A historian, Leopold von Ranke wrote, should reconstruct the archives to tell history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, “how it really was.” A dramatist of a historical episode need only show how it really works as a drama. In theory, at least, because only an ignoramus could watch a historical drama and not know or wonder about how its events really were.
J. T. Rogers’s Oslo dramatizes the secret talks that led to Israel and the PLO publicly agreeing in 1994 to have more talks. This talking is known as the Oslo Process, after the city in which it began, or the Peace Process, though it produced more processing than peace, and eventually a war of suicide bombings and counter-terrorism. Still, Oslo was widely praised upon its debut at the Lincoln Center Theater in June 2016, and won a Tony for Best Play. Oslo was praised again after transferring to London’s National Theatre in September 2017, and is running to the end of the year at the Pinter Theatre.
The Pinter Theatre is named for the late Harold Pinter, who, after a promising start as a playwright, found his métier as Anglo-Jewry’s top anti-Zionist. The Pinter Theatre used to be the Royal Comedy Theatre; in 1925, Noel Coward played here in The Vortex, understudied by John Gielgud. The real Oslo Process attempted to resolve a tragedy, but fell into diplomatic farce and a vortex of violence. The dramatic Oslo plays it for laughs, and edits out the historical punchline, the blackest of historical humors. Talking aside, the Oslo Process turned into a premise for war.
Oslo begins and ends with the exhortations of the Norwegian sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens). A tour of the Middle East, and his connections to the Norwegian foreign ministry through his diplomat wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) have convinced Rød-Larsen that he can reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. “We have what the U.S. can never have,” he tells her. “The appearance of neutrality.” The obvious objections are dismissed: “You make peace with the people who bomb your markets and buses.”
These days, that sentence tends to carry a question mark. But this was the early Nineties, that Fukuyaman interlude when the United States looked set to impose the Kantian end state on global politics. Arafat and the PLO had lost their funding with the fall of the Soviet Union. Shimon Peres and the Israeli Left expected a New Middle East of open borders and the consensual prostration of lions with lambs. Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, saw the Islamist storm on the horizon, and saw the merit in negotiating with the secular terrorists of the PLO. All these crises and opportunities encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to accept Rød-Larsen’s invitations to secret talks in a country hotel near Oslo.
The best parts of Oslo are its tense reconstructions of the negotiations. These are also the worst parts of Oslo, too, because the tension is dissipated and trivialized by the repertoire of the country house farce. Toby Stephens plays Rød-Larsen as a Foreign Office chap with a three-piece suit and a plummy English accent. He explains a visit to Arafat’s headquarters at Tunis in the manner of Noel Coward: “For a blood-stained terrorist, he’s terribly charming.” When the negotiators walk out, Rød-Larssen works the phones desperately like Basil Fawlty. In a further echo of Fawlty Towers, the negotiators are physically at each other’s throats like Basil and Manuel when they are interrupted by the arrival of some German tourists.
This is unfortunate, because Rogers’s script efficiently dramatizes the conflict of national narratives, as well as the rewards of the human relationships fostered by “gradualism,” Rød-Larsen’s patented negotiating style. Rogers also shows that Rød-Larsen frequently lied to each side about the other side’s intentions, and to Norway’s foreign minister Johan Jørgen Holst. When PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurei (Peter Polycarpou) asks Rød-Larsen to “swear on the soul of your wife” that the Israelis are about to upgrade their representatives at the Oslo talks to governmental level, Rød-Larsen obliges.
Events fall in his favor, the Israelis upgrade their representatives, and the talks move on. But the bad faith and deceptions accumulate. Qurei develops a warm relationship with Uri Savir (Philip Arditti), but lies to everyone when he excuses himself in order to consult with Arafat by phone whenever a tough question arises. It turns out that he has made no calls, and has been bluffing. So has Rød-Larsen, who believes that “the risks are worth it because if you succeed, you will change the world.”
The risks were also worth it for Rød-Larsen and his fellow Norwegians because they only got their fingers burnt by trying to Scandinavianize the career terrorists of the PLO. Large numbers of Israelis and Arabs lost their lives in the war that was Arafat’s Oslo exit strategy. When he was cornered, whether in Beirut or at Camp David, Arafat used the strategy of alhurub ila al-amam, “escape by running forward.” This was Rød-Larsen’s strategy for the Oslo talks too. Unfortunately, he encouraged the parties to run forward into a bloodbath.
Oslo the drama ends with a recitation of the events that derailed the possibility of processing towards peace, including the killing of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fanatic, and the bombing of buses in Tel Aviv by Hamas. Yet Oslo does not mention perhaps the most important event of all. The talks kept going. What killed the Oslo Process was Arafat’s refusal to honor his word, and complete a peace deal at Camp David with Bill Clinton and Ehud Barack in September 2000. Instead, Arafat escaped by running forward into the Second Intifada. The PLO competed with Hamas in the dispatch of suicide bombers and the rhetoric of Islamism. Rogers shows us that Rød-Larsen was lying when he was not dreaming. But why not tell us the whole truth, when it is no less dramatic than historical? Perhaps Rogers was thinking less of his material’s potential than his audience’s sentiments. Such are the costs of compromise and “even-handedness.”
As the blood-dimmed tide rises, Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen are the last two people on the stage. She admits she is “struggling to know if what we did was right.” Rød-Larsen admits no doubts. “Do not look at where we are. Look behind you, see how far we have come,” he declares. The last man standing exhorts us to imagine “the possibility” of peace. Of course, here the audience applauds its own profound imagination; it is easy to imagine the possibility of peace in a theater, and gratuitously gratifying, too. But Rød-Larsen looks anything but heroic. He seems delusional and dangerous, a fireman setting further fires: Larsen of Arabia.
The truth, at least from the von Ranke perspective, is that the Oslo concept was fundamentally flawed—fatally overconfident about the triumph of liberalism and markets in the Middle East, fatally naive about the intransigence of the Islamists and the corruption of the PLO, and daftly trustful in the chronic liar Arafat. The curious thing about Oslo on stage is that, for all its dramatic license and evasions, it inadvertently confirms the historical truth. This is demonstrably not Rogers’s intention, or the intentions of the cast: the desperate comedy with which Oslo tries to writhe out of its own impasses proves that. Still, the truth will come out, especially in a play not quite good enough to repress it.
Oslo can be seen at the Pinter Theatre, London until December 30, 2017.