Just be yourself

David Hirson

  • Swimming to Cambodia: The Collected Works of Spalding Gray by Spalding Gray
    Picador, 304 pp, £3.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 330 29947 6

Spalding Gray is a 45-year-old American actor who uses the events of his own life as grist for a series of epic monologues. ‘Stories seem to fly to me and stick,’ he declares in the Preface to his collected works. This proves to be an irresistible locution for Gray (‘chewing gum flies to me on the subway and sticks’), and betrays an ambivalent egocentricity: that of a self towards which even rubbish gravitates. His is not the magnetism of a compelling personality, however. Gray typifies, even cultivates, ordinariness. It is his extreme passivity which is so attractive, his longing for identity that draws in the surrounding atmosphere like a vortex. He seduces the world in order to be defined or transfigured by it: to become somebody at last. And the world is only too willing to oblige. Emblazoned on the front cover of Picador’s Swimming to Cambodia are excerpts from reviews, each of which attempts to relieve Gray of his anonymity by turning him into someone familiar. He is called, among other things, ‘A new wave Mark Twain’, ‘One of the most candid confessors since Frank Harris’ and ‘An unholy cross between James Joyce and Hunter S. Thompson’. These remarks tend to compound an already severe identity crisis.

For almost a decade, Gray has been delivering monologues which chronicle his life from early childhood to the present. Since ‘Sex and Death to the Age 14’ premiered at New York’s Performing Garage in 1979, he has appeared in small theatres throughout Europe, Australia, Canada and the US. His style has remained basically the same. Dressed in a plaid shirt and seated behind a small table, he addresses the audience directly, referring to an outline but altering or re-structuring material as the spirit moves him. This technique lends each performance a quasi-improvisational air which Gray feared might be lost in transferring his monologues to the page. ‘None of them had been written down,’ he says, ‘they always came together in front of the audience.’ The book however, confounds expectations. Instead of their impact being diminished, the monologues have every bit as much vitality in print as they have on stage. If we miss the manic energy of a Spalding Gray performance, there is ample compensation in the unhurried, discursive way his stories expand to fill a volume. Also, these seven pieces taken together yield insights into Gray’s character: a significant point for a man who so desperately wants to make himself known.

Who is he? Gray’s autobiographical monologues should answer that question, especially since they pretend to a level of frankness where apparently anything goes. ‘How could you have mentioned the fact that your mother committed suicide?’ a woman asks him in Hartford, Connecticut: ‘Is nothing sacred?’ Gray could hardly reveal himself as he does without having wondered the same thing. But the question isn’t taken seriously: his confessions for the most part show him to be endearingly neurotic or naive or outrageous. There is no real risk involved. Discussing private matters from psychotherapy to early experiments in masturbation (‘we called it Madam Palm and her five lovely daughters’), he is always very funny, but not daring in the way he seems to think he is. ‘I pride myself on telling the truth,’ he says. The truth Gray tells, however, has at least one eye on the audience at all times. His desire to please decides the range of his honesty, and the result is the subtlest of poses: that of the ingratiating, ‘self-defeated shlub’ guy whose sense of alienation is no different from yours or mine, and in whose misadventures we inevitably recognise ourselves. His themes covet general appeal: growing up (‘Sex and Death to the Age 14’), travel (‘Nobody wanted to sit behind a desk’, ‘47 Beds’), home-ownership (‘Terrors of Pleasure: the House’) and ‘Booze, Cars and College Girls’. The place where his identity actually resides is difficult to make out. Gray himself seems unsure of it. Pitching a condensed version of his monologues to Warner Brothers, he suggests a character to be named ‘Sterling Gray, a Huck Finn-Candide type, who gets into all these weird situations’. But he has difficulty distinguishing between Spalding and Sterling.

Gray’s quest for a totally pure experience – what he calls the ‘Perfect Moment’ – is frustrated by a crippling self-awareness. He seems incapable of enjoying anything without in effect saying to himself, ‘Here I am, Spalding Gray, enjoying this,’ and his entire life is observed as if it were happening to somebody else. ‘SPALDING! BE HERE NOW!’ a friend urges him at one point. Only for a split second in Oregon does Gray admit to feeling ‘in the right spot at the right time’; otherwise, whether seeking Perfect Moments in America or Thailand or Greece, he is unshakeable in his conviction that life is really happening wherever he is not, and usually in the place that he has just left.

This haunting sense of inauthenticity propels him through a revolving door of therapies, drugs and religions, all of which only heighten his aesthetic distance. An initiate kneeling before Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh at the guru’s ashram in Poona, Gray confides, ‘I really wanted to ask him “Where are the orgies?” ’ and he adds: ‘I was the only one in the ashram in beige.’ The self-consciousness which he aims to banish shows him how farcical he looks, or how morbidly distanced from himself he has become. Three hits of Thai stick on a Siamese beach and he begins digging ‘until I looked down to see that I had built an entire corpse in the sand and it was my corpse. It was my own decomposing corpse staring back at me.’ The comedy of these inept stabs at Sixties-style liberation conceals a genuine concern. Gray is driven by the need to be free of himself; that he means it is made clear only in those rare instances when he succeeds. At a Zendo in the Catskills:

About the fifth day there, something happened that I’d only read of or experienced on LSD. I was sitting there meditating, and everything all of a sudden just emptied out. I was only an outline. Just an outline, like a Matisse drawing.

Self-awareness comes rushing back, however, and Gray is none the wiser. Incessantly reminded of his own existence, he remains completely unconscious of who he is: or rather, he is convinced that he is nobody at all, a self with no firm identity. WASPy, doughy, middle-of-the-road Spalding plods along, torn between ‘going for it’ as an actor in Hollywood and joining the Peace Corps (he does neither), chronically indecisive, unassertive, impressionable and apolitical (‘I’ve never even voted in my life’). The monologues search his past for clues. They reveal that this sense of nonentity extends even to his physical being. As a boy in Barrington, Rhode Island, he says, ‘I began to masturbate in front of mirrors. The mirror was very important, because, being a Christian Scientist, I kind of lost track of my body; for many years it was denied me.’ Gray is obsessed with bodily functions and also with his name, which he repeats like a mantra, as if trying to utter himself into existence. ‘Spalding Gray ... With a name like that, you should be governor of the State of New York’: yet his substantial name splinters in the mouths of others to become ‘Gary Spalding’, ‘Sterling Spaulding’ and ‘Spalding balls’, leaving its owner haplessly clinging to the wreckage.

Gray struggles in vain to get any sort of purchase on identity. Living in a rented New York flat, he envies people who have solid homes and multitudinous families like his friend Ryan, whose wife is ‘perpetually giving birth, the children flying out like little bats from under her dress’. But when he finally works up the courage to buy a place of his own, the foundation collapses almost immediately – ‘cancer of the house’, he says. Then there are the free spirits, equally impressive. Hired by Roland Joffe to play a small part in The Killing Fields, he comments that the man on whom his character is based is a continent-hopping, devil-may-care Princeton graduate whose six languages include Khmer. ‘I graduated from Emerson College,’ Gray says, ‘and am still wrestling with American.’ What are actors, he wonders, compared to these dazzling ambassadors and foreign correspondents and cinematographers who treat ‘the whole world as their stage’? ‘They’re no one,’ he concludes: ‘They’re conduits. They’re not as threatening as Real People.’

Having to ‘make-believe’ as his profession only aggravates Gray’s sense of personal in-authenticity. He is doubly bound by pretence. Camel cigarette ads taunt him with their depictions of natural, swarthy fellows tacking sloops or racing dune buggies – living life to the lees! He marvels at their ability to be out there all alone, ‘Where a man belongs!’: but he consoles himself with the realisation that ‘they’re not alone, of course, someone’s there with a camera, and that makes me feel a little better.’ Gray heaves a sigh of relief because he cannot imagine a life unwitnessed. There would be no point. One scene in The Killing Fields requires him to lean out of a hovering chopper, a stunt which he performs fearlessly because it is being filmed: ‘the camera eroticises the space.’ Even if they crash, he reasons, ‘at least there would be rushes, right?’

Relentless self-consciousness and lack of identity constrain him to ‘act himself’ all the time. It is a short and logical step for him to ‘act himself’ on stage, where those unreal experiences may be redeemed. Telling about life ‘eroticises’ it. In front of listeners, the sham evolves into an authentic centre of attention. (His car, mentioned in performance, is snapped up by a member of the audience, prompting Gray to remark that ‘someone couldn’t wait to get his hands on all that history.’) In our presence, at least, he appears to be somebody, maybe even one of the Real People.

‘He cannot live without an admiring audience,’ Christopher Lasch writes of the pathological narcissist: ‘The popularity of the confessional mode testifies, of course, to the new narcissism that runs all through American culture.’ In The Culture of Narcissism Lasch argues that the recent fascination with such things as personal growth and Eastern mysticism is the result of a post-war survivalist mentality. Americans have retreated from politics into ‘transcendental self-attention’ because political failures and dehumanising social institutions have challenged their power to master reality. Thus detached, they perceive the external world as a fiction, themselves as actors in it, and the corresponding ‘self-consciousness ... mocks all attempts at spontaneous action or enjoyment’. Art is similarly afflicted: in a world where reality is illusion, the conventions designed to give the illusion of reality are no longer acceptable, and must either parody themselves or be abolished. Attempting the latter, Gray joins a tradition of confessional artists the best of whom, according to Lasch, manage to explore ‘the very concept of selfhood’ and thereby provide an ‘account of the spiritual desolation of our times’. But, Lasch adds, confession allows ‘a lazy writer’ to ‘seduce others into giving him their attention, acclaim or sympathy and thus to shore up his faltering sense of self’.

Gray combines elements of both kinds of confessional artist. Because his monologues were developed in front of, and are intended for, live audiences, the pressure to seduce is paramount. Even more than Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman (to whom he compares himself twice in ‘Travels through New England’), he needs to be ‘well-liked’, and a disarming, often self-deprecating humour is part of his sell. Lasch finds the same tactic in all anti-confessors: their narcissism is dissembled behind a variety of charms. Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘Swimming to Cambodia’, Gray’s most powerful narrative. Re-counting how, during shooting of The Killing Fields, he woke up to the horrors of Cambodian history from America’s secret bombings to the genocide under Pol Pot’s rule, he exacts almost as much sympathy for his personal struggle to understand the tragedy as for the tragedy itself.

What rescues these pieces from pure (if entertaining) self-indulgence is the consistency with which they do, in the end, communicate a ‘representative piece of reality’. Gray’s stories show an America which is in the throes of a narcissistic identity crisis not unlike his own. There is a man in Santa Cruz whose living-room is distinguished by a ‘huge home-made deprivation tank’; a doctor in South Dakota whose novel methods of weight loss include administering the larvae of tapeworms to his patients; a ‘pilgrim Twilights Zone’ in Plymouth, Massachusetts whose inhabitants re-create the 1627 colony by assuming the language, dress and identities of the original families; a ‘flag man’ in Washington Square, who has ‘love letters to President Carter stuffed in his crotch. Love letters proclaiming his love for America’; a Navy kid who boasts that he is a ‘properly brainwashed’ member of the ‘nuclear destruct club’; a woman in Montgomery, Vermont who has made life masks of an entire town of 600 people.

Wherever he looks, Gray discovers Americans in various stages of self-creation. He is not alone in his longing for identity. It is a condition to which the narcissist in everyone responds, and Gray, an extremely gifted storyteller, exploits that fact in his monologues. Recording the minutiae of his experiences, he forces each of us to recognise our obsession with the banal details of our lives: even, perhaps, to revel in them. ‘The Perfect Moment,’ he says, ‘is like falling in love ... with yourself.’ In this way he dignifies, through the telling, matters which can only be of personal significance: the names of childhood friends and high-school teachers, for example, or of streets where he has lived, his father’s Bloody Mary mix, the Ponderosa Steak House where his girlfriend Renée has her period. Private memories are made acutely specific: his brother Rocky, he says, used to take him ‘into the bottom of the bed – he called it Noss Hall, a foreign land under the blankets’. Gray’s revelations tap into a collective worship of the mundane self: he titillates our narcissistic impulses by a titanic display of his own. The result has been big success, American-style Swimming to Cambodia has already been released as a feature film directed by Jonathan Demme, with music by Laurie Anderson; Home Box Office is currently producing a television special of ‘Terrors of Pleasure: the House’. Celebrity is on the horizon and with it all will come the surest test yet of Gray’s identity. ‘I would love to capture the American imagination.’ he says, ‘who wouldn’t?’ Now that he may, his monologues will have to address the fame towards which they were always directed. His quest to become somebody has, not incidentally, made him a star: how will he continue to be himself?