Spalding Gray, Autobiographical Monologs… Some Random Thoughts…

For what its worth, here are some thoughts about Spalding Gray-actually about he and I both… But I have to say in advance, this is not the kind of story that Spalding told on stage or that I used to tell on the radio-one with a beginning, a middle, and an end… At least not an end you could walk away from and say, “Well that was interesting and the ending seemed to fit the piece.” or, “I didn’t like the way he ended it.” Like I said, there may not be an ending at all-save for the technical fact that the piece will have a last sentence and a period at the end of that sentence.
Considering the fact that the man has dissapeared, that there is no body-and that there will probably be no funeral (not a traditional one anyway with a body in a casket)-how could you come up with an ending?
The same thing happened with my father. He dissapeared (also into freezing winter water off the edge of a city) and was never seen again. It’s taken me thirty years since it happened to even attempt an ending to that story. I never even thought of my father as dead until over a year or more had passed and he didn’t call or write or show up at my door.
I don’t think of Spalding as dead right now, though in my heart I believe he is. With each day that passes he becomes less of a reality and more of a ghost…

Spalding was/is, as I have been, a practitioner of something called autobiographical story telling. Its been called other things too, some not too complimentary…
Technically, and its not something that has gone unremarked by some people, (audiences, critics, ex-wives), this use of one’s own self as the main character in a story could be seen as pure narcissism. Written memoirs are an old and established form of expression but they have always been subject to the charge of morbid or superficial self-absorption. The only way a memoir manages to escape that description is if the person writing it is famous enough so that their memoir is part of history or if they are a good enough writer to carry it off with depth or flair (The Memoirs of Casanova).
God knows I’ve been indicted for narcissism many times in my performing life and I’m sure Spalding was too (he and I talked about that a couple of times). But, in all due modesty and, of course, with absolute objectivity, I disagree that what we did is really narcissism.

Its been my observation over the last twenty-five years of telling autobiographical stories on the radio and on stage (and in two books)-not to mention just plain interacting with family, friends, people at work, etc.-that the people who find my stories the most objectionable, i.e.; “narcissistic,” are usually people who are deathly afraid of thinking about themselves-unless it is in an self-admiring or grandiose way. There are people-often men in my experience-who find it painful to be self-aware; especially, as I say, of their imperfections and weaknesses. The actual sound of another person-especially a another man-describing his life, with all its emotional ups and downs and imperfections, seems foolish, childish, even, God forbid, womanish. After all, would The Terminator or The Godfather; or Rambo or George, “Top-Gun” Bush reminisce wistfully about missing his mother or wince at the recollection of an unintentionally wounding remark? I don’t think so. And if they did (which is extremely doubtful) they would never admit it.

Sometimes I’ve thought that the people who most objected to my autobiographical stories were people who found it intolerable to be exposed to anybody else’s ego-even in so pale a form as a simple story-no matter how brief.

I know-we all know-people who find it almost unbearable to listen to anyone else talk about themselves for more than a minute. They become restless and impatient and MUST interrupt to say something about themselves. The alternative is that their eyes will glaze over and they seem like they are about to slip into a coma. It’s as if hearing about someone else’s life; admitting the existence of someone else-even temporarily-is almost impossible.
The accepted wisdom about this is that such people’s egos are so fragile that they can’t abide the slightest intrusion of someone else’s ego lest their own be shattered like the hollow egg-shell they feel it is. Think of Narcissus obsessively admiring his own image as it is reflected in a pool. If he let his gaze wander for a split-second, he would lose his entire identity.

We all know such people. They are the ones who always have a “better” story than you about the same subject; the people who “already knew that” and “don’t need to hear it again”; the ones who say “Well, that’s just your opinion!” (Who else’s opinion, I wonder, could you give?); and, finally, the ones who cover their ears (even metaphorically) and say “I just don’t want to hear about that anymore!”
My poor mother was like this. It caused her physical pain to listen to one word out of anybody else’s mouth.

The “world” sees people like me and Spalding monologizing (sounds like monopolizing doesn’t it?); using ourselves as protagonist (or anti-hero) and imagines that’s the way our whole lives are played out.
I can’t speak for Spalding’s ability to listen, but I’ve had several conversations with him over the years and he was always a good and careful listener to anything I had to say. And, though I say so myself, I am one of the best listeners you’d ever come across. I have spent a lot of time listening to my friends (or total strangers) tell me their life stories, sad tales and anything else they cared to communicate.

