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If You Gotta Go, Go in Style (Spalding Gray and the Artful Suicide)

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May 11th, 2009
0 If You Gotta Go, Go in Style (Spalding Gray and the Artful Suicide)

Boys! Girls! Friends! Lovers!

the above is a clip from Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, the film of a monoliogue that catapulted the man to a peculiar notoriety.  the success of that monologue gave popular rise to a form of theatre that typified the key egotism all actors have and, as such, I look at the over-all piece with a mixture of awe and anger:  on the one hand, I’m awed that the man turned  something so self-serving into a beautiful piece of work.  On the other hand, the fact that this piece got him a Guggenheim fellowship proved that monologues could be just as dramatically “worthy” as any other kind of play.  On the other hand, the fact that the piece got him a Guggenheim legitimized the glut of solo performance pieces that clotted live stages and bars from Sarasota, Florida to Aberndeen, Washington with self-serving, egocentric whinefests that out-of-work actors like to call “art”.

Gray disappeared in January of 2004 to a lot of hoop-la from the press.  Three months later his body was found by a handful of kids and dragged out by NYPD from the East River.  I’m not normally a fan of suicidal artists, mostly because they’re always so damned self-important.  And the ego-tripping only gets worse when they’re famous because there’s almost always a legion of people who admire them precisely because they were self-important enough to end their own lives.   Cobain, Smith, Plath, Hemingway:  thesee folks weree all known while they were alive, and at least Hemingway was already being worshiped before he put a shotgun to his mouth.  But Sylvia Plath had played the woe-is-me game for most of her life;  her two major books of poetry are filled with Daddy-didn’t-love’me stuff, and beyond that, she married a man who’d already been known for sleeping with everything that had a pulse.  Cobain married a psycho and had a $250-a-day heroin habit: he was only martyrized because he was famous.  had he not been, his death wouldn’t have even made the Seattle obit pages.  Elliott Smith’s got a modicum of myths about him, primarily because he’s thought to have been so self-loathing that he stabbed himself twice in the heart before finally keeling over and dying.  Other than that, though, his music all vaguely sounds as if he should have spared us the trouble and simply stayed in bed after he messed up his first audition.

Which brings me  back to Gray.  He was known to have been a depressive little man, but he was, at the very least, funny most of the time.  He didn’t leave a woe-is-me note when he jumped into the River, didn’t write a Last Will that complained of being bereft of joy, didn’t moan about how much people didn’t could have loved him more, didn’t tell his wife she was ruining his life.  He just went for a swim, probably figuring that he’d be washed into the Atlantic.  His wife might not have even had to pay for a funeral.

Of course the death of an artist is a tragedy, and of course Gray’s relative class in his particular suicide fails to exonerate him of being branded a coward for committing the mother of all cowardly acts.  It just amazes me that Gray doesn’t have a legion of people who worship at his shrine the way the poor saps did for Cobain and still do for Plath.  And the kicker is that while he’ll be remembered in theatrical circles for a long, long time, the people whose careers he’s enabled in all those bars are probably listening to Elliott Smith right now.

via Spalding Gray

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