New York’s stages boast singing cats and rhyming founding fathers. And yet, in these strange days, the most fanciful Broadway production might be Oslo, a new play by J.T. Rogers which tells the real-life story of a group of (non-singing) diplomats and their attempts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians—a spectacle almost unimaginable in the current political climate.
Almost 24 years after the fateful handshake on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, the back-channel talks that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords will be reenacted eight times a week at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater (opening night is April 13; previews began March 23). For just under three hours, audience members have the chance to observe the warring parties as they congregate in Borregaard Manor, grapple with the seemingly insoluble Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even make headway.
Barely a generation later, the events of Oslo might seem like very recent history, but considering everything the region has been through since—peace with Jordan, Rabin’s assassination, the Hebron and Wye River Agreements, the failed talks at Camp David and Taba, the Second Intifada, the Arab Peace Initiative, Bush’s Road Map, Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and the combat in Lebanon and Gaza that followed (not to mention, if we expand our scope, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, ISIS, etc.)—one might be forgiven for thinking that years in the Middle East should be counted in the same way that we count the years in the life of a dog. In the years since Rabin declared “enough of blood and tears,” many people have died. Some would say they died because of Oslo (an Israeli right-wing bumper sticker calls for putting the “Oslo Criminals” on trial).
But while Oslo is not the original sin that its harshest critics accuse it of being, it is as good a place as any to begin to understand the roots of the conflict, especially because, for all the blood spilled since, the issues at hand remain much the same: disputed borders, sovereignty over sacred sites, and perhaps most crucially, self-determination.
I saw Oslo last summer, when the current production played to packed houses and rave reviews at Lincoln Center’s smaller Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The broad strokes of the plot carry few surprises (we all know how it ends, or rather, how it never really ended), but even serious Middle East history buffs will be surprised at how entertaining the play is. Sometimes it is downright delightful. The long play (which includes two intermissions) goes by very, very quickly. The exposition and other assorted bits of heavy lifting (there are 21 characters) are barely felt. I told J. T. Rogers, Oslo’s playwright, as much when we spoke late last year (I was in Tel Aviv and he was in Brooklyn). He responded with a cheer. “We spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to tell the story so that the audience at the end would go, ‘Wow, I had no idea it was two hours and 50 minutes,’ ” he said.
Oslo is compelling because, while it is a play about politics, it is not a play about leaders. Rather, it is about their deputies, and oftentimes about their deputies’ deputies. Vitally, it includes as its secret sauce a duo straight out of a ’40s screwball romantic comedy (if such a comedy were set in Norway, that is): the husband-and-wife team of Terje Rød-Larsen (played in the new production by Jefferson Mays) and Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle). The two—Juul as an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and Rød-Larsen as the director of a research institute—singlehandedly initiated and nurtured the talks. The heated exchanges between Jews and Arabs unfold through the eyes of the two Northern Europeans, often to surprisingly hilarious effect.
Fittingly, Juul and Rød-Larsen were also the catalysts for the writing of the play. Rogers had traveled through the region some years ago and had been meaning to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It was in the back of my head, but I had no idea how to make it theatrically interesting, and not an essay,” he said. His previous play at Lincoln Center, Blood and Gifts (2011), was about espionage during the Afghan-Soviet war. The director, Bartlett Sher (who later directed Oslo), had become friendly with two Norwegian diplomats, whose daughter went to school with his. “Bart invited Terje Rød-Larsen to come speak to the actors about what it was like to do diplomacy, as there’s a lot of diplomacy in that play,” Rogers said. “Bart suggested that I go out for a drink with him, which I did, a stone’s throw from the theater, and said I should ask him about the Oslo process. The more I asked questions, even though he was very diplomatically putting other people’s successes before his own, the more fascinated I became, and the more I became embarrassed as I realized that I really knew nothing about this story that I thought I knew everything about. It became one of those moments where you say, ‘A-ha! There’s a play here.’ ”
Rogers, a Berkeley native in his late 40s, is no stranger to convoluted international affairs; the Guardian called him “that rare creature: an American dramatist who writes about global issues.” As he began researching the behind-the-scenes of Oslo, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that for such a loaded topic, its particulars were remarkably uncontroversial. “You know the film Rashomon? Well, it’s kind of the opposite of that,” he said. “You have this story that seems to be secret but isn’t actually; it’s all on public record. In the memoirs and interviews of participants, there’s a great deal of arguing about whether they should have done it, over who deserves more credit, but remarkably the nuts and bolts are agreed upon by all three sides. With other projects I’d done, that wasn’t the case at all.”
After stumbling upon the Norwegians, Rogers quickly decided to rely mostly on existing written interviews and accounts to research Oslo’s protagonists. “It’s the first play I’ve written where everyone is a version of a living or formerly living person,” Rogers said. “It’s a slightly surreal experience. I’ve tried to be very up-front about saying that no one should think this is a docudrama, or that this is verbatim dialogue, by any stretch. I’m responsible for what they’re saying. The language and the rhythm, the musicality, the beat of the line, are the engine for my writing. Often the characters become their words. I’m walking around my room with my yellow pad reading things out loud, becoming the character. It may sound odd, but there were long stretches where I was not thinking at all about the real people. I wanted to have the freedom as an artist to interpret them. I had a general rule that nobody on stage, no version of a real person, said things that were diametrically opposed to what I understood to be the beliefs—intellectual, moral, emotional—of the real person. But for a lot of them, I purposely didn’t listen to their voices because I wanted the sound, the rhythm, to be the way it needs to be on stage, in order to tell the story.”