Of course, relentless self-absorption and introspection absent any sense of one’s connection to other people-let alone the effect of ones words or actions on other people-is clearly Narcissism. Narcissus was hypnotized for eternity by the reflection of his own image. As the world decays around him, and grows, and decays again, he is aware of nothing but the meaningless circumstance of the reflection of his own face. What’s fascinating to me is that it is the reflection of an image of a man, not a realistic or agonizing self-assessment-an attempt to accurately picture ones real self-but merely a superficial, thoughtless contemplation of a surface image. In Narcissus’s case, beauty really was skin deep. Think of any one of the dozens of surly dim-bulbed boy-girl models you see on magazine covers or billboards. These people seem like vampires or robots, so immune do they seem to the feelings or needs of anybody around them.

I know some theater critics who couldn’t stand Spalding’s work and one or two that weren’t happy about mine (there were fewer in my case because I didn’t do all that much performance work).
The criticism wasn’t always about the quality of the performance or the material so much as it was a generalized objection to what they called the “self-involved” nature of the form. I remember one critic from the Village Voice who saw one of my stage performances-one that got pretty good reviews from two other critics and that the audience seemed to really appreciate the many times I told it. Her review was entitled “Chasing His Own Tale.” (Now that’s a polite way of calling somebody a brainless ape).

This critic, (a militant lesbian feminist with a real party-line mentality), just couldn’t abide me talking about myself-said it wasn’t really theater, merely psychoanalysis on stage-and that it achieved no catharsis, had no denouement, etc. etc.
Now the story I told, The Fishing Trip, subsequently appeared in a book of short stories. It had a classic, even what you might call, old-fashioned beginning middle and end, complete with a universal personal/moral lesson. In other words, it was as old and venerable a “performance” style as a village elder sitting under some tree 3,000 years ago, talking about some trip he had just taken or vision he had. Yet to this critic it wasn’t “theater.” (I’m sure, considering her prejudices, it didn’t help that the story was
entirely about men being men-a Son-father camping trip story-and, also, that she arrived late to the performance and the only seat they could find was about two feet in front of me at the edge of the stage).

Once Spalding was talking to me about a well known critic, also for the Voice, who relentlessly attacked him-again, not necessarily for the craft level of his performance or the content but merely because he (the critic) refused to consider the possibility that autobiographical storytelling could be theater-or even performance art. The critic felt that such things just didn’t belong on a stage.
Spalding’s opinion was that this critic, who had been in psychoanalysis for many years, resented the fact that people were paying thousands of dollars to hear Spalding talk about himself-and he (the poor critic) had to pay thousands of dollars just so one single person (most likely an old Jewish man from Vienna) could listen to his stories.
I once went to a Christmas party with my ex-wife-a therapist. The entire party was all shrinks; psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts…I mean every last person there. A frightening thought, right? (I advise bed rest, fluids and ten milligrams of Valium 12 times a day).
Anyway, I was talking to one psychiatrist-your typical stiff sort of fellow in his fifties-wearing a suit and dress shoes, even though it was a weekend and he was at a party with friends. He asked me what I did. I told him I was a paralegal and that I was also on the radio on WBAI.
“Oh, what do you do on the radio?”
“Well, I tell stories about myself.”
“Yeah, just tell stories” I said, “Each week, I get on and tell people about something that happened in my life and my feelings and thoughts about it… Sometimes,” I told him, “I even do the stories live on stage.”
This guy was fascinated. “You mean, people-a lot of people, listen to you-even pay you to talk about yourself?!”
He got a wistful dreamy look on his face and said, “I would love to do that!”
I bet he would. I had the definite feeling that he had spent his entire life listening to people and was wishing he could burst out of some kind of personal jail cell he was in.

In the end, of course, it doesn’t make any difference whether autobiographical storytelling “belongs” on a stage-only critics could possibly get so involved in something so petty. And it doesn’t matter whether some people think its “narcissistic” to base theater (or radio) on personal experience directly (but hopefully artistically) expressed.
Whatever is entertaining or inspiring belongs on a stage-just like whatever is entertaining or inspiring belongs on the radio-or in a book or a film, etc.; Providing, always, that there is a sincere attempt (and reasonable success) at finding the universal in the story being told.
They had the best system in the old days. If you were mediocre or just plain bad, you’d get booed off a stage or maybe become the target of some rotting fruit. The closest thing I’ve seen to that in the modern world is the deliberate sadism of “Reality” TV shows like American Idol.
Really, when you dare to set foot on a stage or set yourself up as a radio “personality” you have to take whatever the public dishes out.

