Essay: Spalding Gray Alone on Stage

May 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Every year, there seems to be more of them: one-man shows, one-woman shows, monologues that speak to the difficulty of an individual life — but almost always with laughter. One person alone one stage, self-exposed, often overexposed, like a bright photograph displaying the universality of eccentricity: The theater of a life. To the success of this form a great debt is owed Spalding Gray, who died in water last winter off the Staten Island ferry, an apparent suicide.

SPALDING GRAY: Saturday, June 18, 1983.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The chapters of his life that he made into art included “Swimming to Cambodia…”

SPALDING GRAY: This is the box. And this is the monster in it.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: …”Monster in a Box” and “Gray’s Anatomy.”

SPALDING GRAY: And I was reading over and over a particularly painful section about my mother’s suicide, trying to get it right.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: His anatomy, indeed. He was a virtuoso at embellished memory. He was interested in “creative confessions.” He said, “I would have made a great Catholic.”

SPALDING GRAY: …My left eye.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: He also said that his two favorite dollies were Parton and Llama. Spalding the hilarious, Spalding the puzzled, the scared, the brave: As a monologist, Spalding essentially a storyteller. He went for the misery sufficiently deep to create a story we remember. So doing, he invented a form, a very rare thing among artists. Some called it the “Epic Monologue,” because it was spoken and then it was written, like an epic, and because it consisted of great and important themes. But as an epic hero, Spalding stood on his head.

SPALDING GRAY: What am I good at?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Instead of having a single tragic flaw, he was all flaws. Spalding would have said that he “crawled around on all flaws.” And the one truly heroic element of his make-up was the willingness to be open, rabidly open, about his frailties.

SPALDING GRAY: Reading over and over that painful section about my mother’s suicide, I mean, without properly mourning her or grieving her loss. I mean, that probably made me cry in one major way. My eye just exploded one big tear. Then I thought, no, it’s because I’ve wrote it in the first person, the book. It was simply too much “I,” “I,” “I,” “I.” Then I thought, no, it’s my left thing rebelling against my right, or vise versa because I am dyslexic. Now, whenever I asked any of my new age friends what they thought was going on, they would say, “well, what it is you don’t want to see?” And I had lists.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: At the same time, he knew that openness was his protection. The monologue kept him safe from others, just as did the table at which he sat: His set. The monologue protected him from dialogue. The deep appeal of the monologue, then, seems to be that we see someone at once very vulnerable and very safe, at least as long as he remains on stage. Off stage, the art is subtracted from plain life, making survival the one hope left. Spalding the monologist could strive to rescue the rest of us. Spalding the man struggled to keep his head above water, which is why today the cover of “Swimming to Cambodia,” with his face half-submerged, breaks one’s heart.

He remarked of his mother’s suicide that occurred when he was a child; that it seemed like Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus. He might have been speaking of his own death. Icarus, too, in the painting, descended into water, unnoticed by everyone except, of course, by Brueghel. Like Brueghel, Spalding noticed everything.

In the end, the chief monologist discovered the misery sufficiently deep to create a story we remember. Yet it also discovered life with family, and he made a joyful story of that, too. He made a story of looking for a story, which finally proved too much, too deep, and out of reach.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.