Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Spalding Gray – The Evacuation of Phnom Penh

Posted on | February 25, 2017 | No Comments

Content Warning: The video above features descriptions of genocide

For most performers, water is a means to keep the throat from drying out. They take occasional sips from branded bottles. No thought is given to its significance. The glass of water placed on Spalding Gray’s desk for the entirety of each of his monologues was different. It was his temple bell.

In the monastic traditions of Zen Buddhism, the temple bell is not just a signal for monks and meditators to shift from one activity to the next. It is also a reminder to let go of thoughts of past and future and exist within the moment. Gray’s glass of water functioned as an emblem of purity and wakefulness. He sipped from it at the beginning of each performance and at particular intervals as they progressed.

There was a monastic austerity to Spalding Gray’s setup. All of his raw and funny confessional monologues were united by his standard stage layout – a desk and chair with a cheap notepad and the aforementioned glass of water.

Despite being from a Christian Science background, Gray was often misidentified as Jewish due to his comic evocations of neuroticism and anxiety. Whether he was speaking about feeling compelled to learn to ski (It’s a Slippery Slope); exploring complimentary medicine in order to avoid eye surgery (Gray’s Anatomy); failing to write a novel about a man who failed to go on holiday (Monster in a Box); or buying the worst rural cottage ever built (Terrors of Pleasure) – one could easily imagine an actor of Gray’s calibre leaping about the stage at the most animated moments. This is why it was so effective for him to remain seated. The table and chair helped to reign in Gray’s performances. It kept his energy focused and local.

Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s most famous monologue, draws from his experiences of playing a role in Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984). This performance was filmed by Jonathan Demme at The Performing Garage, a small venue in Soho, NY where Gray was a part of the resident company, The Wooster Group. It also became Gray’s venue of choice when, through repeated performances, he developed his one man shows from 45 minute concept pieces to 90 minute finished products. During this particular interval in the monologue, Gray shifts from delivering comic anecdotes about the shoot to retelling the events that the film was based on.

Gray uses three other props for this segment – a map, a retractable pointer and a folded letter. When he leans back from his desk, using the pointer to indicate sections of the map of Cambodia, his speech becomes factual and dispassionate. As he leans forward he becomes more emotional and vivid with his descriptions.

When he retells the details of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, there is a sadness and sympathy that underlies his tone. Similarly, his timbre turns serene as he unfolds a piece of paper and reads from it – reciting Prince Sirik Matak’s words to the US government that had abandoned him and his people to imprisonment and death. Gray only adopts a severe, staccato voice when reenacting the commands of the Khmer Rouge soldiers as they entered the city.

This subtle modulation of Gray’s voice and posture mirrors how our moral attitudes to world events shift with the scope of our focus. The map reflects the “wide view” – the familiar image of generals moving figurines across its markings with little recourse to the suffering that they cause. The letter reflects the opposite – a missive from one soul to another that we have come to rely on for the emotional and human truths of war and terror.

This idea that our moral attitudes change with our point of view is illustrated when Gray recalls a discussion with Joffé about the importance of the film:

And Roland Joffé came to me and said, “Spalding, I hope this film has taught you that morality is not a moveable feast.”
I get dizzy – cause I see it moving all the time.

Ask today’s Spoken Word artists to speak of innovation and they may point to mixed media and cross-artform collaboration. At the same time, with all this fancy wrapping, very little innovation happens with the central speech act.

Spalding Gray demonstrated that real innovation can occur when the performance is stripped down to its essentials – a handwritten letter, a map and pointer. A desk, chair and notepad. A glass of water.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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