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Stage Death

Gray looked like a man who, although his house was collapsing around him, lacked the will to leave his easy chair.

A year to the month before they pulled Spalding Gray's body from the East River, I saw Spalding Gray die. It happened on a stage in Houston.

The monologue and the man, ever hard to distinguish, had fused entirely. And vanished. All that was left was tragedy.

His show at the Wortham's Cullen Theater was "Interviewing the Audience," a work he often presented while the next monologue was gestating. He would bring members of the audience on stage, sit them down in a soft leather chair next to his and talk, as if they'd been invited over to Spalding's for tea. He'd ask questions, they'd respond, a dialogue would happen. He'd suggest they question him back. A new dialogue.

I'd seen "Interviewing the Audience" several times, and it had always been good theater. Instead of quietly spectating in the dark, the spectators spoke, and the stage lights shone directly on their experiences. Gray approached it with the assumption that people are funny, people are sad, people are full of theater. Guided by Gray's wit, they proved the theory true time and again.

I attended the Houston performance with a friend, Mike Neville. He and I are playwrights, and we found ourselves in Houston last year while studying with Edward Albee at the University of Houston. We were the only two writers in the class who were strangers to Texas. Mike comes from Milwaukee, I from Los Angeles. In addition to our foreignness, we shared an admiration for Spalding Gray. Having left our jobs and homes to go study with Albee in Houston, we were both broke, but at the last moment decided to get rush tickets and catch Spalding. We took seats high in the balcony.

The date of the performance was significant: March 21, 2003, a day after the United States had invaded Iraq. Gray began with a few spontaneous remarks about the war. His voice was strangely quiet, even for him. He sounded distant and weary. His words were barely political. Just wondering aloud, which is what he always did. Why is this administration so intent upon doing this? Lots of people are about to die: Why exactly is this happening? Questions a lot of us were asking ourselves at the time. He made a crack about Donald Rumsfeld, who is as easy and pleasurable a comic target as any figure in American political life since Nixon. Just ordinary wondering and musing.

But his audience was not of New York, or Chicago, or Austin, for that matter. This was Bush Country. And many of the good Republican Houstonians in the house began shouting and jeering, defending the war and its president, and objecting to any such talk goddammit during their night out at the theater.

"We're fighting for your freedom!"

"Love it or leave it!"

"We ain't here to listen to this!"

"Shut up and start the show!"

A number of the offended bolted for the exits, spouses and companions in tow. Antiwar advocates -- and there were quite a few -- shouted back at them. Not ten minutes after curtain, and all was mayhem. The unwitting instigator, the man on stage we had come to see, didn't seem to know what to do. He wasn't rattled so much as sad and confused. He looked like a man who, although his house was collapsing around him, lacked the will to leave his easy chair.

"Why are they leaving?" he asked us, sincerely, in the same distant tone.

Then the show began.

"Have you been following the war on TV?" he asked his first onstage visitor.

I don't recall the answer.

Gray responded back that he couldn't bear to watch it.

This infuriated some more among the audience.

He wondered aloud again, asking no one at all if war was necessary "just to get one man."

The house Republicans who remained joined the revolt. More jeering, more partisan bickering. People were leaving now in droves. Mike and I, from our vantage point high up and far away, watched in amazement as the seats emptied, the aisles filled, the chaos reigned below us.

By now, Gray seemed stunned. I had never seen such a thing at the theater, and I doubt he had, either. At least a quarter of his audience had walked out in protest, and he just sat up there alone, staring out at us. He looked scared, and otherwise vacant. He quit talking about the war. He quit talking entirely. For long stretches. He just sat, staring at us. And staring some more.

Someone mercifully broke the silence.

"Bring up the next guest!"

That was, after all, the concept of the show. And he clearly needed company up there.

 

With or without company, he was unable to perform. Spalding Gray was at a loss for words. A master at finding the theater in himself and others, he was now unable to carry a conversation.

"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" he asked one man.

A response came, and Gray was silent.

No follow-up, nothing about the man's relationships with these siblings, no attempt to find the humor in anyone or anything. Aside from the early Rumsfeld crack, I don't recall him attempting a joke all night.

"What do you do for a living?" was his next question.

That answer, too, was left to languish.

