Why Art Thou Here? Give
A Straight Answer
By Erika Munk
The Great Game
By Richard Bean, Lee Blessing, David Edgar, David Greig, Amit
Gupta, Ron Hutchinson, Stephen Jeffreys, Abi Morgan, Ben Ockrent,
Simon Stephens, Colin Teevan and Joy Wilkinson
The Tricycle Theatre at The Skirball Center, NYU, 2010.
Why are thou here: a question for everyone
and everything, in this case directed at an audience, a cycle
of plays called The Great Game, and an occupying army.
But first it should be asked of a critic
writing about a production seen almost a year ago, who can only
respond that its subject -- foreign intervention in Afghanistan
-- hasn't gone away or gotten easier, the attitudes it reflected
haven't changed, and the limitations of its particular form of
political theater remain. Also, one play originally part of the
cycle has just opened at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater where, though
now 165 minutes long rather than twenty, it reflects many of The
Great Game's qualities
When the production came to NYU's Skirball
Center in December 2010, a day and evening watching twelve plays
on Afghanistan produced by the Tricycle, a much-praised British
political theater, looked like it clearly would be time well spent.
In ten years our war has killed thousands of Afghans and Americans,
consumed hundreds of billions of dollars, and turned us into a
nation at ease using torture. None of this much interests American
playwrights, producers, or, presumably, audiences. Most of us
don't know the soldiers who die there; mainstream conservatives
and liberals don't waste their campaign rhetoric on the war; neither
the Tea Party nor Occupy Wall Street focus on it. Afghanistan
is an aside in the public dialogue. I was going to get new facts,
hear new analyses, grow closer to this war in which I am so implicated
and from which I am so distant. I felt righteous buying tickets
to The Great Game and happy the house was full.
The work was presented in three parts containing
four plays each, covering different chunks of Afghan history:
1842-1930, the years of the historical "great game," when Britain
and Russia struggled for control of the area; 1979-1996, the period
from the Soviet invasion to the Taliban take-over; and 1996-2010,
from the establishment of Taliban rule through the current war.
Snippets of interviews with diplomats and journalists were inserted
between the plays, as were four short mono- and duologues by Siba
Shakib, an Iranian. All the other writers were British -- among
them those interesting playwrights David Edgar, Richard Bean,
and David Greig -- except one American, Lee Blessing,
The audience stayed the course, lingering
in the lobby to buy books on Afghan history or rugs with images
of tanks and guns; afterwards, if my and my friends' experience
was typical, they skimmed the books and followed the news more
attentively for a while, eager for discussion. That seemed to
be the goal. "Information sparks debate, and theater can often
be the catalyst," says Tricycle's director Nicholas Kent. The
plays presented a lot of information, the characters debated a
range of opinions, and the event as a whole was well acted, decently
directed, often witty, intelligent and humane.
And maddeningly insufficient. No surprises,
enigmas or contradictions. Nothing that stuck in your craw. Nothing
to hate, nothing to cry over, nothing to rant about with friends
until the wee hours. Not enough passion, not enough depth. Just
How could this be?
Three explanations struck me while watching.
First, the cycle was created by and for Brits as a narrative of
their country's involvement and as an outline of the arguments
for and against it. For an American spectator, too much was left
out. Whatever the Empire's past misdeeds, this was and is America's
war. We are responsible for its stupidity and atrocity; the Coalition
is guilty of collaborating. It was like seeing a murder through
the eyes of a very, very cool accessory to the crime.
Of course such distance can be the sharpest
of all didactic and theatrical tools. Here it dulled the work
instead. This led to explanation number two: the utter conventionality
of almost all the scripts. They were mostly brisk and smart, well-made
in high-BBC mode, but that kind of realistic stagecraft, squeezed
into a more-or-less half-hour format, meant sketchy characters
and compressed, schematic plots. Edgar and Greig moved outside
these limits, but no one attempted the difficult enlightenments
of, say, Caryl Churchill. No one let loose with agitprop, or jumped
into poetry or dreams.
The third reason had to be that there
were no Afghan writers and, in the published texts, no writers
from any countries outside Britain and the United States.
But beyond the absences -- of passion,
of aesthetic risk, of outside voices -- something else also made
me uneasy. Even on its own terms, the debate seemed incomplete
or misleading in ways that, given my ignorance about Afghanistan,
were hard to pin down. I read the scripts and went through my
notes, found a recurrent theme here, a repeated trope there, hints
of what might be wrong. Because the activities of British and
Russian intelligence agencies around the borders of India, Afghanistan,
and what's now called Pakistan were apparently first called The
Great Game in Kipling's Kim (1901), a book not present
in my left-wing childhood, I bought a copy. And in it I found
titles and subheads that worked quite nicely with my draft-summaries
of the plays. They worked, indeed, without much irony. Uh-oh.
Kipling! Did this mean The Great Game had different intentions
from those I had assumed? Or that whatever Kent's intentions,
the plays' POV and aesthetics reflected an imperial consensus
about Afghanistan that goes back a hundred years? Was some Kiplingesque
force at work in the British unconscious?
In January a press release arrived headed,
"Pentagon to view The Great Game." Below: "Officers in
the Joint Staff's Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell, which
provides advice and support to military leadership … thought the
plays could serve as a unique learning tool for military personnel."
The plays would be privately shown in Washington "to audiences
of policy and decision makers, military and government officials,
corporate and private America, and injured services members."
There had already been a similar private showing for the UK Ministry
of Defense in July, 2010 (the first production was in 2009), which
led General Sir David Richards, present head of Britain's armed
forces and past NATO commander for southern Afghanistan, to say,
"certainly the armed forces desperately want to understand this
country [Afghanistan] well, and this series of plays -- if I had
seen it before I had deployed myself in 2005 for the first time
-- would have made me a much better commander."
