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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.