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Hauntology and Aleatory Aesthetics

in “A Magical Mystery Tour of the
American Theatre”
by David P. Terry

“He said that you can’t be present in the place you’re in until
you’ve left and you want to go back.”
–Roger Rosenblat on Spalding Gray1

The following essay is about a particular instance of what might be called,

among other things, a one-person show, a solo performance, an auto performance
or a performance of personal narrative. 2 The essay, however, surrogates the
preposition “about” with “roundabout.” Working at the nexus of chance and
haunting (ideas circulating beyond Jacques Derrida ’s Specters of Marx and Avery
Gordon’s Ghostly Matters) and drawing on the theories of play developed by
Roger Caillois and Mindy Fenske’s “Aesthetics of the Unfinished,” in this essay I
pose a contextual, fractured and multiple understanding of the “subject” of “solo”
performance.3 The essay, like the partly scripted, partly improvised performance
it discusses, moves roundabout accounts of my own life and biographical accounts
of the iconic monologist, Spalding Gray, as presented both in his own “solo”
monologues and other accounts of his life, work, and suicide. It is a reflection
on performing the archive, personal as well as historical. It is not, however, an
attempt to get to the bottom of either subject, but, rather, an attempt to explore
some of the possibilities that emerge in and around their “curdling.”4 It is not
“about” either, but “roundabout” both.
Unlike the typical use of “about” in a question such as, “what is your
performance about?” which would attempt to pin a subject down and pose it as
a foundation for interpretation, the use of “roundabout,” with its connotations of
meandering and approximating, is intended to evoke a philosophical system with
a weak ontology— what Derrida cheekily posed as a “hauntology.”5 As such, I am
not very interested in the question of whether or not I am now or have ever been
“actually”—in scare quotes or otherwise—haunted by Spalding Gray. I am even
less interested, for the purposes of this essay, in the (psychoanalytic?) question
of what I am “really” so scared of that the ghost-as-idiom helps me to stave off.
These ontological questions, as I hope will soon become clear, are precisely the

Theatre Annual 60 (2007) © 2007 by The College of William and Mary

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kind of thinking that hauntology brackets in favor of the ethical. I am looking,

instead, towards what the ghost-as-idiom helps to “scare” up. Perhaps, in the last
instance, we will find that all of this talk about hauntology in and as performance
is so much mumbo-jumbo, a magical renaming, sexy words for old ideas (indeed,
in a Derridian universe, what concept would not be vulnerable to this attack?). I
do, however, find that the idiom offers a useful orientation towards at least this
particular performance as an answerable “ethical aesthetic action that attempt[ed]
to open up a dialogue through form.” 6 Although I was alone on stage throughout
the performance, the present-absence of Spalding Gray’s ghost in A Magical
Mystery Tour of the American Theatre saturated the performance in ways that, I
will argue, enabled an answerable aleatory aesthetics.
I use the potentially oxymoronic term “aleatory aethetics” as a way to evoke
and expand Mindy Fenske’s Bakhtinian “aesthetics of the unfinished” by
questioning not only the end point of the work of art, but also its origin.7 An
aleatory aesthetics is an aesthetics of the un-begun, or, at least, an aesthetics of
un-namable, un-definable beginning(s). An aleatory, or chance based, aesthetic
act is one about which the question of authorship can only be answered only in the
most roundabout way. Because it frames accidents as central and generative, it is
uniquely suited for a refiguring of the absolute contingency that haunts all claims
to origin. The paradox of the on-purpose-accidental/ accidental-on-purpose (the
accident given form) creates a disjointed present, a “spectral moment,” that is at
home in the un-homely and propelled by an un-canny agency of accidents from an
uncertain and unending but answerable relationship to the past into an uncertain
and unending but answerable future.8
Hauntology brings to (at least this) performance a framework that allows for
the centrality of fragmentation, indeterminacy and, indeed, absence as a way of
being-towards others; performance (at least potentially) offers to hauntology in
return a concrete-yet-unfinished, always-already-about-to-disappear aesthetics
that renders some of hauntology’s ethical demands, well, present in the subjunc-
tive and effable materiality of the performed “now.” It is not, after all, an acci-
dent that Derrida first described the hauntological in terms of the theatrical: “the
experience of the specter . . . will have also thought, described, or diagnosed a
certain dramaturgy.”9 While the formulation above would undoubtedly be too
neat for Derrida or Gordon’s taste (and may indeed be too messy for the taste of
many performance scholars) it does point to the centrality of ethics in both the
project of hauntology as both Derrida and Gordon present it and in the project
of performance studies in ways that cannot be ignored in the wake of Dwight
Conquergood’s work. The project of communing with ghosts is fundamentally
the problem of justice, the problem of how to orient one’s self toward others, as
Joshua Gunn writes: “Beyond mere metaphor, the idiom [of haunting] denotes a
conceptual repertoire for listening to and speaking about the dead, literally and
figuratively, as well as a considered attempt to orient the critic in a position of
hospitality, open to the other.”10

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This ethics of
hospitality is not an
ethics of rules by
which one lives, but
an ethics of the kinds
of encounters that
one seeks. Thus, it is
in keeping with the
connection between
ethics and aesthetics
that Elaine Scarry
underscores in the
etymological link
between justice and
beauty: “A single
word, “fairness,” is
used both in referring
to loveliness of
countenance and
in referring to the
ethical requirement
for ‘being fair,’
‘playing fair’ and
‘fair distribution.’”
Consequently, she
argues, being fair is
not so much a matter
of weighing and
comparing one individual with another as it is of the very notion of individuality
being undone:

When we come upon beautiful things. . . they act like small tears in
the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space. . .
or they lift us (as though by air currents of someone else’s sweeping),
letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we
land, we find we are standing in different relation to the world than we
were a moment before. 12

Beauty leaves us, quite literally, beside ourselves. She continues: “It is not
that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is
that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our
ground to the thing that stands before us.” 13
While the reader is, of course, welcome to do as she or he wishes with what

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follows, I argue that to judge this essay (and that includes the performance it
refigures and the theory it incorporates) one must not engage primarily through
the ontological true/false status of their claims, but, rather, on the kinds of
relationships they propose, fail or fulfill. Beyond the complex paradoxes and
easy accusation of narcissism inherent in any attempt to pass judgment on one’s
own artistic endeavors, this essay is not, a review of the performance. My
purpose is to work towards a refiguring of certain fragments left in the wake of
its disappearance. By this I mean to claim a theoretical space distanced from the
ocular-centrism that the visual quotation of the “me-as-Gray photograph” most
obviously evokes. If, as Walther Ong has argued, “sight isolates” then—despite the
clear etymological connection between “specters” and “spectating”— there is no
sense more ill suited than the visual for communion with the ghostly, which resists
isolation in either space or time.14 To speak directly about ghosts in performance
changes the haunting. Instead, one can allow oneself to be refigured roundabout
them. I begin by refiguring the scripted introduction to my performance piece
“A Magical Mystery Tour of the American Theatre,” noting how the narrative
attempts to evoke Gray as a present-absence to haunt the performance. I follow
with a summary of the improvised section of the performance, highlighting the
intentional fragmentation of hauntological practice. I then use Roger Caillois
theory of play to argue that the aesthetics of hauntology plays aleatory, mimetic,
illynxical, and agonistic play against one another in ways that mark the tension
between these forces without claiming to have found a mythical mean. I conclude
by comparing the ethical model that emerges from this radical aesthetic against
Dwight Conquergood’s statements about dialogical performance as a way to
clarify the ethical shifts that a hauntologically inflected performance practice
might make.

Pre-ambling: In Which the Artist Tries to Charm His Audience

The performance took place over two weeks in the fall of 2004 in the Hopkins
Black Box theatre at Louisiana State University.15 As the audience entered the
space, they were met with a visual quotation of Spalding Gray: The stage was fur-
nished only by a well-lit wooden desk on which rested a small microphone stand
with a sheathed microphone, a stack of note cards, and glass of water. I entered
wearing jeans and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I did not sit down right
away, but stood next to the unoccupied desk and offered the introduction that
follows as a way to evoke Spalding Gray, his work, and his all-too-tragic and at
that time all-too-recent death. As I spoke, I hoped to animate the empty chair and
silent microphone with the iconic and sonoric absence of the man who had, for so
many years, for so many audiences, become virtually synonymous with them:

This is a performance about Spalding Gray. The famous

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performance artist who traveled the world telling stories about his
life for over 25 years at a desk like this one, with a microphone and
a glass of water, more or less like these, and his notes. He said he
was a method actor, but instead of pretending to be someone else, he
pretended to be himself. He was also, for a long time, what I wanted
to be when I grew up, one of many surrogate father figures I took on
when I decided that my own father was too boring to serve as a role

This last line almost always got a laugh which gave me the sense of relief
quite likely familiar to most folks who’ve ever been on stage for any length of
time—Thank God! I’m not alone! They are in it with me!

Last year around this time, I started writing a paper about the
suicidal fantasies that Spalding entertains in some of his monologues
and how the strategies he uses to overcome his self-destructive
impulse through performance are ultimately ineffective.16 Just as I
was finishing the paper, Spalding Gray killed himself. He took his
two young sons to see Tim Burton’s film, Big Fish–which features a
son who is able to accept his father’s death because the stories he
told will live on. Spalding then sent his children home on a train to
Long Island, boarded the Staten Island Ferry and jumped into the
East River where, like the protagonist of the film, he drowned. Unlike
Burton’s father figure, however, Spalding did not emerge as a giant
magical fish that could never be caught but instead was discovered–
after several long months of searching–as a bloated, lifeless corpse.

Obviously no one was ever laughing at this point. The words were intended
to evoke death in all of its unfathomable facts. Occasionally, but by no means
always, I would hear someone gasp.

Now, of course, Spalding lives on in his stories. Here are his com-
plete printed works [pulling the stack of books from the desk drawer].
You know, there was supposed to be another monologue on the end
here, called Black Spot, about a traffic accident that he got into in Ire-
land and the head injury he sustained from it.17 I tried to go and see
a performance of it at P.S. 122, but Spalding cancelled and checked
himself in for electroshock therapy to try and overcome the depression
that ultimately took his life. Beyond the obvious fact that suicide flies
in the face of my fairy tale faith that life will somehow keep getting
better and better as it moves along, I am struck by the amount of his
life, of any life, that is left out of a linear printed record—even when
that record is penned by the hand of the person who experienced it.

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I wanted, like most network newscasters or at least the ones I grew up watch-
ing, to come off as understanding the gravity of the situation, but not being over-
wrought with emotion. Although I had to move slowly enough that they understood
the historical impetus for the improvised pieces I was about to perform, I had to
move as quickly as possible through this section: If I couldn’t get to the upcoming
jokes in time, I was afraid I might lose the audience for good.

