Gray’s decision to perform monologues. Not long after the suicide he moved to New York, where he began acting in the experimental theater scene—first in Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, and then, with his girlfriend Elizabeth LeCompte, as a founding member of the Wooster Group. In 1975 he wrote and starred in an autobiographical trilogy, Three Places in Rhode Island. The second play, Rumstick Road, incorporated recordings of Gray’s family discussing his mother’s suicide. The third, Nayatt School, began with a short introductory monologue by Gray, speaking as himself, at a long table. That gave him the idea for Sex and Death.

It was evident from the start that Gray was, intuitively, a gifted writer. From his first monologues he showed a mastery of the essential elements of good storytelling: humor, surprise, vivid detail. Take, for instance, this anecdote from Booze, Cars, and College Girls:

This was during the Cuban missile crisis, when, after Kennedy’s speech, all the Emerson College girls ran out of the dorms, screaming, “Take me. I don’t want to die a virgin! Please, take me!” After that I kept having obsessive fantasies about how I would go to the girl’s dorm all dressed in white lace, with three eunuch slaves carrying bull whips.

The screaming girls running out of their dorms are amusing, but it’s the white lace and the eunuch slaves that make it funny. And it’s the bull whips that scorch the image in the listener’s brain.

Most of Gray’s monologues have now been published as books, and in this form they are almost indistinguishable from memoirs. But Gray never wrote down his monologues before performing them. He began by making an outline in a notebook, using his notes as prompts. Each night, he recorded the performance and made adjustments in the outline: “It wasn’t as though I was having new memories as much as remembering things I had long forgotten.” The audience served as his editor, their responses telling him where to cut, expand, pause for effect. Gray was an excellent listener—in his monologues he frequently recalls conversations with strangers, the more eccentric the better, listening patiently to their life stories and personal philosophies. During performances he listened to his audience too, estimating their approval. In a journal entry from the late Seventies he makes the connection explicit: “PARENT=AUDIENCE.”

In this way Gray produced his first ten monologues, most of which were narratives told in chronological order, albeit with frequent digressions. He told stories about his acting experiences (A Personal History of the American Theater); a cross-country road trip (Nobody Wanted to Sit Behind a Desk); an ill-advised decision to buy a cabin in the Catskills (Terrors of Pleasure: The House). But while the subjects varied, one element remained constant. There was always a haunting subtext—what Francine Prose, in her foreword to Life Interrupted, calls the “bass-note thrum” of death.

He recorded his fears more explicitly in the Journals, the first entry of which, written at the age of twenty-five, is a reflection on suicide. “I know that there’s a part of me so in love with death that I feel like I have already died and am looking at the living,” he wrote later, in 1976. And in 1981 Gray described the central themes of his work as:

My constant fear of death. My wanting to hold things still so I can look at them forever. Not to be a part of this body that is growing old but somewhere in me seeking eternal life…. Wanting to overcome death. Suicide is power over death in that you do it.
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