Spy of the First Person
“one stunning and eloquent final soliloquy.”
Sam Shepard died earlier this year at age 73 after a long battle with ALS. Shepard was one of the most prolific playwrights of his generation, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of 55 plays and 10 Obie Awards.
He authored such contemporary classics as True West, Buried Child, and Fool for Love, and his legacy will be part of our dramatic (and comedic) literature as long as theater survives. Shepard was also a screen actor, often cast as the quiet rebel, and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Chuck Yeagar in The Right Stuff.
Shepard’s final creative project was Spy of the First Person a prose work, which, because of his illness, he was unable type or write by hand, so instead dictated it to his adult children. The book’s foreword contains the dedication to him. “Sam’s children, Hannah, Walker, and Jesse would like to recognize their father’s life and work and the tremendous effort he made to complete his final book.”
Spy, a slim novella that can be read as an allegory, a memoir, a desperate stream- of-consciousness, a prose poem, or a fable, but however cryptic, it is, radiantly, Shepard’s voice.
A very sick man sits in a chair on his porch overlooking a rustic American landscape and he thinks he is being watched by a man with a pair of binoculars. This is, indeed, classic Shepard terrain. He narrates in forensic detail his pain or his difficulties in moving and communicating. He recounts dramatic scenes to his children that he never told them because they “happened before you were born.”
He remembers living in a condemned building in Manhattan, he recounts a shooting and escape in the west, he makes plans, he feels trapped, characters appear and vanish, but we are never quite sure who they are in relationship with him, as the man on the porch trying to put fragments of his life together.
One is reminded of a scene in Shepard’s brilliant satire Curse of the Starving Class when the boozy, bitter father confronts his son. “What’s the matter with you. Why are you always watching me? You can watch me all you want. You won’t find a thing.” Shepard lets his characters keep their secrets, even as they reveal timeless and universal truths.
Of course we sense who the spy of the title is, but ultimately Shepard keeps spinning us around like a prairie dog chasing its tail.
Midway through there are hints as to what might be going on as the protagonist confesses “I have no desire to eliminate parts of myself. I have no desire. Maybe we should meet as complete strangers and talk deep into the night as though we’d never seen each other before. All we know is that there is something reminiscent, something mysteriously connected.”
So many theatergoers have talked deep into the night about Shepard’s characters and their motives. We have been mysteriously connected to his gallery of characters and their unquiet desperation. He observes the quest for the American dream, even when it was also his theater of the absurd. Spy of the First Person probably won’t be counted among Shepard’s finest works, but it is one stunning and eloquent final soliloquy.