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
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
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" , 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
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
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,
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
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
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.'"  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" 
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
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."
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."  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
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 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
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 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?"  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.