FA13 THEA 3720-001
ABSURDISM AND THE BENGAL TIGER
Does an incarcerated Bengal tiger, who dies in captivity, know the meaning of life? Rajiv Joesph examines this idea in his play The Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, from an absurdist point of view. An absurdist is a philosopher that looks at the disharmony in life, how man (or tiger) searches for personal meaning in a world without meaning. Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus, both important absurdist philosophers, tell us that there are only three ways to answer the world’s disharmony and meaninglessness: suicide, religious belief, or acceptance of the absurd. In the play, The Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, Joesph reveals to us characters that choose all three avenues to deal with the world’s disharmony and just as an absurdist would predict, none of them found any meaning to life. Suicide or escaping existence is, as Kiergaard and Camus explain, not an acceptable answer to life’s difficulties. Instead of bringing meaning to a meaningless world, suicide brings more meaninglessness.
Two characters in the aforementioned play chose suicide to deal with life’s problems: a polar bear and Kev. The tiger, who analyzes the actions of this play’s characters, thinks the polar bear’s suicide was rather useless. He doesn’t understand why the bear would chose death, when living for the chance of a possible escape from the zoo would be more fulfilling. Another character, Kev, also commits suicide. In this case, Kev becomes mentally unstable after seeing his friend’s hand bitten off by the tiger, the tiger which Kev subsequently kills to avenge his friend’s injury. In analyzing this suicide, the
tiger feels that Kev should have given life a chance. After all when Kev went back home to stay, away from war, then maybe he could have found meaning. In both cases, the tiger takes the absurdist point of view: suicide does not bring meaning to a meaningless world. Religious belief, in the absurdist philosophy, is “philosophical suicide” and, therefore does not bring meaning to life.
In The Bengal Tiger, a main character, the tiger, turns to religion after his death. He tells God and the audience how sorry he is for killing two small children. He says he has carried great guilt for years over this incident. The tiger had tried to atone for this mistake by no longer killing children, but only eating the meat of other animals. But one day while eating a piece of meat, he is captured, drugged, and sent to live in a zoo. Here he becomes a vegetarian, an even deeper atonement. But one day he bites off a man’s hand, eats it, and he is killed. In death he is searching for understanding and forgiveness from God. The tiger finds no meaning in his search for God and, therefore, has committed, as the absurdist would say, “philosophical suicide”. Acceptance of the absurd, is the only solution, the absurdists say.
Keirgaard states that man “ rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him.”. Acceptance that man will never have an understanding of what life is all about, even in eternity, and that man must continually be miserable is the only answer. Every single character in this particular play exudes this philosophy. One great example of this philosophy is found the character of Musa. Musa loves to garden, especially to create topiaries. One of his finest creations was a garden ornamented with several animal topiaries that he carved. The garden was devastated by bombs during the war. Musa contemplates the meaning of his work and the destruction of war. What is of real worth and value? Musa decides he doesn’t know, he must just accept the absurdity of it all.
The Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo is a wonderful example of the absurdist thinking. It shows us
all three levels of dealing with this philosophy: suicide, religious belief, and acceptance of absurdism. All of this is done in the form of a very entertaining and thought provoking play.
1. Absurdist Theater: A Resource Guide http://www.libraries.iub.edu/index.php?pageId=1001114
2. Camus, Albert. Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Britannica.com. Original 5 October 2009
3. Kierkegaard, Soren (1978). Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, A Literary Review Princeton: Princeton University
Wilson, Edwin and Goldfarb, Alvin (2012). Living Theater: History of the Theater. New York, New York: McGraw – Hill