The 1993 negotiations that finally led to the Oslo agreement, a comedy of errors whose decline and fall had not taken too many analysts too much time to predict, is now being re-enacted on the stage in Washington.
All men are aware of the tragedy, and, over the centuries, projections of it in the Euramerican theatre, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, Jean-Baptiste Moliere to Bertolt Brecht, and Tennessee Williams to Harold Pinter, have been starkly insightful of the human condition. But representation of tragedy on a public stage, what we call drama, is distinctive to the western literary tradition. Up until recently in history, dramatising human tribulation remained alien to the Arab people’s sense of the world, for it was to poets, not playwrights, that Arabs turned to see how their habits of spirit were voiced.
True, Palestinians may see the Oslo agreement as a comedy of errors, but it is not of the kind that usually elicits merriment or knee-slapping laughter. Oslo brought them no respite from subjugation. Their irremediable suffering never ceased, their wounds never healed and their broken spirit never mended.
But how do Americans see this putatively historic accord?
Well, the celebrated American playwright J.T. Rogers has something to say about that. His play, Oslo, based on the efforts by the Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul and her husband, politician and sociologist Terj Larson, to bring (naive) Palestinian negotiators and (well-meaning) Israeli peaceniks together in back-channel talks that finally culminated in the Oslo agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel, is now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre in downtown Washington, where I live — and I went to see it last Sunday.
The play — a dark comedy, at times a riveting political thriller — is a dramatised, partially fictionalised version of the encounter of these Palestinians and Israelis in the woods outside the Norwegian capital. It first premiered in June 2016, then transferred to Broadway in April the following year, and later still to London, where it opened at the National Theatre, one of the United Kingdom’s three prominent, publicly-funded performing arts venues (alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House). En route, it won many awards (perhaps too many), including a Tony for Best Play at the 71st annual Tony Awards ceremony in June 2017.
And, yes, Oslo is indeed a dark comedy, which is also thoroughly enjoyable. But at the end of the day, given the historical, cultural and political baggage that I carry, I saw it not as a detached theatre-goer, but as a Palestinian theatre-goer, on alert to whether or not the actors on the stage, inhabiting Palestinian personae, projected a genuine summation of the energy and, above all, meaning of the Palestinian condition. In short, how Palestinians, as the injured party in their dispute with Zionism, had carried within them a kind of heaviness and fury of blood. The kind, alien to the sensibility of middle-class, middlebrow Americans comfortable behind their picket fences. In that regard, Oslo failed. At the end of the play — and looking like a fool — I was the only one in the theatre who remained seated as the audience gave the actors a standing ovation. Here’s why Oslo failed and why I chose not to join the audience, at curtain fall, in their applause for what they clearly had seen as an extraordinary performance in a widely acclaimed play.
Dramatising a true story
You see, Oslo, wonderful play on the surface, had superb text, but little relevant context. It is all well and good to dramatise a true story, even partially fictionalise it, but what is the backdrop against which that story has taken place? Without, in this case, projecting the dialectical tension that defines the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, as occupier-occupied, coloniser-colonised, you equate the privileged moral say of the victim with that of the victimiser. And in Oslo, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators appear as equals, as if the occupied victim had an equal place in the balance of power as his occupying victimiser.
Had J.T. Rogers given the former their true voice, thus recognising the asymmetry between the two, the sound of that voice would’ve so resounded throughout the theatre that the audience would’ve lowered their heads as before a gust of wind. The playwright did not give that voice echo on the stage, and thus J.T. Rogers’ effort fails at the core.
Meanwhile, if Oslo were a play where the customer’s satisfaction was guaranteed, then I’ll tell you now that I want the $78 (Dh287) I paid for my ticket back. And, yes, sorry, J.T., Tony Award or no Tony Award, your play, clocking in at nearly three hours, could’ve done with a bit of a trim and a shave.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.