J.T. ROGERS — OSLO — 2017
Politics used directly on a stage as a subject for a play or an opera is quite common. It is known as agitprop in many cases where the objective is to move the audience into action. That was used a lot in Germany in the 1920–30s. It was loved in the USSR after the Bolshevik revolution, with some attempts before. After the Second World War, in the USA that type of drama developed a lot especially with operas by John Adams. I will call three titles: 1987 Nixon in China, 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer, 2005 Doctor Atomic. In the same line but fictionalized we have Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. This play by J.T. Rogers is both in that tradition and yet different. It not only pretends to cover particular totally confidential historic events but it also pretends it is the truth about how it happened. The subject being the end of the first Intifada and the recognition of PLO by Israel on September 13, 1993 and the meeting on that occasion of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in Washington DC.
The play though can only claim to cover some secret negotiations leading to an international agreement and a temporary solution to a conflict. We cannot in anyway consider this is precisely what happened. The places and the people are probably correct but their feelings, their reactions, their way to behave can only be the result of the creative and mental reconstruction by the author. This means we cannot analyze this play as if it were some historical document, but only as what it is: a play written by someone who was not a direct witness of these totally secret events. The author knows about it since the final meeting of the two leaders in Washington DC is given as a real document: the real TV coverage at the time. It means that apart from this final true TV coverage of a true historical and historic event, all the rest has to be analyzed as a play and nothing else.
A Norwegian couple plus the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway are the main intermediaries and intercessors, at times nothing but facilitators. It is both surprising and interesting to see what the author considers as the good behavior of such facilitators. Norway provides the secluded totally secure meeting place away from everything and at the same time vast and comfortable, enabling distance and meeting spaces, isolation of anyone or any ones if necessary and closed door meetings. The intercessors are not supposed to take part in the discussions and meetings between the representatives of the two sides. They provide the delegates with secrecy, comfort and all they can request, telephones, copiers, typing machines and secretaries (I guess, because it is not mentioned), food, drinks, cigars, etc. Note at this level the play insists a lot on the very heavy consumption of Scotch or Whisky by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. In one scene some characters are said to be practically drunk, which is banal for the Jews but surprising for the Muslims, if of course the Palestinians are Muslims, since a fair proportion of Palestinians are Christians. Yasser Arafat’s wife and now widow is from a Roman Catholic family. Since there is no indication about this fact, we, I mean the audience, assume that the Palestinian representatives are Muslims, which might very well be wrong, though assuming the Israeli representatives are Jewish is of course absolutely true.
The play asserts it is just enough to bring people who are enemies, hate one another, refuse to even look at one another, together in the same room for a miracle to happen, and the play heavily asserts that miraculous development. Over and over again it is repeated the progress in the meeting, in the discussions, in the document to be produced and eventually in the agreement to be accepted by both sides is miraculous because it could not be foreseen. I frankly disapprove this vision. The objective was to make the two sides come to some kind of agreement because the Intifada was going on. There was a desire at least if not a resolution on both sides to settle some of the numerous accounts between the Palestinians and the Israelis, between the PLO and Israel. Difficult for sure but the will to reach some kind of agreement must have existed on both sides.
I have witnessed in Sri Lanka in 2005 and then during the last round of civil war how the Norwegians were unable to bring peace because they were used by the Tamil Tigers or LTTE to save time during which they could bring more weapons into Sri Lanka and prepare for some open military action if necessary, and for the Tamil Tigers there was no alternative. They were speaking double entendre all the time. It took some time for Rajapaksa to get out of the restraint these talks officially put on Sri Lanka and get rid of the terroristic LTTE that was unwilling to accept peace in cooperation. That kind of intercession could not succeed because at least one side if not maybe both did not want to yield on their basic belief: independence for LTTE and unity for the Colombo government. In July 2005 the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka was assassinated by LTTE in his home in Colombo because he was a Tamil that defended the necessary unity of the country.
At the same time, and I must say the play is slightly naïve and discreet about this fact, the role played by the USA in the Middle East in general, in Israel in particular and in Palestine at the same time thouogh slightly behind if not under Israel, is not really depicted. It is asserted that for the USA the Middle East is their private backyard or something of the sort. This has always been true after the Second World War. The last time the English or the French tried something in Suez in 1956, the USA intervened diplomatically to stop it. The French and the English are tolerated there. The play ends in 1993. Luckily indeed. But yet it does not allude to the situation in Iran and the support of Iran to Hezbollah or Hamas. But we all know the heavy defeat in Iran, Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. No allusion to the first Gulf war (1990–1991). No allusion to the war between Iraq and Iran (1980–1988). The Palestinians were not alone and the Israelis were not alone. Both sides were in an international context that pushed towards an agreement. The Israelis showed they were ready to negotiate and make an effort to cool down some war-minded neighbors. The Palestinians showed they were ready to recognize the International community and to accept the existence of Israel, even maybe the legitimacy of Israel.
These missing elements in the context in 2017 when the insane policy of invading Afghanistan and then Iraq revealed the USA did not realize the world was one and they could not do what they wanted just because they wanted it and could simply called French fries Liberty fries for them to be right and to win. And in 2017 the play then becomes a manifesto against any military processing of the Middle East situation. When Mosul is down and when Raqqa is down a settlement will have to be found and some new actors have to be taken into account, Iran of course, but also Russia and China. In two years or so the New Silk Road will reach Iran through Pakistan (avoiding the more direct route through Afghanistan) and be ready to jump into Turkey and Europe through territories populated with Kurds and covering four countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). The Kurds are going to be the great victors of the present war against ISIS. Only the USSR recognized the Kurds from 1923 to 1930. After that period Stalin deported the Kurds to various other republics like Georgia or Kazakhstan. There is supposed to be some Kurds in Azerbaijan. It is obvious that in 1993 the situation was easier for Israel and the Palestinians because of the fall of the USSR which was a very strong supporter of Yasser Arafat and PLO. There are only three of four allusions to the famous Lumumba University in Moscow. This context will never exist again. The next stage of the negotiations, if any, in Palestine will be a lot more difficult though the USA being little by little forced to recognize they are no longer what they used to be, it might not be as difficult as we may think.
And yet we do not know what role China will decide to play there, and “if any” is not even an option with the following news: “China’s new type of domestically-built destroyer, a 10,000-tonne warship, is seen during its launching ceremony at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, China June 28, 2017. REUTERS/China Stringer Network.”
That leads me to concluding that the play is interesting though it requires a very dynamic and flexible stage production, but all the stakes of the historical situation are far from being considered both in 1993 and in 2017.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU