“The Great Game: Afghanistan”: A Strategic Parable through the Medium of Theatre

The moving and timely British play (sponsored by the British Counsel) called “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” had its American premier at the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. The play combines drama for those who value art and significance for those who plot strategy and war. It’s three nights of theater, each devoted to an invasion of Afghanistan by a different Western power. This play affected me strongly and has more potential insight into this desperate land than many essays I have read over the last two decades.

It can, at times, be simplistic about very complex issues, but it effectively captures the essence of the problems we face in an Afghanistan such as the cost of ignorance and hubris. As a theater “brat” whose family has been theatrical involved for about the last hundred years, I can say with authority that you will rarely find a more powerful and well-acted play today.

This trilogy of three plays written by a dozen noted authors provides a look into the invasions of Afghanistan both by the English in the 19th century, the Soviets in the 1979, and by America and its allies after 9/11. Each play offers key insights in the way each invading army were fundamentally wrong about both the purpose of the conflict and their assumptions about the native people. The result is a devastating indictment of foolish acts by both invader and invaded.

One of the ways it conveys the sense of blind action and false assumptions is taking the words and views of key historical actors in each of the three periods and contextualizing them with the dramatized scenes of the play.  So in the last play, for example, Hillary Clinton and General McChrystal’s assessments of the situation are read verbatim.

Having been around as a close observer of policy during the Soviet invasion, as well as dealing with the displacement of the civilian Afghan population during that war, the second play resonated greatly for me.  As a one-time professional policy planner in the Department of State, I felt especially that the artificial boxes that were created by both the Soviets then and by ourselves today represented false estimates based on limited information. Each side relied on weak, ill-informed, and often corrupt leaders as allies and instruments of flawed policy. These plays are a strong argument for a more thoughtful, systemic and creative approach to solving our strategic challenges than simply conflict. The medical maxim that “often the cure is worse than the disease” holds true in Afghanistan.

I strongly urge that anyone who can attend the last cycle of these performances (which ends on September 28th) immediately rush to the theater and buy tickets.  It is best to experience all three, if possible, but any one of the sections will have a lingering impact on your mind and your emotions.

(You can order tickets to this play online or at (202) 547-1122. There is also a forum on the website for posting and discussion. The play will tour in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and New York (showings are listed below). It is a crime that it won’t be seen by a wider audience on TV like PBS here in the U.S.


September 29 – October 17, 2010
Guthrie Theatre
Minneapolis, MN

October 22 – November 7, 2010
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
San Francisco, CA

December 1 – 19, 2010
The Public Theater, presented in association with the NYU Skirball Center
New York, NY

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