Jimmy Carter (Stephen Thorne) and Rosalynn Carter (Rebecca Brooksher) put their future on the line for peace. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Begin (Jordan Lage), Carter (Stephen Thorne) and Sadat (Elijah Alexander) battle over peace. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Shabbat dinner at Camp David. (Stephen Thorne, Mark Zimmerman, Jordan Lage, and Rebecca Brooksher) (Photo by Lynn Lane)
A moment for prayers at Camp David. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
A moment for dance amidst the strife. (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Lawrence Wright has made significant changes to Camp David for this Alley Theatre production (Photo by Daniel Bergeron)
On stage, war stories are about as ancient as drama itself, but peace stories, those tales of the rages and sacrifices that a lasting truce between enemies requires, that drama rarely finds its place in the theater spotlight.
So leave it to Lawrence Wright, playwright, journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner and Texan to spin a true tale of peace that for its dramatic complexity might just rival any battle put to stage. In Wright’s Camp David the real story behind the 13 days of brutal diplomacy that led to the Camp David Accords comes to life at the Alley Theatre.
Before the debut, Wright sat down with PaperCity to talk about how he found the gripping humanity and theatricality in these historic meetings in the Maryland forest that transformed Middle East relations.
Camp David Transformed
The play had its world premiere in Washington, D.C. six years ago, with a tight focus on just four principals in the history, President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But since that debut, Wright has made significant changes for this Alley production.
As directed by Tony-winning Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, this new version sent Wright back to the basics of the story and to the book he wrote afterwards: Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. Calling Oskar one of the “great dramaturg in theater” today, Wright says Oskar had talked to him about the play early on and had read the book and wanted to widen yet sharpen the focus.
“He wanted more depth in terms of each of the delegations,” Wright details. “Carter had Rosalynn as a soundboard, but Begin and Sadat did not in the play. So the concept was that each of these main principal figures would have a confidant. In the case of Begin and Sadat those confidants are also their antagonist, and in to some extent Roselyn also plays that role as a doubter.”
From there, Wright brought in two more characters to Camp, Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel, Sadat’s foreign minister and Moshe Dayan Begin’s foreign minister. In the play, and at Camp David both men argue for the opposite result as their leader.
“One of the things that Oskar wanted to do was to sharpen the dialectic,” Wright says. “This is a play about ideas with enormous consequences attached to them. In order to full flesh out those ideas these other characters do that job. They provide a sounding board. I think it makes it a lot sharper.
“You see Begin and Sadat fighting with their own delegation. You can see the interior discussions that were very heated. Each of these men brought a delegation that was opposed to him.”
Making History Onstage
Wright seems pleased with the results of these rewrites saying he’s somewhat surprised that he didn’t consider these additional roles when first contemplating the play, but in the first go around, he was “so focused on the economy of the characters.”
In our talk of how Wright is able to bring history to life in the Alley Neuhaus space, he points out the inherent drama in what were real volatile talks in the woods.
“I guess the theatricality of the events comes out of the tension that was really there,” he says. “I was looking for moments that could capture the extremity of the emotions they were undergoing.”
Writing a nonfiction book and turning it into a play doesn’t happen often but Wright can’t think of another instance when a playwright turned a play into a nonfiction book. Now Wright has found himself using material from Thirteen Days in this reworking of the original Camp David. He says it has become a resource for him but also for the actors trying to learn more about these real life political players they play.
While Wright’s changes might bring more drama to the stage, the core message of his telling of this history whether in stage or book form remains the same.
“What I wanted to do both in the play and the book is bore in on the human cost of making peace,” Wright describes. “We often talk about the costs of war but Camp David extracted terrible costs from the three that participated. You can see that they are beginning to realize the penalty they’ll have to pay for making peace.”
“What Camp David achieved was peace between Israel and Egypt. What it failed to do was the larger peace that Carter and especially Sadat had hoped to achieve,” Wright says of the lasting achievements of the Accords and where they fell short. “All peace efforts since have been based on trying to realize that unfilled framework that was part of the accords.”
Always a journalist even when taking on a playwriting role, Wright did extensive interviews in the U.S, Egypt and Israel for both the play and the book, including talks with the president and first lady. The Carters came to a performance of the D.C. production, which led to some anxiety for Wright when they sat behind him in the audience.
“Can you imagine what that was like for me?” laughs Wright. “There was no way I could sneak a peek. I think it’s a sympathetic portrayal, but it’s also unsparing. At the end I finally got a change to see him. His eyes were red and he was streaming tears, and so was Rosalynn. They shared a handkerchief.”
Uncertain as to Carters likelihood to travel right now, Wright doesn’t know the possibility of a presidential audience one night of the Houston run, but says the Alley has certainly extended an invitation.
Camp David runs now through March 15 at the Alley Theatre.