[Marxism] Spalding Gray

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 12 14:54:09 MST 2004

Apparently Spalding Gray jumped off the Staten Island ferry on January 
10--the last day he was seen alive. His body finally washed up from the 
East River on March 8. As somebody who has both seen him perform 
numerous times over the years and gazed into the waters from the side of 
the ferry on the way to Staten Island, his disappearance and death has 
been more on my mind than that of other deceased personalities.

Gray was a true genius. He virtually invented a new-form in the 1970s, 
which combined autobiography with stage performance. Sitting at a table 
on a bare stage with nothing in front of him but a couple of sheets of 
paper, he spoke for an hour or two without interruption about important 
events in his life. As a story-teller, Gray was unmatched. With a flair 
for the telling detail and a dry self-mocking wit, he could hold an 
audience in the palm of his hands.

The last time I saw him perform was back in 1993 in something called 
"Gray's Anatomy". It had to do with his search for a cure for macular 
degeneration in his left eye, which can lead to blindness. Before opting 
for surgery, he tries a Filipino psychic surgeon and other "alternative" 
therapies. This was as much a function of fear of the knife as it was of 
a Christian Science upbringing that was reinforced by experiments with 
Eastern mysticism throughout the sixties. Stephen Soderbergh, who also 
directed "Sex, Lies and Videotape" and other films, made a movie of 
"Gray's Anatomy" in 1996 and it is well worth tracking down. This year, 
when I developed a "floater" in my left eye (and then in my right) 
because of retinal deterioration, I thought about "Gray's Anatomy" a 
lot. Fortunately, my problems were mild by comparison.

Before that, I saw "Monster in a Box", which is about his often futile 
efforts to turn an enormous sprawling manuscript into a novel. It too 
was turned into a film (directed by Nick Broomfield) that is available 
in video/DVD. It is a meandering but hilarious account of his various 
procrastinations to avoid completing the novel, which mostly takes the 
form of vacations to far-off spots like the USSR.

I love to tell one of Gray's stories to friends who are as addicted to 
coffee as me. Since he knows that you can't get real coffee in a Russian 
hotel, he brings his own with him that he brews in his room in the 
morning. The hotel's ersatz chicory brew not only doesn't taste right. 
It can't help you get that first bowel movement going in the morning. 
When desperate members of his tour group discover that he has the real 
thing, they come to his room to get a "fix" that he charges a premium for.

Another bit from this performance sticks out. In attempting to explain 
in his own off-kilter manner why the USSR collapsed, he compares the 
communications system on an American battleship to its Soviet 
counterpart. It turns out that the Russian admiral uses an old-fashioned 
tube to speak to his men down in the engine-room. For Gray, that 
old-fashioned and oddly more human form of communication is as much a 
token of Soviet decency and humaneness as the "Ostalgie" celebrated 
today in the former East Germany.

The only other Gray performance I attended is not only his best known 
and highly-regarded but a highly acclaimed film as well (also available 
in video/DVD). Directed by Jonathan Demme, "Swimming to Cambodia" is the 
story of Gray's involvement with the film "The Killing Fields", in which 
he plays the US Consul in Cambodia. Once again, there is a passage in 
his narrative that has stuck with me over the years. He cites some 
academic study using quantitative indicators that maps abnormal human 
behavior to the stresses of wartime, especially involving bombardment. 
The study states that on a scale between 1 and 10, people begin to 
exhibit abnormal and destructive behavior when the stress level reaches 
4. Based on all available data, the stress level reached 8 in Cambodia 
just around the time that the Khmer Rouge was getting off the ground. 
That bit of information helped me (and him) to understand the killing 
fields more than any article in the NY Times or the left press for that 

Gray spawned a number of imitators, including an ex-girlfriend who was 
an aspiring director before she launched a career as a performance 
artist. One morning I was up at my mother's house in the country when 
she came on the air on Mike Feder's show on WBAI, the local Pacifica 
affiliate. Her story was basically about her relationship with me and 
what a bore I was. All I was interested in, she complained, was radical 
politics. She said that despite my admiration for Cuba they would never 
let me into the country because I had an expensive stereo. I should 
mention that her venues are church basements generally.

Feder, I should add, did the same sort of thing as Gray, but not nearly 
as successfully in professional terms. Gray's persona is New England and 
waspish, while Feder is the quintessential neurotic NY Jew. 
(http://www.federfiles.com/) Over the years, his shows have been filled 
with complaints about how he hasn't been able to "make it". That being 
said, I consider him one of the more interesting figures on WBAI and an 
exception to the "preaching to the choir" monotony that prevails. Even 
though it is good that the network resisted the Nation 
Magazine-supported takeover, they still have a long way to go to reach 
the level of professionalism and creativity that was on display through 
most of the 1980s.

As most comrades know, I have agreed to review fiction for swans.com. As 
anxious as I am to read a good novel, the pickings are rather slim. Over 
the past couple of months, I have begun reading one or another recent 
work, but have put them aside because they lacked one basic element, 
interesting characters. What made Gray's work memorable was his ability 
to convert his own confused and futile search for a meaningful life into 
something that engaged your mind and your heart. Even though I never met 
him or spoke to him, I really feel like I have lost a friend.


The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list