Anyone half-conscious of the geopolitical shell game the United States is playing in the Middle East knows that Afghanistan is a mess. But be forewarned: After seeing The Great Game: Afghanistan (a production of London’s Tricycle Theatre presented as part of The Guthrie Theater’s WorldStage series), you will leave the theater fully and terrifyingly conscious of the many ways in which our odyssey in that part of the world can go wrong. The futility of achieving anything that looks like “victory” will be too painful to ignore, and you will gain a much greater appreciation for precisely how our good intentions are paving the road straight to hell.
Presented as twelve one-act plays with a series of short “verbatim” dialogues in between (conversations taken from actual interviews with people like General Stanley McChrystal, Hillary Clinton, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, and many other experts and officials), The Great Game is a laudably ambitious effort to use theater as a lens for achieving clarity and insight about one of the world’s most important conflicts. It can be seen over the course of three nights (four plays apiece), or swallowed all in one day-long gulp, as I did on Sunday.
I recommend the latter, because none of the three parts is a self-contained and cohesive evening of theater all by itself, and there are connections between the sections that are likely to be lost if you have the opportunity to go home in between them and lie in your soft, safe bed. Most people are going to see it piecemeal, though, so be prepared to take notes.
Either way, what you’re going to get is 150 years of history and heartache, starting with a band of British buglers on the outskirts of Jalalabad in 1842 who are blowing their horns to see if any of their 16,000 countrymen are still alive after the decisive battle of the First Afghan war. Nope—all dead. And so it goes.
From there, the plays bounce all over the historical timeline, touching on various decisive moments in Afghan history, up to and including events that literally happened last week. The news that Pakistani soldiers set fire to oil trucks bound for our forces in Kabul in retaliation for a wayward air strike that killed some of their soldiers? Pretty much a miniature replay of our entire history in the region.
As several sections of The Great Game illustrate, the Afghani people don’t trust us because we always promise them things—schools, hospitals, roads, infrastructure, weaponry, military support—and then we either abandon them, under-deliver on our promises, or inadvertently kill their friends, children, and wives in the process. It’s no way to make friends. And the reason the wound goes so deep—so deep that we can’t truly understand it—is, as one aid worker says, “There are no individuals in Afghanistan, there are only tribes and families.” A blow to one is a blow to all.
Another line that resonates throughout the series is: “This country is a death trap for foreign armies.” A duh, for sure—and the parallels between the U.S.’s misadventure there now and past military failures is rendered crystal clear. The British Empire tried to introduce “civilization” to Afghanistan in the 19th century and failed. The Soviet Union tried to take it over in the 20th century and failed. We’re starting the 21st century on the same path, and the best we can apparently hope for is that history won’t repeat itself so brutally, or that we won't fail as miserably as everyone else.
In a piece called “Durand’s Line,” set in 1893, the Minister of British India, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, is negotiating with Abdur Rahman, then Amir of Afghanistan, over where to draw the border between British India and Afghanistan. Rahman doesn’t want to draw a border because, he says, “Making borders is a recipe for eternal conflict.” The Brits feel the opposite—that conflict can be avoided if the borders are clearly defined. Rahman finally capitulates, but ends the meeting posing a disturbing question: “Which is more dangerous, indolence or industry?” His point: Lazy goat farmers can exist for thousands of years in the same place without causing too much trouble, but industrial nations seem to eat trouble and conflict for breakfast.
Because the structure of the plays isn’t linear, so many players are involved, and so much history is covered, it’s a bit of a challenge to piece the whole thing together in your mind—but this confusion is partly intentional. As one character says, “Afghanistan has a different relationship with time” than other places. Foreign armies may come and go, but they are all just brief interlopers to a people with traditions and history that go back thousands of years. The theme of history repeating itself is driven home much more forcefully with this staggered timeline. Several mentions are made of President Obama’s proposition to start pulling troops out in July 2011, and each time it is hammered home that setting such deadlines is, to the Afghan way of thinking, absurd. And expected. No one but Afghanis can tolerate that country for long, and they know it. They're in no hurry, either—they have all the time in the world.
All these themes and more reverberate throughout the series, as contemporary diplomats, strategists, and soldiers grapple with the same issues and frustrations that have perplexed outsiders for millennia. Aid workers who want to build a school for girls meet resistance because of tribesmen who think too much information is dangerous. CIA operatives find themselves battling insurgents armed with stinger missiles the U.S. sold to them in previous conflicts. Afghan leaders with progressive ideas are tortured and killed by the Taliban. The military can destroy all the poppy fields it wants, but it doesn’t matter, because it just jacks the price of heroin up—and the poppies always grow back. And the biggest problem of all, say the experts: If we pull out of Afghanistan now, things could get much worse. Pakistan’s government could crumble, the Taliban could take over Afghanistan and Pakistan, which could ignite a potential nuclear war with India. It’s lose/lose everywhere you look.
And yet, the plays also feature good people doing good work, making small but significant strides despite the obstacles they must hurdle and bullets they must dodge. Everyone’s viewpoint, even the Taliban’s, gets some air time, and both the balance and intractability of these different perspectives is what lends so much power to the series. The morality isn’t completely relative—the Taliban are still portrayed as monsters who do terrible things in the name of Islam—but the range and breadth of the arguments, from Pushtan tribesman to four-star generals, is fairly inclusive.
Although The Great Game comes to town pre-approved by London critics, local theatergoers (especially Guthrie regulars) are likely to be underwhelmed by the theatrical elements (or lack of them) in these plays. Most are presented with a minimum of props—chairs and tables, mostly—with a backdrop of the country drawn like one of those kids’ maps with all the landmarks prominently illustrated. There are some loud sound effects along the way (concussion bombs and grenades), and one or two clever visuals, but all in all, not much entertainment for the eye. What the plays lack in showmanship they make up for with some superb acting, though. Tricycle’s players slip seamlessly in and out of British, American, Afghani, and Indian accents, and they certainly know their way around the stage.
There’s a strong educational component to the entire enterprise that might rankle some theater purists. Some stretches sound like little more than a history lecture, and sometimes the actors are doing nothing but talking about people and events that are happening elsewhere, offstage, in the land of imaginary action. The playlets are all written by different people, though, so the variety keeps things moving. And despite its shortcomings in terms of eye-popping theatricality, the series is surprisingly easy to sit through, even if you do it all in one day.
An eight-hour investment in a play is something many people will think twice about committing to, I’m sure—but it’s worth it in the end. At the very least, the next time you read the paper and see the news coming out of Afghanistan, you’ll know exactly what’s going on—and why we should all be very, very afraid if the great game goes into overtime, and the Taliban have the ball.
The Great Game: Afghanistan continues at The Guthrie through Oct. 17, guthrietheater.org