Spalding Gray’s Tortured Soul–
Spalding Gray revealed his meditations about life onstage. Now his journals reveal his innermost thoughts.
Spalding Gray moved to New York City in 1967, shortly after his mother’s suicide, when he was 26. He lived with his girlfriend, Elizabeth LeCompte, in an apartment on Sixth Street and Avenue D, on the Lower East Side. To make ends meet, Gray occasionally worked as a stock boy, while LeCompte sold postcards at the front desk of the Guggenheim. But mostly they were finding their places in New York’s avant-garde theater world.
The late ’60s and ’70s were a period of great artistic and personal ferment for Gray, as he struggled through a nervous breakdown and the dissolution of his relationship with LeCompte and toward the confessional monologue for which he would later become famous. Throughout his work with the Performance Group, Gray honed his sense of self as a performer. In one play, he portrayed a character named Spalding, based on how Schechner saw him — an observer commenting on the action. Later he and LeCompte began collaborating on theatrical pieces — he as actor, she as director — that explored Gray’s family history and the death of his mother. As he increasingly mined his own life for material, he simultaneously grew adept at keeping parts of himself private, shaving just the top layer of a secret and offering it up as a convincing whole. “The well-told partial truth to deflect the private raw truth,” Gray once observed about his monologues in his journal.
What Spalding Gray Left Us
In “Swimming to Cambodia” — the monologue that made Spalding Gray (relatively) famous, about the time he spent in Thailand playing a small role in “The Killing Fields,” the film about the Cambodian genocide — Gray tells a strange, disconcerting story about the death of Thomas Merton. Merton, the Trappist monk celebrated for his devotion to an eloquently spiritualized silence, was “a hero of mine because he knew how to shut up,” Gray, the compulsive verbalizer, tells us.
THE JOURNALS OF SPALDING GRAY
Edited by Nell Casey
Illustrated. 340 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.
As Gray describes Merton’s death, “the Trappists sent him to Southeast Asia to research Buddhism. He stepped out of a bathtub, touched an electric fan and died instantly.”
This account, as it happens, dramatizes the conflict found throughout Gray’s extensive journals: between his own relentless search for transcendence (“perfect moments” and the like) and the often shocking absurdity of worldly contingency of the sort that will, eventually, tragically, short-circuit him too.