In the late seventies and early eighties Spalding did two perfor-
mance tours. The first was called “Interviewing the Audience,” in
which he asked members of the audience to come up on stage and tell
their own stories. The second was called “A Personal History of the
American Theater,” in which he had note cards listing all of the per-
formances he had ever done, and he improvised a performance based
on his recollections that radically differed from night to night. The
improvised nature of these performances meant that each happened
only once, and there is no real record of them. I have here a stack of
note cards with words that you, the audience, identified as things that
have been important to you in the last week [taking a stack of cards
that the house managers had previously collected from members of
the audience]. I have a second stack that lists all of the performances
I have ever done in my life. Using them, and the aforementioned
works of Spalding Gray, I would like to improvise a performance for
The title of my performance is obviously a reference to Mr. Gray’s
piece, but it is also a reference to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.
I recently had the privilege of watching a Beatles cover band perform
The White Album in its entirety (including the part where they go
“number nine . . . number nine”). None of the people in the band
could really sing, but they could play quite well, and we received their
performance with a spirit of generosity that allowed us to have a won-
derful time. It is in such a spirit that I would like you to receive my
performance this evening.

This one took a while to land, but the convoluted nature of the joke was a large
part of its intended charm.

In exchange I will make you two promises. The first is that I will
not get naked [spotlight hits a sign reading “Thou Shalt Not Get
Naked”]. I have been known to be at a loss for how to end improvised
pieces and to take off my clothes in a pinch. I will not do that to you
tonight. The second is that I will end on time [spotlight hits a sign
reading “Thou Shalt End On Time”]. I am the son of an Evangelical
preacher, and I know how painful it is to sit in relatively uncomfortable

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chairs, listen to some white fool go on and on and not know when it is
going to end. I won’t do that to you either. From the time I sit down
‘til the performance ends will be exactly one hour. I have a giant
clock on the wall behind me to help me keep track of time [points to
oversized digital projection of a clock face]. You may notice that the
time on this clock is slightly different from the time on any watches or
cell phones you may have brought in with you (which, by the way, you
should turn off). I would like to explain this with a quote from The
Goonies: “It’s their time out there. Out there it’s their time. In here
it’s our time. It’s our time in here.”

The two signs with their contrasting but oddly fitting references to nudity,
boredom, and religion usually got a chuckle. Never as much as I hoped, of course,
but almost always enough to let me know they were still “with me.” The Goonie’s
reference was usually good for a hearty belly laugh from at least a few audience
members. I delivered it with the wide-eyed-poor-little-orphan-boy persona that
had become my on stage bread and butter. Hitting this particular line was invari-
ably one of the most pleasurable moments to perform: “They are eating,” I would
think, “out of the proverbial palms of my hands.”
On one level (and in contrast to most of the stories that followed it in per-
formance) the introduction is a satisfying story that fits the Labovian structural
model of storytelling quite well. It begins with an abstract, a nutshell presentation
of what this performance is going to be about, (Spalding Gray) and an orientation
(who Gray was, what he did, why people might care). It then offers a complicat-
ing action (Gray’s suicide) and an evaluation (Gray’s suicide is difficult to recon-
cile with faith in narrative). It subsequently poses the about-to-ensue, improvised
performance as a resolution to the complicating action before sewing it all up with
a satisfying coda, that part of the narrative “which puts off further question about
the narrative events and returns the verbal perspective to the present” (“It’s our
time in here”).18
On another level, however, the story is unsatisfying; it not only evokes unset-
tling images of disappearance and suicide but also posits, with the reference to the
prescient paper, that certain suicidal impulses might be imbedded in and insepa-
rable from the act of storytelling itself. Furthermore, the “resolution” that the
narrative poses might easily appear to be anchored in a nostalgic evocation of
The Beatles and The Goonies. Despite their undeniable charms, these are hardly
the most formidable of co-combatants one might draft in a campaign against an
unruly spirit.
I hoped the introduction would evoke but not resolve a series of dialectics:
between the performer as endearing figure to be enjoyed and the performer as
shifty figure to be suspicious of; between life and death; between hope and despair;
between narrative and chaos. My performance was not merely a citation of Gray
the performer or a live re-presentation of his mediated image as Philip Auslsander

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might have it. It was intended as a simultaneous evocation of Gray’s presence (the
visual quotation, the books, the situation of my performance as a continuation of
his) and Gray’s absence (his disappearance and death, the possible complicity of
his performance practice with that death): this present-absence/absent-presence
is what I mean when I say his “ghost.” This performance was in some sense not
merely a “rehearsal for death,” but a rehearsal of a specific death.19 When I say
that the performance was haunted, I mean then to say the unrealized dialectic
between Spalding’s presence and Spalding’s absence, (or, in Shechnerian terms,
the performed effect his not-not presence and not-not absence) hung over the
piece in ways that did not allow it to find easy closure—that gave it an “aesthetics
of the unfinished.”
The opening statement declaring the piece to be “about” Spalding Gray fol-
lowed by the story of his death was a deliberate attempt to allow his ghost to
“interrupt or put into crisis the demand for ethnographic authenticity” in the sto-
ries I was about to tell.20 I hoped that his specter would not allow for the kind
of transparent realism that is, in many if not most cases, the principle source of
generic power in minimalist solo storytelling performances. What the simple
aesthetic lacks in spectacle (it is, after all, just a person and a desk) it typically
makes up for with a claim to a special kind of authenticity. Bernard Gersten sums
it up this way:

The wonder was that Spalding, all by himself, sitting at that table,
the text at his finger tips, could hold the audience in equal thrall with
productions requiring the ministrations of dozens of actors, count-
less musicians, stagehands, scenery, and costumes galore. But Spald-
ing, all by himself, satisfied Shakespeare’s injunction to the players to
“hold as ‘twer the mirror up to nature.21