After another silent stretch, the visitor asked if he should go now.

Gray said he guessed so.

Obviously, something more than the early mutiny was bothering him. Those of us who remained were on his side. Either we wondered the same things that he had about the war, or we didn't object to such discussions in the theater, or both. But we were all past that now. We were ready to play "Interviewing the Audience," but the interviewer wouldn't, or couldn't. Some of his onstage visitors, baffled by his inability to conduct the interview, took over. And there was only one subject anyone was interested in.

It came shouted from the crowd:

"What's wrong, Spalding?!"

He answered, some. He talked a bit about the car accident in Ireland in the fall of 2001, which recently has been detailed in accounts of his disappearance, and more recently, in his obituaries. That accident, we have come to learn, fractured his skull, crushed his hip, paralyzed his foot and perhaps damaged his brain. Attempts at rehabilitation had been catastrophic.

That night on stage, however, he only talked about the foot. He hobbled around to demonstrate.

"I can't dance anymore," he explained weakly.

What?

"I can't dance anymore. With my kids. I can't dance with my kids."

We understand, but.

"I can't dance anymore."

He said it over and over. For the rest of the night.

Why was the accident so horrible? Why are you so depressed tonight? Why can't you snap out of it? What's wrong, Spalding?

"I can't dance anymore."

He spoke a little about his family having recently moved from a house he loved in Sag Harbor to one he didn't in North Haven. He blamed his wife for talking him into this. He made cryptic allusions to the Furies. Mentioned three women in his life who tormented him as the Furies had Orestes, though he never named his Furies.

He asked his onstage visitors if they believed in ghosts, in Furies.

He didn't seem to hear their responses.

These were his only themes: the accident, he can't dance anymore, why did they sell his house, the relentless Furies.

And it all led nowhere. Backward, in fact. We were exploring neither him nor those he was supposed to be interviewing. He was lost and alone up there.

Spalding Gray had always been alone up there. That's what Spalding Gray did. But he always had us, too. He was alone, often terribly alone, but we were with him alone. It worked beautifully for 25 years. Eighteen monologues.

This night there was no us. Just him alone.

The friendly audience that was left was slowly abandoning him, and he didn't seem to care, or notice. The crowd was ever more unruly, like grade-schoolers taking advantage of the sub. People were again walking out, but now because they felt cheated. One of his visitors explained that she was a mother with young children, and on this, her first night out in two months, she had come to see him.

She wanted a show, she wanted theater.

Who could blame her?

He only nodded.

Another woman, much older, whose intelligence and humor gave us respite from the unfolding tragedy, asked him if he'd had anything to drink.

He answered, truthfully I think, that he never drinks before a show.

Then he talked about the accident again, and how he can't dance anymore.

Then he was silent some more. For a long time. Again.

Several among the audience shouted that they wanted their money back.

Most of the seats were empty now.

From my place in the balcony, the theater looked enormous. It seemed to get bigger each minute. Each excruciating minute. He was receding.

Spalding Gray had become a tiny man down there, dying alone on his stage.

I don't recall the show ending exactly. Except that he bowed to us, as was his custom. This night, it was an absurd gesture.

 

Then he was gone.


Afterward, in the lobby, Mike did some interviewing of the audience himself.

What did you think of what we just saw?

"Painful."

That was the word that kept coming up.

We had all suffered along with him. But not as we might with a tragic hero of drama -- Lear, Oedipus or Spalding Gray telling us in a monologue about his mother asphyxiating herself while he vacationed in Mexico. There were no masks here, there was no acting. This was tragedy, but there was no hero. Painful.

When Gray's disappearance was reported in mid-January, Mike and I exchanged e-mail about it. He asked if I had any theories. I remembered Gray having once said that he wished he could come back after he died to do a monologue about his life as a dead man. I mused that maybe he had something like that in mind, staging his death, observing how his family and friends and the media would respond. Then he would resurface alive and well, and retool the monologue he had been workshopping last fall, "Life Interrupted," dealing with the car accident and its agonizing aftermath, to include his presumed death and his orchestrated rebirth. Not a bad launching point for the next monologue.

But neither Mike nor I could muster much hope. We saw what we saw that night in Houston.

I asked Mike his theories on the disappearance.

He wrote back: "He's postmortem."


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