- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH 1958
J. B., published in 1958, is a play in verse based on the biblical story of Job. It represents Archibald MacLeish’s responses to the horrors he saw during two world wars, including the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The author explains in the foreword to the acting edition of his play that turning to the Bible for a framework seems sensible “when you are dealing with questions too large for you which, nevertheless, will not leave you alone.” J. B. tells the story of a twentieth-century American banker-millionaire whom God commands be stripped of his family and his wealth but who refuses to turn his back on God. MacLeish wondered how modern people could retain hope and keep on living with all the suffering in the world and offered this play as an answer. J. B. learns that there is no justice in the world, that happiness and suffering are not deserved, and that people can still choose to love each other and live.
MacLeish had been earning his living as a poet for fifty years before this, his third verse play, was published. Shortly after the publication of the book, the play was produced on Broadway and underwent substantial revisions. There are, therefore, two versions of the play available for readers: the original book published by Houghton Mifflin and the acting script available from Samuel French. Both were published in 1958, and neither has ever gone out of print. J. B. won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1959 (MacLeish’s third Pulitzer), as well as the Tony Award for best play. More important, the play Page 69 | Top of Articlesparked a national conversation about the nature of God, the nature of hope, and the role of the artist in society.
Archibald MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois, on May 7, 1892. His father was a successful businessman, and his mother had been a college instructor; they saw to it that MacLeish was well educated. He attended public schools in Glencoe, and at the age of fifteen he was sent to a college preparatory academy in Connecticut. He began college studies at Yale in 1911.
Before college, MacLeish had been only an average student. At Yale, however, he began writing poetry and fiction for the literary magazine, excelled in water polo and football, earned high grades, and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society. After graduation in 1915, he entered Harvard Law School, hoping that a career in law would give him a way to bring order out of chaos, just as poetry did. He married Ada Hitchcock in 1916; served briefly in the army; published his first book of poetry, Tower of Ivory, in 1917; and graduated first in his law school class in 1919. He taught government at Harvard for a short time and then worked as an attorney in Boston, but never lost his devotion to writing poetry.
In 1923, MacLeish moved with his family to Paris, determined to become a serious poet. During this period, many important American and European writers were living in Paris, and MacLeish became friendly with them, determined to learn from them. He taught himself Italian, so he could study the work of the fourteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri, and he studied the history of English poetry as well. These five years transformed his work, giving him a mature style that pleased both him and the critics. When he returned home, he was able to earn a living as a writer and to buy a small farm in Massachusetts where he and Ada lived together until his death.
His will to bring order and harmony to human existence informed MacLeish’s career for the next sixty years. He published more than fifty books of poetry, drama, and essays, but he also accepted positions as the Librarian of Congress, Assistant Secretary of State, and part of the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations that established the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO). He believed that the poet’s duty was to address contemporary social concerns and to ask important questions. His distress at the bombings of Dresden, London, and Hiroshima led him to wonder how humans could respond with hope to such suffering. He posed this question in the 1958 play, J. B., a retelling of the biblical story of Job, which brought MacLeish several awards and his largest financial success.
Over his career, MacLeish won three Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, a Tony Award, an Academy Award for best screenplay, and nearly two dozen honorary degrees. In 1977, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died on April 20, 1982, just three weeks before a national symposium honoring his life and work.
The first characters to appear on stage in J. B. are Mr. Zuss and Nickles, a balloon seller and a popcorn seller in a run-down circus. They approach and then mount a sideshow stage in the corner of a circus tent to play out the story of Job from the Page 70 | Top of ArticleBible, with the stage as Heaven, the ground as Earth, and the lights as the stars. Zuss (whose name sounds like “Zeus,” the god of Greek mythology) will play God. From the beginning, he is as arrogant as one might expect a man who believes he is right for the role to be, and he is indignant at the idea that Job would dare to demand justice.
Nickles, on the other hand, understands Job’s suffering and does not accept that God would cause that suffering just to prove his authority and power. Nickles sings a song that includes the play’s central paradox: “If God is God He is not good,/If God is good, He is not God.” Nickles, whose name is a variation of “Old Nick,” a slang term for the devil, will play Satan. As the two men point out, there is always someone to play Job.
Zuss and Nickles don masks that they find in a pile of costumes. The Godmask is white, with closed eyes, showing his indifference. The Satanmask is dark, with open eyes, because “Satan sees.” They review their lines, which will come from the King James Bible. When the lights go down for the play to begin, a Distant Voice speaks the first line: “Whence comest thou?” It is not Zuss who speaks but, apparently, God. Zuss and Nickles take over, and the lights dim.
As scene 1 begins, the raised stage where Zuss and Nickels stand is in darkness, while gathered around a table in the light are the wealthy banker J. B., his wife Sarah, and their five children. They are a wealthy New England family, celebrating Thanksgiving. Sarah would like the children to be more thankful for the bounty they enjoy. She believes that there is a kind of bargain with God: “If we do our part He does His.” Our “part” is to thank God; if we forget God, He will punish. J. B. believes that God has chosen him for success and that his duty is to appreciate the gift, to enjoy his life.
The focus shifts again to Zuss and Nickles, whose first impulse is to belittle J. B.’s acting ability. Still, he is their “pigeon,” the man who will play Job. Nickles believes that once J. B. is stripped of his wealth, as Job was, he will lose his piety, but Zuss insists that J. B. will praise God no matter how much he suffers. Why then, asks Nickles, must Job be made to suffer at all? If God knows Job will pass the test, then why administer the test? Because, Zuss answers, Job needs to see God clearly. The two actors put their masks on and speak lines from the Bible. Satan challenges God to a bet: he will take everything away from Job, to demonstrate that even an upright man will curse God if pushed hard enough. God accepts.
Six or seven years have passed. Two drunken soldiers come to J. B.’s house, comrades in arms of David, J. B.’s oldest son. In a bumbling fashion, they reveal that David has been killed—not heroically in the war but accidentally and stupidly by his own men after the hostilities. As Sarah tries to understand that God has really taken her son, J. B. denies that David is really dead. Nickles encourages them to challenge God, but they do not hear him.
