One day in late 2011, as J.T. Rogers’ Afghanistan-set play Blood and Gifts was in rehearsal at LCT, the director Bartlett Sher invited the Norwegian sociologist Terje-Rod Larsen, then as now the president of the International Peace Institute, to speak to the cast. “I was late for his talk,” Rogers told me the other day, in the same rehearsal room. “I arrived about midway through.”
The tardiness had no discernible effect on Larsen’s opinion of Rogers. “After the rehearsal,” said the playwright, “he told me he was very interested in talking with me.” It didn’t take long before Larsen sprang a surprise. “He said that he had been waiting years for someone to tell a story that involved him and his wife” – the Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul -- “and the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the PLO. And he had decided that I was that person.”
Rogers follows national and international politics avidly, but he had no idea that, other than the location of the talks, Norway was involved in the historic agreement. “I had watched the Rose Garden ceremony on TV that had President Clinton, ShimonPeres, and Yasser Arafat,” Rogers said. “But I didn’t remember anything Norwegian about it.”
Rogers responded immediately to Larsen’s suggestion. “I had been wanting to write about the Israelis and Palestinians for years,” the playwright said. “But I hadn’t found the right story. You can’t just rehash well-known history.” Larsen and Juul’s story – how they facilitated small-group talks between PLO officials and Israeli academics and officials – offered the advantage of being little-known but it also presented a potential trap. “You have to let both sides speak and not just write parallel propaganda speeches,” Rogers said.
Another potential peril: crafting characters based on people who are, in many cases, still living. “I had to draw a line and say that Terje and Mona couldn’t read my play.” The couple agreed. “Luckily, they understand the nature of creativity,” Rogers said.
Rogers also made a decision not to meet other players in the story while the composition was in progress. “I wanted to make sure it would be ‘my’ Shimon Peres, and, in general, my version of these people and their story filtered through my sensibility.” Whenever Rogers wonders or worries what the real-life people will think when they see Oslo, he sometimes reminds himself “that I’m presenting all of them as a younger and perhaps sexier version of themselves. I mean, who doesn’t want to see yourself like that?”
As to the accuracy of his version of the Oslo talks, Rogers said that “the lively, sometimes even crazy stuff in the play is mostly true.” Such liveliness was a help to his insistence that this drama be enjoyable. “I had to be a little cheeky. I knew from the beginning that this would be a fun play.” He added: “When we are talking about explosive, complex issues, we as an audience want to enjoy ourselves as we are learning things.”
That strategy – leavening pain with humor – was perfected by the English language’s master dramatist. “When we were doing Blood and Gifts,” Rogers said, “Jefferson Mays” – who was in that play and is in Oslo – “made a reference one day to ‘your Shakespeare-style history play.’ In all those history plays, Shakespeare asks himself: how do I show power in action?” In Oslo, Rogers went on, Peres is a kind of king, as is, more indirectly, Arafat.
Is the story of how Peres, who is still alive, and Arafat, who is not, and how they came together in 1993, still resonant? Yes, Rogers said. “It’s true that there is no Islamist threat in the play, and Saudi Arabia and Iran were not playing the same-size role in the region as they are now.”
But, Rogers maintained, “as the drama in the Middle East becomes scarier and scarier today, the story of a small group of people trying to change the paradigm seems to me more and more relevant.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.