December 19, 2011

The Humbling by Phillip Roth, The Journals of Spalding Gray

Well, I just lost my review of The Humbling—how’s that for being humbling—but I think I have a twist that makes up for this. 

A friend tells me that Al Pacino has optioned the Phillip Roth novel and it is hard to think of anyone else in this role of a passed-his-prime actor who is wondering how to make it all happen one more time. He is also toying with suicide and the climactic performance is his death at his own hands (very Chekov). He is trying to find his old self through a series of younger woman and it is hard to imagine that this isn’t also Roth stomping the stage, remembering his own bravado, literary performances of the past. 

Which reminds me of  my own “twist.” 

I am also reading the journals of monologist Spalding Gray. He did commit suicide, jumping off the Staten Island Ferry in 2004. We quickly find that he was a compulsive writer and his entries (these are from his journals, and are not his monologues though they comment on incidents that are the basis for the theatrical pieces). They are intriguing in a credible way that Roth’s character’s are not. For one thing Gray’s mother did kill herself, so this is always an ongoing possibility for him. As in his monologues he hides nothing. Whereas The Humbling reveals some acting techniques, Gray is more concerned whether he is living or performing, whether one can be too truthful to an audience or too dependant on their accepting that truth. These are subjects essential to acting, to writing and even to “preparing a face to meet the faces that we meet.” 

The editor of the gray book, Nell Casey, does a masterful job of tying the pieces together, and the two books present a wonderful opportunity to ponder the differences and similarities between life and art. Toward the end of the seventies, he had had flashes of worry about the consequences of exploiting his intimate life and neuroses for his work. As his career gained traction in the eighties, this worry developed into a darker and more fixed sense of destiny, one that  left Gray feeling trapped and afraid. This anxiety—that he had gambled his privacy for fame—would haunt him for the rest of his life. 

What do we take away from this, we who can’t even hang on to a couple-sheets-of-paper review? That we are shit living in the shadows of these bigger than life geniuses—thank god.


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