On the sidewalk, two reporters talk to a “Girl,” a young woman perhaps in her twenties. They persuade her to approach a couple who will come by soon and to catch their attention so they will be facing the camera when the reporters tell them that two of their children have died in a car accident. The couple, of course, are J. B. and Sarah. The dead teenagers are their children, Mary and Jonathan, killed by a drunk driver when their car crashed into a viaduct. Sarah despairs and asks why God would do this. Nickles, who is visible, grins appreciatively. But J. B. insists that they cannot “Take the good and not the evil.” He tries to embrace Sarah, but she flinches.
J. B. and Sarah talk to two men. The biblical story includes two messengers, and here they are played by police officers. Rebecca, the youngest child, is missing. J. B. did not call the police right away because he imagined that he could find her by himself. Sarah explains bitterly, “We believe in our luck in this house!” The luck again is bad, however. Rebecca has been raped and murdered by a teenaged drug user. “The Lord giveth,” J. B. says, “The Lord taketh away.” But he does not say the end of the line, which Nickels, Zuss, and the audience are expecting: “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Two messengers enter carrying Sarah. She has been rescued from a collapsed building after a bombing destroyed a whole city block. J. B.’s bank is destroyed, and his last remaining child, Ruth, is dead. J. B. urges Sarah not to despair, urges her to Page 71 | Top of Articlesay with him, “The Lord giveth. The Lord taketh away.” While Sarah shouts, “Kills! Kills! Kills! Kills! Kills!” J. B. completes the famous line, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Zuss and Nickles discuss J. B. Zuss is pleased with J. B.’s responses so far, but Nickles is disgusted. Although they are playing out a story that both know well, Nickles believes that this time the story will end differently, that J. B. will stop praising God once he experiences physical pain himself. When their argument delays the progress of the story, the Distant Voice begins to speak God’s lines. Zuss and Nickles understand that they are to continue.
J. B. lies on a table, clothed only in rags, with Sarah, also in rags, by his side weeping. An atomic blast has killed thousands, and J. B. is wounded. Women standing nearby comment on the sores covering J. B.’s body and on how far the two have fallen. Sarah is bitter and angry, but J. B. is puzzled. He knows there must be a reason for God’s punishment, but he cannot fathom what the reason is. Nickles observes that if J. B. knew the reason—if he knew that God was making the innocent J. B. suffer simply to demonstrate His own power—J. B. would despair. Sarah cannot accept J. B.’s theory that the family has deserved this suffering. She turns her back on J. B., urging him to “curse God and die,” and she runs out to kill herself. Now completely alone, J. B. begs God to “Show me my guilt.” Nickles sneers at Zuss.
In the biblical story, three comforters come to Job to scold him for questioning God and to “justify the ways of God to man.” Here, the three comforters are Zophar, a Catholic priest, Eliphaz, a psychiatrist, and Bildad, a Marxist. The three spout empty rhetoric and jargon to explain J. B.’s suffering, and they only add to J. B.’s despair. Finally, J. B. cries out, “God, my God, my God, answer me!” In response, the Distant Voice speaks God’s words from the Bible, asserting his power and authority, demanding that J. B./Job repent for daring to ask questions of God. J. B. does, also speaking a line from the Bible, “I abhor myself and repent.”
Nickles acknowledges that Zuss has won the bet, but Zuss is uneasy with his victory. He sees that for Job to forgive God is a sign of Job’s goodness and strength, not God’s. He loses all enthusiasm for playing his role and starts to climb down from the stage, but Nickles reminds him that there is one more scene to play. In the biblical story, God restores everything Job has lost. Nickles is sure that this time J. B./Job will refuse God’s offering, that he will not risk losing everything again. To make sure, he goes to J. B., tells him God’s plan, and begs him to kill himself instead. But J. B. hears someone at the door and goes to meet his future.
Typically, in a play-within-a-play, the outer play “frames” the other, taking the first and last words. But J. B. and Sarah have the last scene to themselves, without the commentary of Nickles and Zuss. Sarah sits on the doorstep, holding a forsythia branch in bloom. She discovered it on her way to drown herself in the river, found hope in it, and came back to J. B. She explains to her husband, “You wanted justice and there was none—/ Only love.” People will not find illumination or love from God, but in their own hearts. Sarah and J. B. embrace and then set to work tidying up the stage.
Bildad is one of the three comforters who come to reassure J. B. in scene 9, after J. B. has lost everything. Spouting jargon-filled cliches, Bildad explains J. B.’s suffering from a Marxist viewpoint, posing an economic answer to J. B.’s problems. J. B. should not wallow in guilt, he claims, because “Guilt is a sociological accident.”
Thirteen years old at the start of the play, David is the oldest son of J. B. and Sarah. As a young man, David becomes a soldier. He survives the war only to be accidentally killed by his own comrades before he can return home.
At two points in the play, while Zuss and Nickles are arguing in their roles as God and Satan, another voice from offstage is heard speaking lines attributed to God in the King James Bible. In the list of characters, the voice is named The Distant Voice. As MacLeish himself explained several times, the
voice belongs to God himself, another character in the play.
Eliphaz is one of the three comforters who come to reassure J. B. in scene 9, after J. B. has lost everything. Wearing a white doctor’s coat and lecturing like a pompous professor, he speaks for psychiatry, claiming that “Guilt is a / Psychophenomenal situation.” His words offer no comfort.
J. B. is a perfect and upright man, a successful New England banker, a millionaire, blessed with a loving wife, five children, and a comfortable life. There is no question about his standing for the biblical character Job; his wife Sarah calls him “Job” when she addresses him directly. J. B. is grateful for all he has, but unlike Sarah he does not see the need to express his thanks directly to God; he believes that it is enough to fully appreciate what he has been given. He feels that he is essentially lucky and that all will turn out well in the end. As he suffers each subsequent loss, J. B. insistently thanks God, as Sarah grows increasingly angry. Even after he has lost his family, his wealth, and his physical well-being, J. B. refuses to turn away from God. It is his refusal to “curse God” that finally pushes Sarah to leave him. But J. B.’s optimism is rewarded: God restores everything J. B. has lost and more. The central question of the play comes down to this: knowing he could run the risk of losing them again, how can J. B. accept the new gifts? How can he choose life in a world with no justice?
Jonathan, the younger son of J. B. and Sarah, is three years younger than David. He and his sister Mary are killed by a teenage drunk driver in scene 4.
Mary is the oldest daughter of J. B. and Sarah. When the play opens, she is twelve years old, a year younger than David. She and her brother Jonathan are killed by a teenage drunk driver in scene 4.
