Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Summary

Rajiv Joseph

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

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Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Summary

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“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is a play, published in 2009, by American playwright Rajiv Joseph. A finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Bengal Tiger” premiered in Culver City, California in 2009. The play later made its Broadway debut in March of 2011 starring Robin Williams in the titular role. “Bengal Tiger” takes place in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq. With a darkly humorous tone, the play explores death, God, and morality during wartime through the eyes of a tiger in captivity, two American soldiers, their Iraqi translator, and the ghosts that haunt them all.

The play begins with two US soldiers, Tom and Kev, on patrol at the Baghdad Zoo in front of the Tiger’s cage. The Tiger (who wears human clothes and is described in the script as having “nothing feline about him”) boasts about his superiority over the lions, or “the Leos,” who escaped following the bombing of their enclosure only to be killed by heavy artillery in the streets. Meanwhile, Tom and Kev– who appear to register the Tiger’s musings only as growls– talk amongst themselves. Kev, bored of the zoo patrol, longs to see more action and hounds Tom to show him the golden gun he took from the home of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay during the American raid on their mansion. Tom also reveals that the Sergeant dismantled the Hussein brothers’ golden toilet and that Tom won the seat off him in a poker game and then buried it somewhere for safekeeping. He tells Kev that he plans to sell both the gun and the toilet seat on eBay when he returns home. Tom starts taunting the Tiger by offering him a Slim Jim. This results in an altercation during which Tom loses his right arm and Kev kills the Tiger with the golden gun.

The ghost of the Tiger– now imbued with a keen human-like intelligence– haunts Kev through the streets of Baghdad, pondering the mysteries of life and death. The Tiger confesses to the audience that all tigers are atheists and wonders how there can be an afterlife if there is no God. He goes on to wonder, if God exists, how He can allow the rampant immorality of mankind. Meanwhile, following the altercation with the Tiger, Tom is sent home where he acquires a prosthetic to replace the hand he lost. Tom then returns to Iraq hoping to retrieve the golden gun and toilet seat. He finds Kev in the grips of madness and placed on suicide watch. Upon realizing that Kev is no longer in possession of the gun, Tom elects not to comfort him as he suffers an emotional breakdown. Kev then attempts to cut off his own arm and dies in the process.

No longer haunting Kev, the Tiger encounters a young girl whom he saw burned alive. He wonders aloud why God would create a creature like himself, whose nature it is to kill. Tom then seeks out Musa, a military translator, who took the golden gun after Kev lost his mind. It is revealed that Musa is haunted by the ghost of his former employer, Uday Hussein. Before his death, Hussein raped and murdered Musa’s sister, and now harasses Musa with reminders of those crimes. Tom lies to Musa, offering him military-grade weapons in exchange for the golden gun, and the two of them drive out to the leper colony where Tom claims to have buried the golden toilet seat. Realizing that he has been tricked, Musa shoots Tom in the stomach, takes the car, and flees the scene.

As he dies, Tom is visited by the ghost of Kev. Having acquired the same wisdom in the afterlife that the Tiger has, Kev implores a passing leper to help Tom in Arabic. The leper woman is unable to help and the action of the play returns to Musa, leaving the audience to assume that Tom bled out and died. Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Musa is visited again by Uday’s ghost who congratulates him on Tom’s murder. Horrified, Musa puts down the golden gun. The Tiger approaches him and suggests that Musa is God. Musa denies this and exits the stage. In the final lines of the play, The Tiger reconfirms his original conviction that there is no God.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” was nominated for three Tony Awards in 2011. Following its Broadway debut, New York Times theater critic, Charles Isherwood, drew attention to the similarity in nature of man and beast exemplified by the characters in the work. He wrote that “Mr. Joseph’s play, to its credit does not aspire to make overarching or obvious statements about the morality of warfare. It is more deeply concerned with the facts on the ground, namely how the baser instincts of human beings inevitably come to the fore in an atmosphere tense with the threat of violence.”