ARCHIVED: Spy Class, Decades Later, Becomes a Play

by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Sheila Schwartz '80 first studied history's famous spies in the late 1970s, in a class taught by her don, Jefferson Adams. The course, "Intelligence and Diplomacy in Modern History," examines how intelligence gathering and covert action influence the course of historical events.

The class made such an impression that three decades later, Schwartz is still thinking about the world of espionage. In fact, she wrote a play about it: Spy Garbo, which debuted off-Broadway this spring.

In the play, Spanish Fascist Francisco Franco, British Communist spy Kim Philby, and Nazi double agent Wilhelm Canaris meet on the fictional in-between stage of History. The men banter with one another, recreate their personal exploits, challenge accepted history, rationalize, and lie, all in an effort to overshadow Garbo—the ultimate double agent—and win the starring role in History's WWII spy-adventure movie.

Schwartz didn't start out as a cloak-and-dagger aficionado. Prior to attending Sarah Lawrence, she had worked with children in foster care, and was considering a degree in social work. "When I got to Sarah Lawrence, I wanted to save the world," she remembers. "It didn't take long, though, to realize I didn't have the faintest idea of what kind of world I was going to save."

Her solution was to study history. Adams remembers Schwartz as a serious, vivacious student who was constantly willing to see things from varying perspectives.

For her part, Schwartz admired Adams' truth-seeking sensibility. She says, "Jeff always had a wonderful way of dealing with oversimplification—he would push us as students and say, 'Yes, that's true, but at the same time, what about this?' We wish things were so simple but they're not."

Though Schwartz would have been content to stay at Sarah Lawrence for the rest of her life, she says now, she graduated in 1980. She earned a master's in liberal studies at the New School For Social Research, attended General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, studied with Harold Bloom at Yale, and wrote a screenplay and a novel (both unpublished).

But she remained fascinated by espionage and history, and in her late 50s, she began writing Spy Garbo, even though she had no idea how to write a play.

Years later, Schwartz and Adams reconnected at a book party celebrating the release of Adams' Historical Dictionary of German Intelligence in 2009. The two hadn't spoken in years. It was sheer coincidence that her play and his book were exploring similar topics.

Schwartz later invited Adams and his current “Intelligence and Diplomacy” class to attend the play in April. Adams says he was thoroughly impressed by the production. (His students' favorite part was when Franco gets pelted with virtual tomatoes.)

In many ways, Schwartz's story embodies what Adams tries to teach his students: “In the end, life has a way of working itself out,” he says, and our imaginations truly are without limits.

Schwartz agrees heartily. "It shouldn't be our concern to worry about whether our dreams can be realized—that's tomorrow's worry. Writing this play has shown me that we must do the thing that's in our head to do, and the rest takes care of itself."