Nickles is an old, has-been actor, now reduced to selling popcorn in a derelict circus. As the play begins, he and Mr. Zuss enter the circus tent, find some old masks in a pile of costumes, and take on the roles of God and Satan from the biblical story of Job. Nickles will play Satan (his name is a play on the name “old Nick,” a seventeenth-century slang term for the devil) in the play-within-the-play. Nickles’s mask is dark, with wide eyes. Unlike Zuss, who plays God, Nickles has some sympathy for Job and bitterness about man’s willingness to accept suffering for God’s sake. He challenges Zuss to a bet, wagering that if Job were stripped of everything he values, he would curse God. They select J. B. to play Job, and the play-within-the-play begins.
As J. B. loses his children one by one, Nickles/Satan sneers at Zuss/God and his cruel way of showing J. B. his power. Nickles is witty and intelligent, and some critics have said he represents MacLeish in finding humans more worthy of admiration than God. Whereas Zuss is indifferent to J. B.’s suffering, Nickles feels pity. Challenging God and his majesty, Nickles speaks the most frequently quoted lines from the play: “If God is God He is not good, / If God is good He is not God.” But when Ruth and twenty thousand others are killed in a bombing and J. B. still praises God, Nickles’s feelings turn to disgust. Knowing that at the end of the story God will restore all of J. B.’s treasures, Nickles speaks to J. B. and suggests he kill himself instead. In his last speech, Nickles proclaims violently, “Job won’t take it! Job won’t touch it!” But he does.
Rebecca, the youngest child of J. B. and Sarah, is only six years old at the beginning of the play. In scene 5 she is raped and murdered by a nineteen-year-old drug user and left in an alley clutching her toy parasol.
Ruth, the middle daughter of J. B. and Sarah, is eight years old when the play begins. The last of the children to die, she is killed in the bombing in scene 6 that kills thousands.
Sarah is J. B.’s wife of many years and the mother of his five children. Her name is an invention of MacLeish’s; Job’s wife is not named in the Bible. She is, according to the stage directions, “a fine woman with a laughing, pretty face but a firm mouth and careful eyes, all New England.” When the family first appears, sharing a Thanksgiving feast, Sarah insists that they all stop and thank God for all they have. But when her innocent children are killed one by one, it is she who demands that Job “curse God and die.” When he will not, she leaves him, heading to the river to drown herself. She returns in the last scene, having found hope and comfort in a forsythia branch blooming at the river’s edge. She has learned that there is no justice but there is love.
Zophar is one of the three comforters who come to reassure J. B. in scene 9, after J. B. has lost everything. Wearing a tattered clerical collar, Zophar claims that “Guilt is a deceptive secret,” that man is inherently evil, and that J. B.’s suffering is more than deserved. He represents the empty comfort of religion, specifically of the Catholic Church.
Mr. Zuss, like Nickles, is an old man, an actor who has fallen on hard times and now sells balloons at the circus. He and Nickles are the first characters on stage. They enter the circus tent, find a sideshow stage, and agree to take on the characters of God and Satan in a play-within-a-play, the biblical story of Job. Mr. Zuss, whose name carries echoes of “Zeus” or “Deus,” will play the role of God, wearing a white mask whose closed eyes betray no expression. He accepts a wager from Nickles/Satan: he will allow Satan to destroy everything J. B. values, and J. B. will continue to praise God. Zuss and Nickles agree that J. B. is a “perfect and upright man,” that he has done nothing to deserve his destruction. Zuss believes that this relationship between God and man is proper and that for man to challenge God or seek justice from him is inappropriate.
Throughout the story of J. B./Job, Zuss and Nickles argue about J. B.’s responses. To the pompous and arrogant Zuss, it is merely fitting that J. B. should continually praise and thank him, even as J. B.’s suffering increases. When thousands are killed in an explosion and J. B. is still grateful to God, Zuss is pleased whereas Nickles is disgusted. Both men know how the story will turn out, but Nickles continually rails against what he knows will happen, whereas Zuss placidly watches the story unfold.
Hopelessness and Despair
The world of J. B. is a frightening world. In the beginning of the play, J. B. and his family are healthy and wealthy, happy and loving. J. B.’s children have never known suffering or deprivation; as J. B. tells Sarah, the world seems to them “New and born and fresh and wonderful.” J. B. himself trusts his “luck” because it comes from God. He is safe in his knowledge that God is “just. He’ll never change.”
But without warning—and without cause—J. B.’s luck does change. His children are killed in particularly senseless ways: David by accident, by his own men when the war is over; Mary and Jonathan by a drunken teenaged driver; Rebecca by a teenager on drugs; Ruth in a bombing. J. B. himself is injured in an atomic blast, and his body is covered with radiation burns. There is no sense to it all, and that is the point. The world is so violent and frightening that even blameless people will be driven to despair. The surprising thing is not that Sarah eventually loses all hope, but that J. B. does not.
The hopelessness and senselessness of the world is first decried by Nickles, who speaks bitterly to Zuss, comparing the world to a “dung heap” and a “cesspool.” Remembering the bombed-out cities of World War II, he says, “There never could have been so many / Suffered more for less.” Throughout the play, Nickles badgers Zuss about suffering in the world and mocks humans like J. B. for thinking God cares about their suffering. The masks that Nickles and Zuss wear emphasize their relationship to human pain: Zuss’s Godmask has blind eyes, but Nickles’s Satanmask has open eyes, and, as Nickles says, “Those eyes see.” In the end, J. B. is not
driven to despair, but Nickles is. Nickles comes to believe that the best thing for J. B. to do would be to commit suicide, to refuse to live in the world God has given him. For many readers, this hopelessness is the central theme of the play. It is not until the last scene that the reader has any reason to see anything more promising in the play.
Justice versus Love
MacLeish himself spoke publicly and wrote about J. B. several times, and he was always clear as to what he believed his play was “about” (although, as the poet who created the famous lines “A poem should not mean / But be,” he discussed themes with some reluctance). When he addressed the cast of a college production of the play in 1976, he stated, “The play is not a struggle between God and J. B.” The central question of the play, according to the author, is “the question of the justification of the injustice of the Universe.”
