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New play ‘Camp David’ retraces 1978 peace accord
Question of the Day
Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, returned to Washington on Thursday night to open a new play at Arena Stage about one of their greatest achievements in the White House. “Camp David” retraces 13 days of tense negotiations in 1978 at the presidential retreat in Maryland that produced an unlikely but lasting peace agreement.
By the time the lights came up, the former U.S. president had tears in his eyes and was hugging actor Richard Thomas who played him on stage. The Carters cooperated in making the play, providing their diaries and sitting for interviews, but did not review or edit on the script.
While a story of the remarkable peace accord may at first sound like theater for political wonks, the drama of the negotiations and characters involved make for a compelling story that’s real, raw with emotion and ever relevant to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
“We were three men of faith,” Carter said. “I think that our common faith worshipping the same God in different ways was a factor that broke the barriers that did exist between us.”
Carter said he felt a higher calling to make peace his top priority as president. The Georgia farmer-turned-governor and president had taught Sunday school all his life. The lesson from Camp David, he said, is that “peace is possible.”
The prospects were grim, though, considering Sadat was a former Nazi collaborator and Begin had been considered a terrorist. After just three days, Carter had to separate them to prevent a collapse in the talks.
It was those characters that convinced former White House communications director Gerald Rafshoon decades ago that the story could be a great movie, though he couldn’t sell it to Hollywood. Rafshoon eventually resurrected the idea and made his pitch to Arena Stage for the story an orthodox Jew, devout Muslim and born-again Christian going behind closed doors and coming out with an enduring peace treaty.
“There’s so much emotion. There’s so much risk. And I saw that as ultimate drama,” Rafshoon said. “It is not a negotiation. It is a personal story.”
Each man put everything on the line, he said. In the aftermath of the Camp David Accords, Carter lost his bid for re-election, Sadat lost his life to an assassin, and Begin fell into political obscurity.
But could diplomatic talks be entertaining theater?
For Molly Smith, the artistic director at Arena Stage who is directing the play, it was a no brainer. The theater has made it a priority to commission new works about U.S. presidents.
“If it was just political wonks talking, I don’t think it would be so interesting,” she said. “But when it is three leaders who clearly put their lives and their careers and their countries on the line to create this agreement, that’s great theater.”
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