The Emperor, the only survivor of an airplane crash on a small, almost deserted island. During the first act, the Emperor re-creates some of the principal characters of his former, “civilized” society; he plays a dictator, priest, nun, fiancée, soldier at war, doctor, and woman giving birth. In successive roles, he frenetically mimes the ceremony, pomp, and ritual that define these characters. Exhausted by his own theatricality, the Emperor suffers an apparent heart attack. Shortly after this, in a long self-reflective monologue, he says that he embraces the solitude of island life, a life without films, newspapers, or Coca-Cola. Addressing a scarecrow that he has placed on a throne, the Emperor speaks, in perhaps a rare moment of candor, of another life, of a job with a good salary and a wife who was happy when he finally received a raise. Painfully, before the scarecrow, he reviews his whole life and its main characters: his wife who cheated, his mother who no longer loved him, and his friends who, for the most part, envied him. He talks of his dreams of becoming the Emperor of Assyria one day and of writing like Voltaire.
The Architect, the only other inhabitant of the island, the “savage” and future pupil of the Emperor. Although ignorant of the rudiments of architecture, the Architect possesses special magical powers over the forces of nature. As if a stage director, he creates light and darkness at will and even is able to command, through the magic of words, the island’s animals. He yearns to have knowledge of society’s institutions and manners: What is a dictator? What is love? What is a mother? In a series of sadomasochistic games, role reversals, and acted-out sexual fantasies, the Architect is instructed by the Emperor in the ways of civilization. The Architect, in a recurring gesture of cruelty, threatens to abandon the Emperor by rowing to another island in his canoe. At one point, the Architect recounts a dream to the Emperor. In his dream, he was alone on a small island and an airplane fell, creating a terrible panic. Much of the interaction between the only two characters in the play depends on re-created events, ceremonies reenacted in an erotic and cruel atmosphere of panic.