Gray, Spalding 1941–2004

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Gray, Spalding 1941–2004

PERSONAL: Born June 5, 1941, in Providence, RI; died, January, 2004, in New York, NY; son of Rockwell (a factory employee) and Margeret Elizabeth (a homemaker; maiden name, Horton) Gray; married Renee Shafransky (a writer and stage director), August, 1991 (divorced); married Kathleen Russo; children: three. Education: Emerson College, B.A., 1965.

CAREER: Actor and writer. Actor in Cape Cod, MA, and Saratoga, NY, 1965–67; actor with Alley Theater, Houston, TX, 1967; actor with Performance Group (experimental theater company), New York, NY, 1967–79; cofounder of Wooster Group (theater company), New York, NY, 1977; writer, beginning 1979. Actor in summer stock plays, including The Curious Savage, Long Day's Journey into Night, and The Knack; actor in The Best Man, 2000; actor in films, including The Killing Fields, 1983, Swimming to Cambodia, 1985, True Stories, 1987, Stars and Bars, 1988, Clara's Heart, 1988, Beaches, 1989, Straight Talk, 1992, King of the Hill, 1993, The Paper, 1994, Diabolique, 1996, Drunks, 1997, and Kate and Leopold, 2001. Visiting instructor at University of California, Santa Cruz, summer, 1978, and at Columbia University, 1985; artist-in-residence at Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, CA, 1986–87.

AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from National Endowment for the Arts, 1978, Rockefeller Foundation, 1979, and Edward Albee Foundation, 1985; fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, 1978, and Rockefeller Foundation, 1979; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; Obie Award, Village Voice, 1985, for Swimming to Cambodia.



Sex and Death to the Age 14 (also see below), produced off-Broadway, 1979.

Booze, Cars, and College Girls (also see below) produced off-Broadway, 1979.

India (and After), produced off-Broadway, 1979.

A Personal History of the American Theatre, produced off-Broadway, 1980.

(With Randal Levenson) In Search of the Monkey Girl (produced off-Broadway, 1981), Aperture Press (New York, NY), 1982.

Swimming to Cambodia (produced off-Broadway, 1985; also see below), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1985.

Sex and Death to the Age 14 (collection; includes Booze, Cars, and College Girls), Random House (New York, NY), 1986.

Travels through New England, produced off-Broadway, 1986.

Terrors of Pleasure, produced in New York, NY, at Lincoln Center, 1986.

Swimming to Cambodia: The Collected Works of Spalding Gray (includes Sex and Death to the Age 14, Booze, Cars, and College Girls, Forty-seven Beds, Nobody Wanted to Sit behind a Desk, Travels through New England, and Terrors of Pleasure), Picador (New York, NY), 1987.

Monster in a Box (produced in New York, NY, at Lincoln Center, 1990), Vintage (New York, NY), 1992.

Gray's Anatomy (produced in New York, NY, 1993), Vintage (New York, NY), 1994.

It's a Slippery Slope (produced in New York, NY, at Lincoln Center, 1996), Noonday Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Morning, Noon, and Night (produced in Chicago, IL, 1999), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1999.

Contributor of Rivkala's Ring (based on Anton Chekhov's short story "A Witch"; produced in Chicago, IL, 1986, as part of a production titled Orchards), to Orchards (anthology), Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.


(With Elizabeth LeCompte) Sakonnet Point (one-act play), produced off-Broadway, 1975.

(With Elizabeth LeCompte) Rumstick Road (one-act play), produced off-Broadway, 1977.

(With Elizabeth LeCompte) Nyatt School (one-act play), produced off-Broadway, 1978.

(With Elizabeth LeCompte) Three Places in Rhode Island (play trilogy; includes Sakonnet Point, Rumstick Road, and Nyatt School), produced off-Broadway, 1979.

Point Judith (one-act play; epilogue to Three Places in Rhode Island), produced off-Broadway, 1979.

Seven Scenes from a Family Album (short stories), Benzene Press, 1981.

Impossible Vacation (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

Also producer of improvisations, including "Interviewing the Audience," 1981, and "Art in the Anchorage," 1985. Contributor of articles to drama journals and periodicals, including Elle, Rolling Stone, Gentleman's Quarterly, Performing Arts Journal, and Drama Review.

ADAPTATIONS: Several of Gray's performances of Swimming to Cambodia were adapted by director Jonathan Demme for the 1987 film of the same title, with music by Laurie Anderson; Terrors of Pleasure was filmed as an HBO Comedy Special; Monster in a Box was released as a film by Fine Line Features in 1992, with music by Laurie Anderson; Gray's Anatomy was directed by Steven Soderberg and filmed in 1997.

SIDELIGHTS: Dubbed "our bard of self-absorption" by Nation critic Laurie Stone, actor and performance artist Spalding Gray was known for his critically acclaimed autobiographical dramatic monologues in which he drew upon some of the most intimate areas of his personal history in order to produce observant, humorous, and insightful stories of contemporary life. "Recycling negative experience is one of the things the monologues are about," Gray once explained to Don Shewey in the New York Times. "I go out and digest what could be disturbing situations and convert them into humor in front of an audience." As Stone further noted, Gray learned to see such self-absorption "with detachment, turning it into a subject, a hot tub big enough for a group soak." Many of these monologues, such as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray's Anatomy, It's a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon, and Night were adapted for books and some for popular movies. Writing in Contemporary Literature, Gay Brewer noted that Gray's "art is the autobiographic monologue, a composite of reality and artifice." According to Brewer, Gray's works "share adventures achieved in the pursuit of artistic expression and colored by an obsession with the unattainable—life as art, encapsulated and preserved." In 2004 Gray was at work on yet another monologue, "Black Spot," about a near-fatal car accident he had in Ireland, when he died in New York, an apparent suicide.

Born in Rhode Island to middle-class parents, Gray became interested in the theater as a teenager. He studied acting at Emerson College, and after his 1965 graduation he performed for two years in summer stock theater in New England and in New York state. In 1967 he traveled to Texas and Mexico, and upon his return several months later he learned his mother had committed suicide. The loss and subsequent family trauma caused him to suffer a prolonged depression that resulted in a nervous breakdown nine years later. Gray eventually used events from his childhood and college life as well as experiences as a struggling actor as material for his dramas and monologues.

In the late 1960s Gray moved to New York City, where he joined the Performance Group, an experimental off-Broadway theater company. There he composed his first autobiographical dramatic works, and in 1977 he founded the Wooster Group with Elizabeth LeCompte. Also with LeCompte, Gray wrote Sakonnet Point and Rumstick Road, two experimental dramas which explored his mother's mental illness and suicide and their effects on his youth and on his family, and Nyatt School, a satire of poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party. The three plays made up a trilogy titled Three Places in Rhode Island, which Gray produced collectively in 1979.

Gray became interested in the dramatic monologue's possibilities during his tenure as a summer workshop instructor at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus in 1978. As related by David Guy in the New York Times Book Review, Gray lamented what he foresaw as the demise of white middle-class life to a friend who replied, "During the collapse of Rome the last artists were the chroniclers." Gray consequently decided to "chronicle" his own life orally in dramatic monologue form; the performer felt that writing it down implied a faith in the future that he did not possess. In 1979 Gray performed Sex and Death to the Age 14, his first monologue, at SoHo's Performing Garage. This confessional account of Gray's boyhood experiences with family turmoil and sexuality was followed by an examination of his life at college titled Booze, Cars, and College Girls and then by India (and After), the story of his nervous collapse when he returned from a tour of India in 1976. "I'll never run out of material as long as I live," Newsweek's Cathleen McGuigan quoted the actor describing his work's content. "The only disappointment is that I probably won't be able to come back after I die and tell that experience." After the success of these first monologues, Gray began giving performances across the country.

In the early-1980s Gray used the monologue form to produce Interviewing the Audience and In Search of the Monkey Girl. In the former Gray elicited stories from audience members, while the latter was the product of a trip that Gray, hoping to generate new material for his monologues, took to interview carnival members and sideshow freaks at the 1981 Tennessee State Fair. The resulting monologue was published as the text of a book of photographs by the same name in 1982. During this time Gray also published his first fictional work, Seven Scenes from a Family Album, a book of short, interrelated autobiographical sketches depicting, with satire as well as humor, the sexual tensions and complex emotional relationships in a suburban family.