Even for those who did not know who Gray was, I hoped that the fact of his
suicide would haunt the performance in such a way that his abject absence would
function as a critique of my performance of presence.22 I wanted him to be embod-
ied throughout my performance not as a eulogized impersonation or caricature,
but as an active “charged strangeness.”23

Improvising as and with Gray Matters:

In which the Artist Comes up Short

Once I had let the introduction land, I would sit down at the desk and begin
to talk into the microphone. The timer behind me would begin ticking away one
minute at a time. I would shuffle the notecards, cut the deck, and pull the first card.
It might read “8th grade play,” “Neil Simon’s Fools,” or “The Mee-Ow Show” if it
came from the stack indicating my previous performances. It might read “parking
trouble,” “family,” “fear,” “simulacra,” or God-knows-what-else if it was one of

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the cards provided by the audience. Interspersed between the cards I would read
passages, selected by a random page flip, from Gray’s books selected in chrono-
logical order from Sex and Death to the Age of 14 through to the then final printed
work, Morning Noon and Night.24 Each card or passage would prompt a story or
thought of my own that would take somewhere between thirty seconds and four
minutes to tell. When I finished reading a section from one of Gray’s monologues,
I would place it open and face down on the front edge of the desk in line with the
others to form a wave-like pattern (as visible in the photograph above). When I
finished reading the prompt off one of the cards, I would place it in a stack behind
the books. As I neared the end of the piece, the books would fill up the front edge
of the desk, a reminder, along with the clock, that the performance would soon,
like Gray’s life, be brought to an end.
Unlike the introduction, many if not most of the stories in the body of the
piece did not have a complete narrative structure. Some stories were started in
the middle. Many were cut off abruptly without even an attempt at a satisfying
coda. While it was surprisingly difficult to do, given how ingrained certain nar-
rative structures are for me, I attempted to cut myself off before I could resolve
any of the stories, leaving each of them as fragments and purposefully avoiding
even the temporary illusion of narrative completion. Sometimes I even cut myself
off right before the punch line to a joke I had been building towards. Although
connections invariably came up between the stories, I did not try to force them
and, if I noticed one consciously, I tried to play against it rather than towards
it. As much as possible, I tried to let each piece stand on its own as a narrative
fragment. The stories varied widely in theme, tone, length and style. There were
simply too many of them moving in too many different directions to be able to put
them all into a single narrative arch. On the September 18, 2004 performance, for
example, I told more than twenty-five separate stories: I condensed details for the
sake of space, but made every attempt to present the essence of each piece below.
In general the stories at the beginning were more elaborate as I was worried about
making them interesting (to keep the audience “with me”); those at the end, were
much more crisp as I was worried about getting enough stories in before time ran
1. I had two recurring nightmares as a child: one about running
over my sister with a motorcycle and one about being picked up by a
tornado. The three things that helped: a story, a prayer, or Snoopy.
2. I have a tendency to gush in ways that make people uncomfort-
3. A friend from my undergrad program spent the bulk of his time
trying to convince people that he was straight. It didn’t ever seem to
4. Spalding Gray had a girlfriend who didn’t like fish. This was a
problem because he worked in a fish restaurant and always gave her
leftover fish to eat.

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5. I dated a girl once who was in love with me, but I was never
going to fall in love with her. I had a to break up with her. We had
our charts read and the astrologer told me that my life would be full of
challenges because I was very imbalanced. When the astrologer read
my soon to be ex girlfriend’s chart she said, “Honey, I’ve been doing
this a long time and I just can’t figure out why you bothered coming
back for this lifetime!” (Because her chart was so near perfect.)
6. A professor at my undergrad program told me, in tears, that I
was the future of storytelling. A year later he did not remember who
I was.
7. I was almost cast as the host of Nickelodeon’s “Blues Clues”
but I was not able to be subtle enough for the TV cameras.
8. I used to have horrible anxiety attacks and not be able to sleep.
I would diagnose myself with all of these horrible psychological ill-
nesses. It was years before I realized that I just shouldn’t drink caf-
feine after 2 pm.
9. My university playwriting professor’s lecture on Shakespeare
(in its entirety): “All of us owe him everything.”
10. My mother had an intestinal transplant. She was able to eat
solid food for the first time just before Thanksgiving. All of the local
TV news stations came to tape the heartwarming event. I had brought
a girl who I was trying to convert to Christianity to have dinner with
us. She fit in much better with my family than I did.
11. Spalding met a woman who told him how great he was and
how he should get more work in movies and on TV. He should, she
said, play a psychiatrist.
12. It was very depressing for me when Spalding played the psy-
chologist on “The Nanny” because I hated seeing him play a support-
ing role to Fran Drescher.
13. For my 16th birthday party, my friends threw me a surprise
party. It made me feel like I belonged. Every birthday since has been
a letdown.
14. In Berlin I was drafted to act as an extra in a music video. For
about six and half hours I stood in the wings hearing only German
and listening for my cue, “bitte,” which told me to start dancing.
15. A therapist once told Spalding that his subconscious was so
close to the surface that he could see its periscope.
16. I had an existential crisis while drinking a glass of water. I
was unsure what would happen when I finished the drink, so I drank
very slowly. As I finished the last gulp, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
It was my best friend who had come to check on me.
17. I miss smoking because now I don’t have any business to do
at parties.

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18. Spalding found being healthy almost boring. He would walk

profusely in Washington Square Park.
19. I juggled in Washington Square Park when I first got to New
York. I fell in love with the city because it let me be so many different
20. Spalding had a growth on his nose as a child that he wanted
to have cauterized but he couldn’t because his mom didn’t believe in
21. I went to a Christian Science church. The church was set up
for hundreds of people but only about a dozen of us were there.
22. Spalding fell in love with skiing.
23. I broke my leg skiing and had it set without painkillers.
24. Spalding bought a bike and it made him feel old to ride it.
25. I had a bike that was stolen. Three months later I saw it at a
gas station. I took it back from the dude who stole it from me.

Once the large clock behind me, which started when I picked up the first card,
reached an hour, the light board operator adjusted the lights to cue me and I
stopped speaking, sometimes in mid-sentence. I then read the contents of the note
cards into the microphone interspersed with short sections from Gray’s mono-
logues I had read earlier (“Chocolate Milk” … “High School Show Choir”…“my
perfect moment”… “hurricane”… “Little Bunny Foo Foo” …“the banana doesn’t
stick to the wall”). Sometimes it would be clear which cards triggered which
stories. Other times the connection between prompt and story would be difficult
to discern. To conclude, I had the soundboard operator play random clips ranging
from one to ten seconds each from the CD recordings he had been making of the
performance. As the recording played, I (stealing a page from the ventriloquist’s
book) would drink a glass of water.
Even as my performance was a quotation of Gray’s life, the intentional and (at
least apparently) arbitrary truncation of narratives within the piece along with the
deliberate attempt not to tie the pieces together were all intended to evoke Gray’s
death. The progression of fractured narratives failed, like Gray’s life, to “get
better and better as it moved along.” This structural shift was intended to work
against my natural narrative impulses and to mark the ways in which “that which
appears to be not there [Gray’s death] is often a seething presence, acting on and
often meddling with taken for granted realities [the beginning-middle-end narra-
tive structure].”25 Despite often having very similar content (primarily existential
crises and sexual coming of age stories tempered with witticisms, for example),
structurally, as one audience member who was also a fan of Gray’s pointed out,
my improvisations were the opposite of his.26 His typical approach was to weave
seemingly disparate groups of information into a cohesive metaphoric whole:
“Each solo had a point, a theme. In his best pieces, the underlying idea would be
unforgettable as in the ‘perfect moment’ moment in Swimming to Cambodia.”27

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My performance, in contrast, started with a simple simile: “I am like Gray”

and then spun off into seemingly disparate stories brought together only by occa-
sional accidents. Even when at its most improvised, a Spalding Gray monologue
seeks centripetal unity, throwing as many narrative plates in the air as possible
to see how many the raconteur can catch in a web of meaning. My performance
sought the centrifugal possibilities in letting the plates break and in seeing what
unexpected connections might be found in their fragments. In the best moments,
this allowed an accidental, rhizomatous and intersubjective agency that prompted
connections within audience members that were “about” neither me, nor Spalding
Gray. It became what Roland Barthes might have called a “readerly” as opposed to
a “writerly” performance “whose goal was to make the [audience] no longer con-
sumer but producer of the text.”28 The performance worked roundabout the ques-
tions of meaning and intentions in ways designed to give it an aesthetic whole that
was decidedly unfinished. Even as I performed as Spalding Gray, the fragmentary
structure was intended to be a haunting by him—a marker of how “ghostly things
kept cropping up and messing up other tasks I was trying to accomplish”29
When I say that this performance was haunted, I mean that it had something
of the uncanny temporality that Derrida associates with ghosting. The jumbled
associations between past, present, and future, between David Terry and Spald-
ing Gray, between presence and absence, between narrative and chaos, moved as
Derrida describes,

beyond the living present in general—and beyond its simple nega-

tive reversal. A spectral moment, a moment that no longer belongs to
time, if one understands by this word the linking of modalized pres-
ents (past present, actual present: “now,” future present). Furtive and
untimely, the apparition of the specter does not belong to that time, it
does not give time, not that one: “Enter the ghost, exit the ghost, re-
enter the ghost” (Hamlet).30

The ghost’s jumbled world of perpetual middles lacks beginnings and endings.
It produces/is produced by a different temporality: “It’s our time in here. In here
it’s our time.” The fragmented narratives presented in a random order within the
piece were triggered by random flips and turns. Though in some sense the stories
began with me, in another sense they were produced by a random structure that
(in the moment of performance) was not under my direct control. Though I was
the “author” in a certain sense, the play of chance called the origin of authorship
into question. Furthermore, even in its conclusion, the piece did not reach for
transcendence, or at least reached for transcendence in a way that was designed to
fail. The recorded fragments of fragments were incomplete evocations of an event
that had transpired only moments before. They were not, I hoped, markers of self-
mastery or self-transcendence, but rather, a being undone. The stories, I hoped,
were not unified or moralized into something easily digestible, but left floating,
to disappear and return in new combinations in their own time, in short, to haunt.

TA60.ndd 44 10/1/2007 3:08:04 PM


Playing with Ghosts, Ghosting with Play

In terms of sociologist Roger Caillois’ influential taxonomy of play, my analy-

sis thus far has focused primarily on two categories: mimicry (imitative play:
children playing dress up or most realistic drama) and alea (chance play: roulette
or the lottery). Specifically, I have argued that the idiom of haunting allowed my
performance to play the latter against the former: I was pretending to be Spald-
ing Gray (mimicry), but my pretending was productively interrupted by all of
the accidents put into play by the chance beginnings and arbitrary endings of my
narratives (alea). In this next section I expand the discussion of the relationship
between haunting and play and bring two other elements of Caillois’ taxonomy
of play to bear on the performance: agon (competitive play: a basketball game
or boxing match) and ilynx (dangerous, dark play: spinning rides at the fair or
experimentation with psychotropic drugs) in hopes of, at least partially, offering a
specific aesthetics/ethics for a haunting performance praxis. 31
For Callois, play is defined as any activity which is non-obligatory (free), occur-
ring in special circumscribed times and at special circumscribed spaces (separate),
not determined in advance (uncertain), not financially generative (unproductive),
setting up legislation which—for the moment—supercede normal laws (governed
by rules), not a part of “real life” (make believe).32 Haunting, however, because
of its peculiar present-absence/absent-presence challenges any easy separation
between obligatory and free activities, between any one time/place and any other
time/place, between certainty and uncertainty, between productive and unproduc-
tive behaviors, between juridical systems (whether temporary or permanent) and
our experiences of those systems.
This is not to say that haunting is not play, but, rather, that haunting is a kind of
meta-play that plays with the categories of play themselves. Playing with ghosts
is not entirely optional or free: “Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes
against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a real-
ity we come to experience, not as cold knowledge but as transformative recogni-
tion.”33 Playing with ghosts makes it very difficult to separate one time and place
from another given that it is marked by a “disjointure in the very presence of the
present, this sort of non-contemporaneity of present time with itself.”34 Profoundly
uncertain, playing with ghosts is magical. Indeed, part of its “magic” comes pre-
cisely from treating uncertainties and anomalies as if they were determined by
the future: “The passage of this time of the present comes from the future to go
toward the past, toward the going of the gone.”35 Though playing with ghosts is
not productive in the capitalist sense that Caillois refers to, “ghostly matters” have
real and lasting material effects on the social world. Playing with ghosts is a way
of playing with systems of rules, especially those power systems that are difficult
to codify. “Haunting exists between our ability to describe the logic of [power]
and our experience of that logic, experiences that are more often than not partial,

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coded, symptomatic, contradictory, and ambiguous.”36 Furthermore, playing with

ghosts puts ontology itself into play as haunting and reminds us that “the real
itself and its ethnographic or sociological representations are also fictions, albeit
powerful ones that we do not experience as fictional but as true.”37 It intentionally
blurs the lines between make believe and real in an attempt to “make the fictional,
the theoretical, and the factual speak to one another.” 38
At the most obvious level, of course, Gray’s work (a method actor playing
himself) is already heavily invested in the act of haunting. On one level my
performance of the archive that is Spalding Gray simply extends these
preoccupations further in that my performance in “A Magical Mystery Tour”
had much to do with who I was haunted by (Gray). Nevertheless, given that my
performance begins by invoking Gray as a ghostly figure, it blurs the line between
play and non-play differently than Gray’s work. My mimetic play with Spalding
Gray—the visual quotation of minimalist props, costumes, set and the literal
quotations from his books—opposed my aleatory play with Spalding Gray—the
notecards, randomly flipped to pages, artificially truncated narratives, and artificial
time constraints. The mimetic impulse, on one hand, sought centrifugal closure:
a way to effectively understand, identify and reduce the figure of Gray such that
I could fully embody him, mourn him, and move beyond the trauma of his death.
The aleatory impulse, on the other hand, was decidedly melancholic. It sought
to keep the traumatic wound open, in hopes of being un-done by it. Ironically, it
could be argued that the mimetic desire to act as Gray was also a desire to make
Gray stop acting, to escape what was to be; the aleatory desire to act differently
than Gray was, in another sense, a way to keep him alive and active through me.
Therein is the tension within haunting.
To expose these tensions in theoretical terms of opposing grids connects the
performer, the subject and the audience in generative ways. If a horizontal axis
of the performance tracks mimesis as a stabilizing mechanism (the physicality
of performance) towards alea, a destabilizing factor (the emotional responses to
the archive). What is traced on this horizontal axis is the negotiated relationship
between David Terry and Spalding Gray. The vertical axis presents the agonistic
drive during performance (the improvisational aspect of performance, the “knock
’em dead” drive of the stand up comedian) as it extends towards the destructive
ilynxical desire to get lost amidst the chaos (the “extreme” element of perfor-
mance art practices such as those of, say, Maria Abramovich or Chris Burden that
flirt with real world danger). What is traced on this vertical axis is my relation-
ship to my audience through the archive that is Spalding Gray and my own life.
During the performance, the desire to make the jokes work, to guide the audience
from beginning to end smoothly, to make sure that they were “with me” was
surprisingly strong. Surprisingly, an even stronger competitive element emerged
during the improvised section of the piece. Each turn of the card created a chal-
lenge that I sought to meet: “How can I manage not to bore them with what THAT
first brings to mind?” I both feared and desired the challenges as they presented

TA60.ndd 46 10/1/2007 3:08:05 PM


themselves, as they spoke to me and through me. I took perverse pleasure when
the cards prompted thoughts that I was initially too embarrassed to share. It was
not always a challenge that I wanted to overcome; it was, at times, a loss of con-
trol to be desired. For example, in my confession that “I have a tendency to gush
in ways that make people uncomfortable,” the person who had told me that I gush
too much was in the audience that particular evening. Though I was made uncom-
fortable by that fact, I ran toward the discomfort, not away from it. In fact, I began
to perform what I was pretending to describe. I knew that I was never going to
gush my way out of the sticky situation, but I kept gushing anyway: It was simply
more fun in that moment to lose control. That is another power of haunting.
This relatively innocuous example illustrates what I see as the dangers of per-
forming self- reflectivity for an audience: self-absorption and self-negation. As Roland
Barthes writes in his own not-quite-autobiography, not-quite-not-autobiography:

