The Great Game: Afghanistan, Part One

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former entertainment writer and critic for the New York Daily News. For the review of Part Two of "The Great Game," go here.

‘The Great Game’: Nothing but Trouble in Afghanistan’s Long History 

The Great Game: Afghanistan, the Tricycle Theater Company’s trilogy of plays about the history of Afghanistan since 1842, is finishing its four-city tour of the U.S. at the New York Public Theater. The plays began last weekend and run through December 19. Theatergoers can see each of the three separately or all three in a marathon on weekends.

The Great Game arrived in New York following an eventful week in Afghanistan. The U.S. military presence in that nation recently broke the record of the Soviet Union, whose army invaded in 1979 and remained for nine years. Last week, Wikileaks unveiled numerous allegations of corruption by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and leaders of his administration. Six U.S. soldiers were killed by an Afghan border patrol officer in the Nangarhar province; they were the latest in nearly 1,400 U.S. deaths there. Last week, NATO officials announced that they will keep their forces in Afghanistan until 2014. And, finally, last week, President Obama arrived in Afghanistan on a surprise visit to spread holiday cheer among U.S. troops stationed there.

Part One 1842 – 1930: Invasions and Independence
New York University’s Skirball Center
566 LaGuardia Place
New York, NY

Three loud gunshots suddenly ring out, startling the audience at New York University’s Skirball Center.  Four Afghans, all members of the Taliban, race down the aisles from the rear of the theater and rush up on to the stage.  It was an electric beginning to an electric play.

It is soon January 13, 1842, and we meet several very scared British soldiers on the ramparts of Jalalabad recounting the deaths of 4,000 British soldiers and 12,000 camp followers in a recent massacre outside of Kabul following the British evacuation of the city.  Only one man from the force of 16,000 lived. It is a signature scene in a disturbing trio of plays about the fortunes of foreign armies in Afghanistan over the course of one hundred sixty years.

The Great Game: Afghanistan trilogy traces the invasions of the British, Russian and American forces and the battles of the Afghan people to resist them.  Each of the three plays is a set of playlets that, collectively, present the historical drama.

‘The Great Game’ is neither Sound of Music nor Death of a Salesman. It is three separate dramas; they have no stars. The plays are not connected by a narrative story; none of them has a running drama within it. Each is a collection of vignettes that, stitched together, tell the harrowing story of a country constantly under attack by some foreign power since its first invasion in 300 B.C. by Alexander the Great. All of those foreign powers lose in the end, one Taliban mullah says, because the Afghans are just different from their invaders and do not want to be like them.

And, as one of the nervous corporals on the wall in Jalalabad says, “Afghanistan is a country we do not understand.”

The trilogy is not superb traditional drama because of the structure of the plays, but it is gripping theater in its own right. Each of the plays is an engaging history lesson about a country whose story is unbelievably complex, filled with wars, revolutions, conquests, betrayals, coups, feuds and murders. It is one long history of battles and political crusades, some driven by religion and all filled with rivers of blood.

This theme of egomaniacal and stubborn invaders failing to conquer Afghanistan, repeated again and again, runs through all of the vignettes of the trilogy. The writing is distinctly anti-American and anti-British and the playwrights continually beg the world’s superpowers to leave Afghanistan alone.

Part One is the most historical, with scenes starting in 1842 and running through 1930.

The opener, with the powerful British army aghast at the annihilation of its 16,000 troops and camp followers, is haunting. The soldiers on the ramparts, the sound of the wind whistling through the mountains in the distance, terrified of their own demise, argue about British intervention in the country as they blow mournful dirges on their bugles.

This mourning over intervention runs through the entire play. A diplomat in 1893 admits that Britain is perfectly happy to fight “endless wars” to solidify its position in the middle of Asia. Rudyard Kipling famously wrote that the diplomatic and military battles between Britain and Russia to control Afghanistan was the Great Game of nineteenth-century diplomacy. This play severely criticizes both countries and sheds a tear for the beleaguered Afghan people, who live in a country that has been the road to both India and Asia.

There is an eye-opening scene in the middle of PartOne, set in 2010, in which British diplomats try to get a Pakistani writer to agree that British efforts to run Afghanistan have always been worthwhile and that the war must now continue in Pakistan. He refuses but then, reminded of the ability of Britain to control him, too, sits down and thinks it over again.

The direction of Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham is good. The play moves along at a nice pace and the plotlines are easy to follow. The main problem I had with the play was the fractured chronology. There is a scene set in 2010 that seems woefully out of place, and it does not conclude the play, either, as one might expect. It immediately proceeds a scene set in 1929, when the country’s frantic president is fleeing attacking forces and is stranded on a highway in a bad snowstorm, worrying whether or not he will be killed on the snowy roadway.

It is also difficult to follow the whirlwind history of Afghanistan, filled with dictators, presidents and kings, in the series of playlets because they leap from era to era, giving you little historical background between them. Thank God for the historical stories handed out with the programs.

All of the performers in the play are good. They include the soldiers, played by Daniel Betts, Tom McKay, Rich Warden and Karl Davies, Michael Cochrane as Sir Henry Durand and Raad Rawi as Abdur Rahman, the Amir of Afghanistan in the 1890s, Rawi as Professor Tariq Khan in the 2010 scene, Vincent Ebrahim as Mahmud Tarzi, the ex-foreign minister in 1929, and Shereen Martineau as his daughter. The directors received an especially fine performance from Daniel Rabin as Amanullah Khan, the King of Afghanistan in 1929.

Part One of the trilogy was both good drama and good history. The Great Game, in this unique and different presentation, is Great Theater.

The Great Game is produced by The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis (artistic director), New York University’s Skirball Center and the Tricycle Theater Company of London. It was written 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.

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