In 1993 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat, shook hands at the White House at the signing ceremony of the Oslo Peace Accords. The impossible had happened.
“[Sometimes it’s] easier to do the impossible than the possible,” says Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian diplomat who conceived the negotiation process that led to the handshake on the lawn and who now serves as the president of the International Peace Institute. In the 1990s, his wife Mona Juul (a foreign affairs official) had been posted to Cairo and befriended Arafat’s brother. Rød-Larsen worked for FAFO, a research institute that had him studying the living conditions in Gaza. Seeing the fear and anxiety in both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth, Rød-Larsen and Juul saw a problem worth solving.
But, Rød-Larsen noticed a disinterest to do something challenging in the diplomatic world at the time.
Perhaps Rød-Larsen’s willingness to seize a challenge is what made playwright J.T. Rogers, now a Tony nominee for Oslo, the right match to condense the history and intensity of the five-months-long covert peace process.
Lincoln Center Theater’s Oslo is a titanic force of a play. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it roars by like a jet engine on a fairway. But how did Rogers, and his Tony-nominated director Bartlett Sher, make a thriller out of a history lesson?
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“I’m trying to look for situations [as a playwright] where the ideas people are fighting about, they are willing to die for,” says Rogers. The life-and-death stakes for these peoples elevate his work to edge-of-your-seat action. “That transports it out of academia and into Shakespeare—the lessons of Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare is an apt comparison; Oslo is drama, not documentary, and that was always Rogers’ intention. Just as Rød-Larsen’s peace process focused on personal relationships, Rogers honed in on his characters. “The political act for me as a writer is just to continually, abominably work to expand the scope, in terms of humanity we get to see on the American stage,” says the playwright. “We’re liberated from having to be right.”
Still, Rød-Larsen says the play portrays the true spirit of the back channel negotiations that put everyone’s lives—politically and literally—at risk.
First Look at Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays in Oslo on Broadway
Still, peace in the Middle East is a touchy subject and New York audiences lug their opinions to their seats. A play exposing the merits and misdeeds of both Israelis and Palestinians was risky. But Rogers felt no need to balance every merit on one side with one on the other. His version of equanimity derived “not from a PC or political point of view,” he says, “but because interesting theatre, funny, moving, gripping theatre is when everybody onstage is right.”
In this comese the enlightenment of Oslo. “A tragedy is not a wrong and a right, a tragedy is two rights,” he continues. “This play is not a tragedy, it’s a thriller with a lot of humor and heart, but that structure to me is always the best for a playwright.
“It’s a musical comedy without songs,” Rogers urges. “It’s funny, it’s entertaining, it’s surprising! Trust me!”