The Great Game: Afghanistan is a long, long series of plays. Clocking in at some seven-and-a-half hours, the Tricycle Theatre Company’s marathon run through nearly 170 years of Afghan history leaves one at once exhausted, humbled, and oddly invigorated. This tour de force through Afghanistan’s tribulations under British, Soviet, and now American occupation leaves the viewer feeling rather better educated, but perhaps more baffled than ever before. “Are we in our ninth year in Afghanistan?” ponders an aide to Gen. Stanley McChrystal in a dramatic representation of an actual statement. “Or are we on our first year for the ninth time?” If it were only nine years that mattered!But when one views the plays in the company of soldiers, and I did, many of whom have returned or will soon embark to partake in a round of the Great Game themselves, it begs an altogether more pressing curiosity. For me the play was a sweeping, emotional history lesson that had me ruminating over my political views. But what must it be for a soldier, whose own body must confront the political realities that the rest of us will only condemn, endorse, or ignore?
I was given the opportunity to pose this question. In conjunction with the British Council, the Bob Woodruff Foundation, and the Pentagon itself, Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company hosted a special two-night run of the Tricycle’s production for an audience composed almost entirely of current and former members of the military. For two nights at least, these soldiers were allowed the opportunity to contemplate Afghanistan in the theater of stage, not battle.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’” said Douglas Wilson, an official from the Pentagon’s besieged public affairs department. “’Aren’t these plays going to be anti-war?’ I don’t see that at all. People ask this question as if soldiers and the arts come from different planets… This is the proof that the arts provide a means of understanding a very important, complex country.” He added, “It’s a great service to provide this history in a way that’s not a policy briefing.”
And indeed, for much of the audience, The Great Game was foremost an enthralling history lesson. “It’s really enlightening,” said one. “I had no idea how intense this place was,” said another. “It’s just so complicated. I served in Iraq, and that felt easy compared to this.” One, who had an academic background in military history and spoke very intelligently about the country’s past and people, indicated a burning desire to learn more. “We didn’t take the time,” he said, to seek out Afghanistan’s “nuances and narratives… There really is no common history there.”
The plays spoke as well to many soldiers’ own memories of Afghanistan. The military experience of the audience was particularly evident in the knowing laughter that greeted one character, a bumbling foreign aid worker, as he mispronounced Islamic greetings and repeatedly threw up his hands in frustration at his utter inability to understand the heated Pashto conversations going on around him. This was “an excellent portrayal,” said one veteran, “of not knowing what the hell is going on.” “It’s so frustrating,” added his friend. “Everyone knows it but you. And sometimes you don’t know whether they want to laugh at you or shoot you.”
Other moments invited weightier reflections. In “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad,” one of the production’s more gripping plays, four British buglers stand watch outside Jalalabad, awaiting any sign of survivors from a massacre levied upon some 16,000 occupying British soldiers and their families in 1842. In the oppressive and ominous darkness, the soldiers argue with each other through bouts of despair at their situation, anger with their military leadership, disillusion with the British government, hatred for the “savage” Afghans, and a stoic resolve to carry on at their posts. “I’ve stood watch at night in Afghanistan,” said one veteran, his eyes drifting into a reflective gaze. “It’s so dark. You can have all four of those voices going on in your own head at once.”
But The Great Game is not a merely didactic endeavor, a flesh-and-blood interpretation of a history we might have otherwise gleaned from books. When Shakespeare Theatre’s Chris Jennings insisted that “this play asks the questions; it doesn’t answer them,” he wasn’t simply punting on some of its more provocative suggestions. Assuming the perspective of some of the characters depicted in the third set of plays, primarily set in the contemporary period, one might be left unsure of exactly how to feel about the present conflict.
Some of this confusion might come from the nature of the plays themselves. While the playwrights treat many of the characters quite humanely, the plays covering the British and Soviet periods largely wear the varnish off whatever loftier motives the imperial powers might have professed in their jockeying for power in Central Asia. We are imbued with an historically informed suspicion that foreign intervention in Afghanistan had little to do with the advancement of the Afghan people and most everything to do with the regional interests of the players of the Great Game – despite the fact several of the playwrights take pains to show that many Afghans themselves had lofty visions for their country.
The structure of the production – depicting the NATO occupation alongside the misadventures of the British and the Soviets – thus certainly invites provocative questions about the war in Afghanistan today. The natural implication is that the U.S. and its allies are simply rehashing a process that has wrought only misery for the occupied and occupiers alike.
But the plays depicting the present war in Afghanistan are somewhat different. Perhaps it is the unrelentingly ruthless depictions of the Taliban, or maybe it is the sympathetic treatment of the British soldiers and aid workers who confront both the atrocities of the Taliban and the more general “backwardness” of some Afghan people. But whatever the reason, these plays offer a more ambiguous exploration of the nature of the current conflict.
What can we make of this? Do the plays invite suspicion of the coalition’s motives in modern Afghanistan? Do they beg a pessimistic assessment of the war’s prospects?
In almost every conversation I had, I was adamantly told no. John Rouse, a military attaché with the British embassy who has traveled to Afghanistan, told me that he wished he’d seen this play years before. He admitted that there are certain parallels between the current experience and past ones – “we’ve been here before” – but he insisted that the present conflict is different. “We have a 40-nation coalition, and the mission is internationally recognized. It’s not just an individual nation” trying to exploit Afghanistan for its own purposes. He added that the plays’ depiction of the Taliban, particularly one scene in which a religious leader orders that two prisoners be fed to a lion, really “brought in the forces at play.”
Some were more adamant than this. “We’re there for humanitarian reasons,” one soldier told me, rather irked by even the question of whether the present day experience was comparable to times past. “We will succeed where others have failed.” “It just takes time to learn about a place,” insisted one who had served a tour in Afghanistan and was expecting another. “Look what happened in Iraq. We couldn’t turn it around until we’d been then there for almost four years. We’re finally figuring Afghanistan out.”
Others were more measured. The history depicted in the play “is just one piece of the puzzle,” said a recruit who said he would be deployed soon. Perhaps he was ominously wondering what further pieces he would yet uncover.
One of the production’s strengths is its reflections on the fundamental quandary of counterinsurgency strategy: how does a foreign occupier cultivate long-term partnerships with locals when everyone involved knows that the occupier’s presence is inherently short-term? “I know the difference between you and me,” a reflective CIA operative says to a frustrated mujahid in one of the middle plays. “I know that if you lose, I still have a home to go back to.” The fighter nods in grim appreciation.
For most of the assembled, at least those who were kind enough to share their thoughts, The Great Game presents less a history to be avoided than one to be navigated. Its nearly 170 years of Afghan history serve to color, inform, and explain an evolving tragedy in which contemporary soldiers imagine themselves caught up, but not complicit. I can cede the good intentions of the soldiers with whom I spoke while reserving my own skepticism about the war’s prospects, the wisdom of its authors, and the morality of the foreign policy it represents. But then again, unlike these soldiers – and rather like the CIA officer – I won’t be hanging around Afghanistan to follow up.
[Editor’s note: Director Nicolas Kent wrote today that while there are possibilities that Great Game might travel to Kabul, nothing has been finalized. You can read the more reflections on the Pentagon performances here.
Described at a reception during these performances as “a small theatre from Kilburn employing 20 full time staff”, Tricycle Theatre has managed to have a lasting impact on its audiences, and, perhaps will effect how the Great Game gets played in the future.]
DCTS reviews of the 2010 production of The Great Game: Afghanistan by Tim Treanor: