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.
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.
“He had been at the presidential palace for a meeting of the national security council. He was under pressure, facing questions about a military strategy that wasn’t going as expected — and two hours after the interview came news that two key security people had resigned.
“He had just heard that morning that his college roommate had died of illness, so he came to our meeting with a lot on his mind; it was palpable,” she told the GlobalPost by phone from the Afghan capital.
“I asked him if it was OK and he said: ‘No, this is important, let’s do it’. My impression was that because this is such a crucial war for America in terms of troops and resources, they thought it was important to reach out to a wider audience.”
McChrystal’s eventual contribution to the Great Game is brief and — re-enacted in clipped and eerily accurate military tones by British actor Daniel Betts — falls somewhat short of the explosive insight he supplied to Rolling Stone. Nevertheless, it forms a crucial part of the play,
But, of course, there’s no getting away from the obvious problem of McChrystal’s resignation just days after he volunteered his help.
“It had a rather strange ring to it when I went back over the interview,” Doucet said. “Because of the format required by the Tricycle, his first answer began: ‘When Barack Obama asked me to take this mission …’ or something to that effect, and then just two days later, Barack Obama asked him not to continue the mission.
“It underlined his own words: ‘Wars never go to plan.'”
According to Kent, who hopes his plays will be the vanguard of a new wave of theater and cinema in the West that explores the current situation in Afghanistan, moves are already afoot to secure the involvement of Petraeus.
At which point, once again, McChrystal will be forced to exit, stage left.