'OSLO' Tells The Surprising Story Behind A Historic Handshake

Aug 6, 2016
Originally published on August 8, 2016 1:39 pm

In September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. It was an iconic moment — two mortal enemies had come to terms on a historic peace agreement.

That agreement was forged during months of secret back-channel talks in Norway. A new off-Broadway play, OSLO, looks at this little-known part of the peace process.

The most important piece of scenery in OSLO is a door: On one side, the negotiations; on the other, a husband and wife who never cross the threshold.

"You enter the story through their human point of view ..." says director Bartlett Sher. "They're your entry point."

The idea for the negotiations came from the couple — Terje Rød-Larsen was a sociologist and academic, Mona Juul was a young foreign service officer. She had been posted to Cairo, where they got to know people on both sides of the conflict.

When official talks between the parties in Washington, D.C., stalled, the couple arranged for both parties to meet secretly in Norway without the initial approval of their government.

It was "exactly the opposite way of what was done in Washington," explains Rød-Larsen, now president of the International Peace Institute. "We did not put proposals on the table. We said we would facilitate, bring the parties together, be go-between, assist them in any way, saying: It's your problem, you have to resolve it yourself. We don't want to push anything on you."

To focus on trust and personal relationships, the delegations could only have three people per side, Rød-Larsen explains. They lived in the same house, ate every meal together, and took breaks together.

"They had to live together," Rød-Larsen says.

The sociologist was testing a theory, but playwright J.T. Rogers says the story behind OSLO is anything but a dry, academic treatise.

"It was very clear that it was a thriller, because it was — the ticking clock is the dramatist's friend," Rogers says.

The actors who play the Norwegian couple, Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, say it feels like a thriller every night.

"We are continually surprised by this play; the doing of it," Mays says. "It feels like an ambush. We never know exactly what's going on or ... what's coming next. I have a copy of my script backstage at all times that I continually refer to."

"I have little cheat sheets in my pocket that tell me what's coming next," Ehle adds.

Mays says the play feels like "a wild improvisation."

OSLO is based, in part, on extensive interviews playwright J.T. Rogers did with Rød-Larsen and Juul. He wanted to explore the intersection of the personal with the political.

"The hope was to make a political play in the Greek sense of that word — a play about the public and the larger ideas about who we are, as human beings and as nations," Rogers says. "How do we go forward and how do we live, with our enemies and with ourselves?"

Director Bartlett Sher is glad OSLO depicts history in all its complexity, rather than a "Hollywood version of how this great thing was accomplished."

Sher says both he and Rogers felt they couldn't show the script to the couple ahead of time. Juul — who's the current Norwegian ambassador to the U.K. — hasn't seen the play yet, but Rød-Larsen has.

"This is not a documentary, so many of the scenes there never took place or took place in a different way ..." Rød-Larsen says. But, he believes the playwright, the director and the actors have captured the spirit of Oslo "tremendously well."

It was a spirit of optimism, Rød-Larsen says; Oslo was all about bringing the right tools and handling those tools properly. Even when problems seem unsolvable, he believes there are solutions.

"Sometimes the impossible is easier to do than the possible," Rød-Larsen says. "If you have resilience and are persistent, you can do things that nobody believes."

Critics and audiences have responded to that message; the off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center is sold-out and it was just announced that OSLO will move to Broadway next spring.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's a scene from history. Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime minister, Yasser Arafat, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, shaking hands on the White House lawn, September 1993. Two foes had come to terms on an agreement with the hope of making peace one day. That agreement was forged during months of secret back-channel talks in Norway. A new off-Broadway play looks at this little-known part of that process. It's called "OSLO." Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The most important piece of scenery in "OSLO" is a door, on one side, the negotiations, on the other, a husband and wife, who never cross the threshold.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OSLO")

JENNIFER EHLE: (As Mona Juul) Terje, people are rioting.

