If you are reading this blog what I am about to say will not be a surprise: over the July 4th weekend, the Sunday matinee to be precise, President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton attended a performance of Oslo. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Lincoln Center Theater website, this news won’t be news: at last count, the ABC News clip of the Clintons entering the Vivian Beaumont Theater to enthusiastic applause has racked up 1.5 million views.
For details that can reasonably be made public about the Clintons’ visit, I spoke with J.T. Rogers, the author of Oslo, who said that he learned about the attendance a few weeks ago. “It was supposed to be super-secret,” Rogers said, “but these things have a way of leaking out. Officially speaking, André” – André Bishop, the producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater – “made the announcement to the cast and crew backstage a half-hour before the performance.”
“The couple were brought in with no fanfare,” Rogers continued, “with the Secret Service behind them. You could see a ripple effect, but since they entered just before the curtain the audience was not yet fully aware of their presence.”
The eruption captured by that audience-member video uploaded to ABC happened as the Clintons resumed their seats after intermission. Rogers explained: "As President Clinton comes down the aisle, he sees me – I was seated with my wife, Rebecca -- and, as if were old friends who’d just bumped into each other on the beach, said, ‘It’s really, really good, and I have a lot of questions.’ He was very charming. And energetic, which was astonishing considering that he’d literally just arrived back that day in New York after speaking at the funeral in Germany of Helmut Kohl.” Rogers added: “I spent much of the performance watching the audience watch the Clintons watch the stage. It was meta beyond meta. Also thrilling.”
The production’s visual climax arrives toward the end, with giant rear-wall footage of President Clinton facilitating the historic handshake, in 1993, in the White House Rose Garden, between Arafat and Rabin. When that moment arrived onstage: pandemonium! “The audience leapt to their feet,” Rogers said, “and turned to the Clintons and started roaring. The actors applauded from the stage. It went on for two or three minutes. In all my years of theatergoing, I’ve never experienced anything like it.” It was left to Jennifer Ehle, who plays the diplomat Mona Juul, to resume the story.
After the performance, the Clintons went backstage to congratulate the cast. “People mobbed them for selfies,” Rogers said. “And all the crew guys wanted to meet her. The Clintons planned to stay a few minutes but ended up backstage for around twenty.”
The meet-and-greet over, a group including the Clintons, J.T. and Rebecca, Sher, Bishop, and friends of the Clintons, repaired to Lincoln restaurant across the plaza from LCT for further discussion. Most of what they said during a lively three-hour meal is off-the-record. What can be revealed: whether President Clinton knew about the back channel the play dramatizes. “He told me that of course he knew,” Rogers said. “But it was not something that could be revealed as soon as he learned it. Diplomacy requires secrecy.”
The Oslo production will move to London in September, for a run at the Royal National Theatre preliminary to an engagement on the West End. Sher will direct. The entire cast, which begins rehearsing at the end of this month, will be new. How will London audiences react? “It’s impossible to predict,” Rogers said. “Who could have foretold the change in audience response from last summer, when we were in the Newhouse, to this summer when, post-election, people are so hungry for hope? A year ago, I thought I had written a play about Israel and Palestine. Now, it’s also about Democrats and Republicans. And I have not changed a single word in that direction.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.