Perhaps as a result, some of the theatrical portrayals may surprise those familiar with the characters’ real-life counterparts. (Yossi Beilin, Israeli deputy foreign minister at the time, is known in Israel for being soft-spoken to a fault—a far cry from the brash politician written by Rogers and performed by Adam Dannheisser.) While I found this initially distracting, I soon began to appreciate the remove; with little to no emphasis placed on impersonation, there is more room for humor, and for drama. I certainly doubt that the real Rød-Larsen has the manic, even madcap, presence of Jefferson Mays, or is as prone to slapstick. Mays handily steals the show. Jennifer Ehle as his wife and Michael Aronov as Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Uri Savir also deliver stand-out performances.
The first Israelis to establish diplomatic contacts with Palestinians in Oslo did so initially with only the most tacit approval of the Israeli government (such official contact was illegal at the time and plausible deniability reigned supreme). Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins), both professors of economics from the University of Haifa, are portrayed as bumbling and mild-mannered; Ben Brantley called them “Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-ish.” Their Palestinian counterparts, the PLO officials Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi) and Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), are perhaps more prone to rhetorical flourishes but are similarly anonymous to all but the most avid Israel-Palestine watchers. These are not Great Men of History, by any stretch—yet their efforts were instrumental in ending a decades-long impasse, at least temporarily. I asked Rogers if he thought theater was particularly good at shifting the spotlight to history’s forgotten figures.
“When I was growing up,” Rogers said, “Tip O’Neill, who was speaker of the House of Representatives, was famous for saying that all politics is local. From a playwright’s perspective, I feel like all politics is personal. They’re not the Great Men of History—they’re sort of the people the next one down, because I have more freedom to invent and show the struggles these people are going through. You can’t believably show Rabin or Arafat slipping on a banana peel and falling on their face. And you need that in a play, or at least that possibility. But the first thing for me, more than whether it’s the story of the king or the commoner who is the engine of history, is how I can get into a story about people, what their parents are like, what their shoes look like, real things that actual people are like. Rather than the abstract way we speak about history in a non-theatrical context, it all becomes specific.”
The larger-than-life, ambitious actors on the world stage hold particular appeal for Rogers, he said. “You can use a level of language and ideas that won’t be as believable if everybody in the play is a gas-station attendant, or my son and his friends sitting on the porch. They’re not really verbally getting into complex, meaty issues. So these things excite me as a playwright. I’m always looking for characters that give me a license to let people rip.”
When Oslo premiered in mid-2016, one could be forgiven for thinking that prospects for peace could not get much worse. The region was still recovering from the “Knife Intifada.” There had never been a more right-wing Israeli government or so cowardly a Palestinian government. But, for doves, there was room for hope. Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president who was foreign minister during the Oslo days and one of the few remaining outspoken proponents of the peace process, was still alive (Daniel Oreskes portrays him briefly on stage). Another Clinton presidency seemed all but imminent, guaranteeing at the very least a continued American commitment to the principles of mutual recognition set out in the Oslo Accords and ratified by that handshake on the White House lawn, which was shepherded into existence by the man who was to be, in an alternate universe, future first gentleman.
But last September, Peres suffered a massive stroke and soon died, at 93. In November came the United States elections, and in January, a new American president, whose closest foreign-policy advisers (including his designated ambassador to Israel) view the two-state solution as anathema. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state,” Trump said, “and I like the one that both parties like.”
What is the relevance of Oslo today, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Mahmoud Abbas and President Donald Trump? I asked Rogers. “I can only answer that now because I’ve seen the play with an audience,” he said. “In the writing of the play, I try not to include commentary. If it’s about politics, and I’m trying to address the current moment, it’ll make the play far weaker. What’s fascinating is that after we opened at Lincoln Center there was a profound response from the audience about how this play is about our political moment during the election year in the United States—about people who are enemies trying to find a way to connect with each other. That was completely unintended, but it makes total sense. I have to trust that if I write the play as deeply as I can, that it will have all these other resonances.”
If nothing else, Oslo reaffirms the old maxim about truth being stranger than fiction. (Rogers assured me that the play’s most bizarre moments really happened: “You can’t make these things up! It’s manna from heaven as a playwright.”) Ultimately, though, applying the tools of drama to real-life events afforded Rogers the freedom to tell a good story. “The writing of a play is like putting on a mask; you create a level of remove from real events,” he said. “In a weird, alchemic way, you can grapple with things that are life and death, and thrilling, in a way you can’t do with journalism or nonfiction because in the play you’re not trying to prove a point or to argue a case. You’re trying to wrestle with the things that befuddle you, with the questions you’re haunted by, ones that maybe other people will be fascinated by as well. You have to tell a good story. Everything else comes after that. If the audience isn’t asking constantly, ‘And then what happens next? And then what happens next?’ then everything else is moot.”
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Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.