Mention former president Jimmy Carter and you will most likely get sighs from liberals and scowls from conservatives. Milquetoast. Failed presidency. Worst administration since FDR. Did more after his term in office than during… Why would Arena Stage commission a play about his presidency? First, Arena Stage has a mission to develop and promote new plays. Second, Arena Stage seeks scripts that relate to the climate of its hometown of Washington, D.C. Third, Arena Stage sponsors the American Presidents Project, which is developing plays about our national leader’s lives, in office and home. Molly Smith, Arena Stage’s Artistic Director and the director of this production adds additional justifications: To say that this is one of the most important stories on our stage this season is an understatement. In this city, at a time when our legislatures are deadlocked, it’s important to be reminded of a time when people from very different cultures, religions and perspectives sat down to create peace….
The play is Camp David. For 90 minutes, we will retreat to the theatre to observe the dramatization of the 13 days in which president Carter (Richard Thomas), president Anwar Sadat (Khaled Nabawy), and prime minister Menachem Begin (Ron Rifkin) retreated to Camp David, in Maryland, to debate a peace settlement between their countries. Fortunately, Rosalyn Carter (Hallie Foote) was there to break the tension and impasses inherent in negotiations.
Granted this is a dramatization, not actual dialogue recorded between the three men. The actors on stage actually represent over 100 advisors from each nation. The three leaders on stage represent the views of all those who joined in those negotiations in 1978. The background for this event was 30 years of war and numerous battles between Israel and Egypt, since the formation of the nation of Israel 1948. During those confrontations, Israel had thwarted the Egyptian military, as well as Syria and Jordan, adding to the security of their boards by claiming the border regions of the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, and Gaza Strips. In addition to placing military out-posts in those regions, Israel promoted settlements. Sadat argues for return of lands taken in war. Begin argues for security of Israel’s boarders. Carter argues for understanding and compromise.
Negotiations are dull. Frankly, when Sadat read off and summarized the Egyptian delegation’s proposal, I was ready to glaze-over into legal-jargon documentation review. When Begin protested, word-for-word, the proposal, my love of words was ready to go into hair-splitting protest. When Carter beamed with his smile, while acknowledging that the first day got off to a rough start, I was ready to agree with the sentiments that I mentioned in the first paragraph above.
But, the power of theatre is to place opposing energies between scenes into sequence. Negotiations are dull. If the actors made this a mad-cap hilarity or action-adventure-paced thriller, we would be deceived as to how difficult communication is. Rather, the playwright had just the right timing to pull us back into the moment through a variety of staging techniques.
First, the set, lighting, projection, costume and sound crews were right on target, growing a hardwood forest of tree trunks up into the fly space, with Carter’s cabin nestled into the corner. The back scene allowed for a variety of images to be projected. This ranged from sky scenes, to images of tanks and military units, to prepare us for the dialogue center stage. A drop elevator brought up various arrangements of chairs for the negotiations, as well as patio furniture and log benches, and even a cannon from Gettysburg, to give the actors a place to interact in pairs and trios. Carter kept the pace going by whizzing in and out on a 3-wheel electric cart, when he brought each leader to Camp David, as well as when he shuttled between their separate delegations trying to broker some agreement.
Second, the playwright included limited dialogue scenes which provided glimpses into the inner thoughts of the men. In one scene, evening is settling. Sadat walks out alone with his prayer rug and begins his evening prayers. Begin strolled behind the tree trunks bowing and nodding as he reads from his scriptures. Carter enters in front of the stage, nearly in the audience and prays out loud for God to give him guidance and make this retreat have a purpose. Formal negotiations conceal the many agendas, beliefs, and anxieties of those sitting with stoic faces.
Third, the playwright slowly provide moments in which the parties begin to realize that in parallel ways their lives have offered them opportunities for understanding. In one conversation, Begin asks Carter whether he knows what was written in Second Kings, to which Carter pauses a moment then recite the specific verse, stating that he learned much through his years of teaching Sunday School. During a field trip to Gettysburg, Begin and Sadat share lines reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Carter inquires how they learned English so well, as well as USA history. Begin talks about learning a new language every time the Soviet Union sent him to prison. Sadat agrees that he too learned several languages while imprisoned by the British. Eventually, Begin and Sadat share stories about their years of being involved in resistance movements. They ponder the concept that one group’s terrorist is another group’s freedom fighter. Depending on the viewer’s perspectives, they have been both. They find their common ground in their desire to bring safety to their families and nations.
Finally, the role that Rosalyn performs in the negotiations breaks the tension with her timing and feminine perspective. During one heated impasse, when both Begin and Sadat are about to storm away, she brings out a tray of tea, suggesting that civility can temper their desire to put lumps on each other rather than lumps of sugar in their tea. Began requests one lump, Sadat three, Carter sugar and milk. Three cups of tea, three preparations, none more right or wrong than the other.
In other scenes, Rosalyn talks separately with each leader. She encourages Carter to press on when he doubts his and God’s purpose in these endeavors. She complements Sadat on his bravery to defy other Arab leaders calls to destroy Israel by traveling to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli leaders and to come to Camp David. She acknowledges to Begin the struggles that Israel has had over generations, while sharing her Christian perspective of love and forgiveness, rather than conquest.
These breaks in the non-action of negotiation are the elements that help the leaders find their common ground, while also standing their ground. If one merely enacts his role, without acknowledging his and his adversary’s humanity, one has no understanding. If one views only his introspective position without taking a position, one has no function.
In discussing this play with some friends, I got the sighs and eye-rolling dismissal of the play and history of the Camp David Accords. Mere fantasy, wishful thinking, missed opportunity. Maybe Egypt has not directly challenged Israel since the agreement, but they have allowed Hamas to build tunnels from the Sinai into Gaza through which RPG and missiles are smuggled and then lobbed over the borders into Israel. Fifty-two US citizens were made hostages by Iran in 1979, and released only after Carter’s defeat in his election for a second term. Sadat was assassinated October 6, 1981. Begin withdrew from public life after his wife’s death in 1982, resigning his position as prime minster the next year.
During the play a phrase caught my attention, when Sadat and Begin discussed their countries’ 30 years of war. I was reminded of the 30 Years War around which Mother Courage and Her Children was staged. If negotiations and peace are mere fantasies, what are left with? Thugs ruling. Thugs manipulating politics. Thugs amassing personal wealth through corporate corruption. Thugs who Run from Judgement.