In the fall of 2010, The Great Game, a seven-hour epic history of Afghanistan, from 1842 to the current day, toured the United States with a stop in Washington, D.C., from September 15-26. According to Nicolas Kent, who, as artistic director of London’s Tricycle Theatre, first conceptualized and co-directed the event in 2009, “the production was largely ignored by the Pentagon and Capitol Hill “until a few days before its end. . . [when] a congresswoman was asked by General Petraeus, in Kabul, to send him a tape of the plays.” Kent, in his March 1, 2011 article in the Guardian, went on to relate that “General ‘Mick’ Nicholson came . . . on the last Saturday performance. . . . He was incredibly enthusiastic and asked to meet the cast. He was about to be posted to Kabul as head of operations for Petraeus, and thought it vital that more people from the Pentagon saw the plays.”
Then, in October, as The Great Game continued its tour to Minneapolis, Berkeley, and New York, Kent was back in Washington in discussions. A theatre space could become available for a performance–unfortunately, however, it was too small. As Kent recalled, “The Pentagon were adamant that, though they wanted the production, they couldn’t use taxpayers’ money to fund it.” The Shakespeare Theater Company stepped in, providing the venue. The American reporter Bob Woodruff, who was injured in Afghanistan, and the British Council were willing to provide urgently needed funding. On January 10, Kate Taylor, in The New York Times, announced dates of February 10 and 11 for “an audience of military and government officials, service members, veterans and their families.” The Great Game: Afghanistan, a show whose creators were not predominantly American, became the first play ever sponsored by the Pentagon. It would demonstrate why and how al Qaeda had grown in south Asia; it also clarified the danger of ending this war too abruptly, in a nation ripe for continued terrorist training.
The Pentagon’s interest in a work by a British company may help explain the theatrical divide in our country. It may tell us about American assumptions regarding theatre, obviously very different from the British or even those of the ancient Greeks (whose intent was to confront war through art). Recall also that it took until 2010 for an American playwright to have a drama, purportedly about the Iraq conflict, open on Broadway (Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph opened in 2011). Yet, however much America’s stages tell us about what the country refuses to see about itself, the kinds of people it discourages from entering the conversation (conservatives, for example), the subjects we don’t typically see much on (Palestinians might be mentioned), productions like The Great Game, which played at the Public Theater at NYU Skirball Center when it visited New York, are changing the entertainment dynamic in contemporary theatre. Nobody, as far as I am aware, as John Hayward has done for Occupy Hollywood in his November 7 Human Events article, has mentioned an Occupy Broadway movement, but why is no one impassioned about the 99% who don’t get to see theatre, are defined as a market segment who only want to be entertained, gain exposure to liberal thought, and laugh (remember the famous words above the proscenium in Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre, which many of us learned about through Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, “Ei blot til lyst”: “Not for amusement only”). What kind of audiences do theatre creators and financiers think we are, anyway—and how could they be so limiting, if not completely wrong? No wonder Douglas Wilson, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for public affairs, was encountering “fears [that] the Afghanistan plays would be anti-war, and would deliver a counterproductive, negative message to a military audience.”
