The Old Globe presents “Camp David,” and writer Lawrence Wright in conversation with Barry Edelstein
Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal June 2016 issue
By Natalie Jacobs
It’s unusual that a play precedes a book, but that’s what happened for writer Lawrence Wright with his account of the 1978 Camp David Accords. Wright was commissioned by President Jimmy Carter to write a play about the historic peace treaty that Carter negotiated between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. He later wrote a book about it as well, to “explore the breadth of the characters.”
Lawrence Wright is a longtime writer for The New Yorker, and the author of nine books, three theatrical productions and two screenplays. The journalist’s strict reporting ethic remains the thread that ties all of his genres together. When President Carter’s communications director Gerald Rafshoon called Wright and asked if he would accept the commission, Wright “had to explain that [he] would go at it like a New Yorker story” as in, he’d research it.
“I had to say this is not the story of one man, it’s the story of three men,” Wright told Barry Edelstein during one of The Old Globe’s “In Conversation” events in April. Edelstein, The Globe’s artistic director, spent two years getting “Camp David” to the Balboa Park institution. It plays through June 19.
“I really love it,” Edelstein said of the play. “The idea that peace can be achieved. And the absolute stunning brilliance of Wright.”
The play received its world premiere in front of the Carters and relatives of Begin and Sadat at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 2013, 35 years after the historic Arab-Israeli treaty was made. The book came out in 2014. Other than Wright’s work, there is very little written about the 13 days that were spent negotiating the peace deal at the presidential country retreat located northwest of the Capitol.
“I think the American people were so done with [Carter],” Wright said from a seat positioned at the front of the Globe’s Main Stage, with the set of Edelstein’s debut musical “Rain” towering behind him.
That’s partly why Carter commissioned the play, to tell the one success story of his presidency. To this day, Wright noted, there has been no violation of the treaty signed at Camp David between Israel and Egypt.
Although they commissioned the play, the Carters did not read the script before opening night. Wright says Carter was “streaming tears” after seeing it for the first time.
“The play pulls off a coup,” Edelstein said to Wright, “because we know what’s going to happen in the end – they are going to sign the treaty. But throughout the play, you think it’s not going to happen.”
Most of Wright’s writing, if not entirely non-fiction, is based on true events.
“I feel more comfortable writing about people who actually existed,” he told Edelstein and the audience.
He described a tactic called horizontal reporting, whereby he sets out to “populate the universe of the story” by interviewing people at all levels of relevance to his main topic. For “Camp David,” Wright said that process started with a trip to the Carter ranch, a modest, homespun place in Georgia. He and Carter started talking about one of Wright’s pieces in The New Yorker.
“‘Since when did you start reading The New Yorker?’,” Wright remembered Rosalynn Carter asking Jimmy, obviously skeptical and with a fair bit of sass.
“I found my fourth character,” Wright said with a laugh. “I needed somebody who could talk to Jimmy like that.”
Each of the characters is deeply religious, and seen praying in their own way throughout the play. Wright uses these imagined moments to “try to find out what happened” for the men, internally, to prompt them to make such unprecedented agreements.
As Wright points out, the three made quite a motley crew tucked away together in the mountains. Anwar Sadat was seen as a “noble idealist,” while also being a noted admirer of Hitler who, in his youth, joined what was called the “Murder Society,” an extremely violent wing of the Egyptian army at a time when Britain was taking over the country.
“Menachem Begin was a terrorist,” Wright said. “He was head of the Irgun, dedicated to expelling the British from Mandate Palestine. He was fighting the Brits who were fighting the Nazis.”
Begin later turned his attention to expelling “750,000 Palestinians” from the newly established Israeli lands, Wright said.
“It was seen as freedom fighting in Israel,” Edelstein added.
And then there was Jimmy Carter, “a failing President,” as Wright characterized him.
During their conversation, Edelstein asked Wright if the Camp David experiment was successful just because of divine timing.
“It was after the ’67 war, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Egypt was broke, Israel was besieged,” he said. “Did Carter see opportunity?”
“No,” Wright said. “He really thought G-d had told him to do it.”
The lesson of Camp David, for Wright, is that “peace is always there.”
“Camp David” runs at The Old Globe through June 19. Details and ticket information for “Camp David” are at theoldglobe.org.