- Before he disappeared last week, Spalding Gray had been performing early versions of a new work that had long bedeviled him – a monologue about a car wreck more than two years ago that left him physically and emotionally scarred.
The subject matter was harrowing even by the standards of a performer who, in 18 monologues since 1979, has touched on such sensitive topics as his mother’s suicide, his struggles with writer’s block and his search for spirituality.
But for Gray, publicizing his thoughts has never been about just performing. It’s how he comes to terms with the events of his life.
“It’s a way of framing his experience and coping with a series of loose ends,” says his brother, Rockwell Gray, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “The introspection was a big part of the strength that made these things so much more than sit-down comedy, as some people called them. There is a lot of mind to them.”
His family last saw him Jan. 9, when he walked away from his SoHo apartment without his wallet after having seen the movie “Big Fish” with his wife, Kathleen Russo, and one of his sons. There have been subsequent reports that he was seen on the Staten Island ferry later that night, and Russo has said she fears he may have tried to jump off the boat.
….In each monologue, Gray cuts an instantly recognizable figure: a slight, wire-haired man seated behind a desk, equipped with only a microphone, a glass of water and a spiral notebook. His only movement is his expansive gestures and darting eyes. Yet the defining feature of his work is its intensely autobiographical nature. Real figures in his life – wives, children, work associates – appear often, in sometimes less-than-flattering portrayals.
“He was a pioneer in saying that the border between the private and public is a very blurry boundary,” says Richard Schechner, founder of The Performance Group, a downtown Manhattan theater troupe Gray joined in 1970. Schechner directed the actor in off-Broadway productions of “Mother Courage” and Jean Genet’s “The Balcony,” among others.
But while Gray has acknowledged insecurities in his monologues, he never conveyed the depths of his periodic depressions, Schechner says. “His theatrical persona was of someone who always saw the humor and irony in life, but as an actual person, he battled depression and fears,” he says. [AP]
The creative imagination is a powerful, potentially dangerous thing: it is not coincidental that many artists have emotional and psychological problems. Peering too long and hard into the depths can dig a hole from which one might never emerge. Add to this this a family tendency toward depression and a history of suicide and you have a time bomb. But I still hold out hope – hope is a powerful antidote to the negative side of imaginative introspection.