This theme is played out in the characters of J. B. and Sarah. From the beginning, J. B. believes that he is lucky and blessed because he has earned God’s favor—that his bounty is a form of justice. When his children are taken away from him violently, one by one, he looks for reasons for his suffering. Although Nickles and Zuss (Satan and God) agree that J. B. is an innocent man who has done nothing to deserve his punishment, J. B. can think only in terms of justice, and so he concludes that he and the children must have sinned. Sarah rejects justice as the reason for their trials. In scene 8, she begs J. B. not to “betray” the children by calling them sinners: “I will not / Let you sacrifice their deaths / To make injustice justice and God good!” When J. B. refuses to listen, she leaves him.
When Sarah returns in scene 11, it is because she has learned that the world, and the humans who love in it, are reason enough to live. She explains to J. B., “You wanted justice, didn’t you? / There isn’t any. There’s the world.” She left him, she says, because “I loved you. / I couldn’t help you any more. / You wanted justice and there was none—/ Only love.”
When MacLeish took J. B. to Broadway, he and the director Elia Kazan agreed that for the play to work on stage, J. B. should be the one to settle the conflict between justice and love in the end. In the acting edition, therefore, the last scene was rewritten to give J. B. most of Sarah’s final lines and to expand on them. In both versions, it is clear that God does not love humans, and He does not act out of justice or injustice. He simply is. It is humans who have the capacity for love. In a world where blessings and sufferings can not be earned or deserved, people must love each other, or despair.
When a writer refers to a well-known character or story from the past, either from fiction or nonfiction, that writer is said to be using an allusion. This device works as a kind of shorthand, enabling a writer to convey a lot of information quickly and without explanation, because the reader can be assumed to bring knowledge about and responses to the things alluded to. Clearly, MacLeish’s play is atleast Page 75 | Top of Articlein part a retelling of the biblical story of Job. There are several parallels between the two stories. The name “J. B.” echoes the name “Job.” What is more, Sarah, Nickles, and Zuss all sometimes call him by the name Job. The names of J. B.’s comforters in scene 9, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad, are the names of the three comforters in the Biblical story. Although Sarah and the children are not named in the Bible, MacLeish has chosen Biblical names for each of them. The overall story, with the wager between God and Satan and the systematic destruction of all of J. B.’s possessions, echoes the story of Job. Some of the lines are direct quotations from the King James Version of the Bible.
MacLeish—and his characters Zuss and Nickles—expects that the audience is already familiar with the biblical story. When the two circus vendors arrive on the scene, Zuss indicates the stage area and comments, “That’s where Job sits—at the table. / God and Satan lean above.” Nickles does not ask Zuss who or what he is talking about; he knows the story and knows that the audience knows. In fact, a bit later in scene 1, Nickles summarizes the torments that Job suffered and that J. B. is about to suffer: “God has killed his sons, his daughters, / Stolen his camels, oxen, sheep, / Everything he has.” Apparently, MacLeish not only does not mind that his audience knows what is going to happen to J. B.; he insists upon it.
Throughout the play, Zuss and Nickles refer to what is about to happen and occasionally speak directly to the characters to urge them to play—or not to play—their roles as written. When Rebecca’s body is found, J. B. tries to utter one of the most well-known lines from the Job story. He is able to get most of the words out (“The Lord giveth... the Lord taketh away!”), but even with Zuss’s urging he cannot overcome his grief and finish the line (“Blessed be the name of the Lord”). This scene works only if the audience knows the words and knows how the line is supposed to end. The point is not to tell the story, but to retell it and to comment on it, to point out that this story is reenacted over and over again.
Although he wrote plays and essays and even a screenplay, MacLeish is primarily known as a poet, and he devoted much of his life to studying poetry. J. B. is written entirely in verse, which was a common form for English drama in earlier centuries (many of Shakespeare’s play, for example, are written in iambic pentameter verse) but extremely rare in the 1950s. When the play did well on Broadway, critics marveled that a play in verse could find an audience. J. B. is written in unrhymed four-stress lines without strict meter. In a conversation with college students cast for a production of the play, published as “MacLeish Speaks to the Players,” the author explains that “those four syllables are accented... by the sense of the words; if you read the words to mean, they will take their right emphasis.”
The effect of the four stresses is subtle at best; it is possible to read the dialogue without paying attention to the sound, and many readers of the text will not hear the rhythm. But when the play is performed, the four-stress line creates an undercurrent that works emotionally on the audience. For MacLeish, this undercurrent was grounded in an essential difference between poetry and prose and between myth and history. In an interview in Horizon magazine, he explained that while history is true at a particular place and time, stories like the story of Job are mythical, “true at any place and time: true then and therefore true forever; true forever and therefore true then.” Chronological time, therefore, is less important than “always” in a drama based on myth, and “’always’ exists in poetry rather than prose.”
For secular readers and audiences of the early twenty-first century, drama in verse may seem as exotic as the language of the King James Bible. The language and the four-stress line serve to elevate the drama, to place it in a not-quite-familiar place and time. While the trials J. B. and his family suffer are brutally recognizable even today, the poetry of the lines achieves MacLeish’s purpose: it prevents the audience from sinking into familiarity, from seeing J. B.’s story as the story of one individual man.
World War II
With the development of new technologies, World War II saw more civilian casualties than any previous war. Bombs from the air could deliver more destructive power than single bullets from a rifle, but they did not kill only soldiers, nor were they intended to. Nickles comments in scene 1 that “Millions and millions of mankind” have been “Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated,” and he particularly
mentions those who died because they were “Sleeping the wrong night wrong city—/ London, Dresden, Hiroshima.” These three cities stand for the thousands of innocent civilians who died on both sides of the war.
London, the capital city of England, was bombed by the Nazis for fifty-eight consecutive days in 1940 and less frequently for the following six months, in the series of raids known as the Blitz. Nearly a third of the city was brought to ruins, and nearly 30,000 Londoners were killed. Dresden was one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, a center for art and culture. In February 1945, six square miles of its downtown were destroyed by Allied bombing, resulting in the deaths of between 35,000 and 135,000 people in two days. Six months later, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing almost 150,000 people.
When World War II ended in 1945, the misery did not end for people who had lived through it, particularly for people who lived in the areas that had been hardest hit by the bombing. MacLeish got the idea for J. B. in the late 1940s, when he visited a London suburb that had been nearly flattened by Nazi bombing. There, he met families who had been bombed in one town, moved away, and had been bombed in the new place. Many had lost relatives and friends. The senselessness of their suffering and Page 77 | Top of Articlethe increasing human capacity to inflict more suffering troubled him and eventually led to J. B.
