Although it is never seen, not even a glimpse of one of its four minarets or gleaming domes, the Taj Mahal looms large as a monument of beauty and death as it haunts Rajiv Joseph’s poetic morality play Guards at the Taj, which is being given a stunning and soulful production directed by John Vreeke at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC.
The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by Emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his wife, who died during childbirth. The principal construction was completed in 1643 and the entire project, including gardens and ancillary buildings, were completed in 1653. The entire project is estimated to have cost 32 million rupees (today, about $827 million US) and required the labor of 20,000 workers.
Joseph’s play is set in 1648, when it is said that the building was finally unveiled, and opens on the perimeter of the great structure where Humayun (a nuanced, complex performance by Ethan Hova) and Babur (a comical and fiery Kenneth De Abrew), the lowliest guards at the Taj, stand watch and are threatened with punishment for the smallest infraction, like holding their sword on the wrong side, speaking while on duty or, daring to turn and glimpse the beautiful mausoleum, in its most glorious splendor, as the sun reveals it at the break of day.
Humayun is a man of duty and allegiance who believes that work and loyalty will not only bring opportunity and reward, but also survival in a society ruled by a totalitarian regime. His foil is Babur, a dreamer, a man guided by a sense of wonder and beauty, unaware of, or, perhaps, unwilling to acknowledge the smallness of his value in a world where his life means so little.
Early in the play in the play Babur cranes his head skyward and asks with wonder what the stars, these “celestial illuminations” mean. Humayun replies with indifference, that they are “determinations of our fates and fortunes.” Where Humayun is guided by the pragmatic idea that our fate is predetermined, Babur represents the dream that anything, no matter how improbable, even being assigned to guard the emperor’s harem, is possible!
When word comes down that the Emperor has decreed that nothing as beautiful as the Taj Mahal can ever be built again and to ensure this, he orders the behanding of all 20,000 men who built it, the gruesome task falls to Humayun and Babur. As the two men realize the weight of what lies before them and they go to accept this duty, they turn their backs to the audience and in an extraordinary coup de theatre, the music swells (the dramatic sound design is by Palmer Hefferan), the lights rise from a dim to a white hot blaze, the guards stagger and drop their swords in awe at the forbidden beauty of the Taj in the morning light (here a blank scrim) as the slick marble floor of Misha Kachman’s cool, sparse, contemporary set slides open to reveal a smoking bloodied tiled pit.
Joseph and Vreeke spare us much, but not all, of the gore. Humayun and Babur are promoted for doing such a good job. Humayun reminds Babur that “we do not always get pleasant tasks, but we work our way to more pleasant tasks.” Babur is traumatized, not only by the butchering he performed the night before, but because by doing so, he has destroyed beauty and condemned it to extinction. He concocts a plan to resurrect it, one that will surely bring about his and Humayun’s death.
In Guards at the Taj, Joseph asks us to consider whether it is more important to live or whether it is more important to not die. It may seem, on its face, that these things are indistinguishable, but Joseph shows us that they stand in stark contrast to each other. Babur desires life, to be a part of a world larger than his station and to leave behind beauty to manifest for generations. Humayun is a cog in a machine, his avowed goal, to not die, guides his choices, no matter how morally reprehensible. When Babur laments that he killed beauty as he plans his own martyrdom, Humayun, tries, but cannot fully take responsibility as a co-conspirator, because he is unable to hide his true nature and mask his own weakness.
The play is not some museum piece for us to ponder about a legend almost 400 years old, however. These themes have been doomed to repeat themselves throughout modern history. How many times has suffering been caused by following orders, regardless of the direction of one’s moral compass, either on a massive scale (the Holocaust) or miniscule (performing a task at work, you take moral issue with so you didn’t lose your paycheck)? Joseph connects his play to the present by having his characters speak in contemporary language.
These links are further tightened by the intelligent work of Vreeke’s design team: the aforementioned set design by Ms. Kachman that reconfigures the Woolly space to surround the audience making us not only observers to the action, but complicit in it; the clinical, almost laboratory-like lighting design by Jen Schriever; and the traditional, elegant costumes by Frank Labovitz which, when juxtaposed with the modern set and lighting give the production the feeling of an anthropological study.
Mr. Joseph gives us a beautiful coda before the stage goes dark. It’s disorienting at first, and it takes a few moments to realize what’s happening. Suffice it to say, each character finds what they say they want in the end. And we are reminded that, no matter the cost, not dying is no way to live a life.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
In his column Spine: ‘Guards at the Taj’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver.