“I saw a poster on the subway on the way here”, the woman in the seat next to me said to her husband, “It said ‘I think that the less the Afghans see of us, the more they will like us’.”
“Should think there’s some sense in that. Who said it?”
“Lord Cardigan, apparently. In 1840.”
“Ah. That’d be the First Afghan War, if I remember rightly. Though they call it the First English War.”
J. T. Rogers’ new play, Blood and Gifts, covers the decade-long covert war in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Lloyd Owen and Matthew Marsh turn in very fine performances, building a witty and impressive rapport as American and Soviet intelligence officers respectively. Adam James plays their sodden Brit counterpart with am engaging line of blather and flashes of pathos, whilst Demosthenes Chrysan provides solid support as an Afghan warlord, in a tricky part which allows him little room for manoeuvre.
Blood and Gifts starts in an airport arrivals lounge. Two strangers strike up a reluctant conversation: one is bored and Russian, the other American and in a hurry, though they seem to know a surprising amount about each other. Then the walls begin to shift and we are flung, in rapid succession, through the office of a Colonel in the Pakistani intelligence service, a sheepfold on the Afghan border and a back room in the British embassy. The play charges through ten years of conflict between 1981 and 1991 in something under three hours. It builds up a linear narrative which jumps quickly over big stretches of time, telling the story via self-contained little scenes and stressing action over introspection or analysis. “Epic” is an overused term these days, but it fits the scope and the structure of this play.
The epic scale of Blood and Gifts provides many of its strengths, above all its sense of excitement. To keep an audience involved for nearly three hours is an impressive feat; to keep them involved when they know how the story ends is more than impressive. J. T. Rogers’ snappy dialogue and clever pacing meant that very few watches were consulted during the evening. It’s a surprisingly funny play, and a lot of the jokes carry more than just a laugh, like this exchange between members of the CIA and Pakistani ISI:
“With all due respect, Colonel, this is not a football game.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Warnock, we play cricket here.”
The speed and scope of the narrative was refreshing, especially when so much theatre at the moment seems to have voluntarily ceded this kind of material to the TV and action movies, retreating to the more securely “theatrical” virtues to be found in a handful of characters and a tightly-knit plot.
However, the epic form also imposes its own weaknesses. The numerous locations, brilliantly conjured up by sliding walls and scenery, mean that a lot of the places feel much the same, as the characters wander in and out of a refugee camp and the Irish embassy with equal ease. In many scene-shifts, the sense of theatrical legerdemain is enjoyable, but in some others, it feels like a desultory cut between scenes from a TV series. This isn’t a failure by Rogers; after all, the epic style developed as a counter to the naturalism of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theatre, with its heavy realistic sets, and measured, inevitable plotting. But in this case it also thins the situations somehow, uprooting the characters from their locations and presenting its differing sites as simply equivalent squares on the board over which this game is being played out. More than once the script uses the old metaphor of the Cold War as a game of chess, and it’s one which fits Blood and Gifts rather too well. Too often its world seems flat and interchangeable.
It’s also a very blokeish world, even more than one might expect in this kind of story. Anyone of any importance is male, solitary and probably running away from at least one woman. Trading stories about the women that bother them provides momentary connections between these men: the drunken English spy who feels he owes his wife a baby, the KGB resident who broods on his daughter’s liaison with a black marketeer, the CIA station chief unsure if his marriage can survive another rotation overseas. Women exist in this landscape only as pressure points on the male psyche. The real tenderness is reserved for discussing sons, another topic which brings the main characters together for sympathetic moments. The question of being a man develops into an odd theme within the larger play, with characters frequently demanding of each other “what kind of man” would do this, would break that promise, would betray those comrades. It’s an odd theme because it’s so limited: this manhood rarely gets past laddish camaraderie or anguished egotism. It’s up to the audience to decide whether Rogers is holding this “what kind of man” stuff up as a truth of history, or presenting the dangerous machismo which got us into the mess. But in Blood and Gifts, man – and only man – is the measure of the universe.
During the interval, I had to squeeze apologetically past a smartly-dressed couple standing at the bar. “We ought to have Josh over to dinner again soon,” she was telling him, “He was stationed out there during the whole business, he’d like this.” It struck me what a high bar Rogers had set for himself: not just risking that people like “Josh” might be in the audience, muttering about inaccuracy, but dramatising a period of history which isn’t even ten years out of date, and which has affected the present so much that most of his audience would already have an opinion. Blood and Gifts – perhaps wisely – doesn’t attempt to persuade us of the rights and wrongs of the conflict, but it does shovel an awful lot of historical information into its storyline.
One particularly intriguing strand of the play is the frequent appearance of pop music. It first turns up as a momentary gag, when the Afghan fighters treat their CIA contact to a serenade of Rod Stewart to convince him of their sophistication – but then it turns out that they’ve been preying on the Russian troops’ mania for boom-boxes by rigging them with explosives. One of their number later offers to trade information for chart records, but when he tries to impress a Washington staffer by quoting the lyrics of “Let’s Get Physical”, she confusedly thanks him “for sharing your culture with me”, and when his dead body is found during the ensuing campaign it has a carefully copied couplet from “Hotel California” in the pocket. “In the master’s chambers they are gathered for the feast” reads his baffled father, “They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast.” Pop music functions as a metonym for the cultural appropriations and misunderstandings which occur onstage. Is an intelligence asset who can be bought with Tina Turner records a hopeless simpleton, or simply asking for payment in the currency which will gain him most prestige amongst his fighters? Does a song’s meaning belong to the pampered stadium rockers who recorded it, or the man who died on the “dark desert highway” it describes? And did The Eagles accidentally write an epitaph for the various nations who have tried to conquer Afghanistan over the last few centuries?
In the crush on the way out of the theatre, I heard a cut-glass accent behind me remarking “Yes, I thought it was very good. Particularly the Russian feller – the KGB chief. Sustained the accent very well, all the way through. Reminded me of the old days. That’s exactly how they do sound, you know.” J.T. Rogers would surely have been glad – a playwright always wants a truly informed and appreciative audience. I didn’t stop to ask whether he meant Russians in general, or specifically KGB officers.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, September 2010