Publicity from Gray's one-man performances resulted in his being cast as an American ambassador's aide in the 1983 feature film The Killing Fields, the story of the friendship between an American correspondent and his Asian assistant during the 1970s war in Cambodia. The two months Gray spent filming on location in Thailand became the subject of his next effort, Swimming to Cambodia, considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. The monologue premiered in 1985 and evolved improvisationally at New York City's Performing Garage. Gray, who performed the monologue sitting at a desk with only a glass of water, a notebook, and two maps of Southeast Asia as props, narrated anecdotes and observations from several levels of his own experience—as an individual coping with personal problems, as a professional actor in a large-scale movie production, as an American facing the aftermath of U.S. policy in Cambodia since the Vietnam War, and as a human being learning of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, a guerrilla group that terrorized the country in 1975. The monologue takes its title, as quoted by Janet Maslin in the New York Times, from Gray's remark in the piece that "explaining the upheaval in that country 'would be a task equal to swimming there from New York.'"

Swimming to Cambodia met with an enthusiastic reception. Critics admired the pace and fluidity of Gray's narrative, the numerous descriptive details in his recollections, and the honesty with which he presented his stories. "What really makes [Swimming to Cambodia] work is its shifting frames of reference, as Gray contracts and expands his point of view to move from meticulously described immediate experience to a detached global-historical vision," assessed Dave Kehr in the Chicago Tribune. New York Times writer Mel Gussow was similarly impressed, asserting that Gray's "stream of experience has the zestful, first-hand quality of a letter home from the front." And David Richards, writing for the Washington Post, called the actor "an original and disciplined artistic temperament at work," concluding that when Gray is "talking about himself—with candor, humor, imagination and the unfailingly bizarre image—he ends up talking about all of us."

Gray's stage success with Swimming to Cambodia inspired him to collaborate with future wife Renee Shafransky on a movie version of the monologue. The film version of Swimming to Cambodia was produced by Shafransky, directed by Jonathan Demme, and released in 1987 to widespread critical acclaim. Deemed by Kehr a "documentary on the face and voice of Spalding Gray," the movie was filmed in the Performing Garage and later embellished only with music and a few clips from The Killing Fields.

Gray published as well as performed his monologues. Swimming to Cambodia, issued in 1985, 1993's Gray's Anatomy, and a 1986 collection titled Sex and Death to the Age 14 are among the transcriptions of Gray's many performances through which the printed form of each monologue evolved. "Almost all of my writing has grown out of speaking it in front of an audience," Gray once explained to CA. "Then, after a great number of performances, I take the best tape, get it transcribed, and rework it for print." Critical responses to Gray's monologues in book form, however, have been mixed: some readers, while admiring the author's storytelling ability, have questioned the literary merit of his mate-rial. Lisa Zeidner, for instance, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Swimming to Cambodia "is surprisingly successful on the page—breezy and theatrical," while New Statesman reviewer Nick Kimberley complained that in the writing Gray "simply comes across as a cartoon version of the self-dramatising, all-American alternative culturist…. He lazily spews up the world in an endless burble of 'me-me-me.'"

Gray followed the popular Swimming to Cambodia with two more monologues: Terrors of Pleasure, which premiered at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City in 1986, and Rivkala's Ring. The story of Gray's purchase of a dilapidated house in New York's Catskill Mountains and his resultant frustration in learning that the structure's rotting foundations were causing it to sink, Terrors of Pleasure was praised by Gussow, who remarked that the "narrative has dramatic cohesiveness as well as comic insight." Gray was also commissioned in 1986 by the Juilliard Theater School's Acting Company to write a theatrical adaptation of a short story by Russian author and dramatist Anton Chekhov for a production called Orchards. For the project Gray penned Rivkala's Ring—a monologue to be performed by an actor other than Gray in which an insomniac, upon receiving a copy of Chekhov's short story "The Witch" in the mail, begins a winding narrative having little overt connection to the story. Some reviewers found Gray's contribution to the program too far removed from Chekhovian themes, but John Beaufort, in the Christian Science Monitor, called the monologue "a windy word-scape, effectively recited." Again Gussow admired Gray's work, describing his contribution to Orchards as "a stream of fascinating experience," and concluded that "even more clearly than before, one realizes the extent of Mr. Gray's creativity as dramatist as well as performance artist."

