Connect to share and comment

Theater: McChrystal’s last act

How the "runaway general" contributed to a stage play about conflict in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Play
Karl Davies, left, as Private Richard Kendall and Tom McKay as Sergeant Jay Watkins from the play Canopy of Stars. (Courtesy John Haynes, Tricycle Theatre)

LONDON, U.K. — The magazine interview that prompted Gen. Stanley McChrystal's ignominious exit as NATO's Afghanistan commander overshadows one of the more unusual events in his military career: his gig as a playwright.

The June downfall of McChrystal, a highly decorated U.S. Army soldier known for his brutally ascetic lifestyle, is old news; his criticism of the Obama government and the disastrous trajectory of his leadership picked apart long before successor Gen. David Petraeus took charge.

But one detail has — until now — escaped scrutiny: In the final hours of his command, even as Afghanistan's security situation was dealt one of its cruelest blows, McChrystal took time out to contribute to an extraordinary piece of contemporary theater.

And, although the man dubbed "the Runaway General" may have slunk off into retirement, thanks to this brief foray into the footlights, his words may soon be echoing across a stage within 10 blocks of the Oval Office where President Barack Obama assigned him his mission impossible.

  
A publicity still from the play showing actor Daniel Betts as Gen. Stanley McChrystal. (Courtesy of Tricycle Theatre)

Not that getting McChrystal involved in a stage play was an easy mission. But unlike most of the hastily made decisions taken over Afghanistan's fate, this one was two-and-a-half years in the making.

The theater production in question is an innovative cycle of Afghanistan-themed plays grouped under the title of "The Great Game," covering 200 years of disastrous foreign military adventures in the wild and mountainous nation.

Director Nicolas Kent says he commissioned the plays for the the Tricycle Theater — a London stage known for its journalistic dramatizations of real-life events — as a response to the lack of information about the conflict in Afghanistan at a time when Iraq was still dominating headlines.

"People were coming up to me at dinner parties talking about the Afghan situation," Kent told the GlobalPost during a break from script read-throughs in a spartan rehearsal room at the north London venue.

"They would say 'of course it had to do with the second Anglo-Afghan war, or the third Anglo-Afghan war,' and I didn't even know there had been more than one.

"I obviously knew about the Russian invasion and the CIA-backed army of the mujahideen, but I knew very little about the period between the death of [former Afghan president] Najibullah, and the coming of the Taliban, all of that period — so I thought it might be a good idea to find some playwrights and do something about it."

The result is 12 gripping and original vignettes told from the viewpoints of both public figures and ordinary bystanders swept up in two centuries of tumultuous Afghan history — from "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad," set in the bloody aftermath of the 1842 British retreat from Kabul, to a tale of two modern-day British soldiers contemplating a deal with the Taliban in "Canopy of Stars."

Originally staged in 2009, the plays garnered five-star reviews in the British press, paving the way for a 2010 revival which is expected to show before thousands of U.S. theatergoers in New York, Washington, Berkeley and Minneapolis in the politically sensitive fall.

"When we take it to America it is going to be just before the midterm elections," Kent added. "I'm very certain the current surge and why the Americans are in Afghanistan will be questioned and there will be a debate on that, just as there is a debate on in this country all the time at the moment."

To update the Great Game for the current tour, Kent has added one new play charting alleged post-2001 backing of the Taliban by Pakistan's secret service — a current political hot potato — and spoken to several "key Afghan players." This is where McChrystal comes in.

According to Kent, securing McChrystal's involvement was the culmination of 20 weeks' work behind the scenes until the general finally agreed — at the last minute — to provide a verbatim script for the show.

"It was on a day that was really busy," said Lyse Doucet, a veteran BBC journalist asked by the Tricycle to interview McChrystal in Kabul for the script.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/united-kingdom/100805/mcchrystal%E2%80%99s-last-act