This Is Not My Memoir

André Gre­go­ry, Todd London

  • Review
By – April 19, 2021

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.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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