I Googled General Sir David and found this,
from The Guardian (November 8, 2010), after he had gone
to the British private viewing: "If we lose this war it will be
in the homes of this country [the UK], as people tire of it. What
we've failed to do adequately is persuade the people of this country
that this is a good war."
Obviously my original disappointment was
based on false assumptions. The cycle wasn't a failed or inadequate
attempt to encourage passionate debate about the war among citizens
of the Coalition countries; it was political theater, seen and
approved by first the British and then the American military,
meant to persuade them that the war was a good war. It wasn't
a learning tool for liberal-leftish, professional-class theatergoers
in London or New York but for the Anglo-American political and
economic establishment. The evening's secondary aim may have been
to bring the liberal chattering classes around, but primarily
its purpose was to give people from the defense and diplomatic
services a more sophisticated understanding of Afghanistan so
they could argue their policies better.
Yet the plays didn't come across as militarist
-- quite the contrary -- and surely these playwrights didn't think
they were joining a low-key propaganda exercise in support of
the war. Or perhaps some did, but there was no way to know without
interviewing them. Instead, I looked again at the text and those
aspects that had puzzled me. What made these plays useful for
persuading audiences that Afghanistan is "a good war"? What had
the playwrights actually written?
Summaries are tedious, so I will keep them
short. The following discussion also contains a great deal of
hindsight that I have not tried to avoid.
"We of the Game are beyond protection.
If we die, we die."
Throughout the cycle, there's a constant
tension between the belief that western intervention in Afghanistan
has been, is, and always will be utterly pointless, and a parallel
certainty that without a western presence, Afghanistan has been,
is, and always will be a brutal nightmare.
The first play, Stephen Jeffreys's Bugles
at the Gates of Jalalabad, takes place in 1842 during Britain's
First Afghan War. Four British soldiers talk about a great defeat,
the massacre of a retreating British army -- 4,000 men and 12,000
wives and servants -- by Afghan forces. Every ten minutes they
line up facing the audience and sound an advance, "so that any
straggler from the retreat might approach with confidence." Invisible
to the soldiers, Lady Sale, wife of a general and therefore one
of the survivors, reads out loud from her diary. Her elegant prose
-- "Snow all day. We are starving. My horse gnaws voraciously
at a cartwheel. … some of the gentlemen are eating camel, particularly
the heart" -- counterpoints their working-class talk.
privates are a by-the-book patriot, a skeptic, and a naïve young
recruit; their corporal is a pious Christian. A robed Afghan civilian
enters. Sophisticated and softly mocking, he asks what they think
they are doing in his country. Killing savages, says the patriot.
God's will, says the corporal. Fighting a war that's a mistake,
says the skeptic. Keeping the Russians out of India and stopping
your cruel ways, says the youngest one, who a minute later kills
the Afghan. "I meant something else," he claims. The body is buried
in the snow. The buglers play the advance. Lady Sale reads: "As
to the justice of dethroning one ruler, and setting up another
in his place, I have nothing to say: nor regarding our policy
in attempting to keep possession of a country of uncivilized people,
so far from our own."
A pointed critique, surely. Lady Sale has
many lines like these, and the dissenting soldier can't open his
mouth without 21st-century aptness: "All us soldiers must be got
out, evacuated. Leaving the country in a worse state than we found
it." "Stuck in a country we do not understand upholding a puppet
king nobody wants." "I fight cheap wars so that our people back
home can live expensive lives. There was a mistake. It has been
an expensive war." The heavy hand of historical irony lies on
every moment, and a phantom in the wings is constantly whispering,
"get it, get it?" What we're meant to get are the parallels, a
sense of historical repetition and inevitability that seems to
lead in the opposite direction from any pro-war argument. But
while such parallels would normally begin, not end, any discussion
of our presence in that country -- after all, the situations then
and now aren't the same -- here they are merely, instantly, enjoyable
on a rueful, knowing-chuckle level. But still, granted that the
ironies are easy and shallow, how could they further any larger
purpose of making the audience see the present war as a good thing?
This puzzle is solved in "Staging the Catastrophe,"
a paper about The Great Game that Nicholas Cull published
in Theater Topics [21:2, Sept. 2011]. Cull greatly admires
the plays, "a crash-course in the complexities of a land whose
past has been little known by those eager to shape its future"
, and he thinks "the most remarkable example of [the Cycle's]
capacity building was in the way Great Game was sought
by the US military as a resource for instruction."  He describes
the evolution of The Great Game as "an unprecedented
case of theatre in the service of diplomacy," produced with the
help of the British Council and the US Department of Defense as
a useful policy tool. Most important, he emphasizes that the Cycle's
critique of earlier British policy makes the work convincing,
"builds a reputation… for Britain as honest and trustworthy" 
and "lends it credibility" . In other words, the "critical"
parts seduce the audience into taking the play as true overall,
the way a bit of self-deprecation makes a person seem honest.
They disarm the spectator's mind, so that themes quite useful
in pushing the American or British military's point of view are
easily accepted rather than questioned.
What are these useful themes? First, consider
the way violence is handled. The young soldier's murder of the
Afghan is impulsive and confused; it is not what the killer "meant,"
and he isn't held responsible. In contrast, Afghan warfare's "cruel
ways," though they aren't shown, are described at great length:
slashing, mutilating, beheading. "When we have killed like gentlemen
he has hacked and dismembered," says the patriotic private. Even
when the skeptical soldier disagrees, he justifies Afghan behavior
only on the ground that the English have not played fair, while
saying that of course he would never behave that way himself.
Many atrocities are mentioned over the
next eleven hours, and none of them are committed by Brits or
Americans. None. Odd. The resonance of beheading then with beheading
now does its work, but silence reigns on the question of British
war crimes then and ours now. In one play, this might pass. But
in all twelve?
