32 pages 1 hour read

Rajiv Joseph

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is set in Baghdad in 2003 during the early days of the Iraq War. Written by Rajiv Joseph, the play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 and made its Broadway debut in 2011. It explores themes of war, transcendence, religion and the afterlife, and sin and redemption.


Plot Summary


The play opens at a zoo in Baghdad, where two American soldiers, Kev and Tom, are standing guard by the Tiger’s cage. Tom shows Kev a gold-plated gun he stole from Uday Hussein when Hussein’s palace was raided, and says he has a gold toilet seat as well. When Tom tries to provoke the Tiger, the Tiger gets angry and bites off Tom’s hand; Kev, in response, shoots the Tiger with the gold gun. The Tiger dies and steps out of the cage as a ghost.


Kev and an Iraqi translator, Musa, then take part in a raid of an Iraqi home, where the Tiger appears as a specter that only Kev can see. Kev pulls out the gold-plated gun and collapses with sobs, wracked with guilt over killing the Tiger. After transitioning into the mental ward of a hospital, Kev is visited by Tom, who wants the gold gun back and threatens to kill Kev if it isn’t returned. Still frightened about seeing the Tiger everywhere, Kev attempts to cut off his own hand to appease the Tiger, and ultimately dies.


Meanwhile, Musa, who has kept the gold gun for himself, is visited by the ghost of Uday Hussein, who once employed Musa as a gardener and murdered Musa’s sister, Hadia. Uday tells Musa he must use the gold gun as “leverage” against the Americans. While working as Uday’s gardener, Musa created a beautiful topiary garden that has since been destroyed by the war. The topiary garden, also the site of Hadia’s murder, becomes a gathering place for ghosts.


At an office building, Tom, who now sports a bionic hand, sees both Kev’s ghost and the Tiger. Musa, who is now with Tom, is haunted by Hadia’s ghost, who asks Musa to bring her to his topiary garden. Tom asks Musa about the gold gun after Musa reveals he knew Kev. Musa says he has the gun but will only give it to him if he receives sellable weapons in exchange. Tom takes Musa to a bombed-out building, ostensibly to fulfill the request, but Tom’s true objective is to collect Uday’s gold toilet seat.


Musa, realizing Tom is not fulfilling their deal, gets angry and shoots Tom in the stomach. Musa finds his way to the topiary garden, where Uday visits him and says he’s proud of him for killing Tom. In the garden, Musa sees his sister’s death at Uday’s hands reenacted in front of him. He tells Uday that although he will live with Uday’s voice, his hands will create something new. When the Tiger enters the garden, mistaking Musa for God, Musa responds, “God has spoken. This world. This is what He’s said” (68). Although he has struggled with the morality of being a predator throughout the play, the Tiger accepts his natural state and waits in the topiary garden for his next meal to come along.