By David E. Tolchinsky
In 2001, I was invited to participate in a three-week artists’ residency in New Smyrna Beach, Florida directed by Spalding Gray, who invented the full-length monologue, usually autobiographical, mostly humorous, and delivered while sitting on a bare stage in front of a spare desk. He was supposedly going to teach ten of us mid-career writers and performers chosen from around the globe to do what he did. Create monologues that is.
But Spalding Gray wasn’t there when we arrived because he was in jail. Apparently, on the way to the gate, he had mumbled loud enough for the airline representative to hear, “This plane is going to explode.” The airline representative had said, “You can’t say that, Sir,” and he had responded, “Why not, this plane is going to explode,” and they had called the guard over who said, “You can’t say that,” and Spalding had responded, “Why not? This plane really is going to explode,” and the guard had said, “If you say it one more time we’re going to arrest you” and Spalding had responded, “So arrest me because THIS PLANE IS GOING TO FUCKING EXPLODE” and so they arrested him.
And we were all filled with anxiety: Would Spalding somehow get out of jail or were we going to be forced to teach ourselves how to create and deliver full-length autobiographical monologues? (In retrospect, the stakes didn’t seem very high.) And part of me was relieved that Spalding Gray was in jail, because I didn’t really want to learn how to deliver monologues and why was I in New Smyrna Beach anyway? I was a screenwriter for god sake’s, not a monologist. And sure, we screenwriters are often embarrassed and humiliated, but usually don’t have to sit on a stage in front of an audience bearing our autobiographical souls, as Spalding Gray did in each one of his performances.
And while I was waiting for Spalding Gray to arrive, for some reason, I started thinking about the movie King’s Row. My entire life my father would tell me that King’s Row was the greatest movie ever made. It concerns a character named Paris (played by Robert Cummings) who lives in a small town named King’s Row. Paris has a friend named Drake, played by Ronald Reagan. Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan had been my grandmother’s dance partner at a fundraiser. While they were dancing close, he said with great bitterness according to my grandmother, “King’s Row. . . it was my only good role,” which made me kinda like Ronald Reagan and made me think my father was right.
As to the plot: Paris plans to go to Vienna to practice psychiatry. What he soon realizes: There’s enough mental illness right there in his own little town so he stays. My father explained this movie was the reason he, like Paris, became a psychiatrist. As an aside, one of my earliest memories of my father was his saying, “David, I have a bad heart. I’m not sure how long I’m going to live.” Growing up, he would say this to me so often I remember it being spoken as a kind of daily prayer.
Later in the movie, Drake falls off a train but is actually fine. However, the surgeon, the father of Drake’s ex-girlfriend, tells people the train hit Drake, that his legs were crushed, and that they have to be cut off. The surgeon’s daughter knows the operation is unnecessary but is too afraid to say anything. And so her father saws off Drake’s legs. Drake wakes up and he looks down to where his legs should be. And he screams to his spouse whose name is Randy: “RANDY! WHERE’S THE REST OF ME?! WHERE’S THE REST OF ME!?”
At age six, I pretended I couldn’t walk. My father had no idea I was pretending or what may have inspired me and thought I must have some kind of horrible undiagnosed ailment so he took me to the doctor (actually he had my mother take me to the doctor). The doctor said I was fine, I was just looking for attention. That night, my father offered me a Fudgsicle if I would start walking again. So I took the Fudgsicle and started walking. And we never spoke of it again.
Besides having a bad heart, my father was terrified of dogs. He would see the neighborhood beagle coming towards us wagging its tail, and would yell to me, “DAVID, GET IN THE HOUSE NOW!” Inexplicably to my father, by the age of 7, I too was terrified of dogs.
My father was also terrified of children, police, bacteria, teachers, maids, cats, raccoons, unpacked boxes, insects, homosexuals, sunlight, marijuana, phone solicitors, flowers, public bathrooms, all my friends, and state borders. Not surprisingly, he had trouble sleeping. He would wander around the house, up and down the stairs. As a teenager, when I came home late at night, he was waiting for me. Where did you go? Who did you see? How was your evening? I would go to bed, but he would continue to wander. Up and down. Up and down.
