The missing drama in ‘Oslo’
The first thought that popped into my mind after seeing “Oslo,” which just won a Tony award for Best Play, was: “That’s it?”
The play left me empty. The brilliant acting and stage directing couldn’t overcome my disappointment that “Oslo” added little to the conversation and only reinforced Western stereotypes about conflict resolution.
The play deftly dramatizes the behind-the-scenes efforts of a Norwegian diplomat-couple who bring Israelis and Palestinians together to sign the 1993 Oslo Accords. As you can imagine, to get these parties to agree to anything, there is endless coddling, nudging, arguing and agonizing. It’s in those twists and turns that the play finds most of its drama.
But there’s an elephant in the room, and it looms over everything. No matter how much drama you see on stage, you can’t help but feel the distracting drama of that elephant, which is this: The agreement which the play worships has turned out to be a dud, a failure of the highest order. The light at the end of the Oslo tunnel was really an oncoming train.
So, as much as I enjoyed the acting and the story, I felt its emptiness. Because the play makes such a powerful claim to historical truth, that truth comes back to haunt it. The play wants to have it both ways: It wants us to enjoy the history it shows, but ignore the history that annoys. In my case at least, it was too much to ask for.
The tragedy of Oslo makes the drama in “Oslo” almost trivial. The real drama of the Oslo story is not in its excruciating negotiations, but in its stunning failure. For all the difficulty that the play dramatizes, the agreement itself is very modest. It doesn’t tackle the most serious issues of contention. It kicks the can down the road in the hope that mutual trust will build between the parties. Of course, the opposite happened. The violence and mistrust have gotten significantly worse since Oslo.
In real life, that kind of tragic outcome can be demoralizing. It’s almost too much to bear. But that’s why we need great art—to make us confront ugly truths. Great art is not there to manufacture hope. That’s what preachers are for. Great art should have the courage to take us where we don’t want to go.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an existential conflict where core narratives are rejected, mistrust rules, resentments accumulate and hatred flourishes. Brilliant negotiators are useless in the face of such hardened conditions. A play that would have tried to capture that tragedy would have captivated me.
Would it have won a Tony? Probably not. Tragedy doesn’t sell. Hope sells. Hope is the elixir of the civilized mind. No matter what reality tells us, we must show some hope. The price we pay for this obsession is that we don’t learn our lessons. In the case of Oslo, the great lesson is that when a foundation is corroded, you can’t build anything.
From the standpoint of the Palestinians, that foundation means your society marinates you in Jew-hatred from birth, you are taught that the Zionist narrative is a fraud and Israel is a land thief, and you are promised that millions of refugees will eventually return to that hated Israel and take over. How does a piece of paper negotiated in a Norwegian ivory tower by people you don’t trust counter any of that? It doesn’t and it can’t, even if it’s signed on the front lawn of the White House.
I hope a playwright will tackle the Oslo story one day without fear of going to the depressing depths of the conflict. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, sometimes you have to hit your own bottom before you can see the way up. Maybe the playwright can write an alternate, imaginative story where the heroes are not clever dealmakers but hard-nosed changemakers who try to build something real from that ugly bottom.
“Oslo” never takes us to that bottom. It prefers the comfortable Western cliché that savvy and determined negotiators can accomplish anything. That may be true on Broadway, but it’s not in Ramallah or Jerusalem.