14 The List 4— 17 May 1990
Spalding Gray has been described as a cross between James Joyce and Hunter S. Thompson, a motor-mouth who spills the beans on himself. Ross Parsons, no mean gabber, talked to the man behind
Spalding Gray is America‘s finest talker. Now, in a nation not known for its reticence, that‘s saying something. On stage, he spills out his past with a childlike candour, cut with the punch of a seasoned stand-up. In person, it‘s a relief to find he is a mite less forthcoming.
A bar-room philosopher possessed
'by the soul of a comedian, he has the
dapper look of a balding Steve Martin. Over the past eleven years, between film roles, he has developed the gab he was gifted with in a series of thirteen monologues. Living off his wit, Spalding Gray has become the jester at the court ofthe American arts world. Now he is bound for Glasgow (where else?), with his latest monologue, Monster in a Box.
Gray first surfaced with Swimming to Cambodia, the remarkable tale of his happy hippy-like experiences on the set of Roland Joffe’s epic The Killing Fields. His outrageous analogies and comic conceits combined with the consummate ease of his tale-telling ensured it became a cult hit. It was brought to a wider audience by Jonathan Demme’s recording of the monologue on film. The image he presented was that of an impish anarchic Garrison Keillor. Though, where Keillor drives a good one-paced narrative, Gray wrestles with his ramble the way Mansell might a mini.
The question thrown up in the wake of his pacy reminiscences is how truthful are they? Is he just a wit showing off, as all wits are wont to do? It must be hard, you’d think, to talk about your life so entertainineg and at such length without being economical with the truth. Gray likes to describe himself as a ‘poetic journalist’. So, how far does his poetic licence run? ‘I suppose that I embellish some but not a whole lot. I try to get away from the literal. I take the facts as I remember them. Like in Swimming to Cambodia, with the banana trick. I saw the whore fire the banana out ofher vagina, but I completed the arc of it and described the cockroaches and rats that attacked it. Now, when I was in Thailand, I saw cockroaches and rats though not on that banana. So like any good writer, I combine all of these in my imagination.’
On stage, Gray is determinedly frank about his life. The core of his work is precisely to reveal a factual account of himselfas a method of coming to terms with life. He escapes the charge ofself-indulgence by making his histories anecdotal rather than analytical. Just when he’s in danger of becoming profound or worthy he will pull up short. While he likes the idea of his being a wise fool for the upper-class arty crowd, his performances are more than just a fool‘s search for acceptance.
The monologues evolved under laboratory conditions in the heart of New York‘s experimental theatre world. It was there that he performed a seriesof group pieces with the Wooster Group in the early 705. The pieces were based loosely on material from his life, most importantly and powerfully, his mother‘s suicide in 1976. In these
Gray began to address the audience more and more directly. In 1979, he sat down for the first time in the Performance Garage in New York and brought forth a monologue. That one emerged. like those that followed, unscripted in front of an audience. As he rather prosaically put it ‘Each night my personal history would disappear on a breath.’ They became, and still are. his own very public way of examining his life. Expressing the fears of a clown, when there’s lots of people around.
Over the years Gray’s reminiscences have become more complex in their structure and have moved on to address deeper issues. The early ones were based on
- childhood recollections; now he has
caught up with himself. These days they deal with present concerns rather than trying to work out his background. Now. he travels around like an international scrap collector. searching for any old ironies that life throws up, which he then polishes up and sets out for public admiration.
To some extent he has single-handedly set up a new form of performance art. Like all innovators he has his apes. ‘There‘s a guy out here who saw Swimming to Cambodia and got inspired and did a piece about his wife’s death from cancer called Time Flies When You're Alive. I went to see it and he thanked me afterwards and said “I never would have done it had I not seen your work“, and I was pleased about that. But there's very little solo work in America that‘s directly in character in the first person. I am one ofthe few that I know of, still, that‘s doing it directly from myself saying, this is what happened to me.’
Fame has brought its inherent problems for his reports on his life. He finds that people often ‘audition' for his monologues. Some try to create fantastical situations in order that he might give them a walk-on part, while others. worried that he will do exactly that, scurry away from him.
For Monster in a Box, Gray has
found what may turn out to be a self-perpetuatingtheme. It deals with the constant interruptions to his novel: the monster in the box. Aptly named, as it currently runs to 1359 pages. He calls it his ‘Eight and a Half,’ like Fellini‘s film, ‘because everything that happened in it happened because of the success of the movie Swimming to Cambodia. I kept getting interrupted by all these offers while I was trying to write my book.‘ So he talks about the difficulty ofgetting the book finished and in turn that will take up his time till he has enough material for the next monologue. So maybe he should just stick to what he does best — talking.
Monster in a Box will be at the Old Athenaeum Theatre 25 and 26 May. 7.30pm. £5 (£2.50). Also Swimming to Cambodia will beshown at GFT, Thurs 24 May. 6pm. Spalding Gray will be present to discuss the film afterwards.