In line with his autobiographical bent, Gray also wrote an autobiographical novel. Titled Impossible Vacation and published in 1992, the novel had its genesis in the monologue Monster in a Box, which was first performed at New York's Lincoln Center in 1990. The monologue featured "a man who can't write a book about a man who can't take a vacation"; the "monster" of the title refers to the stack of handwritten manuscript pages that multiply—but to no conclusive "The End"—during the monologue's performance. In Impossible Vacation that man becomes Brewster North—a thinly disguised Gray—who cannot hold down a job because of his belief that something better is just around the corner, whose emotionally troubled mother eventually commits suicide, and whose own emotional and financial instability occasionally topples him into lulls of depression as well. The continuous frustration of each of North's goals is the lifeblood of the work; while David Montrose commented in the Times Literary Supplement that later portions of the novel are "without Gray's usual humour and charm," Spectator reviewer Cressida Connolly noted of Impossible Vacation: "Its hero spends many years trying to relax, hang out and enjoy life: his failure to do so makes hilarious reading." Meanwhile, Monster in a Box, which was a play, book, and movie, continued Gray's rise in the estimation of many critics. For Stanley Kauffmann, writing in the New Republic, it showed Gray as "earnestly funny and, above all else, articulate." Others were less impressed. For example, National Review critic Joe Queenan failed "to see what all the fuss is about." According to Queenan, Gray seems "not near as funny as the young Woody Allen or even the young Eddie Murphy. He is NPR's idea of what a comic should be: a Bob Newhart who has been to Europe." Lawrence O'Toole, reviewing the same movie for Entertainment Weekly, felt that Gray's second film effort lacks the punch of Swimming to Cambodia. Stone wrote, "this time self-reference has given way to self-fascination."

Throughout the 1990s Gray continued to mine personal experience and misadventure for his monologues, including Gray's Anatomy, which explores his reactions to and treatment for an eye affliction; It's a Slipper Slope, detailing his attempts on skis and the breakup of his marriage when his current girlfriend became pregnant with his baby; and Morning, Noon, and Night, a very domestic day-in-the-life of the new Spalding family at their Long Island home. Reviewing the book publication of Gray's Anatomy, a critic for Publishers Weekly found Gray to be "always entertaining, and sometimes hilarious." Reviewing the movie version, Steve Hayes noted in American Theatre that the "film is a visual delight, a creative effort of a talented team." Kauffmann, however, writing in the New Republic, viewed the film as "padded," and that both "speaker and director are nervous about the material."

Robert Simonson, writing in Back Stage, found the stage version of It's a Slippery Slope an "engaging production," while Stone, writing in the Nation, was less laudatory in her assessment, complaining that the play is a "scrapbook of [Gray's] narcissism." Still Stone praised Gray's monologue as "bravura stand-up unreeled with grand minimalism." Reviewing the book version of the monologue, Booklist's Benjamin Segedin called it the story of a "midlife crisis" and a "welcome addition to the Gray oeuvre." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that the monologue looks at more "commonplace human crises" than Gray's previous works. Here the themes are "adultery, separation, fatherhood." The same Publishers Weekly critic concluded that It's a Slippery Slope is a "portrait of a man in the painful process of being disabused." People's Jim Brown, however, found less to like, noting that in the book version "the vaunted Gray charm is for the most part lacking. He comes off here as a major worrywart."

Similar mixed reactions greeted both the stage and book versions of Gray's next work, Morning, Noon, and Night. Jonathan Abarbanel, writing in Back Stage, found the stage version a "day in the domestic life of Gray—horny house husband, homeowner, gardener, yoga master, bicyclist, day sailor, stepdad, and proud papa in his fifties, lover of children and small animals." For Abarbanel "something more affirming has taken hold" in this monologue. Abarbanel described this "something else" as "contentment and joy and living in the moment, rather than pondering the unanswerables." Variety critic Chris Jones, however, found the "newly cheery Gray" more suited to "the Family Channel than Bravo," and opined that Gray "has gone soft and paternal in middle age." Reviewing the book of the monologue, a critic for Publishers Weekly described it as a "portrait of the artist as bemused dad," "by turns funny, meditative and self-absorbed." Booklist's Jack Helbig allowed that Gray "remains a gifted storyteller," but also feared that the author/artist's "longtime fans will miss the hilarity of his earlier work."

