Oslo’s peaceful warriors take the stage

Mona Juul, Terje Rød-Larsen, and their peace process are celebrated through theater

Men holding glasses with one standing up on the table.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson / courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater
Part of the peace process involved eating and drinking together. Who could remain warlike in the face of shared libations? From left to right: Daniel Oreskes, Michael Aronov, and Anthony Azizi (foreground) with Daniel Jenkins and Jeb Kreager (background).

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

It is interesting that in modern times so many proponents of peace have arisen from the small country of Norway. Norway was instrumental in the creation of the most significant organization created for the promulgation of peace, the United Nations (UN), not only as a founding member but also by taking the extra step of gifting the Security Council Chamber in the UN headquarters. Norway is also the place where the UN’s first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, hailed from. And although the Nobel Peace Prize was created and funded by the Swede Alfred Nobel, he bestowed the honor of implementing his vision to Norway.

Many of our readers will be familiar with the iconic image of President Clinton flanked by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But few are aware of what it took to get to that place and who was responsible. Given Norway’s significant role in promoting peace, it makes sense that it was from this tiny country that an entire peace process evolved. The Oslo Process cut its teeth on the monumental task of brokering a Peace Accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The impetus was implementing two UN Security Council Resolutions, and the ultimate goal was to bring self-determination to the Palestinian people. This arduous task began in 1993.

The Oslo Accords were influenced and based on the Camp David Accords, which were signed in 1978. There was also an Oslo II Accord signed in 1995. Much time has passed since the first accord, as well as the second, and there is still no peace between these two entities, nor are they any closer to a two-state solution. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire the tenacity and optimism of the Norwegian couple who attempted to bring these two warring factions together by providing a safe place, Norwegian waffles, and most importantly a new model for negotiation. Those two remarkable individuals are Mona Juul, who worked in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and her husband, Terje Rød-Larsen, a sociologist. Between them they were the creators, catalyst, and overseers of this process.

In a nutshell, proxy negotiators were sent in to try to find peace. This was necessary for many reasons. First, it was illegal for the Israelis to meet with the PLO, who were labeled terrorists. Neither had the Palestinians officially recognized Israel. Once these parties came to Oslo, they were given a room in which to speak. Juul and Larsen did not enter. Outside the room was the most human of all activities: fellowship through eating (this is where the Norwegian waffles come in), drinking, conversation, sometimes even a little song, and often humor. Larsen’s thought was that they’d find a commonality or at the very least something they could agree on and build from there. It would give each party time to get to know the other in their humanity. It was successful.

More than two decades later, their success in breaking down barriers to peace through secret negotiations is coming to light to the general public, through theater. Some may cringe at the thought of watching a play about politics and peace negotiations. However, this piece, Oslo, written by R.T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher, wowed audiences in its runs in New York. It took the critics by storm as well, receiving the glowing accolade of Best Play from the Tony Awards and (as stated on the Lincoln Center’s website) “WINNER of every other Best Play award this season, including: New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama League Award, Lucille Lortel Award and Obie Award.”

One of the most poignant moments of the play was done in silence: a cautious handshake, so one feels the importance of the enemies touching for the first time in peace. The transformation from opponent to friend is palpable and time lapsed into a few well-crafted seconds. Another was witnessed in haste and shouts. The two sides are arguing loudly when one man’s flailing arms knocks down an innocent third party, an acting out of the violence that often rips apart the lives of innocent citizens and a ramification of what happens on a daily basis in this part of the Middle East.

The final moments of this production are riveting. Terje walks off the stage into the aisle among the audience and speaks of optimism and a light on the horizon, as he gestures towards the room where the negotiation had occurred, a soft glow emanating from the closed room. This could have been corny, but instead the actor pulled it off absolutely—not a breath was heard in the audience. It was sublime and glorious.

But what was more impressive to me is what transpired off the stage and when the audience returned home. The two women sitting next to me, both strangers, asked me during intermission and at the play’s conclusion what I thought. Thus this play had the ability to inspire conversation and dialogue about incredibly sensitive subjects in a thoughtful, non-judgmental way.

On my subway ride home, I ran into a neighbor who had also just come from seeing Oslo. She had a less enthusiastic opinion of the production but a stellar one of the event, process, and people involved in the historic event. What was most interesting to me was that this production had the insight to follow Rød-Larsen’s lead. It fostered respectful dialogue, empathy, and the need for commonality. How often does a play achieve this?

Lincoln Center Theater Review is a publication created in conjunction with the center’s performances. The issue on Oslo includes an interview with Mona Juul and much more, and can be ordered at www.lct.org/explore/magazine. It is a wonderful way for the audience to keep the dialogue on the stage going. The play itself is now running in London.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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