The only artistic endeavor I can think of that is older than telling stories is cave painting. Humans were telling stories as soon as they learned how to emit a series of meaningful grunts. I’m sure that, around fifty thousand years ago, a bunch of cave people were settling in around the fire to hear Og’s latest story about his trip over the Big Black Mountain to find the White Bison-and all the magic signs and spirit symbols he saw on his journey…

“Hey, what’s the hurry everybody?”
“C’mon Glug, Og’s telling a new story, we don’t want to be late.”
“Oh, Og is telling another story… Well, I don’t mind telling you, I thing Og is just a self-involved jerk. My opinion is that autobiographical storytelling simply does not belong in a cave.”
BOINK! (the sound of a heavy rock hitting Glug’s head).

Well, so much for narcissism. People perform for audiences, not critics.
Back to the subject…

I first heard of Spalding Gray in the fall of 1983. I had been doing my radio show for about four years at that point-and had joined, the summer before, a writer’s and director’s workshop on the Upper West Side. I had a one-act play I was working on and wanted to see it performed eventually.
I met a woman there, Betty Osborne, who was a director. She was a big fan of Spalding’s and took me down to see him do a monologue at The Performing Garage.

…I see a pale-looking man come out with a glass of water and a notebook and sit down on a plain wooden chair behind a bare wooden table. He, looking a bit nervous, takes a sip of water, looks around the house a little, than moves into an intense personal story.
Fantastic stuff! I had never seen much theater at all in my life and had no idea people could do this on a stage-even though I had been doing something very similar for a couple of years on the air.
Well, I thought, if he could do this, I could do it.
Was this competition? Maybe it was. Maybe I thought I could do it better than Spalding. I was thirty-eight years old then and still had the emotional nature of somebody around twenty years younger. Somebody has to be the champ, right? So, maybe I thought it would be me. Also, the idea that I might make some money telling stories was a new thought (like so many other people on WBAI, I was never paid to do my show).

So I started performing live in small clubs and theaters…
It took a couple of years to smooth the rough edges. I was no actor, had no training, and tended to squiggle around on the stool I sat on while performing. I waved my hands in the air and gesticulated to make a point. My director, Betty, finally got me to understand a few things about stage craft. Don’t twitch and throw your arms around in all directions-it’s distracting; Don’t stare straight ahead at just one spot-look around the theater as you talk; Learn to pace yourself…(if you’ve seen Spalding perform-and I just recently rented a video of Swimming To Cambodia-you could see how much he had perfected his rhythm, his varying speeds, pauses, etc.)

When I’m on the air, I just turn on the microphone and launch myself like a rocket into the talkosphere-never stopping, hardly taking a breath before the story was ended… I had a burning urgent quality that didn’t really conform to the physical and aesthetic requirements of stage performing. After all, on the radio, you know that you can only be heard, never seen. So you tend to focus absolutely everything on your voice. It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste-all that stuff will have to come out of one little opening. It becomes concentrated, sort of like a laser-beam. But in a theater, people can see you. So, how you look-your facial expressions, the way you use your body, all of that becomes part of the act.

Well, I learned the hard way on stage and got better at it-But in the end, I was never like Spalding. How could I be? He was the trained actor with long stage experience (he was around 40 when I first saw him) and expressed himself-often to great and hilarious advantage-with a deadpan, seemingly aloof WASP demeanor.
And that was one thing that was unique about Spalding. His persona was that of the cool, remote New Englander, but then he would start to build up to, and eventually achieve, a hysterical, sweat-popping New York Ethnic nervous breakdown of Olympic proportions. Then, he’d slow down again, landing the plane smoothly back onto the same Protestant runway he took off from.

Me, I was never an actor, never wanted to be-couldn’t even imagine being one. The thought of impersonating another character was beyond me entirely. I had enough trouble just figuring out my own identity (shifting and changing as it alway
s was-and is). God forbid I should to take on someone else’s character.
But that was another thing that was unique about Spalding-something that was almost emblematic about his performances and his entire career; Spalding was always playing Spalding Gray on stage.
Now maybe that’s because he was trained to be an actor-an impersonator of other identities. The theater is, among many other things, artifice. In the theater, (ironically, up until Spalding started doing what he did), you wore make-up, maybe a wig, put on a costume and read lines someone else wrote for a character who was not you. But Spalding eventually went above or beyond that and just played himself. However, the question is, and it’s a question that remains-right up until his last show and his final “act”: Who was that self? Was Spalding Gray playing a character called Spalding Gray?
Was he endowing this stage Spalding Gray with mannerisms, expressions, thoughts and feelings that the real Spalding Gray didn’t share or, at the very least, did not express in his everyday life outside the theater? Only the people who were very close to him would ever know that.
And maybe they wouldn’t. Since Spalding was playing Spalding, maybe he never really let anyone else see who the real Spalding was; or maybe he never knew himself. After all, who of us really knows themselves so completely, that he or she could say: “Yes, everything you see me say and do; every thought and feeling I express in every situation is the real me-perfectly understood and realized. Maybe the last person to do that was Buddha (I wonder what kind of reviews he got. “…Gautauma Buddha opened his new one-man play, Perfect Awareness at The Bohdi Theater last night and it’s this critic’s opinion that this so-called “Detachment” and “Enlightenment” just don’t belong on the spiritual stage!)

