It was perhaps inevitable that Andre Gregory, one of the enfants terribles of the postwar experimental theatre movement, best known today as the eponymous protagonist in Louis Malle’s cult classic, “My Dinner With Andre,” should produce an autobiography that is simultaneously engaging, perplexing, effervescent, and infuriating.
Gregory’s title glances at Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” a painting of a briar pipe with the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe.”) Magritte’s point was that the pipe in his painting is merely a representation of a pipe; Gregory’s analogous point is that his memoir is merely a collection of memories, which are inherently — if not necessarily — unreliable. He announces this theme at the outset, recounting how he once worked as an assistant to a stripper (he, a student at Harvard, fed the blackbirds who figured prominently in her act). Eventually, he says, he decided that the story was so improbable that it couldn’t have been true — he must have made it up — until he ran into a friend who confirmed that it did in fact happen.
This cautionary tale puts us on guard for all that follows. How reliable, for example, are his recollections of his mother and father, whom he calls “great survivors but wretched parents?” Did his father, an international businessman who managed to get his family out of Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Germany, and Vichy France, really collaborate with the Nazis, as Andre suspects? Did Andre really get one of his first jobs in the theatre because his father beat a prominent Broadway producer at poker and accepted the favor in lieu of cash? Did his mother — a “lady who lunched” — really have torrid affairs with the likes of Bugsy Siegal and Errol Flynn, using her relationship with Flynn to impress Andre’s schoolmates so they would stop bullying him? For Gregory, these are largely rhetorical questions; in the realm of the personal, what matters is the existence of the memories, not their truth.
Gregory seems more reliable as a chronicler of the experimental theatre scene that flourished in New York during the 1960’s. Companies like the Living Theatre, LaMama, The Performance Group, and Gregory’s own Manhattan Project were putting into practice principles that flowed from a variety of sources, most prominent among them Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre. Rebelling against convention and commercialism, these groups de-emphasized realistic storytelling rooted in words in favor of more visceral experience based on pure physicality, privileging the circus over Shakespeare.
But even here Gregory’s views on memory play a significant role, especially in his final, and perhaps most audacious, project: assembling a cast of actors (including a very young Julianne Moore) to rehearse, over a period of years, Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya,” on the express understanding that they would never perform it in a finished production. (Malle would document, but not memorialize, a portion of their work in his film “Vanya on 42nd Street.”) With Gregory and company, the process was all. Any given theatrical performance may be seen as a recollection and recreation of memories generated by the rehearsal process, and for Gregory, the truth resided in the memories, not in their recollection.