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A story and Spalding Gray
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Today’s post pairs a piece of short fiction with commentary about the methods of Spalding Gray. I have learned and learned and learned from Spalding how to construct a piece and to check whether it’s funny or about me. The section I’m sharing is from a long piece published in American Theatre Magazine and elsewhere, and that I’ll return to in other posts. If you haven’t seen the pieces I mention, many are available to stream.
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“We should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.”—Nietszche
Heddy’s boyfriend and I would run into each other at parties and want to push each other into a corner and jump into bed. I thought it was how people were, and I was being clued into a secret. I thought it was one of the options women had to ditch domestic life. The boyfriend’s name was Jerry, a tall, skinny guy I found sexy naked.
Heddy and Jerry had been together since high school. I hadn’t seen her in 15 years, and there she was on Broadway, on the other side of a salad bar. Her hair was long and blond, just like in the days when she was one of the Joni Mitchells in the bar on Jones Street. She said she was taking care of someone sick. She’d jumped away to get some food. She looked around furtively and didn’t mention Jerry. Maybe he was the one who was sick and no one was supposed to know.
They’d been famous for a while in the performance art scene, telling stories about their lives, using mice in little habitats they built with wood and moss. I thought Heddy and Jerry would always be together, and I felt a mouse-like ripple go through me to realize life was more surprising than I knew. It had never been a thought to be with Jerry. For all I knew, the sudden sex thing he could make fall over you at parties was a trick he did with lots of people.
Heddy looked like a woman of mystery, spooning hummus over lettuce in a plastic container, and I wondered if she’d become a spy or had always had a secret life. She looked just like a spy on a TV show I was watching. The spy had been in retirement from spying, working in a flower shop, when out of the blue her son was kidnapped in France and she had to fly to his rescue.
It turned out she could ride motorcycles on rocky roads and fly helicopters. She could speak Russian and Arabic. Aren’t you always amazed that people can be so talented physically and also learn languages well enough to fool people? There was so much mystery I couldn’t wrap my mind around. The spy on the TV show traded sex for information, the way, I suppose we all do from time to time. She also blew people’s heads off, when necessary. I was glad this was something I didn’t have to consider.
Seeing Heddy apart from Jerry, I wished I had always been more interested than I’d been in the girlfriends of the men I had known. Where were the mice? Had Heddy and Jerry had children? Is this something I would have heard through the grape vine? Was there still a grape vine? The salad bar didn’t seem the place to ask Heddy these questions. Still, I was excited to see life take this turn.
When Spalding is on stage, you have to watch him, his face sly and expectant, enjoying the feel of your eyes on him. At some point in a monologue, he’ll roll up his sleeves and show you his toned forearms. He dominates the pieces he devised with the Wooster Group, not only because his biography is their source material but because when he opens his mouth it feels like he’s speaking to you. How does he do it? He’s Puck, feeding you inside dope with his broad, New England vowels. You smell salt beaches and pine trees. You hear hear gulls crying and feel sharp wind cut your cheeks. Nothing is unsayable.
In Nayatt School (1978), which slices up T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, he begins speaking directly to the audience, discarding the pretense he’s talking to another actor. Building his solo pieces, he develops an art of bricolage. Scenes and images are juxtaposed to each other, and meaning leaps across their boundaries the way, through a montage of images, films tell stories. In the introduction to the published version of Sex and Death to the Age 14 (1986), he describes keeping a notebook. He practices looking out, at people and events, rather than directly at his emotions. How he feels is revealed by the way he tells a story about something other than his feelings. A moment or image captures his attention. It reminds him of another moment, and this sandwich of present and past prompts an emotion in you.
He told an interviewer he could never run out of material: “There is no such thing as nothing because as soon as it's observed, it's something. So when I sit down to speak I’m really recounting a kind of memory film. And I'm trying to do it in as much detail as I can. There's no way I will ever go blank unless I have Alzheimer's or something like that.” In another interview, he said there was nothing he hadn’t talked about to someone: “Either with the woman I’m living with or the therapist or the audience. Everything that has come into my fantasy and consciousness that I can articulate I have talked about. But not all of it to an audience.” These two elements: finding potential interest in any subject and approaching it with drop-dead candor are the lynchpins of his art.
The early monologues—Sex and Death to the Age 14 (1979), India and After (1979), A History of the American Theater (1980), and 47 Beds (1981), among them—are play lists of memories he shuffles and remixes like records in a jukebox. In A History of the American Theater, Spalding sits at his desk, in front of him a box of cards with the titles of the plays he’s acted in. Some cards prompt a mere sentence, others a worked up anecdote. We see the names of the plays through a glass panel, but having shuffled the cards before each show Spalding doesn’t know their order, so every performance is different and the emotional meaning of a story changes, depending on what comes before and after it.
In India and After, he cuts up seven narrative strands into segments that range from thirty seconds to four minutes, and he shreds them. The stories include: spending a week in a Las Vegas jail for refusing to give his name to an arresting officer, falling in love with a hippie child in California, and performing Mother Courage in remote parts of India where, in one village, the corpses of the poor await the collection of coins to pay for their cremations. A bit of one story is told and then a fragment of another story comes without regard to the chronology of any of them. Some stories start with the ending, others with a moment of confusion, comedy, or regret. No story emerges in its entirety, and every performance is incalculable, although by playing with the combinations night after night he learns to heighten the drama of the whole, no matter the order of the sections. In this exercise, he’s applying Elizabeth LeCompte’s ruthlessness to text to his own writing. He will return to these stories again and again in later works, discovering what kinds of meaning or meaninglessness can be wrung from them.
Working this way, he creates theatrical immediacy. He’s after emotional truth, not literal truth or firm facts. For example, the anecdote in Gray’s Anatomy about cleaning the synagogue in Williamsburg really did happen but not at the time he was considering eye surgery. From the start, his comedy follows the formula of Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I have a hang nail. Comedy is when you fall off a cliff and die.” In A History of the American Theater, recalling his performance in The Knack, he says, “My father brought my mother to see this play while she was having an incurable nervous breakdown.” Pause. “She thought she was going to see Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Pause. “But this was the play that sent her over the edge.”
From the start, too, he sees personal experience as shaped by historic forces, and he interprets the zeitgeist as a collection of individual energies. Big and little, the political and the private, are not opposed in his understanding. Conjuring Richard Schechner’s Commune (1970), which treats the Manson family murders and the Viet Nam War, he reports that at some point in the show the audience was ushered onstage and directed to play the villagers who were massacred at Mi Lai. If they balked, the performance was halted and the doors of the theater were locked. “One woman called her lawyer to get her out,” he reports. The early monologues are witty, bold, freewheeling, and entertaining, although Spalding hasn’t yet learned to make all the parts sing as a greater whole.
He did not start a monologue by writing it down. He was dyslexic. He would speak bits into a tape recorder and workshop skeletal performances. A piece was constructed over as many as two-hundred shows. He used to present an evening called “Interviewing the Audience” which he’d start by fishing for lively specimens outside the theater. Then he’d call each person onstage and improvise an evening from the exchanges that got going. He thought of his monologues, too, as conversations with the audience. He’d tape performances, listen for laughs and music in the flow, and adjust the text and delivery. When a piece was “set,” it became the published version, but even then he didn’t memorize a script. Sitting at his desk with notes before him, he’d evoke the memory of past performances, wanting to create the illusion (though it was also the reality) of events recalled on the spot. He made himself visible only to make himself invisible again, so that the work would show—the way we see the beating heart of a guppy through its translucent skin.
He knew a memory had become a story when it generated uneasy laughter and snaked in and out of big and little themes, such as, in Gray’s Anatomy, the comedy of failing eyesight in a world where AIDS is taking out a generation, and in Swimming to Cambodia, the vertigo of personal arousal on a landscape of global horror. What makes a subject feel trivial or large, he discovered, isn’t its historic dimension or lack of one but whether or not there are stakes for the teller and the amount of complexity a story unfolds.
No one really cares about the real life of the narrator, he understood. We care about stories we’re made to feel are about us, and this happens when the narrator isn’t trying to protect anything or ask us to feel for them. At the top of his game, Spalding goes on seeing, no matter the consequences, and he allows his doubts to be seen. He knows that the power position in comedy—in all art, really—is the place of no power, where the teller is stripped of protection and keeps investigating uncertainty. In each story, he journeys out beyond his depth, wanting to be catapulted past the boundaries of a self that he knows, too, is his only material.