In any case, it might have been that Spalding, like so many other people, found the inherent artifice of the theater and the “persona” of Spalding Gray a good way to hide his real feelings-the same way comedians hide behind constant joking. What is more likely, (Spalding being, as far as I can tell, a fairly honest, even courageous man), is that he wasn’t hiding so much; It was more that he found the “persona” of Spalding Gray to be at the very least, a convenient, if not comfortable and safe way to conduct his life.

In the end, we all have a sort of persona that we enact-a character we call “ourselves” that we present not only to the world, but often to our selves as well. And maybe it happens that, after decades of playing that person, we can’t tell the difference between that persona and our real self anymore.
I used to fool myself into thinking that since my stories were all true and that I was telling people (albeit with a sense that I wanted to entertain and even rescue them) exactly what happened and how I felt and what I said–that by doing this, I was being absolutely true to the real me. Its only lately, after doing this most of my life, that I have begun to question who this public persona is; to question who has been telling these stories on the air and on stage and in books, for 25 years. And more- Why has he been doing this in such an obsessed and urgent way? Might there not be, after all, another Mike underneath all this flowing urgent talk?
Just recently I “retired” from the radio-and I haven’t done any stage work in a couple of years. Maybe, out here in the desert of privacy and relative silence, I will stumble across some other, buried self.

I was never an actor. All I was ever attempting, it seemed to me, was just to talk the same way to people over the air (even on stage with a few artifices) that I would talk to them at home or in a restaurant or on the street.
And that was one of the differences between Spalding and myself-at least the way I see it; that my goal was/is to speak to people as as inartificially (as untheatrically) as my self as possible. And believe me, I don’t mean this as some kind of superior achievement. I had to speak in this unvarnished, untheatrical way because I couldn’t seem to make sense of my life otherwise. (Its funny, as I write this, I detect in myself the classical lumpen suspicion of “actors” that a great many people have always had–that they are liars.)
Well… Onward…

I remember that the same Village Voice reviewer who so disliked me “chasing my own tale,” said, in her effort to describe why what I did wasn’t good theater, that I was “too sincerely present,” when I was on stage. In other words, I didn’t have enough artifice, enough of a stage persona. Well, she got that right at least…
“Too sincerely present.” What a great phrase, a compliment even-for a Buddha, or a regular everyday, struggling human. But not, unfortunately, for an “actor” on a stage.

If I could have been a better actor, I would have-God knows I did have some wonderful experiences on stage and that there was money to be made there. I did get to the point where I could perform pretty well, even very well at times, but it was never really for me. I never felt comfortable with it and always have preferred the radio to the artificial constraints and requirements of the stage (no matter how much I do appreciate the glories of theater).
At one point in my fractured career, I had my fifteen minutes of fame and was taken in hand by professional agents and managers. They talked of me “polishing my act,” and getting the right “setting” and “venue”.
God knows I tried to sell out, to be whatever the agents and managers wanted me to be. It just never worked. And though I certainly miss the money I would have gotten, it may have been for the best. I have always felt like I was wandering alone in some confusing woods, looking for my lost self. How much worse might it have been if I was wandering in the woods with music cues, lighting, and the William Morris Agency taking ten percent of the gross?