Contrary to the common, nostalgic view that the 1950s was a time of unbroken happiness and prosperity, many people suffered greatly, both inside and outside the United States. World War II had just ended, and many people had lost loved ones and property. The extent of the horrors of the Holocaust was gradually becoming known. In short, the world seemed to many people like a place where suffering and evil were not only possible but present, and without measure.
The Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, was constantly in the back of many Americans’ minds. The term “Cold War” referred to the idea that the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were waging a political and economic battle (not a “hot” war with weapons) for influence in the world. As the two “superpowers” gained political strength, each also increased its capacity to engage in an armed conflict if necessary. The resulting arms race, in which each side eventually created enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire planet, left people on both sides of the Cold War feeling not safer but more anxious. Even young people were exposed to the climate of fear. School children were trained to “duck and cover” in the event of an atomic bomb threat. As horrible as the destruction caused by World War II had been, the next major war threatened to leave even more misery in its wake.
Renaissance of the Verse Play
Most students are aware that Shakespeare wrote plays in iambic pentameter lines but have come to expect modern drama to be written in simple, conversational language. Some writers have felt, as the poet T. S. Eliot did in the 1930s, that the conventional language of everyday speech is not grand enough to raise important questions. Eliot decided to try to revive the verse play, producing a half dozen dramas in verse including Murder in the Cathedral(1935), an historical play about the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century; and The Cocktail Party(1950), a combination of drawing room conversation and incantation. Audiences and critics were curious but not enamored of the form. Eliot’s plays were profound and thoughtful, but often they were not good drama. Murder in the Cathedral, his first verse play, is generally considered his best.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, other playwrights attempted verse drama. The British playwright Christopher Fry wrote and directed eight plays in verse. Some, including A Sleep of Prisoners(1951), were serious, based on religious themes; the verse supported a mystical, ponderous tone. These plays were well regarded by the critics and compared favorably with the earlier work of Eliot. Audiences much preferred Fry’s comedies, including The Lady’s Not for Burning(1948), in which the verse was a vehicle for wit, wordplay, and surprising rhythm. Fry’s comedies were the first modern verse plays to be both critical and popular successes. Significantly, Fry was a playwright and director, not a poet, when he turned to this form.
MacLeish was taking a chance when he wrote J. B. in verse. He had written two minor radio plays in verse, and he had written hundreds of poems, but he did not have much experience as a playwright. Still, he felt as Eliot and Fry and others before him that the question he was addressing was too large and important to be expressed in prose. When he took the play to Broadway, his director Elia Kazan supervised months of revision because the play as written did not work dramatically. Everyone was surprised that the new version of the play turned out so well; it was assumed that a play based on the Bible and written in verse would draw only a small intellectual audience. Instead, J. B. enjoyed a long run on Broadway, won two major awards, and made a lot of money.
It was not the beginning of a trend. Verse plays continue to appear occasionally, but none has matched the success of J. B. Even this play, which was a staple of college theatre companies through the 1960s and 1970s, has rarely been performed since.
J. B. was something of a sensation in its time, especially because of MacLeish’s audacity and deftness in attempting to write verse drama for a modern audience. The play was published as a book months before it was ever performed, and so its first reviewers were readers, not members of an audience. Because MacLeish was well known as a poet, his play in verse received more critical attention in the major newspapers and magazines than it might have otherwise. The poet John Ciardi, in a review titled “Birth of a Classic,” written for the Saturday Review of Literature, called the play “great poetry, Page 78 | Top of Articlegreat drama, and... great stagecraft.” Other critics were more modest in their praise but were largely favorable. After its first production, at Yale University in 1958, the play was selected for the World’s Fair at Brussels.
The substantially revised Broadway version of J. B. was widely reviewed and much discussed in bars and coffeehouses. The morning after the opening, MacLeish appeared on the Today show to talk about the play, and open forums were held after some of the early performances so that religious scholars could debate theology with the playwright. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1959 (MacLeish’s third Pulitzer), as well as the Tony Award for best play. It had a long run on the British stage and was translated and performed in other European countries as well. Until the early 1980s, the play was frequently performed at colleges and universities, and the book form of the play became MacLeish’s best-selling work.
Criticism of the play can be divided roughly into two types: criticism (often negative) that speaks to MacLeish’s religious views, reflecting on his treatment and understanding of the biblical story, and criticism (often positive) that speaks to the play as art and reflects on the author’s handling of character or language or on the differences between the book and the acting edition of the play. Typical of the first type is “J. B., Wrong Answer to the Problem of Evil,” written by Martin D’Arcy for Catholic World. D’Arcy acknowledges that J. B. is “good theater,” but he concludes that it is bad theology because “In the solution which MacLeish offers, no reference is made to immortality nor to the Christian Cross.” The conflict is summed up neatly in the title of Preston R. Gledhill’s analysis in Brigham Young University Studies: “J. B.: Successful Theatre versus ’Godless’ Theology.” Several of these critics have quarreled with MacLeish’s interpretation of the Job story, believing that in his retelling he has a duty to be completely faithful to his original source. But in a 1974 article in Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, Elizabeth Bieman bemoans “the chasm which separates the humane vision of MacLeish’s play from the conservative theology” and describes several ways in which “MacLeish opens the door to profound mystery.”
Another body of criticism is willing to meet MacLeish on his own terms. They approach the play with the expectation that the author has used the story of Job as a framework for his own work and accept that any variations he may create in his version are conscious choices, not failings to understand. As explained by Thomas E. Porter in Myth and Modern America Drama, MacLeish “cannot simply retell the Job story in modern terms. He has to reshape his source so that the message he finds there is translated into dramatic terms for the audience.” Shannon O. Campbell, who admires MacLeish’s adaptation, explicates the differences between the two versions of the story, attributing the variations to the different cultural settings, in English Journal. Marion Montgomery, in the journal Modern Drama, closely examines the fourstress line and how MacLeish varies the lines to demonstrate character and emotional states. She concludes that much of the verse is effective but that the play overall is not.
The character of J. B. is a subject for discussion. Early audiences surprised MacLeish by finding J. B. unlikable. Daniel Berrigan, in a review for America, comments that J. B. is not “marked by depth of character, skill and command in giving point to thought”; rather, he is “a rather simple overdrawn Main Street Type, so pale as to be invisible at noon.” To Porter, however, J. B. is “the humanist hero, a responsible free agent.”
Bily is an instructor of writing and literature at Adrian College. In this essay, Bily asks whether the United States in the beginning of the twenty-first century is sadly ripe for a revival of J. B.
Although some pieces of literature feel timeless, like Homer’s Odyssey or some of the plays of Shakespeare, other perfectly fine works are products of a specific time and place and belong so strongly to that setting that they languish when their time is past. A cursory look at lists of winners of the Pulitzer Prizes or the National Book Awards reveals many works that have stood the test of time: novels and poetry that are still in print, plays that are still performed. Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, which won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Edward Arlington Robinson’s Collected Poems, winner of the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for poetry; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, winner of the 1953 National Book Award for fiction; A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, the 1948 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Other names have disappeared Page 79 | Top of Articlefrom our collective awareness, known to scholars but not frequently sought out by readers and directors: the poets Alan Dugan and Leonora Speyer, the novelists J. F. Powers and Julia Peterkin, the plays Miss Lulu Bett and Craig’s Wife.
Archibald MacLeish’s play J. B. has seemed, for at least two decades, like one of the forgotten works, destined to be read occasionally in English classes but overlooked by serious scholars and producers. A search of the Modern Language Association Bibliography database turns up only two articles about the play in the 1980s and none since. Although the play enjoyed a long run on Broadway in 1958 and 1959 and twenty years as a staple of college theatre companies, it has been infrequently performed since MacLeish’s death in 1982.
Ten years after the Broadway opening, when the reviewers were done with the play and the literary critics took over, J. B. was hailed as a play of its own time. Murray Roston included J. B. in his discussion of Biblical Drama in England and explained why the Bible was a sensible source for MacLeish: “In the mid-twentieth century, the obliteration of Hiroshima provided the most glaring modern instance of such indiscriminate slaughter, the Bible had reached the nadir of its sanctity, and the time was ripe for a new surge of interest in its themes, and particularly in the Jobian quest translated into modern terms.” In 1970, Sy Kahn located the play squarely in the 1950s, when “writers reverberated to the impact of the events of World War II and especially to the accumulating evidence of Nazi persecution and extermination programs, and these events sharpened the points of the old, excruciating questions.” He concluded that J. B. was “a play right for MacLeish, right for a post-war and war-fearing world, right for America in mid-century.” More recently, in 1982, Richard Calhoun looked back on the play and its reception, commenting that “In my view MacLeish intended to give his audience an American version of Job appropriate for the 1950s, a decade not as blandly idyllic as that popular TV series Happy Days made it appear. This was a time of a cold war that became a small but fierce hot war in Korea. It was a decade of suspicion and of communist witch-hunting.... J. B. was written at a time for serious questions about the human costs of mid-twentieth-century destruction and whether under such conditions it was possible to have a belief in life.”
Calhoun’s use of the past tense is telling. Over the next twenty years, the world underwent drastic
changes, socially and politically. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Cold War came to an end. Wars were fought far away, “cleanly,” with precision missiles that in theory hit only their targets. Americans enjoyed a strong economy and peace at home. Although membership in Bible-based organized churches was growing, the United States was determined to maintain a separation of church and state and was growing increasingly uneasy with professions of faith and references to the Bible in public.
How could one best approach J. B. in the new century, when things seemed to be going so well. What would North American students understand about J. B.’s suffering and his need to make sense of it? What would they know of World War II or of living in a climate of fear and suspicion? What would they make of Nickles’s bitterness and anger or of J. B.’s search for justice? The answers to these questions came when the events of September 11, 2001, made J. B. horribly relevant again.
The play centers on the character of J. B., a good, decent, upright man. He is wealthy and part of a loving family; he has been blessed by God, and he is grateful to God. He is also largely unaware of the lives of other less fortunate people, although neither
Zuss nor Nickles blames him for this. J. B. appreciates what he has been given and enjoys it fully, but there is no sense that he is aware that on a chilly Thanksgiving Day there are people outside sleeping on a grate. MacLeish was said to have been taken aback when some critics pointed out that they found the man J. B. unlikable, self-satisfied. Nickles cannot stop thinking about:
Millions and millions of mankind /
Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated, /
Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking! /
For walking around the world in the wrong /
Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids: /
Sleeping the wrong night wrong city— /
London, Dresden, Hiroshima. /
There never could have been so many /
Suffered more for less.
Why is J. B. oblivious?
One reason J. B. languished for several years is that it has not seemed urgent. Like J. B., Americans (at least that portion of the population that attends plays) have been largely protected from catastrophe. London, Dresden, and Hiroshima were long ago. More recent suffering in Cambodia and Rwanda and Bangladesh was far away. MacLeish’s original audiences were afraid, but audiences in the 1990s were not.
Of course, suffering does reach J. B. He loses his children one by one, the last in a bombing. This is the event that pushes Sarah over the brink into despair. She was one of those who were pulled from the wreckage. Someone “heard her underneath a wall / Calling” the name of her last daughter, Ruth, who died in the explosion. When he wrote the images, MacLeish was remembering what he had heard of the Blitz, but today’s readers will picture the countless scenes, played over and over on TV, of people pulled from the wreckage, living or dead, in Oklahoma City, in New York City, in Washington, D.C. Nickles predicts that when J. B. suffers as Sarah has, not just seeing her children killed but herself physically injured, when J. B.’s body “hurts him—once / Pain has penned him in,” he will despair and reject God.
Sarah rejects J. B. when he will not curse God. She leaves him and goes “Among the ashes. / All there is now of the town is ashes. / Mountains of ashes. / Shattered glass./Glittering cliffs of glass all shattered.” Nickles is disgusted by J. B. when he Page 81 | Top of Articleactually thanks God for his punishment. In the end, J. B. chooses life, though he does not know how he will live it, and it is Sarah who shows him how.
The tensions in the United States today make Americans ready, in a way that they have not been for twenty years, to contemplate the questions so large that MacLeish could not stop asking them. When people suffer, when they die, when they are afraid, how can they go on? When the forces that act on them are beyond their comprehension, how can they support each other? If the answers to these essential questions are not found in psychiatry or politics or religion, where are they? Why don’t we all follow Nickles’s advice and take a rope, or take “a window for a door?” Is MacLeish’s answer, that there is no justice but there is love, sufficient?
These questions had people talking all night in 1958, arguing in the newspapers, shouting out comments in the theatre. Complacency put the questions to bed for awhile, but many of them are being voiced again, on talk shows, on the twentyfour-hour news channels, in church services and coffeeshops. The Doonesbury cartoon by Gary Trudeau that ran in newspapers on October 5, 2001, had Boopsie asking, “What kind of God allows such terrible suffering and death?” When J. B. was new, critics and reviewers argued over MacLeish’s answers to big questions. With the North American corner of the world in turmoil, the old questions seem new again.
It will remain the work of historians, sociologists, political scientists, and religious scholars to sort out who was innocent and who was guilty on the day of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and all the days leading up to it, and all the days after. As J. B. does, a person or a country might cry out for justice, but there is none. Sarah learns about justice and explains to J. B., “Cry for justice and the stars / Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep, / Enormous winds will thrash the water.” In a way that the Americans have recently been reminded, the world is a big place full of ungovernable forces, security is fragile, and innocent people do suffer. As Zuss says at the beginning ofJ. B., “there’s always / Someone playing Job.”
Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on J. B., in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
James L. McWilliams III
In the following essay excerpt, McWilliams discusses MacLeish’s play and its resemblance to the Book of Job.
Commercially and critically, MacLeish earned the great bulk of his reputation as playwright with J. B. Originally staged by the Yale School of Drama in April 1958, J. B. played at the Brussels World’s Fair in September and opened at the ANTA Theatre in New York on 11 December 1958. After a run of 364 performances, the play closed on 24 October 1959. In published form, J. B. was a best-seller and translated into many foreign languages. Later productions were mounted in many nations including England, France, Egypt, Israel, and Mexico.
Essentially the Book of Job transplanted into the twentieth century, J. B. asks how man, with dignity and hope, can love and serve a god who allows so much evil to exist in the world. The action unfolds under a giant circus tent, recreating the universe-as-big-top analogy earlier seen in MacLeish’s own poem “The End of the World.” As a play-within-a-play, J. B. begins with the entrance of two ragtag gentlemen named Mr. Zuss and Nickles. The pair discover and don masks of God and Satan, thus setting the inner play into motion. For the rest of the play Zuss and Nickles each fulfill a dual role, one deified and one human. Together they act as a Greek chorus, both taking part in and commenting upon the action of the play, Zuss as orthodox believer and Nickles as rebellious cynic.
When we first see Job’s modern counterpart, J. B., he is celebrating Thanksgiving with his wife and children. Prosperous and happy, J. B. is overflowing with love of God. Then, the senseless misfortunes begin. One son is killed overseas in an absurd accident following the Armistice. One daughter is brutally raped and murdered by a sexual psychopath. Two other children die in a gruesome automobile accident. The last child perishes when J. B.’s bank is bombed. In each case, the news is borne to J. B. by callous messengers—drunken soldiers, photographers with glaring flashbulbs, raincoated policemen, and steel-helmeted civil defense officers. J. B. himself is stricken with boils Page 82 | Top of Articleand, with his wife Sarah, left the pitiful survivor of an atomic blast. Sarah, however, soon leaves, urging J. B. to denounce God and surrender life. As the first half of the play comes to a close, J. B., wounded and bewildered, cries out: “Show me my guilt, O God!” God responds with agonizing silence.
In the second half comes the parade of comforters, giving no comfort at all. Bildad expounds Marxist jargon about collective humanity. Eliphaz, a Freudian psychiatrist, talks about guilt as an illusion. Finally, Zophar, a theologian, argues that guilt is an inevitable part of being human. J. B. rejects panaceas of all the comforters but finds the words of Zophar most cruel because they imply a gamester-God who creates sin to punish sin. With nothing left to do, J. B. simply restates his faith and trust in God. This time God answers, in the form of a distant, disembodied voice over the public address system. But to J. B.’s surprise, God speaks only to question him and rebuke him for his presumptuousness in trying to instruct the Lord. In MacLeish’s words, J. B. “has not been answered at all—he has merely been silenced.” Humbled by God’s chiding, J. B. repents. Not long after, Sarah returns to him out of love and together they resolve to begin a new world.
This was the version of J. B. staged at Yale University. Before the play reached New York, however, it underwent a significant metamorphosis, mostly at the behest of director Elia Kazan. The multiscene structure of the original gave way to a more conventional two-act form. Zuss and Nickles, segregated from the J. B. scenes in the Yale version, were more fully incorporated into the total action of the play. Most significant, especially in terms of later critical opinion, was the addition of what Kazan called a recognition scene, in which J. B. rejects both complacent ignorance and cynicism in facing the ills of the world. Instead, he finds hope and salvation inside himself, inside the human heart, saying to his wife: “The candles in the church are out. / The lights have gone out in the sky! / Blow on the coal of the heart / And we’ ll see by and by....” From a solid majority of the critics, J. B. harvested high praise. John Gassner called it an “exalted work of the dramatic and poetic imagination in a generally commonplace theatre.” John Ciardi of the Saturday Review called it “great poetry, great drama, and... great stagecraft” and added, “the poetry and the drama are organically one.” Dudley Fitts, mixing prophecy with praise, wrote: “A passionate work, composed with great art... a signal contribution to the small body of modern poetic drama, and it may very well turn out to be an enduring one.” Citing the emotional power of the play, Samuel Terrien of the Christian Century observed that even “the most blase audience submits to the spell in an almost unbearable experience of empathy.” Finally, Brooks Atkinson, writing for the New York Times, said: “It portrays in vibrant verse the spiritual dilemma of the twentieth century.”
Transforming a familiar story, however, invites comparison with the original, and here the critics butted heads. In the view of Henry Hewes, J. B. “adds precious little to what has already been said more beautifully in the Bible.” In a more orthodox vein, another spokesman for Christian Century concluded: “While Mr. MacLeish’s drama is a brilliant recreation of the story of Job, the character of J. B. is completely foreign to that of the hero who speaks in the biblical poem.” Joseph Wood Krutch disagreed with both of these critics, saying: “MacLeish’s interpretation is strong and interesting, neither merely repeating what the biblical drama says nor perverting it into something else.”
