About the author:
Rajiv Joseph is having quite a year. The playwright's Gruesome Playground Injuries ran earlier this season at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, which previously produced his plays Animals Out of Paper and All This Intimacy. Now Joseph is making his Broadway debut with the Pulitzer Prize finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a drama about the effects of the Iraq War with a talking tiger (played by Oscar winner Robin Williams) at its center. Joseph, who has also contributed to TV's Nurse Jackie, recently shared with Broadway.com the creative process that drummed up the bizarre, ghost-filled world of Bengal Tiger, and writes of his joy in welcoming Williams into the show's original company.
A few years ago, I read a tiny article in the back of The New York Times about a tiger in the Baghdad Zoo. It was only about two paragraphs long, but I was moved by reading about this animal that had been killed. It seemed so odd and surreal, and I just wanted to give the tiger a voice. I imagined what he would say—and that’s where the idea for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo came from.
It wasn’t bad enough for the tiger to be killed, but to be a Bengal tiger stuck in the Baghdad Zoo. I imagined the tiger would be pretty pissed off about things even before being killed. I assumed the Baghdad Zoo has to be a pretty shitty place to begin with, but being so far from home and knowing you’ll never get back must trigger a pretty horrifying existential crisis.
Originally Bengal Tiger was only a 10-minute play about that scene with the tiger. It sat in my desk for two years, but eventually I decided to expand the piece. There was obviously so much to digest and absorb about what was happening in Iraq. I read other articles about a leper colony outside of Baghdad, one about Uday Hussein and a gold weapon…all these things seemed so weird to me and they would inspire other characters and stories that became part of the play.
I felt writing a naturalistic play about Iraq would be impossible because I couldn’t write a realistic, gritty war story about something I hadn’t experienced myself. I’m a huge fan of horror movies and ghost stories, so I like to think about the metaphysical qualities of any situation. This led to certain characters speaking from beyond the grave and conversing with other characters even after their death. I wrote different scenes and stories, but didn’t really know how they connected. This play would never have come together if it weren’t for the Lark Play Development Center in New York City. The opportunities provided by the program truly encouraged me to continue writing.
Bengal Tiger debuted in Los Angeles in 2009, and seeing the original cast reunited on Broadway is amazing. We’re definitely a tightly knit family. Knowing where we started two years ago and seeing us all here now is incredibly moving. Obviously, we were all very excited when Robin Williams joined the cast, but we didn’t anticipate how seamlessly he would integrate himself into the group. He’s such a wonderful man, very down to earth and committed to the play.
It always seemed odd to me that I might write a play people would actually spend this much money to see, let alone that it would end up on Broadway. We had great responses from audiences in Los Angeles, so I haven’t been to worried about whether or not Broadway audiences will like it. Bengal Tiger is a play that has a lot of humor it, but it also makes people confront the war. I think that makes it a unique experience.
I’m excited when I hear that people are still discussing the show days later and thinking about the ideas and images in it. I hope it makes people think about Iraq, but also all the other places in the world struggling with conflict, and about how individuals and living organisms operate under those situations.