Radio was always my home…
There is a benefit in not being seen. You can concentrate on the inner voice without distraction. But, as I said before, you also have to have another major component or two to your talking; the same one every artist must have to make any sort of impact on people-you have to have a absolutely burning desire to be NOTICED-in my case to be heard-And, you must get your “message” (thought, emotion) across the airwaves-or stage-or film, or printed page, TO the audience.
I have seen so many performers; singers, actors, film stars, radio personalities, etc., that just don’t have this. They are earnest and they may even have talent but they don’t have that special gift (or drive or motivation) of being able to connect with the audience.
Check out Swimming To Cambodia… Spalding had these qualities of demanding to be noticed and connecting across the fourth wall of theater, though it was masked sometimes; sometimes as a matter of deliberate craft and sometimes, I think, it was masked from himself. He was snared, somewhat, in the same persona he used as an acting tool.
There is an ambivalence here. On one hand he wanted desperately, both for the audience and himself, to connect as forcefully as possible, and, on the other hand, he wanted to withhold his emotions, his inner self, from the audience-lest they steal it and not return it to him. It reminds me very much of the same fear that I’ve heard indigenous people had when they first saw a camera. They were afraid that the box would capture their soul, and it would be lost to them forever.
The eyes of the audience, so desperately sought out, so necessary, it seems, to complete one’s self can be like a thousand cameras, ready to grab your soul the same way a net grabs a butterfly. And where would you be then? And yet, you need to be heard and seen-you might not even exist if you are not heard and seen!

For a long time I envied Spalding his success. I was petty and jealous about it-as bad as you could possibly imagine. I wanted his fame and h
is money and his ability to be so career oriented and single-minded in his pursuit of it all.
Of course it was my own self-destructiveness and fear of success that kept me back-that and the unfortunate fact that the medium (radio) where I perfected my storytelling craft was not a place where people looked for that kind of thing. The only person who ever became rich and famous on commercial radio for telling personal stories was Jean Shepherd and that was a real fluke. Otherwise the radio always was, and is now more than ever, a place for music, mindless chatter and talk/news shows-a place to sell something (even if it’s a radical political point of view, like at WBAI).

I have recently stopped doing radio (at least in the intense, autobiographical form I practiced on WBAI). I’ve stopped because I feel like I have told my story and voiced my opinions. I’ve had my say and that’s that.
I might easily wind up on the radio someplace else, doing some other form of show (though it will always be personal). But my days of demanding to be HEARD are over and though I am drifting now-suddenly separated from a persona of 25 years duration-I have hopes of winding up in some newer, perhaps more evolved place in my life.
It occurred to me, off and on for several years now, that I was really talking to my parents when I was talking on the radio-and on stage (even, to some extent, in the the two books I wrote). I was talking desperately to my parents so they would come back to me (my father) and pay attention to me just once (my mother). But, oddly enough, after 25 years of broadcasting my voice all over the known universe I never heard a word from either one of them.
Now this could possibly be because they were dead the whole time-though I have never considered such trifles an obstacle to communication. Or maybe they never got in touch because they were never really listening in the first place. I could talk for another 25 years-but it would never change the past, the present or the future.

Well, so much for magical powers and fairy-tales. Now that I’ve said so much and gotten no response from my intended hearers, I’ve decided to back away from it all and think about it. It’s a matter of fortunate circumstance that so much else came of my narrow desperate communicating… Along the way, I connected with thousands of strangers, who, after a while, became a kind of huge extended family. I knew, after a while, because of all the response from the audience, that I was speaking for people who were in similarly desperate, or just plain inarticulate circumstances.
I also got to practice what is obviously a natural gift-a gift of gab, a knack for articulating things in an entertaining and occasionally inspiring way.

Having dispensed my small compendium of wisdom, will I now turn into Lao Tse (how’s that for hubris?) and disappear with my mule into the mountains, never to be heard from again? I don’t know. There aren’t too many mountains in the Metropolitan area and I would probably get too lonely with just a mule for company. So, my story is unfinished.

And Spalding… Who was he talking to all this time? His mother, who, like my mother, was crazy and wound up killing herself? His father, who seemed sort of remote and strange? I will never know, and probably no one else will either-especially as he is no longer around to tell us.
Of course, in the end, it matters not one bit who Spalding was talking to.
I’m just glad he was talking.
And there’s another irony, of course, and certainly not a new one in the arts. So many people’s agony or helpless compulsions can be so entertaining or uplifting to the rest of us. Spalding ends his great story Swimming To Cambodia commenting on how and why America killed Marilyn Monroe.
As The Band’s lyrics have it in their song, Stage Fright-I paraphrase here: “And for all the trouble the poor boy’s had, he gets to sing just like a bird.”

No story ever really ends… It merely pauses.
If the pain (of body and soul) hadn’t been to much for Spalding, maybe he would have come to the point where he would have decided that a retreat-from compulsive performing-was called for.
But, again, we’ll never know and that’s too bad. He would have made a great story of it. I know it in my heart.

– Mike Feder (New York City – February 15, 2004)

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