Now back in New Smyrna Beach, I talked to my spouse on the phone, who was annoyed because I had left her alone with our two young kids to hang out with Spalding Gray for three weeks to learn how to deliver monologues and he wasn’t even there because he was too afraid to get on a plane. I said he’d be here. She said why did I want to learn how to deliver monologues anyway; I was a screenwriter after all. I had no answer. And she said maybe it was a way to look at things in my life I had avoided looking at? I had said yeah maybe but I had no idea what she was talking about. And I said if Spalding didn’t show up soon I’d fly home.
Now back in King’s Row, Drake is lying in bed, bitter and angry. He’s not able to talk to Randy anymore and doesn’t seem to care that his marriage is falling apart.
So eventually Spalding Gray agreed not to talk about planes exploding anymore and they let him out of prison and somehow he built up enough courage to get on a plane to New Smyrna Beach.
My father never built up enough courage to get on a plane to come to my wedding. He said he couldn’t fly because of his heart. I tried to convince him that it wasn’t his heart, it was his anxiety. He told me I didn’t understand; his heart could fail at any minute and he’d be up in the plane and he’d die and is that what I wanted?
And when Spalding arrived, he was immediately in crisis. Pacing up and down. The landscape was too flat. Pacing. Pacing. He didn’t know where to sit in the dining hall. Pacing. Pacing. He didn’t know what to eat. Pacing. Pacing. And then, finally he settled down enough to conduct our first class. While still pacing, he told us how he constructed monologues: He would first talk to his therapist about an upsetting series of events in his life (like being arrested at the airport), he would see which parts his therapist laughed at, he would throw out the rest, and slowly the piece would take shape.
Each time he delivered the monologue, it became less a script and more a part of him until eventually he didn’t have to refer to notes at all. And he told us he didn’t rehearse at all; he just listened to his old performances on tape. He imagined himself in the room delivering the monologue again, and always, even if the structure of the piece was loose and meandered, the ending would make it all work. The ending was what gave closure to the monologue and to the upsetting episode in his life. The ending told him he had not just regurgitated his neurotic therapy sessions, but had created a piece of art.
My father kept every window in our house closed. He kept all the shades down. If you opened a shade or a window, my father would shut it within minutes. He kept all the doors to the outside dead-bolted even though it was against fire regulations. One day, he replaced the turn locks on every window in the house with key locks that were always engaged. His home office was also always kept locked supposedly because he kept patient records in there. But even after he stopped seeing patients and the room was used as a home theatre, it was still kept locked. As videos and DVDs were released, he slowly collected over 7,000 including King’s Row of course. He had cabinet after cabinet built for his growing collection of movies. Each cabinet was kept locked.
As far as I know, my mother didn’t have keys to the cabinets holding the videos and DVDs. She didn’t have keys to his office. She didn’t have keys to the window locks. I asked my father, “Aren’t you worried Mom could die in a fire?” He said, “David, there are greater things to fear in life than fire.” My mother slowly developed chronic severe pain, dizziness, and crippling muscle cramps. Eventually they said it was lupus although they couldn’t be sure. Meanwhile, after years and years of dying, my father was still alive.
Back in New Smyrna Beach, we had a strenuous morning delivering our attempts at monologues that made Spalding pace faster and faster –about having an affair and getting caught; about the meaning of the Bible; about having sex for the first time; about being gang raped; about having an abusive father; about being a drug addict and watching friends die. While listening to my colleagues bare their autobiographical souls, I made lists of what made for good monologues. 1. Besides the ending, it had to be a story with act breaks and twists. 2. It had to have characters who changed. 3. It had to be emotionally true. 4. And yes, not always, but usually it had to be funny. And the more I thought about it, 5. Delivering a monologue was the same as pitching a screenplay to executives: you had to know your story completely, but it couldn’t feel like it had been memorized; it had to feel like you were telling a story you couldn’t wait to tell to friends at a bar or to kids at a children’s party (depending on the tone and content).
Meanwhile, Spalding kept pacing and pacing. One of the other residency participants — a makeover TV producer from Philadelphia — and I decided to go for a bike ride and on a lark asked Spalding if he wanted to go along. He stopped pacing and said, “OK.”
So we went biking through the back roads of New Smyrna Beach, passing barking dogs (luckily chained up) and Confederate flags. And then we passed some kind of factory. Spalding asked, “Is that a trash processing plant?” I said, “Yes, I think so.” He said, “oh God. That’s what I was afraid of.” He biked away as fast as he could. And I turned to the TV producer and we both looked at each other but there was nothing to say.
Now back in King’s Row, the surgeon’s daughter keeps saying to Paris: “I have to tell Drake what my father did. He has to know that he didn’t need to lose his legs.” And Paris who is now her psychiatrist does everything in his power to keep this very disturbed girl away from Drake. Paris says to Randy: “It’s bad enough that he has no legs. But if he finds out the surgery was unnecessary, it will be the end of him.”
Back in New Smyrna Beach, when he wasn’t biking away from trash processing plants, Spalding Gray did acting exercises with us to help us perform better in front of an audience and I was even more lost; this was nothing like pitching screenplays. He had us lay on the floor and he told us to breathe deeply. Being from the east coast and from a repressed household, I had never breathed deeply in my life. I also didn’t make eye contact; no one in my family did; but that’s a different story.
Spalding laid his hand on my chest to show me how to breath deeper, deeper, deeper. Suddenly, as Spalding turned to go lay his hand on one of the other mid-career writers, I started crying. . . I was humiliated, but realized no one had even noticed. And why had I cared anyway since all of us were already embarrassing ourselves baring our souls in our malformed autobiographical monologues?
Later, Spalding Gray finally told us why he was so anxious and distracted. He had had a serious car accident, which left him injured and feeling vulnerable. He had also sold his house, which reminded him of how his mother had sold her house and then killed herself. He was trying to create a monologue about all of this, but he couldn’t get far enough away from it to see that it could be funny, that it could have an ending. He was supposed to perform it soon, but he couldn’t so he canceled the performance. More than worrying about the negative consequences to his career, he was convinced if he didn’t find the ending, he was going to kill himself as his mother had killed herself.
Now back in King’s Row, the surgeon’s daughter now Paris’ patient says, “If I don’t tell Drake that his legs didn’t need to be cut off, I’m going to go mad.” And Paris, the psychiatrist who has built his entire life around helping people, is torn between the mental health of his best friend and the mental health of his patient. And this is the dark moment of the movie, because Paris is completely paralyzed.
Eventually, it became clear my father really was dying. His heart was in arrhythmia and the doctors said there was no longer any medicine that could help him. He would be dead very, very soon.
So at the end of King’s Row, Paris realizes Drake has to be told. And he says to Drake something like: “I’m going to tell you something now and if you don’t listen, if you turn your face to the wall, it will be the end of your life.” And this is Ronald Reagan’s crowning achievement as an actor. Drake says: “Give it to me. Anything you got to tell me. I can take.”
And Paris says: “Drake, you didn’t need to lose your legs. Your ex-girlfriend’s father cut them off as an act of revenge.” And there’s a moment where Drake just sits there. And then he starts laughing. And laughing. And LAUGHING. And says something like: “Did they think I lived in my legs? Did they think I am my legs?” And he hugs Randy and says we’re going to start a new business and it’s implied they’ll start making money and having sex and making babies and living a wonderful, happy life. Paris runs across a field to some girl he recently met and they hug. And everything’s going to turn out OK for him as well.
And the night before the last day of the residency, I talked to my spouse on the phone and I told her how stressed out I was about delivering my last monologue tomorrow, that everything I had done so far in this residency had been shit, and this was my last chance to deliver a good monologue and she said, ”Whatever, it’s just a monologue,” and I screamed at her she didn’t understand; it’s not just a monologue, it’s everything and I only have bits and pieces and no ending! And she said, “Who are you?” And I hung up on her and felt very alone.
And then I realized Spalding Gray was wrong. A monologue is not something that you polish by listening to past performances. It’s not a performance at all. A monologue is paradoxically not a monologue, but a dialogue – a conversation between you and your audience. And I threw out the monologue I had been working on (the time Mary Ann Vreeland’s father caught me and Mary Ann as 4-year-olds in his bomb shelter desperately trying to punch holes in his post-Apocalyptic peach cans, using nothing but my plastic toy tools) and started something new.
I worked all night (meaning I perfected my single page of notes). And then it was morning. I had spent nineteen days embarrassing myself delivering boring, pretentious, and pointlessly revealing monologues. And then — the day the residency was to end, I delivered a monologue about (you’ve probably already guessed) King’s Row and my father.
Afterwards, everyone told me how much they liked it, especially the unexpected connection between the movie and my father, and that they hadn’t even realized I had started the monologue, it was like I was just talking to them, like having an intimate conversation and they couldn’t believe a man like my father existed and was really like that. The one criticism everyone had was there wasn’t much of an ending.
And then Spalding, who hadn’t paced during my performance, spoke quietly, agreeing the monologue didn’t have much of an ending, but that it was very good, “You could do what I do if you wanted to. You could deliver monologues for a living. David, you could be me.” And the other mid-career writers heard what he just said and looked at me. . . you could be Spalding Gray.
I called my spouse. I apologized for getting upset the night before and told her what Spalding said, that I could be him, and she said that’s great but do you want to be Spalding Gray? And I didn’t have an answer but told her I would be home soon and thanks for taking care of the kids and that she had been right, it was nice to have some time to think about things in my life I hadn’t thought about.
Back home, I got busy once again with my parenting, my professor job, and my screenwriting and I forgot all about delivering monologues. Actually I thought about it all the time, but didn’t do anything about it. I was reminded that years earlier Steve Soderbergh had given me the leftover unused film (“short ends”) from Sex, Lies, and Videotape and told me to go make a movie with it, but I never did. It was never the right time, I didn’t have the right story. . . I couldn’t clear the space. . . I had a writing gig. . . Again and again, I had told myself I was going to make that feature . . . but never did.
And a few years later, on the last day of his life, Spalding Gray went to a movie with his family, Big Fish, the story of a man trying to understand his dying father. After the movie, Spalding said to his young son, “I’ll see you later.” He stepped onto the Staten Island ferry. He watched the shore recede. He looked down toward the water. He bent his knees. He hesitated a moment. And then he jumped . . . On the way down, maybe he was thinking: Are there sharks in the bay? Maybe he was thinking of his son. Maybe the ending of his monologue finally came to him, moving, hilarious, perfect in every way except that it was three seconds too late to matter.
Around the same time, my father was in a bad way. I flew to my boyhood home where he still lived to be with him. As usual, the blinds were shut and the windows were locked. I found him in his bedroom, sitting in a chair, hunched over unable to keep his head up, attached to an oxygen machine, his legs swollen from sores that would not heal because his heart was so weak. I told him I loved him. He told me “remember me.” Soon after, he died. Although it had been 42 years in the making, it seemed strangely sudden.
I thought about watching King’s Row one more time. Instead, I took a walk down the street where I had grown up, which I was always afraid to do since all our neighbors let their dogs run loose.
And on this day, indeed, a large dog started barking at me from the front yard of one of the houses.
I just stood there. Remember me. . . Barking. You could be me. . . Barking ferociously.
Randy, where’s the rest of me? And started coming towards me – Where’s the rest of me?
And just as he was about to lunge, I held out my hand, he stopped barking, came over and sniffed it and then ran back up to his house.
I relaxed. I smiled. I would make that movie. I would deliver that monologue. I would write a memoir. I would do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. Because I was not my father. And I was not Spalding Gray.
David E. Tolchinsky