Second, consider stereotypes. These are
of the peculiar sort in which positive qualities are used negatively.
The condescending wisdom of Bugles's murdered Afghan,
his air of ethical superiority to men shocked by their loss of
an entire army, is insufferable long before he's bayoneted. He
may be right, but his mode is pure righteousness. As a child I
saw a crusader movie in which Richard the Lionhearted thwacked
furiously around with his broadsword and Saladin, smiling, responded
by throwing a silk scarf in the air so that it landed on his elegant
curved blade to fall, silently, cut in two. Clunky Richard, of
course, was the hero. Throughout The Great Game, the
Afghan characters -- including warlords and Taliban -- are cleverer
than the Brits or Americans they're talking to, deeply ironical,
with a tendency to quote poetry. These qualities serve mainly
to reinforce their basic perfidy. Perhaps only anti-intellectual
cultures indulge this particular mode of prejudice.
Bugles's depictions of violence
and its stereotypes speak to the question asked by all its characters:
is this war, however difficult, a just war? They encourage us
to answer yes, by undermining the skeptical soldier's arguments,
so convincing to a contemporary anti-war ear, and make us wonder
how we could refuse to intervene in the affairs of such a devious
and bloody-minded nation. There is also a certain charge-of-the-light-brigade
nobility about the buglers' call, hoping against hope, announcing
optimism in the valley of death, that perversely turns physical
loss into spiritual gain.
"They will plot and survey and map, of course."
The tension between Afghan tradition and
western modernization is another of The Great Game's
recurrent themes. In Ron Hutchinson's Durand's Line,
Sir Henry Mortimer Durand embodies modern reason (circa 1898)
and Abdur Rahman, fat and wily Amir of Afghanistan, plays the
thing has to be defined, that's what this century has been about,
that's where progress comes from," Durand tells the Amir, waving
a map that shows the border he wants set between Afghanistan and
India so the Russians will be kept at bay and Afghanistan will
serve as a buffer, "a sovereign and stable country between them
and us." "Which makes me what?" Rahman asks, "An ear of grain
between two millstones?" Sir Henry loathes metaphors. An obtusely
rational, humorless, but dogged Englishman set against a clever,
poetical Afghan: stereotypes, as before. The Amir beats Durand
at every point in their long argument about boundaries, nationalities,
change, and fixedness. He is quick-witted and historically correct.
But he also builds triumphal skull towers (barbarism, as before)
and, crucially, corrupt: when Sir Henry offers him weapons and
a monopoly of the opium trade, he signs on, selling out his country
while predicting sagely that all concerned will regret it.
Durand's Line remains the demarcation between
Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we now know the region they're discussing
as the Tribal Areas. (Here's the heavy hand of history again.)
The men, in real life, may have resembled these two, or not --
I wonder how an Afghan playwright would have described them. Regardless,
the play's characterizations skew its usefulness as a history
lesson. Durand is shown creating the conditions for historical
disaster, and he's a fool. But he's honest. No spectator could
think it really would have been best to leave matters in the Amir's
bloodstained, greedy hands. We see plain-spoken, we see oily:
obvious choice. But plain-spoken versus oily are an old East-West
trope, a convention that leads to conventional responses. What
if Durand had been corrupt -- the present British establishment
can't be a new development -- and, more of a stretch, the Amir
an honest man maligned by his enemies? What if the play had been
written from the point of view of villagers living in the Territories,
doomed to be squashed between two armies for generations?
"A very few white people, but many Asiatics, can throw
themselves into a mazement [two words]… by letting the mind go
free upon speculation as to what is called personal identity."
The characters in Joy Wilkinson's Now
is the Time, two plays later, step out of the Orientalist
stereotype, only to fall on their faces as would-be Occidentals
and introduce another theme: Afghans cannot change their own society.
Reformist King Amanullah (1919-1929), recently overthrown by conservative
tribal leaders, is on his way to meet a Soviet force that will
take him back to Kabul and power. At the moment, he has been thwarted
by his Rolls Royce, "the greatest engine in the world," which
sits, a gleaming symbol of modernization, stuck in the equally
symbolic Afghan snow. With him are Soraya, his liberated, un-veiled
queen, and Tarzi, his father-in-law, a prominent intellectual
and editor. The only westerner on stage is their chauffeur.
Amanullah tells the driver to walk to the
nearest town and wire the Russians for help. While he's gone,
we learn that Amanullah opened schools for girls, replaced sharia
law, and pumped Europe and the Soviets for aid (while hoping fruitlessly
that America would help). Our sort of hero. Then we also learn
that he may have killed his father to gain the throne; and, to
keep it, betrayed Soraya by telling a conservative tribal council
he would divorce her, while promising to hand Tarzi over for imprisonment
or death. Not such a hero.
the chauffeur comes back it turns out that the Russians have changed
plans and ditched Amanullah, so the chauffeur saves the lives
of all three by reversing course and heading off to the airport
so they can fly into exile. We must conclude that reform by Afghans
is a hopeless enterprise, stuck in the savage drifts, rescued
only by having a Brit at the wheel. A real westerner, not a colonial
imitation. Perhaps in Amanullah's case this was true. In a play,
it should be debatable.
The next forty-nine years of modern Afghan history, 1930 to 1979,
vanish from The Great Game. When Afghanistan gained independence
in 1919, surely Britain's spies, and the Russian spies playing
the other side of the board, didn't leave the country. Afghanistan
remained "an ear of grain between two millstones." Amanullah was
succeeded by tribal rule, which didn't last long; the 40-year
monarchy that followed made cautious social and economic reforms,
while the country stayed neutral during both world wars. During
the Cold War it maintained relations with both the USSR and the
United States, maneuvering to get development aid from each side.
It became a constitutional monarchy, then a republic, and briefly
a Communist state before the tribes rebelled, causing the Soviet
invasion. Women got the right to vote in 1965, before Switzerland
or Portugal. Perhaps British and American playwrights couldn't
find anything dramatic in that half century. Perhaps writers from
other places could have. But would General Richards or the Pentagon
have been interested?
"The folly of the Sahibs has neither top nor bottom."
Amanullah is first mentioned in Campaign,
a "present-day" satire by Amit Gupta, performed between Durand's
Line and Now Is the Time, and the first of three
plays directly about the game played in Afghanistan by western
intelligence services. We are in England. Kite, a sinister British
foreign office operative, asks Khan, a history professor born
in Pakistan, to work on a project that will popularize Tarzi and
Amanullah as part of a "nonmilitary counterinsurgency program."
Kite wants to manufacture a revival of native reformist history
that will de-westernize the idea of secular democracy, thus creating
a wave of non-Islamist Afghan nationalism; this third-way movement
will then give NATO an excuse to withdraw from Afghanistan so
it can embark on a new war in Pakistan. The dialogue is icily
funny and the idea both disgusting and frightening, even more
pointed now than when written a few years ago. As the Coalition's
combat soldiers leave, its hearts-and-minds dirty tricks increase.
While Kite describes his plan and tries
to draw Khan in, a CIA man named Speed sits nearby, constantly
checking his phone and watch. Kite may be sleek and ominous, but
Speed's the control. The professor holds his own, and when the
spooks propose that he lend credibility to their proposal by adding
his name, he shows principled outrage -- until his family is threatened
and he instantly capitulates. (Surely it would be more realistic
to buy him off with an endowed chair, but all these plays seem
wedded to some writer's-manual notion that there has to be at
least a promise of violence after their mid-point, however forced.)
Uniquely in The Great Game, Campaign
mentions the British government's poodle-ish role in the present
war, and shows a clever and devious Westerner duping a genuinely
sincere Easterner. More important, Campaign shifts the
burden of Western imperialism from England to America in the form
of the CIA. At first I could see nothing this wonderfully cynical
play had to teach the Pentagon audience that General Richards
would want it to learn. Of course, the military always hopes to
convince people that both the British and the American intelligence
services have the morals of scorpions -- no argument there, though
defense establishments seem to get really angry not when Intelligence
types behave like Kite, but when they argue against military policy.
But the play has one important defense-friendly
side-effect: it bolsters
the notion that Afghans cannot reform themselves and discredits
nonwestern scholarship. Suppose a research project at Kabul University,
funded by an Afghan peace-and-democracy NGO, published a book
about Amanullah and Tarzi that was then used to further the arguments
of a secularist party. It would be hard, after seeing Campaign,
not to think this was a CIA job. After all, critical academics
from that part of the world can't be trusted. As a parallel, there's
the cold-war CIA funding of the British social-democratic intellectual
There are a couple of sympathetic CIA agents in The Great
Game, but they come from the generation before Speed, and
are defeated. Lee Blessing's Wood for the Fire takes
place in the 1980s: a patriotic middle-aged CIA agent's good intentions
are foiled by his icily bureaucratic younger female deputy. Ben
Ockrent's Honey is set in 1996 and 2001: a politically
"passionate" older CIA man is frustrated by a "no-nonsense" woman
from the State Department. In both plays, the CIA men are foiled
in their desire for an honest "relationship" with the Afghan mujahidin
that America is arming -- against the Soviets in Blessing's play,
against the Taliban in Ockrent's. Because of the stupidity or
ideological blindness of their women bosses, Blessing's agent
is completely duped by the Pakistani intelligence service, the
ISI, and Ockrent's hero can't keep his promises to Ahmed Shah
Massoud's relatively moderate anti-Taliban forces, a failure that
leads directly to 9/11.
Western men, not too swift but good guys;
wily deceptive Pakistanis; moderate Afghan leaders who understand
history, quote poetry, and fail miserably -- these are variations
on the stereotypes mentioned before, with the addition of ill-intentioned,
powerful women. The basic narratives accord with the history books
I skimmed; the trick played on Blessing's CIA man, Owens, actually
happened to William Casey, then CIA Director [Steve Coll, Ghost
Wars, p. 100]. All the characters may be fact-based but once
again it doesn't matter, because they're too schematically drawn
to be true. Need I mention that at no point in either play does
anyone express the idea that the world would be better off and
history would have taken a healthier turn if the CIA had simply
stopped playing this game?
"He learned to avoid missionaries and white men of serious aspect."
When The Great Game moves into
the 1990s and 2000s, the invading forces of modernization are
represented -- in The Lion of Kabul and On the Side
of the Angels -- by humanitarian aid agencies. To a liberal,
theater-wise spectator these two plays seem extremely different,
but to a Coalition warrior they no doubt make the same basic point:
what the UN and aid organizations do is useless and counterproductive.
Colin Teevan's The Lion of Kabul
is set in 1998. Rabia, the Egyptian-British director of operations
at a UN food distribution agency, and her Afghan translator go
to the Kabul zoo at night to meet a Taliban official who can tell
them what has happened to two vanished members of her Afghan staff.
The edge of the stage is the rim of the lions' pit, in which the
audience evidently sits. A young mullah appears instead of the
official. Speechifying self-righteously in excellent English,
he tells an equally self-righteous Rabia that the Taliban serve
justice, just like Marjan the lion (roar from below), who once
tore apart a man who invaded his territory.
It seems the two aid workers were thrown
extra-judicially to the lions by irate locals, and the mullah
presses Rabia to agree that these locals, whom the Taliban has
caught, should be executed the same way, in the Taliban version
of an eye for an eye. After all, the UN charter says she has to
respect a country's laws and customs. Of course the young mullah
may or may not be telling the truth, either about the crime or
the customs, but Rabia doesn't challenge him. She protests feebly,
threatens to pull the UN out of Afghanistan, then leaves. Her
translator decides to stay, declaring, "I am on the side of those
who must live here after you have gone." As the play ends, "the
guards prepare to feed the prisoners to the lions."
I looked this animal up. Marjan was indeed a real lion and once,
though not on political grounds, chewed up an intruder; despite
this bad moment, the tabloid Mail on Sunday adopted him
in 2002. A Google search didn't find him making meals of aid workers.
Two UN Afghan food program staff were abducted and killed in 1998,
but by human Taliban. Hapless, arrogant UN bureaucrats are also
real. Still, it was hard to believe that Rabia would traipse out
to meet the Taliban in the dark. I called a friend who works for
the UN in a difficult country and described the scenario. Ridiculous,
he said, a trained local team, male, would have been sent to negotiate
about the disappearance of colleagues, with serious back-up, and
not at night. The Lion of Kabul presented a spurious
ethical dilemma enacted by caricatures in a setting that was melodramatic
The decisions made by the aid workers
in Richard Bean's On the Side of the Angels are, on the
other hand, difficult and unromantic. Jackie, hard-headed director
of a fictional NGO's Afghanistan programs, sends an Afghan colleague,
Jalaluddin, to negotiate with a poppy-dealing warlord who has
stolen land from a group of farmers. In order to convince the
warlord to return the land before they starve, Jackie authorizes
Jalaluddin to agree to any solution but one: the farmers must
not be forced to grow poppies. When Jalaluddin comes back, he
reports success: the land has been returned in exchange for three
girl children who will become brides for the warlord, his nephew,
and his cousin. Jackie accepts this, but her younger colleague
Graham, an idealistic political type who has just joined the team,
rides off on his motorcycle to rescue the girls; Jackie goes after
him, and they are killed (off-stage). Two scenes with the NGO's
English home office staff open and close the play, both articulating
in a few minutes' smart, sharp, and very cold-eyed conversation
many books' worth of argument about cultural relativism, human
rights, the exploitation of suffering to raise money, and the
corrupt priorities of aid organizations.
I wondered, however, about that deal with
the child brides. This time I talked to several people at different
NGOs, including one who had recently worked in Afghanistan, and
each said it was possible. "We've all done things that we're not
The Lion of Kabul and On the
Side of the Angels, one melodramatic and laughably implausible,
the other well-crafted, smart, surprising, and all too plausible,
share a message of comfort to those who want to win hearts and
minds while bombing and killing: humanitarian aid work is fatally
compromised, run by fools, cynics, and well-meaning intelligent
do-gooders whose best intentions are foiled by reality. We are
left to conclude that such matters should be left to soldiers,
who are unhampered either by sentimentality or the demands of
donors. Of course, when the military does offer developmental
or humane aid, it in turn fatally compromises the work of real
aid groups, whose motives become suspect. But no play here discusses
A third piece about aid, Abi Morgan's
hopeful The Night Is Darkest before the Dawn, added a
surprising new viewpoint -- what have we here? optimism? -- but
its scenes of an Afghan teacher's quiet but successful struggle
to enroll girl students were bogged down by a hammy backstory
and drowsy pace, exactly wrong for spectators who had already
sat through nine plays and several staged interludes. This was
too bad, as all the characters except one rude and befuddled American
were Afghan, and poppies played an unexpectedly pleasant role.
Above all, it was noteworthy that this possibility of change for
the better came, as the play stated, in April, 2002, after the
Coalition invasion and occupation.
"With millions of fellow-serfs, he had learned to look
upon Russia as the great deliverer from the North."
David Edgar's Black Tulips and
David Greig's Miniskirts of Kabul are about Reds, people
from whom we, and the Pentagon audience, presumably feel more
distanced than from western spies or do-gooders, and both plays
manage in their different ways to step outside the elementary
realism that afflicts the cycle's other works. Yet even here,
writing about the total failure both of the Soviet invasion and
of indigenous Afghan communism, the message turns out to be that
the best thing for the Coalition, more than twenty years later,
is to stick to its guns.
In Black Tulips, the spectators
are addressed as Soviet conscripts briefed by their officers on
arrival in Afghanistan. Because everyone knows what happened to
the Russians, Edgar can tell his story in reverse, moving the
scenes back in time from 1987 to 1981 so we hear about failure
and disillusion before we encounter idealism and optimism, making
the narrative more painful. There is no plot, only a series of
scenes whose resonances with the present are unsettling in a way
quite different from the sad reminders of a play like Bugles.
The parallels are obvious from the beginning
-- it's 1987 and the main character, an earnest, limping Unit
Commander, is arguing against the imminent Soviet pull-out. "Sometimes,
yes, sure, it seems, however many battles we win on the ground,
we just recruit more fighters for the other side." But, he reminds
his complaining troops, they are building roads and schools, protecting
"the country from those who want to keep large parts of it in
conditions of primitive medieval barbarism." Other Soviet officers
are shown as brutes, racists or idiot propagandists for the last
glorious surge, but as the play progresses into the past we see
that the Commander has always been a decent sort, and by the final
scene, back in 1981, he's young, enthusiastic, and unwounded,
telling his new recruits that they're fighting in a noble cause.
To prove his point, he presents three Afghan women who describe
their liberation from burquas and forced marriages. One says,
"I work in an elementary school which was built by Soviet volunteers."
The Commander beams proudly. "If anyone asks you why you're here,
then tell them of these brave young women and their lives."
The whole play is a game of difference
and similarity. Russian patriotic slogans sound utterly alien
("All hail to the heroic 40th army") while the falseness of that
patriotism rings completely familiar. An "angry Major" makes a
speech that could have come from the mouth of a 19th-century British,
or 21st-century American, general: "you're going to be up against
a ragbag jumble of squabbling blackarses whose only common aim
is to take their country back into the stone age … Whose favored
method of summary execution is to cut around a prisoner's belly,
roll his skin up to his head and tie it in a bow. To which practices
we are enjoined to be 'culturally sensitive.'"  Afghan government
officials simultaneously suck up to and defy the occupier, like
Hamid Karzai today. A chummy, calloused sapper pushes a trolley
full of mines on stage and explains their use in all its mutilating
variety, describing their effects on soldiers, on the fields that
support peasant life, on children. "He winks at the audience."
This is the humor of soldiers shooting from helicopters, with
even the Skirball audience complicit both in its role as Russian
recruits and as itself--Americans paying for, while paying little
attention to, our own war.
Commander has many illusions ("You have come not as an invader
or an occupier, but to render international aid"  but he's
never a swine like the other Soviet officers. He must have presented
a difficulty to that Pentagon audience: it's one thing to be told
they're following a path laid out by earlier mistaken but (at
least as depicted) well-meaning imperialists, much worse to see
themselves mirrored by Soviet totalitarians, people completely
distant from their ideological bloodline, one of whom in part
reflects their own self-image: dutiful, honest, doing his best.
Why is he, a Soviet officer, portrayed
this way? A cold hack would be historically convincing. Possibly
Edgar wanted to counteract clichéd ideas of Soviet Communism and
Communists, or needed a warm spirit, someone who questioned and
didn't necessarily approve, to take us through events. Someone
we identified with. When he says at the end, "What happens if
we fail?" the audience knows the answer: the USSR came apart,
Afghanistan fell into civil war, and its people were worse off
than ever. Certainly for Afghanistan, it would have been better
if they, a Commander-like they, had stayed. And because of the
Commander's nature, his "we" becomes our "we," and the lesson
is: despite everything, America, now, should stay.
David Greig's Miniskirts of Kabul
presents Afghanistan's Red past through the life of Najibullah,
who was Communist president of Afghanistan from 1986 to 1992,
that is, from right before the Soviet withdrawal through the civil
war with the mujahidin. In 1992, when his government fell, Najibullah
took asylum in a UN compound in Kabul, where he stayed until the
Taliban takeover and his death. The play's conceit is that a present-day
character, "the Writer," is imagining herself in 1996, interviewing
Najibullah on what she knows to be his last day alive. "We only
have a short time," she says, without explaining why. The audience
understands, Najibullah doesn't, and the device allows Greig to
be both didactic and inventive.
The Writer's questions about Najibullah's
early life and political development open up the historical background.
Sometimes there are present echoes, as when she asks whether it's
true that as head of the secret police he tortured and killed
his prisoners, and he answers, "These bastards who wanted to keep
Afghanistan in the dark ages? I was defending my country." We've
heard variations on this recently, at home. Other events sound
unimaginably remote, like the faction fights of the early Afghan
CP; still, as he describes them, we recognize a familiar type,
the Communist with dirty hands, the reformer with an ends-and-means
problem, Jackie in On the Side of the Angels.
She asks whether it's true that, under
Communism, women in Kabul wore miniskirts. "Is that what people
talk about when they talk about Afghanistan? They talk about fashion?"
he asks her. "They talk about women," she replies.  She imagines
the miniskirt and puts it on, but it's a disappointment, drab,
Soviet-style, down to the knee. Real. Or at any rate convincing
as a skirt imported from Communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s,
during Najibullah's regime. Miniskirts's published script
includes a quotation from a 1973 history of Afghanistan: "today
… miniskirts, worn by pert schoolgirls, blossom on the streets,"
 which evokes the sexier miniskirts our Writer had probably
had in mind. But in 1973, Afghanistan wasn't Communist; its reformist
president, Mohammed Daud, was overthrown by the left in 1978.
Presumably this is The Writer's mistake, which the playwright
corrects with the dowdy skirt that's evoked: her imagination conjures
up something more factual than her own ideas. A dizzying and intensely
theatrical notion. (At last.)
The Writer questions Najibullah as a doomed
figure; he answers like a man with a great future. When asked
why he refuses exile, he says, "I don't want freedom on the streets
of Madrid. This is not a great game for me … I want freedom on
the streets of Kabul … For you this is imaginary, for me it is
real." He believes in progress, he loves his country, his crimes
were committed against its enemies. Or so Greig imagines the Writer
imagining him, perhaps to show she romanticizes the Left -- Najibullah,
former head of the secret police, could be a much darker figure,
his directness and realism overbalanced by his brutality -- or
possibly because Greig himself romanticizes him. No matter: his
character adds weight to the argument that we should have listened
to his final proposals to lead a nonaligned Afghanistan against
the Taliban. It is hard not to like him, and hard not to come
away with the same feeling that Black Tulips engenders:
giving up is the worst choice; we mustn't give up. "I couldn't
believe the world would be so stupid as to let Kabul fall to the
Mujaheddin," says Najibullah. It was.
Taliban get closer; there are shots and explosions. When Najibullah
wants whiskey, the Writer conjures up a bottle of Johnny Walker,
but she can't imagine a gun when he needs one. She cannot affect
history. After all, she is just a writer. She suggests imagining
a solution -- her proposal is that Najibullah form an alliance
with Massoud (the moderate Islamist in Lee Blessing's play) and
escape Kabul. Najibullah refuses: "This is my city. I'll hold
on." He takes off his suit, puts on Afghan clothes, and waits.
He asks the Writer what happens next, and she, ending the play,
tells him. Most people in the audience probably remembered the
photos of his ravaged body hanging from a lamp post, and the Writer's
cool, precise description is terrifyingly sad. Especially its
last line: "I imagine you fought."
Why would the Pentagon audience and General
Sir Richard -- for it's time to return to them -- welcome two
such harsh critiques of Cold War attitudes, in which a Soviet
officer and an Afghan Communist dictator are rather sympathetic
protagonists? Because they reinforce the message that Afghanistan
must not be left to itself.
"Now lend me thy spectacles."
During the lulls and transitions of the
Cycle's eleven hours, the mind tended to wander toward dinner
and unpaid bills and the plays that weren't there. Why not a play
about drones by someone as angry as Rolf Hochhuth when he wrote
Soldiers, about the carpet-bombing of his native Germany?
Or a documentary play about that emblematic prison Bagram, spanning
the Soviet period to the present, or maybe compressed to its American
torture time, 2002 to 2011? Where were the spies inside Afghanistan
acting dirty, instead of spies in England being witty? Contractors,
corruption, Karzai? Scenes from the inner workings of the Taliban,
by an Afghan journalist? An Afghan family crisis under monarchy,
or communism, or the Taliban, or a family living through the present
war? A satire on negotiating with the Taliban? A monologue by
an Afghan poet on absolutely anything?
Absent. The Great Game was basically
interested in Us, not Them. It was much less interested in the
natives than Kipling was a hundred years ago when he wrote Kim.
But how are we expected to understand the history or debate the
war without listening to Afghans, or genuinely dissident British
"It is by means of women that all plans come to ruin and
we lie out in dawning with our throats cut."
Simon Stephens's Canopy of Stars,
the last play, finally addressed, at length and out front, the
question underlying the entire cycle: why are the United States,
Britain, and the Coalition still playing this Game, not merely
of spies but of armies, and dare we call it Great?
In the course of the evening, many tentative
answers had been proposed. In Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad
an Afghan civilian asks, and is told: to defend the Empire, to
stop Afghan barbarism, to defend Christianity, because Britain
miscalculated and got stuck. Durand's Line on the surface
gives only reasons of state -- Britain needs a buffer nation to
protect India from Russia -- but the Emir shows how much worse
the sly corruption of the Afghan leadership is than Durand's dunderheaded
rationalism: Afghanistan needs England to protect it from itself.
In the secret-services plays, our side is there to get rid of
the other side, Russian or Taliban, fighting the Cold War or the
war against Islamic fundamentalism. In the humanitarian-aid plays,
the UN and the NGOs prove so naive and ineffective that military
help is obviously necessary. And it has to be foreign, as every
Afghan reformer we see is doomed. As the plots move into the 21st
century, the emphasis turns completely toward the Afghans's "bestial
ways," so the problem of intervention can be seen as purely ethical,
unsullied by crass questions of politics and economics. We are
there because it's the right thing to do.
Canopy of Stars exemplifies this
strangely ahistorical idea. In the first scene, a quiet young
private, Richard, and an opinionated older sergeant, Jay, talk
and clean their weapons while they wait to raid a Taliban village.
Jay, opinionated and wry about the enemy, the war, and his superiors,
sizes up the younger man and vice versa. The two men look at the
war differently. When Richard asks whether the Coalition is going
to talk to the Taliban, Jay gets irate: "A fucking Shura. I'll
still be killing the twats. I'll charge their meetings. Fucking
Rambo style." When Richard says he's "fighting for my mates,"
Jay replies, "I want to take the face of every single last Taliban
and grind it into the rock of the desert …They'll take a schoolteacher.
They'll skin the fucker alive … I am gonna draw a line. Give the
dumb-arsed ragheads a vote. Bob 'em tinternet. YOUPORN'd sort
them cunts out good and proper. … That's what I'm fucking here
When the theater goes dark for scene two,
the audience is barraged with desperate shouts, snatches of urgent
dialogue, explosions, gunfire -- hard on the ears but no more
viscerally affecting than the roar of the Lion of Kabul. Such
scenes can't be done "realistically" in theater, and why should
they be? We know better. (See, for example, Danfung Dennis's documentary
film Hell and Back Again, a true representation of battle
chaos, tension, and despair.) It's hard to tell what takes place,
except that someone is injured and Jay tries desperately to save
In the third scene, Jay sits glumly in
front of the TV in his Manchester living room, drinking tea, while
his girlfriend Cheryl berates him for ignoring his six-year-old
son, begs him not to go back to Afghanistan, and rants against
the war: "[Afghanistan] will always be a mess. But you're making
it a thousand times worse. And if all you're doing is shitting
on the place and its shitty people then I want my husband back."
 He responds by telling her about a ten-year-old, "able to
learn to read … because we were there stopping anything from happening
to her."  One day, a Taliban, who "giggled a bit," threw
acid at the girl. "He burnt her eyes out because she was ten and
she was going to school. Don't you dare tell me that I'm making
that a thousand times worse … if we leave now then that'll
be everything fucked." 
Cheryl answers that everything's already
fucked, girls are brutalized in Manchester too, and he's an action
hero trying to make himself feel good. Then she says, "People
shouldn't survive in places like that … It's a hole in the bottom
of the world. You should let them burn. They deserve it," 
and by adding racism, or at least lack of compassion, to her pessimism
she loses the entire argument -- certainly in the minds of a New
York audience -- before ending with her real concern: that he'll
be killed. He tells her to go to bed, and the play ends. After
a full day and night of performance, we are left with this: the
warrior determined to fight for justice, the wife/mother determined
to keep him domestic. Such an old, irritating image, John Wayne
on horseback with some blonde tugging vainly at his reins. Jay
is a stressed-out but decent man who must keep doing what he's
been doing, reflecting a foreign policy that's in the same situation.
General Richard can live with this defense of redeployment. (His
analysis of the war requires any redeployment argument he can
find: "The army's role will evolve, but the process might take
as long as 30 or 40 years," he told the London Times
on August 9, 2009.)
Except there's something wrong with that
acid story. The audience has read about real acid attacks, and
it's chilling to hear Jay's words. At the same time, these words
are completely unrelated to the man shown in the bunker, who dwells
on the pleasures of twisting a bayonet in the enemy's chest and
instead of worrying about schoolgirls talks like a sexist pig.
Before the battle, Jay tells Richard about his last visit home,
expressing thorough, glum distaste for the whole family scene
-- mother, girlfriend and son. He enjoys war. He doesn't need
the fate of Afghan girls to drag him back. More important, the
story itself damns him. If he was there during the attack, why
didn't he do anything? If he wasn't present in the flesh -- though
he tells the incident as if he saw it -- how can he sound so righteous?
A few moments before, he claimed that the British forces "were
there stopping anything from happening to her." The very same
girl, and they didn't stop it. Now he's proud, not struck down
Cheryl didn't notice this at the time,
nor did I. Presumably we were blinded by the very mention of an
attack on a girl. Gender-injustice is the one argument Jay, an
unlikely feminist, found at hand, and apparently the one that
still works in defense of the war. The plight of Afghan women
doesn't interest the 19th-century soldiers in Bugles,
or Durand and the various spies, but in all the other plays western
values and modernization are symbolized by throwing off the veil.
Amanullah is brought down by what his wife embodies. Women's equality
is essential to the Soviet Army's program, at any rate its propaganda.
Greig's Writer is preoccupied with Najibullah's attitude towards
women. In those plays women's rights are only part of the situation,
but by the time the Cycle gets to Jackie, in On the Side of
the Angels, who wants to concentrate on land and hunger,
the problem of the child brides takes over.
Afghanistan is one of the worst places
in the world to be female, and the presence of women's oppression
in The Great Game should be admirable. Instead it's a
trick. So the war costs $2 billion a week? Is that too much to
pay for the human rights of half the population? Bush used similar
tropes. Really, does anyone believe for a second that American
or British power cares about Afghan women? Have we invaded Congo?
Saudi Arabia? The answer to the question, "why are we in Afghanistan?"
is not "women," and that The Great Game ends up proposing
no other answer is its ultimate dishonesty.
"Things that were meaningless on the eyeball an instant
before slid into proper proportion."
As she left about three-quarters of the
way through, my companion said, "It can't be done this way." By
"it" she seemed to mean The Great Game's purpose and
by "this way" the form in which it was expressed: she assumed
that the purpose was to shake up the comfortable complacency of
the New York audience, whether for or against the war, but that
alas this couldn't be achieved through the constricted means of
half-hour realism. I agreed, and only knee-jerk optimism kept
me from leaving too.
But it was done this way because this was
exactly the way the project would work best. If The Great
Game had intended to shake up its audience, General Richards
wouldn't have found it appealing, and Nicholas Kent would have
been astonished at the General's praise in 2010 and outraged at
the Pentagon's invitation a year later, rather than delighted
by both. The real intention was to show a reassuring semblance
of debate -- we're listening to both sides, we see the historical
problems, we're aware of our own prejudices -- while actually
presenting a series of arguments for the western military presence
as the only possible course, despite all difficulties and contradictions.
Yes, it's a quagmire, but we're heroic to be wading through the
mud and we have no choice. Into the valley of death it must be,
for the world's good.
This policy message came wrapped in the
comforts of a familiar dramatic style: realistic-sounding dialogue,
characters who showed a brief range of recognizable traits, plots
containing one clear conflict and a speedy arc towards its resolution.
This isn't the place to argue whether conventional form inevitably
leads to conventional wisdom. In The Great Game, everything
-- every dramaturgical aspect -- led to conventional wisdom; the
plots were geared that way, and so were the characters.
Talking about "positive" and "negative"
characters gives me the willies; it always sounds like the first
step towards social-realist criticism or identity-politics reviewing.
But a little bean-counting is useful. There were seventy-five
characters in all -- many parts were doubled. Twenty-eight were
westerners, only two of whom were outright wicked rather than
deluded: Campaign's spies, Kite and Speed. Perhaps the
character Jonathan, a humanitarian-aid fundraiser in On the
Side of the Angels who photoshops refugee photos, should
be added. The plays covered 168 years of imperialist war, during
which all these British and American diplomats, spies, and soldiers
were good-enough people even when on the wrong track. No westerner
was cruel. The only western soldier we saw doing violence was
a scared kid in 1842; the only western soldier enjoying the prospect
of violence claimed to act in the name of social justice. For
anyone who reads the news, this was ridiculous.
Nicholas Kent told Nicholas Cull that he
wanted the American tour of the plays "to lay the foundations
for smarter engagement in Afghanistan." [Cull, 132] The audience
to be smartened up consisted, in the February 2011 special Pentagon
performance, of "senior civilians and service personnel" from
the DOD and "the army's new echelon of specialists in training
for extended deployments in Afghanistan," as well as "scholars,
journalists, think tankers, Capitol Hill staffers, and even veterans."
 I don't think our engagement in Afghanistan has gotten smarter
in the year since any of these people saw The Great Game,
but surely it made them feel better about themselves and the war.
Admittedly the history is checkered, of course nobody's perfect,
but always remember the best is the enemy of the good and we're
In Miniskirts, Najibullah protests
against the Writer's entire project, and, implicitly, The
Great Game as an undertaking. "My country has been imagined
enough. My country is the creation of foreign imaginings … The
border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is an imaginary line …
Imagining your way into my life to … what, own me?"  Own,
yes. But even worse, use.
Page references from the plays are from
The Great Game: Afghanistan (London: Oberon Books, 2009).
Photos copyright John Haynes, 2010.
Article copyright Erika Munk, 2011.