One of the plays in the Tricycle's Afghan festival, that had not previously come to America, is Blood and Gifts (another example would be the small, moving No Such Cold Thing, about two Afghan sisters, by Naomi Wallace). J. T. Rogers’s work, now a full evening playing at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, has the feel of a new, different kind of drama—he may be a pop historian with teeth, a dramatist who can take on big history, like a Robert K. Massie can do for the non-fiction best-seller. And you’ll notice the challenges Rogers faces fitting into the current New York theatre paradigm. First, look at the central character: James Warnock is a throwback, maybe even to men earlier than the '80s–he's straight, he’s white, he’s probably Christian and of Scotch-Irish background, and he’s likely a conservative (he’s in the CIA). You can see the difficulties the fine actor Jeremy Davidson, and the production team, must have had in bringing him to life—he’s a detailed external assemblage now: the hair, the walk, the jock military enunciation are all in place, but he's more like a Steve Canyon or George Clooney than a Stephen Lang; he doesn’t seem, or maybe doesn’t get a chance to be, especially commanding or raw. There’s also an issue with the fact that the character goes from being independent to someone who must follow orders, and that isn’t especially accentuated, so he doesn’t seem to change much from beginning to end. The story, set from 1981 to 1991, follows Warnock, a CIA operative, who, through tribal Pakistani middlemen, is trying to covertly back and militarily equip insurgents in the Soviet-Afghan conflict (and help win the Cold War). Rogers, a writer of enormous specificity, does not seem much interested in the failure of language like many contemporary dramatists. He also avoids sermonizing, notably at the end—which goes out tentatively–so, surprisingly, we don’t get the righteous war play we expect, comparable to, say, A Few Good Men or The Vertical Hour (but even here the conservatives at the Heritage Foundation come across as somewhat foolish). Actually, whether this incident is based on fact or not, conservatives at the Heritage Foundation know a whole lot about the Mideast, if you’ve watched the recent CNN Republican National Security Debate on November 22. The right’s presidential field itself sustained questioning on Pakistan regarding the Patriot Act, expanded use of drones, government officials and nuclear capabilities in Pakistan, terror networks and youth demographic, and relationships with India and China, among other issues.
Rogers’s play is actually more about Pakistan’s mind and erratic nature than it is about Afghanistan. What Blood and Gifts so accurately demonstrates is the changeability, volatility, and insecurity (our attention is riveted by the perplexities and incongruities of the country where, in May, U.S. Navy SEALs captured and killed bin Laden in his compound, located near a Pakistani army base). In a reversal happening in the present, Pakistan has decided not to attend the international conference on Afghanistan security in Bonn, Germany that starts on Monday; according to Salman Masood, in the November 30 New York Times, “Pakistan’s officials and its public have been incensed by the border strikes, which have added new strains to already fragile relations between the United States and Pakistan. . . . Pakistan has already blocked all NATO logistical supplies that cross the border into Afghanistan. It has also given the CIA 15 days to vacate the Shamsi air base, from which it had run its campaign of drone strikes into Pakistan’s tribal areas.” Until they saw or heard about The Great Game, people could feel out of it regarding Afghanistan; Blood and Gifts allows the same kind of briefing on Pakistan—and you won’t feel like you’re back in school, I promise.
Lincoln Center’s production is superior: You’ll appreciate Bartlett Sher’s direction and pacing (Peter Brook and Brecht can even seem like they’re in attendance with us). The acting is exceptional throughout, and I will randomly note the work done by Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays, Gabriel Ruiz, and John Procaccino—this is a show in which to watch acting chops, all around, every step of the way.
“There is an assumption that the arts and our men and women in uniform are from different planets,” Douglas Wilson told Kent. “It's not the case. The arts can provide a means to discuss and explore and, in this case, learn about the history and culture of a very complicated country. It is tremendous food for thought.”
May those sentiments be heard.
Blood and Gifts at Lincoln Center: Recommended.
© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photograph: T Charles Erickson
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BLOOD AND GIFTS is, at its core, a spy-versus-spy play, laced with black humor. Rogers gives us a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, evoking the worlds of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. At the same time, we get a wonderfully comic set of richly drawn character studies. The play starts with a CIA agent arriving in Pakistan in 1981 to begin his mission — covert funding of Afghan freedom fighters. We meet his English and Russian secret-service counterparts, Pakistani military officers, Afghan mujahideen, a US Senator and many others — each with at least two faces.
We all know how it seemed to turn out back then, with the Afghans taking down the seemingly invincible Soviets thanks to our 'gifts.' But this is not a period piece written in the 1980s. It is a new play written with one eye firmly on our situation now — still in Afghanistan — and thus a wry thread of hindsight is woven throughout.
BLOOD AND GIFTS was commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater, and presented in 2010 at the National Theatre in London. An earlier version was presented as part of a cycle of 11 plays about Afghanistan titled The Great Game: Afghanistan at the Tricycle Theatre in London.