Charming might seem like an odd word to describe André Gregory’s new memoir, called, in typically playful and, yes, charming fashion, This Is Not My Memoir. That, however, is what the book is—funny, filled with vivid characters, crazy situations, wise reflections, shrewd observations, and, at the end, inspiring and optimistic sadness about growing old. This visionary, idiosyncratic iconoclast has written a theater memoir that never bogs down with dreary pronouncements about “art,” and never submits its readers to one of those “and then I did and then I did” journeys.
I suspect many people who do not know André Gregory assume he is an elegant older WASP right out of an A. R. Gurney play. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was born into a rich Russian-Jewish family, who pretended to be White Russian aristocrats, escaped to Berlin and then to Paris, where he was born, and eventually settled in the United States, where he went to fancy schools and graduated from Harvard. After graduation, Gregory’s life took off, and so does this book.
The army somehow led him to the theater, and stories pour out about his early influences: Gordon Craig, Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble, the Actors Studio, the Rockettes (!), the Seattle Rep, and, eventually, the great Jerzy Grotowski. It seems like Gregory had about a million utterly conventional theater jobs and was fired from all of them. Inspired by Grotowski’s “poor theater” ideal, he and a few other theater friends then started a company that eventually gave birth to the now legendary production of Alice in Wonderland.
Behind the Scenes
Gregory is well known to us principally because of the film My Dinner with André, which he made with Wallace Shawn, and it is a movie that should be seen many times. The book abounds with stories about it: the difficulty of finding a director, the financing problems, and Gregory’s mastery of all those lines. (The movie, much to my surprise, was not improvised.) A horrendous critical failure when it first opened, it was rescued by intelligent movie critics, became a wondrous triumph, and has remained that.
The book then moves on to the famous Vanya on 42nd Street, Gregory’s close friendship with Wallace Shawn, and his version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder.
What makes this memoir so special and relentlessly interesting is not so much the accounts of theatrical or cinematic work but the stories of tender intimacy with some and the shrewd observations about others: his eccentric mother, his cold and aloof father, his difficult yet loving relationship with his first wife and the sadness of her final days. And then, his new wife, and their shared love of painting, which he seems to be immersed in. A new career at 86, and he can still do 60 push-ups a day!
Being Russian, of course, inevitably involves much philosophizing about life, and this Gregory does with impressive honesty when he discourses on old age and its joys and sorrows, or on love, which he feels is the one thing that truly counts in the end. He also reveals a kind of cork-like buoyancy (I believe this is Kenneth Tynan’s phrase, not mine) as he faces the rest of his life with optimism, hope, and honesty.
Gregory’s early influences: the Berliner Ensemble, the Rockettes (!), and, eventually, the great Jerzy Grotowski.
I suppose what impressed me most about This Is Not My Memoir is, in fact, its honesty. Gregory is fully aware of his circumstances and reputation and owns up to all of it. He admits to the benefit of having a trust fund. He realizes that he could not simply restrict himself to being the enfant terrible of the theater forever. He was presciently aware at the time that the theater of the 60s and early 70s was coming to an end and that he had to move on.
I must confess, because I am a fan, that there were times when I wished that he had discussed his directing technique and approach to text in greater detail. What exactly went on during those play rehearsals that lasted for weeks, months, even years? What exactly did Gregory do? He says that life and work for him were the same, and I wish he had written in greater detail about the work part. Then again, all directors function to some degree as catalysts; maybe that was his secret and that is all we need to know.
Great theater memoirs tend to contain lovely phrases describing how their authors first escaped into a world of fantasy—the theater-is-the-first-refuge-of-the-unhappy-child kind of thing. For Gregory, our brave, ebullient hero, theater is a “drug to relieve the pain of living.” And yet, this same man can conclude his book with “What a wonder my life has been.” We should be grateful for such a book, and I salute André Gregory and his collaborator, Todd London. They have achieved something life-affirming and impressive.
André Bishop is the producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater