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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 not enough.

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.

The 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" [125], 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." [135] 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" [127] and "lends it credibility" [128]. 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 Oriental mind.

"A 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.

When 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 journal Encounter.

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."

So 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 claptrap.

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 comfortable with."

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 this.

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.'" [98] 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.

The Commander has many illusions ("You have come not as an invader or an occupier, but to render international aid" [103] 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. [141] 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," [127] 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.

The 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 and Americans?

"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 for." [243-4]

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 him.

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." [251] 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." [252] 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." [252]

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," [253] 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 by guilt?

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." [134] 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 doing good.

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?" [134] 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.