ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The late monologuist Spalding Gray talked on stage about his marriages, his travels, about sex, his many fears and always about death. Spalding Gray's last monologue was left unfinished when he committed suicide in January 2004. The monologue was about a devastating car accident he was in in Ireland three years earlier, a back country road at dusk. His wife, Kathie Russo, was driving.
(Soundbite of "Life Interrupted")
Mr. SPALDING GRAY: I looked up into her windshield. I was in the back seat behind her and saw what looked like a video game, a cartoon of a milk truck, like a green and yellow milk truck, like a kid's video game, like from a comic book when you see the streams of exhaust com--a toy hurdling at us at 60 miles an hour. And my conscious mind just took and--crash. `Oh, he hit us straight on...'
BLOCK: Spalding Gray's monologue titled "Life Interrupted" has now been published posthumously. His longtime friend, the writer Francine Prose, wrote the book's foreword. She says Spalding Gray was a magnet for stories.
Ms. FRANCINE PROSE (Writer): For someone who made his living talking and was famous for talking, he was an extraordinary listener, and it gave him a kind of weird sense of timing because he would say something and then there'd be a silence, and then he would say something and you would realize that actually the strange thing that had happened in that silence was that he'd actually listened to what it was he said. And in many cases I think the reason why he was so good at eliciting these confessions from people was that people were so unused to being actually listened to that they would just say anything.
BLOCK: You write about--in the foreword to this book you write about a conversation that you have with him. This is soon after his terrible accident--the car accident in Ireland--and you've called him in his hospital room.
Ms. PROSE: Right. And strangely, miraculously, Spalding picked up the phone, and he told the story of the accident and the kind of grisly details about the hospital. And he was very funny and very--you know, for someone who'd just been through such a horrible ordeal, incredibly relaxed. And before that happened, he had been quite worried because after all these years of, you know, a certain kind of personal unhappiness--Spalding had children, he had a wife, he had a life, and he'd found a kind of domestic stability. And he'd been quite worried that without some trouble in his life he wasn't going to be able to do another monologue. So I remember very clearly when he told me about the accident, saying, `Oh, Spalding, I hope you're taking notes because this is the new monologue. This is what'--and he said, `I know. I'm taking notes. I'm paying very close attention.' And then almost by the time he came back to the United States, the depression had set in and nothing was funny anymore. It was no longer funny. We could no longer have that conversation.
BLOCK: But he does turn it into a monologue. It becomes "Life Interrupted," and there's a point in this monologue where he's talking about realizing that the depression is setting in right there in the hospital...
Ms. PROSE: Oh, yeah.
BLOCK: ...thinking that the person in that hospital bed is not him. He keeps thinking--he says that the Spalding Gray that was there just seconds before the accident will soon come back. And he talks about this with one of the Irish nurses. We have some tape here that I want to play for you. This is from an early version of the monologue, back from the fall of 2001 in Seattle. And let's listen to this section; I want to ask you about it.
(Soundbite of "Life Interrupted")
Mr. GRAY: I say to the nurse in my quiet, I say, `I'm a bit blue. You know, I wonder if you can do anything for me, if you could--if there's a psychiatric department here. `Oh, Mr. Gray, and what are you blue about now?' I said, `Well, you know, I have a stainless steel plate in me I didn't have two days ago. I feel a bit like the bionic man.' She said, `Oh, I don't think an Irishman would give that a second thought. You Americans are too health-conscious. Always looking for the perfection, are you then? Well, should I take you into the spinal ward? There'll you see people on a gurney being washed down with a hose, and they can now--only can feel nothing below the neck. Should I do that for you then?' I wanted to go. I thought it would help for a while.
Ms. PROSE: I have the--you know, I've never heard it. I never heard the last monologue, and it's really extraordinary. I'm kind of actually blown away. I have to say it's really--I loved hearing him do it and doing the accents, of course.
BLOCK: Well, what do you hear as you hear that for the first time then?
Ms. PROSE: Well, you know, the thing was that during that last period--it was the early part of that last period, it was like a kind of storm. I mean, there would be these clouds, and then they would part briefly and then the clouds would come back again. And when he was doing the monologue, which was fairly near the end of his life, the clouds would part when he was performing, so what we all were thinking of is the old Spalding would reappear again when he was performing.
BLOCK: There's a small piece that he wrote in this book where he talks about his 10th anniversary with his wife, Kathie Russo. This is in 2000, so before the car accident. And he describes going to see two very sick friends, one in a nursing home, one in a hospital. But then he takes his three-year-old son, Theo, to Central Park for a ride on the carousel, and we have tape--this is from one of his last performances. This was from November of 2003.
(Soundbite of monologue)
Mr. GRAY: I looked over at Theo going up and down to the music, and I saw that he was very, very happy. He was purely, utterly very happy. There was no room for anything else but his happiness that filled him. I don't remember who did it first, but I think it was me. I let out with this yell. It was a sort of half-performed, half-spontaneously real--in other words, I was quite aware of coming out of me and how it sounded. And I do know--it was my yell that triggered Theo, and just as he lifted his head back and let out with this joyful yelping cry. It was like in the movies only better. The cry just grabbed the whole day by the feet and ...(unintelligible) gathered it up. It was a pure celebration. It was unadulterated happiness.
Ms. PROSE: He was always writing about how you find any kind of hope and pleasure and joy in the face of the fact that life is limited, that we are mortal, that it's not going to last forever. And that was certainly something he was looking for in the anniversary.
BLOCK: In your foreword to this new book of his "Unfinished Monologue," you talk about how he'll set a scene of idyllic circumstance and peace. And then you say this, `Suddenly there's that disturbing bass note thrum, that chill as if someone's opened a door and let a cold draft into the room.' Such an interesting thought.
Ms. PROSE: You know, well, I think that he made all those kind of fears and that little sort of chill and the little moments of paranoia--I think everyone has them all the time, and, I mean, I think they're just part of being a sentient human being. And Spalding, I think, made it somehow seem more acceptable or more human or more recognizable. I mean, Spalding's co-called neurosis was really about wanting more--I mean, more fun, more pleasure and more life, really and, at the same time, even in the midst of the happiest time and the most enjoyable moment, hearing that little note of `You're going to die,' or, `Something's wrong,' or, you know, of worry, of anxiety, of so-called paranoia. And that's what made his art so great really.
BLOCK: Francine Prose, thanks very much.
Ms. PROSE: Oh, sure. Thank you.
BLOCK: Francine Prose wrote the foreword for the book "Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue by Spalding Gray." You can hear the entire monologue at npr.org.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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