By the Book: “The Journals of Spalding Gray”

It’s titled “The Journals of Spalding Gray” (Knopf) but could have as easily been called The Diaries, The Notebooks or The Memoirs because all these genres run together in editor Nell Casey’s intelligent, sensitive and extensively annotated account of Gray, whom she refers to as “possibly the most celebrated neurotic of our time” and “our preeminent theatrical confessor.” In going through “more than 5,000 pages of private writing,” not counting transcribed audio and videotapes, Casey decided to present The Journals, not as biography, but as “a more complete sense of Gray’s story, from his point of view.” That decision meant leaving out critical “counter-perspectives,” though some might say that amid all the anguished self-deprecation here, at times funny, most times not, Gray co-opted that role as well. [expand]

The Journals is structured chronologically and is centered on Gray’s relationship with the three main women in his life. The book clearly show his awareness of the differences between an autobiographical persona (his performances) and autobiography (what he writes about himself that he feels is true). The problem is that if one thinks of “truth” in the sense of the familiar expression “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” The Journals doesn’t fully deliver. Casey knows that. So does Gray, as he tortures himself in these pages over the charge leveled at him by his long-time lover, colleague and first wife, Renée Shafransky who said he was “CONFESSIONAL BUT NOT HONEST.”

In her introduction, Casey notes that the book has been edited to some extent in accordance with the wishes of Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo (in a few places names have also been changed). Russo had approached her about writing a biography and offered to let her see “raw material” that would deepen “the shadow story” of Gray’s life and death. Interested, no doubt, in protecting her husband’s legacy for his sake as well as that of their children, Russo does allow that it’s not clear as to whether Gray would have wanted these private, agonized ruminations to see the light of day. As Casey notes, however, in a few spots Gray pointedly addresses a reader (“you”). This issue, as literary executors well know, is hardly peculiar to Gray, but the larger—and more important—question has to do with what publication brings that was hitherto unknown or under-appreciated.

The Journals underscores how artfully Gray mined his life, turning its wrenching miseries and comic absurdities and shrewd, sometimes cruel, observations of others into theatre. They also provide an insider’s view of the Avant-garde theatre scene of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and confirm the extensive acting experience behind the making of monologues of apparent spontaneity. Although the highpoint of Gray’s acting career remains Swimming to Cambodia (1983-84)—the innovative monologues he delivered about the time he was working in Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (made into a popular film by Jonathan Demme in 1987)—Gray’s solo performances were honed by a passionate dedication to theatre that extended for close to 40 years, and by a gift for writing for an audience who would see their story in his.

Gray’s work, as Casey writes, “transformed the theatre world, creating an autobiographical genre that has since been so widely replicated it is hard to imagine the daring it took to come first.” As the book’s impressive references show, however, this assessment is hardly new. The overriding question for the reader, therefore, seems to be this: are more revealing glimpses into Gray’s troubled soul and more evidence of his managed exploitation of them as theatre worth 340 pages? The question is worth considering, especially in light of the last and odd, seemingly unrepresentative, quotation in the book. It is from 1970: “I began to realize I was acting [no pun intended] as though the world were going to end and this was helping lead to its destruction. The only positive act would be to leave a record. To leave a chronicle of feelings, acts, reflections, something outside of me, something that might be useful in the unexpected future.”

Aside from Swimming to Cambodia which brilliantly took Gray “outside” himself into the savage, genocidal world of the Khmer Rouge, his focus was on his inside, “narcissistic” (his word), increasingly suicidal world. One wonders if biography might not have better served to secure Spalding Gray’s theatrical reputation over and against the record of his psychiatric condition.

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