Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria is about the struggle between two complementary aspects of human nature: The intellectual and spiritual is represented by the character of the Emperor, and the sensual and emotional is portrayed by the Architect. The Architect is the “noble savage”—the person living in harmony with, and having control over, nature. The Emperor represents civilization, and his knowledge gives him control over his mind and the minds of others. These opposing characteristics exist in every individual and in humanity as a whole. Neither set can exist without the other, yet they war constantly for dominance. Their struggles do not lead to any conclusions, but only to new beginnings; thus they create and sustain the chaos and confusion that is characteristic of the human situation.
The characters dramatize this dialectic by engaging in one role-playing game after another. The Emperor, as the dominant, verbal half of the couple, teaches the Architect how to speak and decides what games they shall play—he also cuts the games off when they threaten to touch his emotions. The Architect does the feeling for the pair. When the lonely Emperor calls out for his mother, the Architect assumes the role, speaking soothingly to the Emperor and caressing him. When the Emperor launches into his speeches about the wonders of civilized life, the Architect listens patiently and asks interested questions. The Architect fulfills the Emperor’s final request to consume his body: Literally taking the Emperor inside himself, he allows himself to be transformed into the Emperor. The Emperor plays teacher, father confessor, and psychoanalyst to the Architect, whereas the Architect plays the faithful dog and the mother/murder victim to the Emperor. Although the Architect generally plays a more passive role, he is ultimately both judge and executioner of the Emperor.
A man’s ambivalent relationship with his mother is another theme manifest throughout the play: The strong psychic tie between mother and son can cause him to view her as a destructive, devouring force as well as the nurturing source of his life. In the first act, for example, the Architect begs his mother to beat him and is angry when “she” shows tenderness instead. The Emperor, dressed as a Carmelite nun, becomes a mother after enduring a painful labor. The plane crashes at the beginning and the end of the play can be interpreted as violent births, delivering men to a desolate place. In the second act, while confessing that he murdered his mother with a blow to the head, the Emperor says that he saw a lizard crawl from the hole in her skull, and the lizard had his own face. Finally, the Architect dresses as the Emperor’s mother when he devours his body at the end of the play.
A sacrilegious theme also pervades the play. In the first act, the Architect and the Emperor argue over which of them will be crucified to redeem humankind; later, when the Emperor is alone, he tries to crucify himself but finds it to be impossible. He dresses as a woman while telling the story of how he gambled the existence of God on a pinball game and lost because a drunk bumped into the machine. The Emperor plays both a pregnant nun and the priest who invites her to his room for a night of whipping. The major religious event occurs in the second act, when the Emperor dies for his sins and the Architect eats his body. This parodies the Roman Catholic idea of transubstantiation, but the bizarre cannibalistic communion does not expiate the sins of the Emperor. Rather, it brings the action to the close of its first cycle, then allows it to begin again.