J.T. Rogers' "Blood and Gifts" Brings Recent History to the Stage

December 14, 2011

This content is sourced from Tablet Magazine.

Two plays—Blood and Gifts, a drama about the origins of America’s war in Afghanistan, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, and Captors, which examines the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann and which ran at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston through last weekend—demonstrate the power and hazards of bringing recent history to the stage.

Playwright J.T. Rogers, the young author of Blood and Gifts, is obsessed with history. This is his third historical play—all of which have been critically if not commercially successful. And you don’t have to be an Afghan expert—or even deeply pro- or anti-America’s war in a land where “wartorn” is a gross understatement—to enjoy Rogers’ original, compelling play. But those who have followed the war closely will get more of his grim jokes and more easily track the play’s cast of warlords and their ever-shifting alliances.

This is a complex, politically subtle play without a simple message. It succeeds because it raises the most profound questions about how men of such good intentions—and all the major characters are male—could have gotten things so terribly wrong while seeming to get them right. Americans helped the Soviets in the decade the play examines, 1979 to 1989, when the spy services of the United States, Britain, and Russia were replaying the “Great Game,” the centuries-long power struggle in this historic crossroads. But the victory soon turns sour, as civil war erupts among the Western-armed Afghan war lords, after which the Pakistani-supported Taliban usher in yet more barbarous intolerance.

At a discussion with members of the Council on Foreign Relations after a performance last week, Bartlett Sher, whose disciplined, crisp direction maximizes the play’s emotional punch, said he believes that a dramatist’s role is not to preach for or against U.S. involvement in this 8-year-old war but to prompt an audience to “pose the question.”

Blood and Gifts makes you wonder how Americans failed to see that helping the Afghans expel the Soviets would strengthen the militant Islamists who would then target Americans once the Russians were gone. After the Islamic revolution in Iran, why did Washington not see that stoking religious fervor for short-term gain would end badly? Why did the United States let Pakistan decide which war lords to bless with U.S. “gifts”—increasingly sophisticated weapons that would soon be aimed at Afghans of other tribes, ethnicity, and religious beliefs and then at Americans? Why did the CIA think it had no further obligation to the Afghan people once the Russians were ousted?

But the play’s fictional characters raise questions beyond politics, among them, how could men who have worked so closely together for so long understand one another so little?

The play opens in 1979 with the arrival in Islamabad of the absolutely American James Warnock, a CIA veteran of Iran, whose mission is to arrange an alliance with Col. Afridi of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the Pakistan Army’s notoriously treacherous intelligence arm. The idea is to supply U.S. money and arms to anti-Soviet Afghans without American fingerprints. But what Warnock calls “deniability, first and foremost” gives Pakistan a dangerous upper hand in the relationship. Simon Craig, Warnock’s British counterpart, a regionally savvy, whiskey-swilling junior partner in this mission, warns Warnock that Afridi’s determination to channel the weapons to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—the Islamist fanatic who is now targeting American forces in Afghanistan—will backfire, given his penchant for wanton and savage treatment of Afghans who oppose his fanatical interpretation of Islam. As insurance, Warnock opens his own secret channel to the more secular Abdullah Khan, a warlord who appears to become not merely an ally of convenience but Warnock’s friend.

Rogers’ characters learn painful lessons in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Washington, the play’s three venues. Warnock comes to understand how hard it is to know men of another culture. Simon, his MI6 counterpart, learns that Americans can be just as devious and cynical as their Pakistani and Afghan allies. Afghans, as Simon tries warning his American partner, are “charming, semi-civilized and utterly untrustworthy”—“French, without the food.” And all the characters learn that even close friends and allies are rarely what they seem. “Secrets,” Simon says ruefully, “they do … corrode,” along with trust.

Simon turns out to be Jewish, a fact he does not advertise given the region’s prejudices and politics, but of which the insidiously anti-Semitic Afridi repeatedly reminds him.

Rogers’ play provides plenty of heartbreak, personal and political. His key characters all end up with some sorrow, professional as well as personal. Perhaps because, as Rogers observes, Russians seem to excel at suffering, and perhaps because the Western “victory” over the Soviets is the occasion for the Afghan sideshow destined to go terribly awry, Rogers has given a truth-telling role to Dmitri Gromov, a Soviet not-so-secret agent who strikes up a friendship of convenience with Warnock, whom he is charged with watching.

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