Do I not know that, in the field of the subject, there is no refer-

ent? The fact (whether biographical or textual) is abolished in the
signifier, because it immediately coincides with it: . . . . I myself am
my own symbol, I am the story which happens to me: freewheeling
in language, I have nothing to compare myself to; and in this move-
ment, the pronoun of the imaginary, “I,” is im-pertinent; the symbolic
becomes literally immediate: essential danger for the life of the sub-
ject: to write on oneself may seem a pretentious idea; but it is also a
simple idea: simple as the idea of suicide.39

As Barthes suggests, the desire to fully express oneself is intimately connected

with the desire to lose oneself completely. In my performance there was a strong
desire to control the audience in order to “express” myself to them; I also felt the
desire to be controlled by them. The ilynxical/aleatory desire to lose control can
be just as limiting as the mimetic/agonistic desire to gain it. Accidents, after all,
can be deadly.
So far I have outlined the play between types of play as a way to outline some
of what I see as the particular aesthetics of haunting in performance. Although
aesthetics fits uneasily within and among all four of Caillios’s play categories
(alea, mimicry, illynx, and agon), I have chosen the term “aleatory aesthetics” to
describe my performance primarily because it celebrates the tensions within the
concept of aesthetics. The counterintuitive pairing of chance and artistic choice
marks irreconcilable tension and is central to the practice of haunting in perfor-
mance. It is not a matter of finding the ideal balance between alea and mimicry or
illyx and agon, but rather of exposing the potential of each in performance in ways
that recognize that no such synthesis is possible. By placing the kind of play, alea,
over which individual players have the least control as an overarching marker, I
signal a radically open aesthetic stance that takes ghosts seriously.

TA60.ndd 47 10/1/2007 3:08:05 PM


Revisiting the Moral Map

The notion of irreconcilable tensions and performance practice finds practical

expression in Dwight Conquegood’s conception of dialogic performance. While
dialogic performance and haunting both engage subject and audience, I will argue
that hauntology exploits the shared relationships among presence, absence, and
dialogic performance in ways that resist the tendency to turn Conquergood’s
“moral” map into a moralistic one. By way of concluding this essay, I briefly
explore some of the implications of my performance as a form of aesthetic/
ethical experimentation by revisiting Conquergood’s application of dialogic
Conquergood’s map offers a way of suspending certain kinds of judgments in
order to avoid four major pitfalls of ethnographic work: the selfishness of taking
information from the Other for our own gain (‘’the custodian’s rip off’’); the
detachment of cynical withdrawl (“the skeptic’s copout”); the superficiality of
ready-made interpretations (“the enthusiast’s infatuation”); or the sensationalism
of emphasizing the exotic in the Other (“the curator’s exhibitionism”).40 In order
to make knowledge claims within this vulnerable space, Conquergood urges
for what he calls “dialogical performance.”41 This method keeps the “dialogue
between performer and text open and ongoing” and places itself in the center of
opposing forces which “become destructive only when they are vented without the
counterbalancing pull of their opposite.’’42 Conquergood’s model acknowledges
responses and behaviors that we can’t help but do because we are human. They
are not sins but rather tendencies that, though not ‘’bad’’ in and of themselves, must
always be kept in balance with each other if one is to remain open to the Other.
It is revealing to compare Conquergood’s moral mapping against my
performance of the archive that is Spalding Gray (not to mention the archive that
is my life). The win at all costs mentality of Conquergood’s ‘’the custodian’s rip
off’’ mirrors agonistic play; the fatalism and abdication of responsibility of “the
skeptic’s copout” relates closely to aleatory play; the superficial identification of
“the enthusiast’s infatuation” aligns with mimetic play; and the emphasis on the
exotic in “the curator’s exhibitionism” connects with the desire for disorientation
arising from illynxical play. More importantly, these critical formulations claim
that the tension between opposites is the source of an aesthetic/ethical orientation
that is dialogically open to the Other. What haunting offers is a way of imagining/
performing the dialogic center as, fundamentally, a space of weak ontology: a
present-absence/ absent-presence, on-purpose/on-accident. The problem with
curator, enthusiast, custodian, and skeptic is not that they don’t understand the
Other, but that they understand the Other in ways that leave them, as co-performers
estranged from “the small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through
to some vaster space” precisely because they are not playful enough.43 The weak
ontology of haunting offers a way to cede to the Other a sense of “complex

TA60.ndd 48 10/1/2007 3:08:05 PM


personhood,” that is to say, the capacity to surprise or to change.44 The connection

between haunting and play outlined above marks the dialogic center of the map
as a “good” place precisely because of the inherent weak ontological status of
that center given the possibility of haunting, of glimpsing or sensing something
beyond. While the ethical goals of conferring “complex personhood” and what
Conquergood calls “the human dignity other” are very similar, the two models
have a different structure of feeling. 45 Simply put, the dialogic performance
model often presumes an ideal conversation in which a relatively stable self and
a relatively stable other move ever closer together as they “question debate and
challenge one another.”46 To do so presents an asymptotic view of the self-other
relationship in which the absence that separates the two poles appears to narrow
through an idealized dialogic relationship to presence. In the hauntological
model, on the other hand, the impossibility of bridging the gap between self and
other is made central: though they may at times feel more present with each
other, at times more absent from each other, the presence/absence dialectic always
remains. Haunting abandons the idea of a melding of self and other even as an
ideal and instead embraces what John Durham Peters calls “a dance in which
we sometimes touch.”47 It places the emphasis not on knowing the Other, but on
being made un-known by the Other. It moves from the question of “now that
we know this, what are we going to do with it?” to the following: “Now that we
are unknown and deprived of knowingness, unlearned and learning, what are we
going to do [round]about it?”48
My performance of “A Magical Mystery Tour of the American Theatre” was an
attempt to stage such an unknowing. Besides a particular performance aesthetic
and model of scripting, I believe that this kind of playing with play that haunt-
ing makes possible shows great promise as a heuristic for understanding perfor-
mances whose goal is not necessarily greater understanding, but a more open and
beautiful co-being.

