Reykjavik: A Review

Last night, Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake featured a staged reading of Richard Rhodes’ play Reykjavik. I found it a fascinating-but-flawed play, followed by an absolutely riveting discussion of the play, by Mr. Rhodes and local playwright, Mary Dickson.

The play is a two-hander about the nuclear arms reduction summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986, held in Reykjavik.  That summit very nearly resulted in both sides agreeing to the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons.  In the play, we see the personal and political tensions between Reagan and Gorbachev play out, as the two men work towards something both of them very much wanted, a comprehensive agreement.  They came close.  It nearly happened.  But in the end, one word scuttled the agreement.

That one word was ‘laboratories.’  The ’72 ABM treaty prohibited the development and deployment of defensive missile systems. Reagan, though, was utterly entranced by the possibilities of SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars. He had been seduced by Edward Teller’s vision of a space shield protecting mankind, in technology as the final protector of human life. Problem was, it didn’t work.  Still doesn’t.

Gorbachev’s proposal was that the US agree not to deploy or field-test SDI–to limit all research on SDI to laboratories for the ten years following the agreement.  Reagan wanted the agreement to eliminate that word ‘laboratories.’  He wanted the language of the agreement to remain ambiguous enough that the US could run tests on SDI without violating their agreement.  And although both men were willing to sign an agreement completely eliminating all nuclear weapons, that word, ‘laboratories,’ and the possibilities for SDI research and deployment it represented, scuttled the talks.  In the end, Reykjavik represented, not a break-through, but merely progress towards one.  The summit was not meaningless, but it was certainly much less meaningful than it could have been.

The play was in part sponsored by the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.  I think probably most folks in the house are opposed to nuclear proliferation.  Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of books about atomic weapons, an expert in the field.  This is his first play, however.  Although I liked the production very much, and loved the actors–Robert Scott Smith and Jason Tatom–who played Reagan and Gorbachev respectively, I thought the play itself was somewhat flawed. One would hope that a two man play about those two world leaders would reveal them as equal: equally forceful, equally eloquent, equally misguided, perhaps, but also equally sensible and clear-headed.  I did not find this to be the case.  The conflict between them seemed overbalanced in favor of Gorbachev.

For that audience, in that venue, it’s perhaps understandable that this would be the case.  I’m a liberal–I don’t think much of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.  And in this case, it’s infuriating to think that something as foolish, unworkable, and pie-in-the-sky as SDI could wreck as far-reaching and important an agreement as the one proposed at Reykjavik.  I came away from the play pretty angry, not at Rhodes obviously, or the production or cast, but at Ronald Wilson Reagan.  Old 6-6-6 himself.  He had an opportunity to achieve something utterly remarkable.  He sabatoged it–he’s the guy who said ‘no.’  And for what?  For Star Wars.  For something worthless.

That’s ultimately my takeaway from the performance–that it wasn’t well balanced, that it was a play that made Reagan look foolish and Gorbachev look wise.  But the reality is that Reagan’s optimism, his sunny outlook, his preference for fantasies over facts–all the stuff that made Ronnie Ronnie–all made a Reykjavik breakthrough possible.  Only Ronald Reagan could have said, as he does in the play, ‘well, why don’t we just get rid of them all?’  Only Gorbachev–already in the middle of something as extraordinary and idealistic as perestroika–would have said yes.  So of course something dumb like SDI would be the thing that would break up the deal.

Reykjavik was a break from realpolitik.  Only Reagan, only Gorbachev could have achieved it.  I think that might be a dimension the play misses, that sense of idealism, of two world leaders who met, however briefly, in the clouds. Glasnost and perestroika were as iffy and quixotic as Reagan’s ‘morning in America.’  What we saw in the play was two hard-headed negotiators trying to get the best deal they could.  I think you could have written pretty much the same play about a business merger, or a legal arbitration.  But these two guys sat there at a table and said ‘let’s dump our nukes.  All of them.  Both of us.’  And nearly made it happen.  They seriously considered something that has to be seen as a utopian fantasy.  Of course it took a different, competing utopian fantasy to derail it.

In the post-show discussion, Mr. Rhodes talked about how the play came to be.  He was reading the transcript of the negotiation, and it struck him as inherently dramatic.  I can well imagine that feeling.  What a treasure trove of materials, that transcript must have been!  But, Mr. Rhodes was advised by Paul Newman, who urged him to colloquialize the language.  With all deference to Paul Newman, I beg to differ. I don’t doubt that the jargon of diplomatic language might make some of the text unclear to audiences.  Well, so what?

I think of the film Zero Dark Thirty, for example. There were scenes in that film where the characters spoke entirely in ‘intelligence community jargon,’ scenes where I didn’t understand much of what they were saying.  It didn’t matter, not at all. In fact, it added to the film’s sense of authenticity, gave it almost a docu-drama feel.  Perhaps even a better example might be David Hare’s great play, Stuff Happens, about the build-up to the Iraq war.  Hare builds most of the play around actual conversations, transcripts.  In scenes where no transcript existed (but in which Hare knew what had been decided), he had to make up dialogue, but it had to sound like the rest of the play.  It’s a brilliant play, in part because of the jargon.  Audiences do not have to understand every word spoken by actors in a play.  It’s fine to not understand something.

Of course, Hare was writing for the British National Theatre.  He could afford a cast of forty actors.  Reykjavik is a two-actor play.  But I think that simplifying the language may have been a mistake. I wanted to hear what they actually said.  I wanted that sense of authenticity.  I would have liked the play better if I would have had to work harder to get what they were talking about.

Mr. Rhodes, in the talk-back, also mentioned that an early draft had had more characters, including Richard Perle, who he described as an Iago. Yeah, I bet he was!  Well, what would Perle have represented except realpolitik itself?  What could Perle have done at Reykjavik except scuttle any agreement?  When I heard he’d once been in the play, I immediately missed him.  Perhaps an unspeaking actor, hiding in the shadows, coming forward to whisper in Reagan’s ear?  You wouldn’t need to have him do much.  But that contrast between Perle’s pragmatism and Reagan’s rosiness might have given the play another, I think somewhat needed, dimension.

The ending of the play was also a bit weak. Reagan and Gorbachev finish their conversation, and the audience applauded.  The play was over.  (Really, it’s over when Reagan says ‘no.’)  But then came the last scene, their pro forma press conferences.  Rhodes likes the press conference scene–he told us he did.  But it gave the play a distinctly anti-climactic ending.  Solution: put the Press conference scene first, open the play with it.  Wouldn’t that be a spoiler alert?  Not really.  After all, we do all know what didn’t happen at Reykjavik.

Anyway, it made for a fascinating evening in the theatre.  I rode up with two friends, and we talked about it all the way home, about disarmament and its possibilities.  There are too many warheads today, too many missiles in silos, too many possibilities for a human error obscenely and unimaginably devastating in its consequences.  I desperately want this play to succeed, and not just as a piece of theatre.  I want it to help the world disarm.  A lofty ambition, but one worth working towards.

2 thoughts on “Reykjavik: A Review

  1. Matthew Ivan Bennett

    As a playwright, I noticed a lot of people chuckling at the SDI references. Why were they laughing? Well, because we all know Star Wars failed. I was eight years old when the Reykjavik summit happened and yet I remember well all the jokes about SDI on the Tonight Show, etc. in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

    So, yeah, if I were writing the play, I wouldn’t build Reagan’s argument so much around SDI, but only come back to it by name three times. I also suspect that Rhodes may have put prophetic words into Gorbachev’s mouth, in his saying “my scientists say it will not work.”

    When you’re writing a historical piece, you have to be very careful not to show us the events in hindsight. In 1986, people were seriously paralyzed at the thought of World War III! We aren’t so much now, but then it was palpable. If anything, the play reminded me how much more we feared nuclear weapons then. Rhodes, I feel, built this tension into the beginning of the play, but I didn’t feel it during the climax—the sense that the meeting could unravel into World War III. Maybe that’s not historical, and maybe it’s melodramatic, but I think that tension should come back.

    Even Perle’s off-stage presence would strengthen the play, I agree with you, Eric. It would mean so much to know that Reagan and Gorbachev are mavericks, that they want to end the nuclear programs despite their staffs. It would give it a lot more tension, especially in the “laboratories” fight.

    My other thought was that, although Gorbachev was generally on top, he was too weak in one moment: his pushback against Reagan’s charges of human rights abuses. If Reagan has files about Russian scientists, I think Gorbachev ought to have a news article about a black man shot forty times by cops in Los Angeles. The human rights argumentation was too nickel-and-dime. I think it’s terrific that the play challenges the stereotypes of Russians, and that we see a different Russia through the character of Gorbachev here, but it could go further into specificity.

    Were I to bolster Reagan, I’d begin with eliminating his repetitions. The repetitions weaken him as much as anything. The audience appropriately sighed at Reagan’s last SDI reference, but the turn could be bigger. I also think you’ve hit the nail on the head in your comment about Ronnie’s charisma. The jokes are wonderful. And yet, when I think back on the play, it’s Reagan who was stiff and close to the vest, not Gorbachev.

    If there were a way to balance both those textures of Reagan, to have him outwardly be a constant leg-puller and warm, and just glimpses of the inner stiff, that would be the best, I think. If Reagan isn’t clearly the reasonable one of the two, dramatically he has to be the more likeable.

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