- Spalding Gray1941-2004
A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.—final words of Big Fish
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The night before Spalding Gray went into the chill darkness of New York Bay somewhere between Manhattan and Staten Island, he took one of his sons to see the movie Big Fish. The penultimate scene of this film shows a doubting, angry son reconciling with his dying father by telling the old man a story about escaping from his hospital deathbed to the river where, after passing through a crowd of everyone the father told stories about, he is immersed and turns into a big catfish that placidly swims away. The movie's last scene is the father's real funeral. Everyone the father told stories about appears, suggesting that the tall tales were really true. And then the voiceover quoted above. [End Page 11]
I wish dying were so pleasant and fulfilling: a transformation and baptism leading from one kind of existence to another.
A fish story.
We all know that a fish story is a tale so exaggerated that it just can't be true. But sometimes telling a fish story is the only way to get to the truth.
I knew Spalding from 1970 until his death. Like many, I can't quite accept his suicide. The darkness and deep chill of the Bay is too raw a finish for a life as richly and imaginatively lived as Spalding lived his. But also, and not only in his last tortured months, Spalding coexisted with anxiety and pain.
In 1976, The Performance Group journeyed to India with our production of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. Spalding was a luminous Swiss Cheese—as innocent and inquisitive as a puppy, as dumb as a block of wood. The performances in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow, and Bhopal were splendid. When many of the Group went back to America, Spalding remained in India (as did I and some other TPG members). But sometime/somewhere in India Spalding fell—and I use the word knowingly—into a pit of despair so deep he could not climb out. It was a real crisis of disorientation acquired in the Orient concerning the very core of who Spalding was. Over time, back in the States, Spalding recovered. Again, the word is appropriate: he dressed himself in a hard-won "normality" or, more precisely, in the appearance of normality.
Spalding was not a normal man. The narration of his life was his life, and the tale wagged the dog. We in his audience, and those who knew him offstage too, took draughts of pleasure from his many tails. But I knew what price Spalding was exacting on himself. It is a truism to say that "talking about it" leads to mental stability: after all, psychoanalysis is the "talking cure." But in Spalding's situation, this was not the way it was. Talking about it sustained him even as it exercised his imagination in dangerous ways, ultimately. No, I am not blaming his art for his death. I am commenting only that Spalding's irony, his playing-with-his-own-life, was purchased at the price of denying himself a single self at the core of his many performed selves.
It is also true that once he married and fathered children, a sea-change occurred. He loved his dear sons and his stepdaughter. He doted on them. But he did not cease being Swiss Cheese—adolescent, inquiring, naïve, and so vulnerable. The account of the terrible auto accident in Ireland, the injuries to his head, hip, and leg, and his subsequent fathomless depression are well known. When I visited him in the hospital in the spring of 2003, we could not carry on a meaningful conversation. When I returned for a second visit, I brought his book, Sex and Death to the Age 14. I sat by his bed and read the monologue to him. He took some pleasure in...