This is a recording. What you are about to read of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, that is. Dare I say that it is a new form as well, or really an old one reasserting itself in a new way? Call it an “epic monologue,” remembering what “epic’ has meant during most of the several millennia of the word’s history: a text performed first, written down later; a vessel for great themes, often expressed through mighty events such as battles, their lines of action stretching right past earthbound reality up into the ecstasy of paradise and down into the torments of hell, a canvas of life forever on the move between the individual and universal, and always beset by the irony of its own inevitable annihilation; a confluence of history and myth.
An overinflated order for a couple of hours on the stage, to be sure—especially hours spent with someone so entertaining and downright hilarious as Gray. But his latest pieces (Swimming to Cambodia has two parts, the first of which is excerpted here) are such rich and deep reflections on the world as we are obliged to live it right now, and so clearly culminations of work their creator has been doing for several years, that they invite hyperbole.
Gray’s history as a performer is well known: his activities in the 1960s and 1970s with Richard Schechner and the Performance Group; his continuation with that theatre after Schechner’s departure and its transformation into the present Wooster Group. His personal history is a crucial part of the history of what has become one of the most exciting, innovative experimental ensembles operating anywhere today. It was from parts of his biography that director Elizabeth LeCompte fashioned the Rhode Island Trilogy, the Group’s first work and its first typically controversial artistic success.
For Gray, however, the documentary performances of his past have become the ongoing explorations of his present. First, it was Sex and Death to the Age 14 (childhood to puberty), Booze, Cars and College Girls (young manhood), A Personal History of the American Theatre (his early career as an actor), India and After (the times and, to a degree, the life of the Performance Group), right up to Interviewing the Audience (which is just that).
When Gray first sat down behind a modest wooden table, took an almost calibrated sip from a glass of water, and began to read from his journals about memories of early erections and the death of pets (Sex and Death), he surely did not realize that his experiment would become the focal point of a vast range of personal performance that would take place in New York’s Soho and other bastions of the artistic vanguard during the 1970s. He became a major influence in that work, praised as an original by some, damned as a perpetrator of the “me decade” by others: a guy sitting at a table talking about himself—after all!
It would be incorrect to think that these early monologues, eight in all, could be written down and served up end-to-end to total a neat autobiography. All are impressionistic; all weave back and forth in time and place—tapestries of intertwining themes and images, only occasionally revealing a strand of sequential narrative.
Some are experimental in the extreme: In India and After, for example (the first monologue that was not strictly “mono”), a partner chose words at random from an unabridged dictionary to which Gray responded with free associations having to do with his trips to India and across the United States.
Likewise, it would be false to consider these pieces, as some have, to be the narcissistic exercise of an actor’s overgrown ego, unconcerned with such irrelevant externals as politics, history and society. Sex and Death began and ended with two great punctuations: the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the H-bomb at Enewetak. What took place in between, albeit in the subtlest and most indirect way, was the coming of age of this country after World War Il. All of the monologues have had such an added, often hidden, dimension. If you stared at any one of them long enough, you would find that what was happening to Gray reflected in a startlingly illuminating way what was happening to the world, or at least a significant section of it.
But such allegorical relationships are never explicit, or even apparently deliberate. Each new work is a new development of the Gray persona, which could be characterized as an incorrigible witness, conductor or mirror or, well, sponge. And the nearer the material approaches the historical here-and-now, the more the autobiographical “I” shares the stage with the bystander “he.” It has gradually become Gray’s chosen lot simultaneously to live his life, to play the role of Spalding Gray living his life and to observe said Gray living his life in order to report on it in the next monologue. Perhaps this hall of mirrors, this endless playoff between performance and reality has always been the situation of the artist. It is certainly the quintessential vantage of the actor, though seldom displayed so blatantly. But has it ever been more plainly the predicament of everyone else as well than in this media-ridden age of instant replay? Conditioned by McLuhan and Warhol, Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue, we are all the subject of our own self-writing life story, our shoot-as-you-go film.
So Spalding Gray was cast in a minor role in The Killing Fields, a movie about the recent—one could say continuing—history of Cambodia. It was shot in Thailand, next door to where it originally happened (continues to happen), and in Hollywood where everyone pretends (or aspires) to happen. And he made a monologue about Cambodia, Thailand, Hollywood—and Spalding Gray.
As wonderful as they almost all are, the previous monologues now seem like test flights for the virtuosic swoops and dives of the Cambodia pieces. In them, those poles by which what we call existence is measured tumble over one another like dice in a crap shoot: fiction over history, madness over insanity, appearance over reality. A sailor likes cocaine, threesomes and the nuclear detonator to which he is handcuffed; a president watches Patton and maps strategy; a former account executive reads An Actor Prepares. A small country of exquisite people—a paradise innocent of guilt—transforms itself into hell-on-earth, stirred to genocidal frenzy by Mao, Rousseau and B-52s. But are those massacred peasants or day players covered with fake blood and chicken giblets? Are those burning villages or burning used tires? Is this history or just another take? Through this landscape in which everything threatens to become something else, Gray the actor wanders, the essential white-bread WASP, skirting the shore to avoid the sharks, looking for an agent, afraid he will miss the fun, staying too long, asking dumb questions, getting terrifying answers, searching for the perfect moment.
This is a recording. For the first time, Gray’s odyssey has been taken down. What has always seemed to be writing, hovering just above the little table from which he performs, is now written. We lose something, surely, and that is the wry, desultory, curious live presence of a master storyteller. But we gain the opportunity to make our own replays again and again, and to take the measure of an achievement that seems to grow with each encounter—perhaps even to epic proportions.
The excerpt does not appear online for copyright reasons. It is available in full here.
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