Walking the tightrope between war and peace

A review of Oslo by J. T. Rogers

One of the watershed moments in Middle East history came in September 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat grasped each other’s hands before a beaming President Clinton after signing the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements. The agreement, better known as the Oslo Accords, demonstrated that what was deemed impossible—the possibility of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet and agree on a peace deal—was in fact possible. But the road to that dais on the White House was a story unto itself. As proof that sometimes real life makes the best drama, the Oslo Accords is now the subject of the drama Oslo by J. T. Rogers, and now the latest winner of the Tony for Best Play. 

Rabin, Arafat and Clinton make no appearances in the play. The story rests on the real heroes of the day, Norwegian career diplomats named Terje (pronounced TIE-yuh) Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul. Rogers comments in his notes that he did not intend Oslo to be a documentary history, but neither did he change the story for dramatic purposes. Rod-Larsen and Juul really did make overtures to both the Palestinians and the Israeli to begin an ‘unofficial’ channel towards peace without telling those involved in the official negociations, the Israeli side really was represented at first by two university economics professors with no official status and both sides really did take the time to understand each other as human beings before starting the process. Rogers comments that he set out to capture the spirit of the talks and his staging eschews stage breaks, utilizes overlapping dialogue and collapses spaces to fully focus on the tension each character feels over the magnitude of what they are doing. This approach also gives the characters a real chance to shine. Rod-Larsen and Juul are most interesting, drawn as professionals who are simply going about doing their job with their usual sense of humor, only occasionally betraying the steely determination and brinkmanship the accords demanded.

There are no grand speeches, no long sections of exposition—Rogers manages to convey emotions, personalities and background facts with an economy of words. Perhaps surprising, there’s quite a bit of humor, and while I doubt that that one perilous moment in the process was saved by the light, fluffy waffles of the Norwegian housekeeper in residence, it’s believable that Rod-Larsen and Juul would use all their bargaining assets in an effort to keep the talks afloat. 

Plays are always better seen rather than read, but Oslo can come to life on the page. In the absence of a local staged production (soon to be remedied, one hopes), reading it is the next best thing. Although the Oslo Accords did not bring lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, it did prove that two parties with every reason to hate each other could sit down and find common ground—a lesson that maybe means more today than ever before.