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Reviewed by:
  • Spalding Gray's America
  • Theresa Smalec (bio)
Spalding Gray's America. By William W. Demastes. Foreword by Richard Schechner. New York: Limelight Editions, 2008; 312 pp.; illustrations. $19.95 paper.

Near the end of my 9 January 2004 interview with Spalding Gray, I asked why his colleague, Ron Vawter, remained with the Wooster Group until his death, whereas Gray opted for a solo career. At the time, I perceived Gray's response as a candid admission of his superior star power: "Well, […] Ron didn't have the same audience following, so it wasn't as great a temptation to—jump ship" (2008:68). Only later did I wonder if Gray's statement prefigured his suspected leap from the Staten Island Ferry roughly 36 hours after we spoke.

In Spalding Gray's America, William W. Demastes considers what Gray's loyal audiences meant to him, and why his life stories mattered to them. He proposes that Gray's apparent openness invited many Americans to view him as a specimen through which to reflect on our times: "He 'volunteered' as a patient for us all to study, becoming the thing on the dissecting table for us to observe and analyze. We could study him as he went from the simmering 1950s to the turbulent 1960s and on into the twenty-first century […]" (6).

Demastes divides his survey of Gray's extensive career into eight chronological chapters. He relies on Gray's published monologues and on reviews of Gray's work to track his rise as a nationally recognized artist. Interviews with Gray's former colleagues are absent, though such testimonies may have fleshed out (or complicated) Demastes's portrait of Gray as a subtle critic of America's dominant ideologies. [End Page 190]

In chapter 1, Demastes encapsulates Gray's "mainstream" (10) upbringing in mid-century Rhode Island. The author defers sharing the knowledge that Gray's mother suffered from mental illness until chapter 2, where he mentions her 1967 suicide. Withholding this family secret is oddly effective; it helps readers grasp the concomitant denial and sincerity informing Gray's adult assertion that he'd had "a pretty normal childhood" (see Schechner 2002).

Next, Demastes chronicles Gray's move from traditional theatre to Richard Schechner's experimental ensemble, The Performance Group. Gray's role as Hoss in TPG's production of The Tooth of Crime (1973) epitomized a classic masculinity: "rock star, gangster, cowboy, and cultural icon" (21). However, as we learn from Schechner's detailed foreword, Gray's greatest pleasure in performing as Hoss was a moment when Schechner directed him to "go neutral" (drop character), and "just stand there," "looking at the audience's faces" (xiii).

Demastes credits Schechner as the first collaborator who invited Gray to be himself. However, his subsequent references to "Gray's Wooster Group Agenda" (32) and to "Gray's trilogy" (39) overstate the performer's centrality, simultaneously downplaying Elizabeth LeCompte's directorial influence. Still, Demastes's chapter on Three Places in Rhode Island astutely apprehends the conflicted nature of Gray's self-based performance persona: "Who really is 'Spalding Gray'? […] In Nayatt School, the Wooster Group has presented a disarming charmer whose warm, engaging surface hides a monstrous soul" (52–53).

What Gray reportedly gleaned from the Wooster Group was "the notion that we are all inescapably complicit in the brutalizing enterprises of Western culture" (56). I grow skeptical, however, when Demastes declares that Gray wanted to "act on that revelation and perhaps change the world in the bargain" (56). In chapters 3 and 4, the author traces Gray's early years as a solo performer (1979–1986).1 He admits that Gray's political project was often in the eye of the beholders: "As Gray bumbles through his inspection of the world, we as audience need to step in and organize the evidence on our own, coming to our own conclusions about guilt and complicity" (65). Demastes adds that Gray "feminized" himself by disclosing inner feelings: "We have something on him, and therefore we're safe with him" (82). Yet he subsequently omits disturbing information found in Gray's confessional monologues. For example, he writes that Gray "couldn't bring himself to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4715
Print ISSN
1054-2043
Pages
pp. 190-192
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-04
Open Access
No
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