The South Asia Channel

War, culture and “the great game”

War, culture and “the great game”

Above: Tom McKay, Daniel Betts and Karl Davies in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys.

Can theater inform our understanding of one of today’s most important foreign policy challenges?

Britain’s Ministry of Defence certainly think so. That’s why they recently organized a private day-long viewing for members of the British military and others working in government to see the Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game, a series of 12 contemporary British and American plays tracing 150 years of foreign engagement in Afghanistan.

Ahead of a U.S. tour opening this week in Washington, D.C. and supported by the British Council, The Great Game has caught the attention of top coalition force leaders because it unpacks Afghanistan’s past conflicts at a pivotal time in the war: almost ten years in, with a new troop surge in place and endless questioning from the U.S. media and electorate about how we got to this point.

The arts can play a pivotal role during war or conflict because they encourage understanding between different cultures, helping foster trust, prosperity and stability. In Iraq, for example, the British Council recently helped the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq bring together 42 young Arab, Kurdish and Christian musicians to play a packed auditorium in Erbil, Northern Iraq. The arts are incredibly powerful in uniting people from different backgrounds through a neutral interest or experience — and the benefit isn’t limited to the artists. The Great Game shows how the arts can also engage audiences with complicated contemporary issues.

General Sir David Richards, Britain’s top military commander, was interviewed for The Great Game and his dramatized, edited words are delivered by an actor directly to the audience.  It’s unusual, to say the least, for a senior military commander to be so closely involved with a contemporary arts event. But the General’s experience was unique – in the British newspaper The Times he said the plays provide a powerful opportunity to understand the challenges we face in Afghanistan and urged all military commanders and policymakers to see The Great Game:

I found The Great Game a fascinating, entertaining and historically accurate account of Britain’s and latterly the wider international community’s involvement – good and bad – in Afghanistan since the 1840s. Nothing learnt in the classroom will have the same subliminal effect as this. It is crucial that all of us who work out there, or have responsibility in any way for our nation’s policies in the region, have a more nuanced understanding of the historical background that got us to this point. I hope plenty of people in Washington take time to see it.

The twelve plays are a superb argument for paying closer attention to causality, illuminating the deep roots of today’s challenges — from reducing the Afghan economy’s dependence on illegal drugs to forming a stable government. Characters in similar roles recur throughout the decades in the guise of different nations and circumstances. Intelligence officials, military commanders, humanitarian workers and national leaders are all involved in the same moral and strategic quandaries which subtly repeat themselves. 

Throughout the plays, Afghan rulers get caught in the middle of foreign jockeying for power.  In Joy Wilkinson’s Now is the Time, Afghanistan’s then-king Amanullah Khan flees Kabul in 1929 seeking amnesty with his Soviet allies, only to realize too late that his foreign partners have their own agenda. In David Greig’s Miniskirts of Kabul, President Najibullah looks back on having to face a civil war touched off by the larger struggle between communism and democracy during the Soviet War. Najibullah (played by Daniel Rabin) laments that outsiders have erroneously "imagined" the people of Afghanistan:

"My country has been imagined enough. My country is the creation of foreign imaginings." *

President Najibullah’s observation encapsulates another recurring theme in The Great Game: the virtue of listening closely to the people living through cycles of violence to discern the real causes of conflict and possible solutions. Durand’s Line by Ron Hutchinson, for instance, recalls the true episode in 1893 when Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Minister of British India, mapped Afghanistan to build a "buffer state," dividing the Pashtuns. In the play, Abdur Rahman, the Amir of Afghanistan, warns Durand against creating "imaginary lines on paper," warning that boundaries are subject to different cultural contexts:

"The fact is that you are from a very small country which needs firm borders… To impose such a thing on a land as vast as this, which has never had them, is to invite endless trouble.

Or endless conflict in which you will shed more blood." *

The Great Game also highlights the repercussions that individual decisions can have on the tide of history. In Abi Morgan’s The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn, an Afghan widow tries to re-open a school with an American aid worker, but needs to persuade six more girls to attend and confronts a father who wants his daughter to harvest opium to support the family. Matters are complicated by the Taliban and an accidental U.S. bombing which results in local civilian deaths. From this small episode viewers are given a window into the larger complexities of providing nation-wide economic and education opportunities in Afghanistan.

The arts are uniquely capable of providing us with a different perspective on complicated issues like Afghanistan, its history and its people. The arts provoke strong emotions and empathy in an accessible space, focusing on human-scaled problems that underlie but are often obscured by what seem to be intractable policy morasses. In the British Council’s anthology of essays that accompanies The Great Game’s US tour, called Trust Me, I’m An Expert, the writer and curator Sarah Lewis explains:

During times of war, artists help us remember this: if we knew each other more, we might damage each other less. Across distances, when we often perceive each other askance, at angles slant and sharp, we can forget what we instinctively know – that seeing another as an ‘other,’ separate and quite apart, can lead to our collective end. Rare works collapse the distance that we let separate us though culture, geography or time.

Sharon Memis is the Director of the British Council in the United States. The Great Game will be performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC September 15-25. To learn more about the US tour and British Council’s public programming around The Great Game, visit http://www.britishcouncil.org/usa-arts-theater-the-great-game-afghanistan.htm.

* These quotations are taken from David Greig’s Miniskirts of Kabul and Durand’s Line by Ron Hutchinson, plays that are part of the Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game.