This Is Not My Memoir
By Andre Gregory with Todd London
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 208 pages, $27
Near the beginning of “My Dinner with Andre,” as the Wallace Shawn character played by Wallace Shawn is describing his trepidation around meeting Andre Gregory for dinner, he relates an anecdote, relayed to him by a mutual friend, about finding Gregory slumped against the wall of a New York City building, sobbing uncontrollably. When the friend asks what’s wrong, Gregory tells him he’s just watched Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata.” What’s broken him is a line, spoken in the movie by Ingrid Bergman: “I could always live in my art, but never my life.”
Over the course of the next two hours, as Gregory and Shawn talk and talk (and talk and talk), Gregory, the character, played by Andre Gregory, presents himself as a mystic of the theater, a searcher for truth — or Truth, capital T — who vagabonds around the world collecting experiences meant to strip away his pretensions, his culturally-received illusions, his very sense of self, and fill these empty spaces with a shimmering, pulsating illumination of his core being. He tells of directing a weeklong workshop — a theatrical improvisation for an audience of none — deep in the enchanted forests of Poland from which nothing really seemed to happen but everyone involved emerged transformed; of traveling deep into the Sahara desert to rehearse a production of “The Little Prince,” an experience that led not to a theatrical production but, rather, to everyone involved going a little crazy and eating sand until they threw up; of traveling out to Montauk one Halloween to take part in a theatrical experience that culminated in him being buried alive. All these experiences, he claims, have led him to realize that he and everyone else for that matter need most of all to wake up.
That Gregory and Shawn carry out this conversation inside a swank restaurant, a cave of comfort, protected from the depravations of early-80s New York lurking just outside the door by the wealth each was born into, adds a layer of self-conscious irony to the pageantry. How much of this is a put-on? What’s the difference between a seeker and a dilettante? What’s the difference between self-actualization and self-indulgence? The character of Andre Gregory doesn’t concern himself with such questions, but the film forefronts them. Both through the context in which it places Gregory and the skepticism of the Wallace Shawn character, it prods the viewer, refusing to allow us to forget how glamorously-entitled Gregory, the character, truly is.
Somehow — and this is where the magic of the film resides — this acknowledgement of Gregory’s foppishness gives his adventures and the truths (Truths?) he’s learned from them more authority rather than less. The baked-in self-criticism, the Shawn character’s willingness to tell Gregory he’s full of shit, makes the whole thing seem that much more honest. We the viewers are allowed critical distance. We’re not being asked to believe. We’re being asked to think. To witness. To, yes, wake up. Like the rabbis in the Sanhedrin, Gregory and Shawn are using rational argument to debate the mystical possibilities of reality.
“My Dinner with Andre” is, of course, a fiction. It’s a constructed experience that pretends to represent a real, lived reality in order to generate an effect on its audience. The skeptical Wallace Shawn in the film isn’t really Wallace Shawn. The prophetic Andre Gregory isn’t really Andre Gregory. They seem to live in the art, yes, and the art takes as its subject the need to live in the life, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that this means they, themselves, are alive in their lives.
Are they? Or, more specifically, since Andre Gregory is the one who spends the film advocating for a porous openness to the mystic, is Andre Gregory? How much of his persona is a put-on?
One wonders. Or, one who’s sympathetic to his Mobius strip of a message wonders.
In his new memoir “This Is Not My Memoir,” written with the theater veteran Todd London, he both does and does not answer this question.
In a slim 208 pages, Gregory gives the reader the facts of his life, his childhood hopping around 1930s Europe with his glamorous, wealthy, possibly collaborationist Russian-Jewish parents, their move to New York, where Gregory came of age in the rarified world of private schools and Ivy League colleges, his marriage to his wife Chiquita and his struggles to build a career for himself in the theater. He talks about his successes and failures, his relationship with his children, Chiquita’s death from cancer and his late blooming love for his second wife, Cindy.
All the elements of a memoir are here. Gregory draws affecting portraits of his relationships with the people in his life, both those who tortured him, like his parents, and those with whom he built sustained loving relationships, like his wives and children (and Wally!). He namedrops with the best of them and tells colorful anecdotes about everyone from Errol Flynn and Bugsy Siegel (both of whom were purported lovers of Gregory’s mother) to Josef Stalin (whose wife’s death, Gregory insinuates, may have been perpetrated by Gregory’s great-uncle) to Julianne Moore (whose career was launched by his production of “Uncle Vanya”). He cops to and revels in all the ways extreme wealth has made the things he’s done in his life possible.
But none of this is quite relevant to the purpose of this book. Or it is and it isn’t.
“This Is Not My Memoir” is really about Gregory’s art, all of which — the sum total of his life’s work — has consisted of a series of attempts to simultaneously run away from and embrace being alive.
And as in “My Dinner with Andre,” it’s most insightful when presenting a record of these attempts, from his apprenticeships with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio (“a rabbi of the theater,” so says Gregory) and, most especially, Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theater, through his early attempts at various regional theaters to shock and awe the audience with anarchically transgressive spectacle, through his breakthrough production of “Alice in Wonderland” with The Manhattan Project, which became a surprise global hit, through the experiences he describes in “My Dinner with Andre” (all recounted, re-examined, revised here), through the making of that film itself, and the many other collaborations between himself and Shawn over the years.
At its best, “This Is Not My Memoir” is an explanation of the forces that drove Gregory to create, an examination of what his pursuit of such unorthodox, anti-commercial work cost him and what it taught him. It’s an assessment of his life’s work, not as product but as process. And this life’s work has consisted of a search for meaning, for the why, not the what or who or how. But the answer to the why, in Gregory’s formulation, is the what and the who and the how. The question is the answer.
By the end, the reader comes to understand that Gregory’s anguish over his distant relationship with his parents, his worries over his own distant relationships with his wife and children, and his tortured sense of not being quite alive enough are what compel him to create. His dedication to the work of creation is the only way he seems to know how to solve these problems. What brings him closer to life is the very thing that keeps him apart from it.
We’re back in the slippery, ironic territory of “My Dinner with Andre,” but 40 years have passed and Gregory has learned that, despite his doubts, he’s been awake all this time. The struggle is the solution. The searching never ends. Every answer provokes a new question, on and on and on.
To read the book is to search with him, to learn with him how to be awake in the world whether it’s real or not.