THIS IS NOT MY MEMOIR
By André Gregory and Todd London
Among the revolutionary stage troupes of the 1960s and ’70s that sought to displace tidy naturalist plays with a theater of miracles — Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater, Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater — none was more inventive or exciting than André Gregory’s Manhattan Project. In its legendary adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” actors dispensed with props or sets and transformed themselves into caterpillars, fell down nonexistent holes and made theater magic.
A candid personal memoir detailing the long career and life experience of the brilliantly accomplished Gregory would certainly be welcome, and this book marvelously fills the bill — or would, if its author had not so perversely insisted by its title that it was not his memoir, without offering much of an explanation why not. I suppose we ought to take him at his word. Still, as the saying goes, if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck. …
Regardless, Gregory is a masterly storyteller and chronicler. Eschewing the usual stale showbiz anecdotes, his perfectly timed narratives are spiced with wit, self-deprecating humor and shrewd analytical insight. He spares no sentimentality for childhood. Born to a pair of Russian Jews who hopped from Berlin to Paris to London to New York, one step ahead of the Nazis, he says: “My parents were great survivors, but they were wretched parents, negligent and self-absorbed, petty and often mean.” They left his upbringing to his nanny. Summering in Southern California, the father, who had become wealthy in Weimar Berlin, hobnobbed with movie stars before falling into bipolar depression. His mother, who “certainly had something,” including affairs with Errol Flynn and Bugsy Siegel, utterly lacked maternal instinct. Once, she found herself “admiring a baby in a carriage. She said to the governess, ‘What a beautiful baby.’ The governess replied, ‘But Madame, it’s yours.’” Is it any wonder he grew up “stunted in the art of loving”?
As befits having been in therapy most of his adult life, he is nothing if not self-aware about his failures and failings. Indeed, humiliation forms an almost zestfully comic through-line in these recollections. After graduating from Harvard, he applies to Yale Drama School, but is told by the dean: “The theater is impossible enough if you do have talent, but if you don’t. … Become a lawyer [was my father speaking through him?] or a doctor.” So he joins the Army. “We ran across fields holding bayonets and screaming, ‘KILL KILL.’ … On breaks, aspiring gentile that I was, I would memorize psalms.” Young, he marries the beautiful Chiquita, and they quarrel on their honeymoon and for the next 33 years.