How ‘Oslo’ Became a Tony Awards Favorite: J.T. Rogers on Middle East Peace and Broadway Success

‘Oslo,’ about the complex diplomatic negotiations behind the Oslo Accords in 1993, is a frontrunner to win Best Play at the Tonys. Playwright J.T. Rogers explains how it came to be.

What would happen if you sat across the table from your mortal enemy and were asked to negotiate peace? What would you do?

J.T. Rogers’ play, Oslo, playing at Lincoln Center Theater, is the story of how the Oslo Accords of 1993 came to be signed at the White House, concluding with President Bill Clinton hugging Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as they shook hands.

The play has been nominated for seven Tony Awards (to be held on June 11), including Best Play, alongside Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.

There is a back story to the Oslo Accords that has never really been captured until now—and there is a story behind the story of how it all came together in a brilliant drama that is also a dark comedy.

Until going to Israel this year, I had but fleeting interest in the Middle East conflict or diplomatic intrigue, and only recently have developed an interest in the the intricacies of Norwegian diplomacy and their talent for pastry making.

However, I have long been interested in the works of Mr. Rogers. Full disclosure: J.T. and I have been friends for over 30 years, attending driver’s education class together at Rockbridge Senior High School in Columbia, Missouri. So perhaps, I do lack objectivity in praise for this work—but The Daily Beast’s critic and others do not.

I saw his very first major play, White People and the play preceding Oslo, Blood and Gifts; Oslo began its genesis with that play.

The source material for Blood and Gifts is the struggle for control of Afghanistan during the 1980s, from the American, Soviet, British, Pakistani, Afghan sides—as the West saw the country as essential in fighting the Soviet Union, not realizing they would create the Taliban and 9/11 in their wake.

The play primarily revolves around a CIA operative, a fictional character who is a proxy for the West. The meticulously researched play masterfully blends fact and fiction including details that only a few ex-spooks ever knew.

In January of 2012, a Norwegian diplomat, Terje Rød-Larsen, came to see the play and was suitably impressed. In the lobby after the show and over drinks at New York bar P.J. Clarke’s, he told Rogers, “I have a tale, and I have been waiting 20 years for the right person to tell it to.”

Rogers appears to have been the right person.

He recalls, that over whiskey, “Larsen kindly told me he was amazed that I wasn’t a diplomat. That led us to a wonky conversation about how in writing for the stage (or film, or TV) what you do and who are you are is ultimately unimportant. It’s can you the writer imagine yourself into a world, place, person so that it becomes ‘real.’”

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Rogers was intrigued by their story but not sure it was all true. He tracked down every book he could find about the Oslo back channel—most of which were memoirs (or parts of memoirs) by the actual participants.

After devouring those and taking notes upon notes, he went to Oslo to meet diplomat Mona Juul (Larsen’s wife and currently Norweigian ambassador to the United Kingdom), other participants, and to walk through the rooms where the secret meetings took place. The set for the Lincoln Center Theater production is recreated from the photos and videos of those visits.

Rogers notes Blood and Gifts and Oslo are both history plays, trying to tell sweeping personal-cum-political epics. Both use structural devices from thrillers.

“But in Blood and Gifts all the characters are created whole cloth by me. In Oslo, while every word is mine, the characters are all named for and based on real people. Some of the characters in the play are very much like their flesh-and-blood counterparts and some are very different. The one rule I set for myself was that no one on stage would fight for ideas that were diametrically opposed from what the real person believed.”

Getting the characters down right wasn’t easy. Rogers felt the Israeli and Palestinian characters operated with a passion and verbosity that he understood, and that it worked marvelously on stage.

In the early stages, getting the Norwegians down was tricky. The Nordic disposition is cooler and more reserved and it took him a while to coax the right voices and rhythms onto the page, and then again on the stage.

Rogers credits his ability to understand other cultures with his childhood experiences.

“You and I got to grow up in central Missouri, in a sleepy small college town, at a time where we were left alone to wander, both physically and creatively. ‘Pretending’ and ‘wonder’ were simply things you drifted through. More, I think, is that when I was young I lived for two years in rural South East Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia) where my father, brother, and I were the only foreigners many people in this village had ever seen. Two years as ‘the other,’ cut off from anything from America except air-mail letters, was life altering.”

I asked Rogers, with some curiosity and needling, “What drew you to the subject matter? You’re not Jewish. In fact, you’re like the whitest and palest person on earth besides the Pillsbury dough boy—and that’s not even a person.”

He replied, “You know, when I was an actor, when I had to play a character close to me, I was stumped—that is to say, lousy. When as a young man I was allowed to play the octogenarian druid with a limp, somehow I was liberated and my performance was pretty good.

“In acting, putting on a mask frees many actors in a way that being themselves can’t. The same holds true for me in writing. As well, I’m not really interested in myself as a writer. I live with myself every moment I’m not writing. It’s a fascinating joy try and become other people.”

The reception of the play has been tremendous and by fleshing out the players he has done something amazing; he makes us understand the people involved in all their complexity.

“There’s a line in the play about Leninist land reform that brings down the house. Yes, the laughter is great, but the audience is laughing because midway through act one they’ve come to understand this character, a hard-liner Palestinian Marxist, to the point that they viscerally get what a huge compliment he is giving by comparing what he is praising to the ideas of the great Lenin. The audience delights in and cares about this man—a senior member of the PLO. This audience of New Yorkers watching this play on Broadway. I’m chuffed and humbled by that.”

“To have this three-hour deep dive into Israel and Palestine move to Broadway stunned and humbled me,” he adds. “And now we have collectively been nominated for seven Tony Awards. If more proof were needed that In the Theater, Anything Is Possible... this is it. What a joy. What a privilege.”

In the real world, the peace talks were a success and a failure at the same time. They did achieve the PLO recognizing Israel and renouncing violence. But the framework of the Oslo accords was never really fulfilled.

If you ask Rogers, what ‘the moral’ is of the play, he won’t answer. He will tell you what the play is really about.

“The plays I end up writing get written not because I have something to show the audience, but because I’m gripped by a question that I hope others will be gripped by as well. With Oslo, it was this: ‘What would it be like to sit across from your mortal enemy, to have the courage to see them as a fellow human being, and then to find that you are the one profoundly changed by that seeing?’”

In its ability to change how we see the world and the Middle East conflict, Oslo is a profound play indeed.

Oslo is at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City. Book tickets through Aug. 28 here.