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Why Can't Art Be Instructive?

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Why can't Art instruct? In addition to providing entertainment, consolation, beauty, and a reflection of our humanity by holding "the mirror up to nature," why can't Art also teach us a thing or two?

In his review of J.T. Rogers' play about Afghanistan, Blood and Gifts, which just finished its run at Lincoln Center Theater, critic John Lahr of the New Yorker leads off his review* by slotting the work at less than the highest rung -- as:

"...really a teaching play, a sort of global-positioning device meant to carry the audience through the fog of war to an understanding of how America's anti-Soviet obsession got it unwittingly stuck in Afghanistan...."

"To carry the audience through... to an understanding": Seen without the gimlet eye, isn't this exactly what this nation needs now? With America enmeshed in Afghanistan for 10 bloody years, the longest war of our 236-year history, American artists who can pierce the fog of war -- actually, make that "wars," plural: until recently we waged war in Iraq too, in tandem with Afghanistan -- such artists of serious purpose, as Rogers is, render important civic service.

In fact, going further I would say: A nation in decline and as lost as America is needs all the GPS-wielding artists it can summon.

Ideally, critics deploy their own GPS devices, charting their culture's evolution, taking its measure vis-à-vis other cultures in history, understanding civilizational rise, decline, fall. (For one thing, such critic knows that a leading symptom of decline is warmongering, e.g., Rome.) Usually Lahr shows himself to be this ideal critic; I have learned much from him over the years about the history of the theatre and I admire especially his artist profiles (here).

But in this instance, no: After disparaging a "teaching" play, Lahr proceeds on the next page to praise a play about Boy Scout on Boy Scout sex, featuring a central character he describes, gigglingly, as "a little package of perversity" (Wild Animals You Should Know). No thanks, I'll ponder Afghanistan. What does this critic's choice teach us about the state of American culture? About critics who, as cultural gatekeepers, open the gate to perversity but close it to instruction? The distance between these two points is Shakespearean, tragic.

Of course the playwright must do the teaching with finesse, without pedantry. In
this, Rogers manages well. Blood and Gifts got its start, a deep start, as a 30-minute play included in a 12-play cycle commissioned by London's Tricycle Theatre. Titled The Great Game: Afghanistan, it examined the power struggle -- "the great game" -- between the U.K. and Russia over control of central Asia and India that began in the early 1840s and still reverberates today. A commercial and (please note) critical hit in London, the cycle toured the U.S., with a special presentation for the Pentagon. (As tribute to instruction, a British general told the Tricycle's director he would have done a better job in Afghanistan if he'd seen these plays first.)

Expanding on his playlet, Rogers sets the new play in the decade 1981-1991, when America's engagement with Afghanistan was still covert -- supplying arms via Pakistan to Afghan mujahedeen in their war with the USSR. Replicating the historic power struggle, he casts as his central characters the American, British, and Russian station chiefs of their respective intelligence operations in-country.

Through their bracing and often witty interplay -- the American has the checkbook and the weapons, plus a pop culture that enthralls (and blinds); the humiliated, acerbic Brit "facilitates"; the Russian waxes Dostoevskian -- we can understand why historically Afghanistan has proved "the graveyard of empires." It's a place where, tragically, as the play's title indicates, blood is spilled and "gifts" -- money, weapons, honor, good intentions, and (in this play) Afghan sons -- are lost in the vortex. It's also a place where the mujahedeen that we aided would later turn against us. (More rumination, especially by the American, on the validity of continuing "the great game" would have deepened this drama and, dare I say it, instructed.)

The loss that is to come to those who invade Afghanistan is deftly signaled by Rogers in the first line of the play, when the American arrives at the Islamabad airport and the Russian station chief, who's come to check out his new counterpart, says to him as he moves toward the wrong exit: "You are going wrong way."

"You are going wrong way...": The same might generally be said of America itself at present, as so many right track/wrong track polls show. But will our hubris take instruction?

"Teaching" plays -- and novels and films and TV dramas -- that can illuminate our quandary, tame the hubris, ruminate, and point the way forward are much needed, despite what some disapproving critics may say and despite a long list of no-no's operating in too many playwriting workshops in the U.S.: no politics, no history, no philosophy, no "moralizing." (There's also a no-no about no backtalk to critics, but the tilt of the Titanic is such that that no-no, like the others, needs to be overridden.)

The poet John Dryden wrote that Literature, and by extension all Art, seeks to give "instruction and delight." If we listen to the poet, not the critic, we could puzzle out our quandary -- and find both delight and our way again.

* The New Yorker restricts access to recent reviews. Readers wishing to read the review under discussion, "Men O'War" (Dec. 5, 2011), need either to subscribe to the online or print editions or check their public library. A link to the abstract is here.

For an interview with playwright J.T. Rogers, see here.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," which is included in a forthcoming volume titled "Two Plays of Life and Death." She is at work on a new play titled "Prodigal." Her recent book of commentary is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character."