JEFFERSON MAYS: (As Terje Rod-Larsen) I know. It's tragic. But these are perfect conditions for progress. The desperation they're feeling on both sides; this is our ally.

BARTLETT SHER: Two people who are outsiders to the culture they're dealing with...

LUNDEN: Bartlett Sher directs "OSLO."

SHER: ...Who have belief and idealisms. And you enter the story through their human point of view on how to get this to happen. And their struggles with each other and with the problems that arise - and there, your entry point.

LUNDEN: For the audience and for the negotiations themselves, it was their idea. Terje Rod-Larsen was a sociologist and academic, Mona Juul, a young foreign service officer. She had been posted to Cairo where they got to know people on both sides of the conflict. When official talks between the parties in Washington, D.C., stalled, the couple arranged for both sides to meet secretly in Norway without the initial approval of their government. Terje Rod-Larsen is now president of the International Peace Institute.

TERJE ROD-LARSEN: We did it, in a way, exactly the opposite way of what was done in Washington. We did not put proposals on the table. We said we would facilitate, bring the parties together, be go-between, assist them in any way, saying it's your problem. You have to resolve it yourself. And number two, we said the delegations should never exceed three persons on each side because trust is dependent on personal relationships. And then, we also insisted that they should live in the same house. They should have all meals together - breakfast, lunch and dinner, et cetera. They had to live together.

LUNDEN: This sociologist was testing a theory. But playwright J.T. Rogers says the story behind "OSLO" is anything but a dry academic treatise.

J T ROGERS: It was very clear that it was a thriller because it was. The ticking clock is the drama's friend.

LUNDEN: And the actors who play the Norwegian couple, Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, say that's how it feels every night.

MAYS: We are continually surprised by this play - the doing of it. It feels like an ambush. We never know exactly what's going on or...

EHLE: What's coming next.

MAYS: ...What's coming next. I have a copy of my script backstage at all times that I...

EHLE: I have little...

MAYS: ...Continually refer to.

EHLE: ...Cheat sheets in my pocket that tell me what's coming next.

MAYS: So there's something about doing this play that feels like a wild improvisation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OSLO")

EHLE: (As Mona Juul) This is not something you make up as you go along. If this fails, Fafo, the ministry, our lives will all be torn down...

MAYS: (As Terje Rod-Larsen) Mona, you must trust me more than you have ever done before. I know how to do this. I see how to do this.

LUNDEN: "OSLO" is based, in part, on extensive interviews playwright J.T. Rodgers did with Rod-Larsen and Juul. He wanted to explore the intersection of the personal with the political.

ROGERS: The hope was to make a political play in the Greek sense of that word - a play about the public and the larger ideas about who we are as human beings and as nations and how to we go forward and how do we live with our enemies and with ourselves.

LUNDEN: And that's what appeals to director Bartlett Sher.

SHER: What I actually like most about it is that it is a very complex expression of how history actually works as opposed to a kind of Hollywood version of how this great thing was accomplished.

LUNDEN: Sher says both he and Rogers felt they couldn't show the script to the couple ahead of time. Mona Juul, who's the current Norwegian ambassador to the U.K., hasn't seen the play yet, but Rod-Larsen has.

ROD-LARSEN: This is not a documentary, so many of the scenes there never took place or it took place in a different way. And what some of the characters in the play are doing was actually not done by the real-life figures. This being said, I think J.T. and Bart and the cast has caught tremendously well the spirit and the idea of Oslo and how it played out.

LUNDEN: And that spirit was very much one of optimism.

ROD-LARSEN: If you bring the right toolbox and handle the tools the right way, there are also possibilities today because there is one similarity with the situation at the time of Oslo and the time of today that is that everything looks impossible. And sometimes the impossible is easier to do than the possible. If you have resilience and persistence, you can do things which nobody believes is possible.

LUNDEN: And critics and audiences have responded to that message. The off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center is sold out. And it was just announced that "OSLO" will move to Broadway next spring. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.