Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia: A Performance Gesture
Laughter today--and this helps to explain why it often has a hollow sound and why so much contemporary humor takes the form of parody and self- parody--comes from people who are all too well aware of the bad news but have nevertheless made a determined effort to keep smiling.
Spalding Gray walks onstage at the Performing Garage in Soho. He sits down at a simple wooden table, takes a small sip of water, and begins to talk. He talks about his role in the making of The Killing Fields; he talks about Thailand, Cambodia, New York, and mostly he talks about Spalding Gray. Richard Schechner defines Gray as a pioneer in the new experimental theater of the 1980s, with its tendency toward the personal, the private, the monological, and the narcissistic. "By the 1980's," Schechner says, "the definitive mark of experimental theatre was one person alone in a small space" (34, 36). Neither classic theater, film, or literature, Swimming to Cambodia is nevertheless available to us in all of these forms--as drama, film, and text. Certainly we can read the book Swimming to Cambodia, but we would miss the essence of Gray's performance: his presence, his intonations, his facial expressions, vocal inflections, dialects, and gestures. These are indispensible elements of the new performance mode that Gray is helping to generate.
In Swimming to Cambodia Gray explores what it means to confront the fantastic but nevertheless true and tragic history of Cambodia. Within the performance, the simple set and staging, the minimal props, and quotidian talk are all, I, will argue, a reaction to or defense mechanism against the fantastic and seemingly impossible facts of history. Tzvetan Todorov's definition of the fantastic is the
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Publication information: Book title: Staging the Impossible:The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama. Contributors: Patrick D. Murphy - Editor. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 1992. Page number: 156.
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