1. Qtd in Spalding Gray, Life Interrupted : The Unfinished Monologue (New
York: Crown Publishers, 2005), 172.
2. John Gentile, Cast of One: One-Person Shows Form the Chautauqua
Platform to the Broadway Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989); Craig
Gingrich-Philbrook, “Ambition Vs. Inflation in the Poetry of Jorie Graham: A
Lesson for Autoperformance,” Text and Performance Quarterly 25 (2005):27-42;
Kristin Langellier and Eric E. Peterson, Storytelling in Daily Life: Performing
Narrative (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).
3. Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (New York:
Free Press, 1961); Mindy Fenske, “The Aesthetic of the Unfinished: Ethics and
Performance,” Text and Performance Quarterly 24, (2004); Jacques Derrida,
Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New

TA60.ndd 49 10/1/2007 3:08:06 PM


International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994); Avery Gordon,
Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (University of
Minnesota 1997). I rely primarily on Derrida and Gordon for my discussion of
haunting. Though their work is compatible, it is by no means identical, nor is
it exhaustive of the idiom. It is, simply, the most applicable for my work. For
a fuller explication of the idiom, which is beyond the scope of this essay, see
Joshua Gunn, “Review Essay: Mourning Humanism, or, the Idiom of Haunting,”
Quarterly Journal of Speech 92, no. 1 (2006): 77-102. For other possible
connections between haunting and performance see Joshua Gunn, “Mourning
Speech: Haunting and the Spectral Voices of Nine-Eleven,” Text and Performance
Quarterly 24 (2004):91-114, and Tracy Stephenson Shaffer and Joshua Gunn,
“ ‘A Change is Gonna Come’: On the Haunting of Music and Whiteness in
Performance Studies.” Theatre Annual 59 (2006): 39-62.
4. Craig Gingrich-Philbrook, “Autobiographical Performance and Carnivorous
Knowledge: Rae C. Wright’s Animal Instincts,” Text and Performance Quarterly
18 (1998), 64.
5. Derrida, 10.
6. Fenske, 15.
7. Fenske, 1.
8. Derrida, xx.
9. Derrida, 5.
10. Gunn, “Mourning Humanism,” 79.
11. Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1999), 91.
12. Scarry, 111-112.
13. Scarry, 112.
14. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York: Routledge, 1982), 72.
15. I re-mounted the show two other times, once for the 2004 Petit Jean
Performance Festival in Petit Jean, AR and once for the 2005 DramaRama
Festival at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, LA. These two re-
performances, though “successful” in their own way (in my own estimation at
least) lacked the full technical support of the original performance run. Since
several of those elements were a key component of what I believe made the
performance “haunted,” I have chosen to focus on that first run.
16. The essay has since been published (in significantly revised form): David
Terry “Once Blind, Now Seeing: Spalding Gray and the Slippery Slope of
Confessional Performance.” Text and Performance Quarterly (2006): 209-28.
17. The tile was changed to the more hopeful Life Interrupted and posthumously
published: Spalding Gray, Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue (New
York: Crown Publishers, 2005).
18. Langellier and Peterson, 248.
19. Peggy Phelan. “Francesca Woodman’s Photography: Death and the Image
One More Time” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 27 (2002),
97. See also Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories (London: Routledge,

TA60.ndd 50 10/1/2007 3:08:06 PM


20. Gordon, 24.
21. Qtd. in Spalding Gray, Life Interrupted, 147. emphasis original.
22. Mark Russell qtd in Spalding Gray, Life Interrupted, 183.
23. Gordon, 63.
24. Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia (New York, NY: Theatre
Communications Group, 1985), Sex and Death to the Age 14 (New York: Vintage
Books, 1986), Impossible Vacation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), Monster
in a Box (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), Gray’s Anatomy (New York: Vintage
Books, 1993), It’s a Slippery Slope (New York: Noonday, 1997), Morning Noon
and Night (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999).
25. Gordon, 8.
26. Much thanks to Trish Suchy for this observation.
27. Eric Bogosian qtd in Gray, Life Interrupted, 140
28. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill
and Wang, 1974), 4.
29. Gordon, 8.
30. Derrida, xx.
31. Caillois, 12.
32. Caillois, 10.
33. Gordon, 8.
34. Derrida, 25.
35. Derrida, 24.
36. Gordon, 23-24, emphasis original.
37. Gordon, 11, 19.
38. Gordon, 26.
39. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley:
University of California, 1977), 56; emphasis original.
40. Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions
of the Ethnography of Performance.” Literature in Performance 5 (1985), 5.
41. Conquergood, 5.
42. Conquergood, 9.
43. Scarry, 111.
44. Gordon, 4.
45. Conquergood, 10.
46. Conquergood, 9.
47. John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of
Communication. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 268.
48. Della Pollock, “Making New Directions in Performance Ethnography,”
Text and Performance Quarterly (2006), 328.

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