Plays for Our Times: "Oslo," by J.T. Rogers

Plays for Our Times: "Oslo," by J.T. Rogers
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First in a series, Plays for Our Times

What does the 2,500-year-old art of the Drama have to say to our tumultuous times, the early 21st century? With the weakening of the post-World War II international order---institutional bulwarks have failed to protect the individual against the ravages of a globalized economy and unending armed conflict; democracy’s spread has been checked by ineffective leadership, resurgent populism and nationalism, and the threat of authoritarianism---our times as a consequence are marked by extreme polarization, loss of identity, disillusion, anger. And, sadly, culture---film, TV, books, also drama---does not offer much in the way of tools to counter the political chaos. In both politics and culture, the rational gives way to the irrational, the civil gives way to the angry.

This series will examine plays, both from the canon as well as more recent efforts, that reflect these forces at work in our tumultuous times and, importantly, point the way to what the Roman poet Virgil called “the upper air.” Modern drama is big on pathology and dysfunction, this writer-playwright is not. This series features protagonists pursuing what once upon a time were described as noble ends; at the least, they try to control the chaos, not exploit it or give in to it. See also my series, Books for Our Times.

“Oslo,” by J.T. Rogers (world premiere, March 2017)

“Oslo” is a play about possibility: the possibility that enemies, if brought together and enabled to see each other as human beings, can become, if not friends, then at least incapable of shooting each other when they return home.

Here, the most intractable of enemies in modern times---the Israelis and the Palestinians---are brought together by Norwegian diplomats, a husband-and-wife team, to forge the so-called “Oslo Channel,” the back-channel negotiations that ultimately led to the ground-breaking Oslo Accords, signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the White House Rose Garden in 1993.

Playwright J.T. Rogers has taken a real-life event---with the real-life representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian sides and with the real-life Norwegian diplomats, Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, serving as our Virgils---and, with keen dramatic clarity, imagined what it was like at the negotiating table, as well as all the maneuvering required to get the parties back into the room when one or the other side walks out.

While the Oslo Accords ultimately collapsed---Rabin’s assassination two years later by a Zionist extremist ushered in a right-wing government and more Israeli settlements in disputed territory; the Palestinians resumed mounting intifadas against Israel and elected the radical Hamas organization to leadership---what Oslo accomplished was historic. That is, for the first time ever the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized the legitimacy of the state of Israel; for the first time ever Israel recognized the P.L.O., ultimately upgraded to the Palestinian Authority, as the representative of the Palestinian people; and both sides agreed to resolve their differences peacefully.

In essence, then, the Oslo process is about getting human beings to recognize each other’s humanity. As such, it is the very stuff of drama, and “Oslo” takes it to high heights, while inflecting the drama with the quirks and humor that human beings display as they desperately seek their objectives. Peace accords entail lots of drama.

In dozens of short scenes, interspersed with lengthier ones, Rogers deftly knits together nine months of complex diplomatic history. Mona Juul acts as both calming influence on the talks and narrator of this complex history, often with droll humor. Showing, in the first scene, how she and Terje persuaded their foreign minister to host the talks, and noting how the foreign minister is married to a colleague of Terje’s at the research institute Terje founded, she says in an aside, “In Norway we take nepotism to an entirely new level. It’s a very small country and we think and behave as such.” Also Norway has something the biggest player, the U.S., can never have: “the appearance of neutrality.”

It is Terje’s vision and method, however, that are key. At important junctures, he reminds all that in chaos comes opportunity: “The grip of history is loosening. The Berlin Wall has just fallen; the Soviet Empire, disbanded.” And: “The world is cracking open. All I am saying is to think about new possibilities. Imagine what can be achieved now!” And when the murder of an Israeli border guard by a Palestinian threatens to disrupt the talks: “I know, it’s tragic, but these are perfect conditions for progress. The desperation they are feeling, on both sides, this is our ally.”

As to method, Terje advocates the gradualist over the totalist method, where all sides to a conflict bring all their demands to the table, the method the Americans prefer (the overbearing Americans come in for sly jabbing). With the gradualist method, adversaries focus on a single issue, resolve it, then move on to the next issue, as they build a bond of trust. (Johnny Walker whiskey also helps.) It’s when Terje persuades Israel’s deputy foreign minister of the validity of his method that the play’s action commences. Their plan: These back-channel talks are to supplement, like “a tributary,” the totalist-oriented main channel conducted by the Americans, though the Americans can’t ever know about Oslo’s back-channel. What could go wrong?

The bulk of the play shows how all that can go wrong, does: intransigent parties, offense taken and apology demanded, constant power plays between and among the parties, leaks to the press, the Americans finding out---at a diplomatic reception an American diplomat calls out to Terje, “How are the secret negotiations going?”---and disruptive life disrupting with its tragedies (incidents of Israeli or Palestinian deaths swallowing the headlines).

But “Oslo” makes the case that watching ice thawing can be fascinating. The parties arrive with roles already cast: the Israelis as occupiers, the Palestinians as terrorists. Both parties know that, if they fail, they become targets for the extremists on their sides, notably the Israelis for daring to deal with an organization declared by Israel (and much of the world) as a terrorist organization, the P.L.O. The stakes could not be higher, success could not be more chimerical.

The first exchange does not go well: When an Israeli mentions the weather at home, the lead Palestinian says: “I have not been home since 1967 when every man, woman, and child in my village was forced to flee our homeland before the advancing hordes of Zionism.” Things go better when one of the Palestinians and one of the Israelis, getting personal, discover they both have daughters named Maya. As the two diplomats know, though, “When you unleash the personal, the Furies can come out.” (The Furies can come out in totalist discussions, too, but never mind.)

Proceeding gradually, getting personal, the parties make headway on their base demands---the Palestinians’ demand for dignity, the Israelis’ demand for security. But of course demands for dignity and security run into endless sticking points. When, at a very late point, it seems all will founder, Mona makes her own demand of both parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians---and speaks for the entire world:

“Listen to me. You have fought each other---killed each other---for fifty years. Your mothers and daughters and sons have died, and nothing has changed. The world has washed its hands of this conflict, because they do not believe you can change. No one else is coming to help you. So it is up to you. Stay in this room and find a way forward.”

The way forward is found, again, then bogs down, again. Enter, at long last, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, consummate diplomat, to remind the Israeli party: “What we must not do is allow the details to obscure the bigger picture.” To the shock of his countrymen, he states that Israel needs the P.L.O.: “Well I don’t love them either, but when I look at the alternatives, I become very romantic.” Finally, when the Palestinians’ demand for a presence in Jerusalem looks to collapse the talks once and for all, Peres points the way: “In the name of….constructive ambiguity....we will accept that in the final stage of further negotiations, the future of Jerusalem will be addressed.” What a curtain line: “constructive ambiguity.” Reaching peace---an objective neither of the parties ever expected in their lifetimes---leaves stunned joy.

With the play’s action coursing ahead---the point is the process---there is scant time for deep character development or soliloquys, just short speeches. (The play is set to become a film.) A factual quibble: Mao Tse-tung is given credit for saying “It’s too soon to tell” if the French Revolution was successful. It was Mao’s Foreign Minister, Zhou En-lai.

Again, while the Oslo Accords ultimately did collapse---over issues that had to go unaddressed in the back-channel talks: the Palestinians’ right of return, the growth of Israeli settlements, Jerusalem (here, here, and here)---it is encouraging to know that, with the right method and the right vision, the road to peace can be trod again. Especially in these tumultuous times, believing that chaos presents opportunity could be life-saving.

In his Foreword to the script, Rogers says he looks to tell stories “that are framed against great political rupture.” Thus his choice (and mine) of protagonists: “complicated, articulate people driven to achieve something far greater than themselves.” In Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, he found them.

Though they would insist the parties to the peace talks were the real protagonists, Terje and Mona meet the “but for” test: But for them, the main action---the Oslo Channel and the Oslo Accords---would not have happened. Their journey began one year before the action of the play took place, when in Gaza they encountered an Israeli soldier in face-off with a Palestinian, both no more than boys. Stung by the hatred and fear in the eyes of both, Terje and Mona decided to act: “Would you not try anything to give those two boys a different narrative?”

These protagonists give us two gifts: a different narrative---hopeful, human, non-dystopian---and they point the way to peace accords happening again.

“Oslo,” which won the 2017 Tony award for best play, has extended its Broadway run until July 16, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. For reviews of the play, see here, here, and here. For the “Charlie Rose” interview with the playwright, director Bartlett Sher, actor Jennifer Ehle who plays Mona, and Terje Rod-Larsen himself, see here. “Oslo” will transfer to London, to the National Theatre, later this year. The script is available from Theatre Communications Group. For my review of Rogers’ play, “Blood and Gifts,” titled “Why Can’t Art Be Instructive?,” see here.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, has published “Two Plays of Life and Death,” which include “Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks” and “Kate and Kafka,” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.” Her latest book of commentary is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.”

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