Gray's domestic bliss suffered a setback with a car accident in Ireland in 2000 in which he was nearly killed. But true to form, he was in the process of turning this misfortune into his twentieth monologue when depression overcame him. He tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge but was talked down by a passerby. In January of 2004, he went missing in New York, and several months later his body was found in the East River, an apparent suicide.



Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 49, 1988, Volume 112, 1999.

Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1989, Volume 15, 1996, Volume 24, 2000, Volume 49, 2003.


American Theatre, November, 1996, Steve Hayes, "Gaze Anatomy," p. 70.

Back Stage, November 29, 1996, Robert Simonson, review of It's a Slippery Slope, p. 53; September 17, 1999, Jonathan Abarbanel, review of Morning, Noon, and Night, p. 71; March 12, 2004, p. 6.

Booklist, September 1, 1997, Benjamin Segedin, review of It's a Slippery Slope, p. 51; August, 1999, Jack Helbig, review of Morning, Noon, and Night, p. 1981.

Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1986; April 7, 1987; May 20, 1987.

Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1986.

Contemporary Literature, summer, 1996, Gay Brewer, "Talking His Way Back to Life: Spalding Gray and the Embodied Voice," p. 23.

Daily Variety, March 9, 2004, p. 1.

Entertainment Weekly, January 29, 1993, Lawrence O'Toole, review of Monster in a Box, p. 63; October 1, 1999, Megan Harlan, review of Morning, Noon, and Night, p. 70.

Library Journal, July, 1997, Thomas E. Luddy, review of It's a Slippery Slope, p. 84; October 1, 1999, Barry X. Miller, review of Morning, Noon, and Night, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1985; January 18, 1985; April 3, 1987; May 20, 1987; January 8, 1988.

Nation, April 18, 1987; December 23, 1996, Laurie Stone, review of It's a Slippery Slope, p. 33.

National Review, July 20, 1992, Joe Queenan, review of Monster in a Box, p. 43.

New Republic, July 6, 1992, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Monster in a Box, p. 26; April 7, 1997, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Gray's Anatomy, p. 26.

New Statesman, September 7, 1987.

Newsweek, July 28, 1986.

New York Times, November 16, 1984; March 28, 1986; April 23, 1986; May 11, 1986; May 15, 1986; March 7, 1987; March 13, 1987; March 22, 1987; April 24, 1987; November 11, 1996.

New York Times Book Review, January 12, 1986; May 4, 1986; May 22, 1992; July 12, 1992, pp. 9-10; October 12, 1997.

New York Times Magazine, March 8, 1987.

Observer (London, England), February 15, 1987.

People, October 13, 1997, Jim Brown, review of It's a Slippery Slope, p. 36; February 2, 2004, "Without a Trace," p. 86.

Publishers Weekly, January 20, 1992, p. 59; November 22, 1993, review of Gray's Anatomy, p. 58; July 7, 1997, review of It's a Slippery Slope, p. 56; August 23, 1999, review of Morning, Noon, and Night, p. 37; May 13, 2002, John F. Baker, "Spalding Gray and His 'Black Spot,'" p. 24.

Spectator, January 16, 1993, p. 30.

Time, April 27, 1987.

Times (London, England), February 7, 1987.

Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 1993, p. 17.

Variety, September 27, 1999, Chris Jones, review of Morning, Noon, and Night, p. 159.

Village Voice, January 27, 1982.

Washington Post, June 2, 1979; April 1, 1985; May 1, 1987.



American Theatre, July-August, 2004, Eric Bogosian, "Spalding Gray: 1941–2004; The Perfect Moment," p. 22, Mark Russell, Spalding Gray: 1941–2004; One True Thing at a Time, p. 23.

Back Stage West, March 11, 2004, p. 2.

Newsweek, March 22, 2004, p. 10.

Variety, March 14, 2004, Robert Hofler, "Gray Was Pithy Speaker," p. 57.

Village Voice, March 17-23, 2004, Mark Russell, "Spalding Gray 1941–2004."

ONLINE, (March 9, 2004).

New York Times Online, (March 9, 2004).

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Gray, Spalding 1941–2004

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