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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 3, 2003
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Braniacks to Spooks
In the 1940s, carefully selected students at Yale
were recruited by their professors to form the OSS (Office of
Services), the precursor of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).
Many of us never knew exactly how and why those social science
from academe, while largely performing in a research branch, suddenly
became privy to international secrets. But they effectively changed
the social conscience of their school for almost 20 years.
One person who does know is author, journalist, dramatist, and
Charles Evered, who deals with that subject in his play
of Mirrors." The show, which begins previews at George Street
Playhouse on Tuesday, September 9, has its world premiere on Friday,
September 12. I spoke with Evered at the Playhouse about his play
in which he incorporates intrigue, deception — and whatever else
he imagines it took to beguile the organization’s first operatives.
"The world of spying is a wilderness of mirrors," James Jesus
Angleton, former chief of counter intelligence CIA, once said. His
expression came from T.S. Eliot’s poem "Gerontion": "In
a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do?"
Evered acknowledges candidly that the CIA did, indeed, effectively
change the heretofore progressively liberal dynamics of academe.
"Right now there is a love-hate relationship with the CIA,"
says the 38-year-old Evered. He recalls how, when he was in academe,
people were suspicious of you if you involved with any part of the
armed forces. "I was interested in writing about that and the
arc of how that happened," he says, adding that he will trace
the agency back to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"The government realized it needed to have an official and
arm of intelligence. FDR directed army General Bill Donovan to set
up the OSS at the best place to get spies. Discounting the big brawny
guys and the athletes, the OSS was after the `braniacks’ —
who had a wide general knowledge that included history, geography,
and languages. To tap that resource they went to the professors at
The play takes place between 1942, the "gung-ho" beginnings
of the OSS, and 1968, the lowest ebb in terms of our regard for its
offshoot, the CIA. In it, Robert Conlan, a professor at Yale
like many of his recruiting colleagues, covertly selects the brightest
and the best students to take on assignments from the OSS. The ruse
in the play, he explains, is how the students are subtly trained to
be spies in what was called the "library project." Issues
of duty and the personal cost of service to country surface, as Conlan
questions the romantic relationship between a brilliant young recruit
and a member of his own family.
Evered says he tried to deal with our nation’s "hot and cold"
relationship with the CIA in the play from an unbiased perspective.
"I believe in both sides and see the necessity for an intelligence
agency. He does believe, however, that it overreached itself and went
into areas it shouldn’t have. I know there are people on the left
who say it is just an evil and get rid of it. But I believe the CIA
is finding a balance between need and overreaching as opposed to the
wholesale domestic spying that took place during the late 1950s and
Loosely based on events described in the 1987 book
and Gown," by Yale history professor Robin W. Winks,
of Mirrors" offers more than Evered’s glimpse into the secret
world of spies and academe. He says he is both critical and able to
cast some light on the young people 60 years ago who were called upon
to do things no one would consider doing today.
The character of Robert, the professor in the play, is based on Norman
Holmes Pearson. The character of James is based on James Jesus
the chief of counter intelligence with the CIA. There are two separate
chapters in the book that deal with them. Evidently Angleton had
so paranoid after 50 years on the job that he accused John F. Kennedy
of being a mole. And Pearson, "a brilliant scholar," Evered
tells me, "went on to found the American Studies program at
Evered says that he veered just enough in the story line so the
won’t be upset.
Evered is a graduate of both Rutgers, where he received a bachelor’s
degree in anthropology, Class of ’87, and Yale University, where he
earned a master’s degree in playwriting in 1991. As a former officer
in the United States Navy (Res) and a graduate of the United States
Naval Aviation Schools Command, Pensacola, Florida and the United
States Navy Officer Leadership Course, he has studied numerous other
After I rattle off the subject list from his resume: Small Arms Use,
Military law, Counter-Terrorism, Naval Administration, United States
Sea Power, Laws of Armed Conflict, Geneva Convention, Rules of
and the Code of Military Conduct, we laugh heartily at my suggestion
that he has a dramatist’s minefield there. With his wholesome good
looks, the tall, dirty blonde Evered could easily be used for the
"Join the Navy and See the World" posters. He swears that
"I have never used a gun in rehearsal."
Serving with the Naval Office of Information at the onset of the War
on Terror, his assignment to help document the devastation on the
site of the former World Trade Center was only a couple of days after
the attack — an experience that led directly to his writing some
key scenes in "Wilderness of Mirrors." Evered was a fellow
at Whitman College in Washington State on 9/11 when he was told to
report to his unit based in Manhattan. He had joined the naval unit
there on the request of his wife who, thinking of his safety, said
"okay, you’re in the Navy but I don’t want you in harm’s way.
What could ever happen in New York City?"
"Flames were still coming up out of the rubble. I was standing
on a girder. It felt like I was on a movie set for Dante’s
he says. "I had this sudden realization that this huge catastrophe
was all thought up on a couch or a coffee shop or at a meeting in
Munich or Vienna. It was the first time that I felt the palpable
of evil that engineered this horrible act. I thought about the nature
of evil and whether you can counter it."
There are scenes in the play when Robert, the recruiter is trying
to impress upon James, that despite wanting the world to be fine and
safe place, there are people out there trying to kill us. "And
what can we do about it?" We concur that the world has become
a very small place since 9/11.
Presently an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, where
he teaches a writing workshop, Evered earned his master’s degree at
Yale. His articles about politics, culture and the war on terror have
been published in the Times of London and U.S. Navy Publications among
other periodicals. He has taught at Carnegie Mellon University and
Rider University in Lawrenceville.
While we were discussing the ways in which the recruiters were able
to beguile the students into the OSS, I asked Evered if he thought
writing dramatic literature was one of the best ways that he knew
to affect a change in the political conscience of the audience.
me," he says, "writing is the only way I know to affect change
although going into the military was the best way for me to serve
something more than my own self interests." He allows that he
briefly considered going into politics but decided against it because
"they all seem to look like they owe somebody something. What
I love about writing is that I don’t have to be careful what I
Asked about whether he thought the CIA has proven to
be as corrupt and duplicitous as the regimes it supports, Evered
"I don’t think so. In the past they have done things that are
wrong. On the other hand, the CIA does a lot of good to keep us safer.
I take the bad with the good. Unfortunately the CIA can’t tout its
successes but its failures are out there for everyone to see."
As a writer, Evered says he has to see both sides and "ruffle
feathers." As a playwright, he admits that he had to write
(for films he won’t mention) to pay back college loans. The first
play in a trilogy about spies, "Wilderness of Mirrors," will
be followed by "Clouds Hill," in which two professors at a
Midwestern college learn that a Muslim chemistry student may be
weapons of mass destruction. It will be produced by the Manhattan
Theater Club next season.
While Evered, whose main body of dramatic literature consists of
plays that have received productions at major regional theaters
the country, had his only other full-length play "The Size of
the World," produced by the Circle Repertory Theater in 1996.
But it is "Adopt A Sailor," a 10-minute play that premiered
at New York’s Town Hall as part of the "Brave New World" event
on the first anniversary of 9/11, that resonated with notable
The cast at Town Hall included Liev Schreiber, Amy Irving, Sam
Bebe Neuwirth, and Eli Wallach. "Wilderness of Mirrors" opens
the week of the second anniversary.
Self-described as the once "angry young man from Rutherford, New
Jersey," Evered mentions Trenton’s William Mastrosimone (whose
play "Afghan Women" opens at the Passage Theater in October)
among the contemporary playwright he particularly admires.
Evered is married to the former Wendy Rolfe, an actress, of Portland,
Oregon. They have two children, Margaret and John O’Hara, ages four
and two, respectively. The Evereds are planning to move back to
where Evered will undoubtedly continue to write about subjects that
find favor and dramatic worth in his unique and extremely committed
social and political conscience.
With the opening of "Wilderness of Mirrors," the George Street
Playhouse is celebrating its 30th anniversary season. The cast
Michael Countryman, in the role of Robert Conlan, the Yale academician
who covertly recruited students for the nascent government agency;
Leslie Lyles portrays his wife Susan; Welker White plays Christina,
Conlan’s niece who falls in love with student-turned spy; and Alex
Draper as student James Singleton. Rounding out the cast is Monica
West, Yuval Bolm, and Martin Friedrichs. Scenic design is by James
Youmans, with costumes by David Murin, and lighting by David Lander.
— Simon Saltzman
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. The world premiere
of Charles Evered’s play about the birth of the CIA, directed by David
Saint. Previews begin Tuesday, September 9, for the play that runs
to October 5. $28 to $52.
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