Without doubt, the religious implications of the recognition scene in J. B. stirred the greatest controversy and inspired the most biting detractions. Scores of critics, religious and secular, agreed with Martin D’Arcy of Catholic World that “evil cannot be solved within us; help and grace must come from outside, from a God.” As Brooks Atkinson added, “a declaration of individual independence from God differs from cursing God only in degree, and it weakens the force of the purity of J. B.’s character.” Henry Van Dusen alone came to MacLeish’s defense in the matter of religious doctrine, arguing in Christian Century after the detractors had spoken: “If MacLeish has recourse to human integrity and human love for the answer to J. B.’s need, it is, again, because the biblical Job offers him nothing beyond obeisance before an arbitrary and heartless Cosmic Power.” All critics concurred on one final point: J. B. was a genuine rarity—a commercially successful religious verse play.
Source: James L. McWilliams III, “Archibald MacLeish,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Part 2: K-Z, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 58-61.
Signi Lenea Falk
In the following essay excerpt, Falk examines J. B. within the context of the morality play, focusing on similarities between it and the story of Job in the Bible.
Writing in 1955, MacLeish rejected T. S. Eliot’s statement that no play should be written in verse if prose were “dramatically adequate.” He answered Eliot by saying that prose is adequate for an illusion of the actual; but, if the dramatist is concerned with the “illusion of the real,” then he is concerned with “the illusion which dramatic poetry can pursue.” He gave as examples “the illusion of Oedipus apart from the plot,” or “the metaphor of Prospero’s island,” or “Yeats’ Purgatory,” or Hamlet which offers “a perception of the nature of the human heart.” Only poetry creates an illusion which can foster an understanding by the mind, by the emotions, and by the senses—that is, by the whole being.
In the undergraduate verse in Tower of Ivory(1917) MacLeish was concerned with man’s interpretation of God and with the meaning of human experience. In the early poetic drama Nobodaddy(1925), he reflected an interest in Blake’s attitudes toward conventional religion and morality. In that early play the serpent tempted Adam to raise questions and to use his power of reason. This same voice, more fully developed in Cain, made him ask what kind of God demands sacrifice of the trusting and destroys the innocent. The sonnet “End of the World” as well as parts of Einstein(1926) and The Hamlet of A. MacLeish(1928), also questioned the place of man in an indifferent universe. Another kind of callousness—a human kind of indifference—was reflected by the Announcer to the suffering of the village inhabitants in Air Raid(1939). The pattern of thought to be found in these earlier poems and plays is more fully developed in the play about the modern Job.
MacLeish compounded problems for himself when he set out to recast the Old Testament poem into a modern drama. The Book of Job is one of the most controversial in the Bible. The text itself raises innumerable problems. Because of the nature of the contestants, man against God and Satan, there can be no real dramatic conflict. The extended arguments between Job and the three comforters, which consume the major part of the Bible story, are not material for drama. After the terrible sufferings of Job, his restoration at the end negates any possibility of the poem as tragedy in the usual sense of the term.
MacLeish turned to the Book of Job to raise questions about the nature of a God who would consent without cause to the destruction of a good man, the killing of all his children, and the infliction of physical suffering upon him. MacLeish seems
to be raising questions whether this concept of God—the God of the Old Testament, the God of Vengeance—belongs to a world in which Germans murdered millions of Jews in gas chambers and Americans destroyed Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Good” Germans and “good” Americans, indifferent about their own guilt, obviously need to find another image of God, and of goodness, one that incorporates love with a sense of responsibility, one that can unite a compassion for others with a concern for the individual spirit. MacLeish, as he has asked other poets to do, seems to be casting off a metaphor that belongs to the past and to be seeking a new metaphor for our own time.
As the framework for J. B. MacLeish returned to the image he used in the early sonnet, “The End of the World”, in which man’s life is likened to a circus performance, his universe indifferent and meaningless. J. B. is very much like a morality play. It also a play within a play: two broken-down, hamactors—one wearing the God mask, the other the Satan mask—observe and comment upon the lives and misfortunes of an American family. The stage is bare except for a low platform on which J. B.’s family act out their story; the stage level represents the earth upon which Satan walks to and fro, and an elevation to the right suggests heaven. During the first part of the play, a huge circus tent covers the acting area. It is like the protection of a friendly universe, or perhaps the inherited beliefs about a friendly universe. During the last part of the play, this tent disappears; its absence gives the effect of exposing J. B. completely to indifference and meaninglessness. Scattered around the stage are what seem to be vestments of several times and churches. Even the God mask and the Satan mask, Page 84 | Top of ArticleMr. Zuss and Mr. Nickles, seem to be relics of the past, to be parodies of man’s sometime religious experience.
Mr. Zuss is an imposing, deep-voiced man of “magnificent deliberation” suitable to play a God who never laughs, who sees nothing wrong with the arrangement of the world. Nickles says that the “blank, beautiful, expressionless mask with eyes lidded like the eyes of the mask in Michelangelo’s Night” belongs to God and the Creator of animals. He says God fumbled Job when He gave him a mind, made him grateful, and made him think “there should be justice somewhere.” When Mr. Zuss answers that “Demanding justice of God” is rank irreverence, Nickles retorts that God’s reasons are for animals, not for men.
Nickles, who plays “the opposite,” traditionally called Father of Lies, but whom Zuss sneeringly describes as “the honest, disillusioned man,” feels sympathy for J. B., a man given the light of reason but deprived of the answers. When Mr. Zuss indifferently observes that there is always someone playing Job, Nickles agrees; but he is appalled by the frequency:
There must be
Thousands! What’s that got to do with it?
Thousands—not with camels either:
Millions and millions of mankind
Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated,
Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking!
For walking round the world in the wrong
Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids:
Sleeping the wrong night wrong city—
London, Dresden, Hiroshima.
There never could have been so many
Suffered more for less.
In answer to Mr. Zuss’s indifference, Nickles reiterates that Job is everywhere.
Nickles’ mask is dark in contrast to Zuss’s white one, and it is open-eyed: “The eyes, though wrinkled with laughter, seem to stare and the mouth is drawn down in agonized disgust.” According to Zuss, it is the traditional image of evil, or of spitefulness, an echo from “some subterranean memory probably.” Nickles answers that it is not an expression of evil, but of disgust: “Look at those lips: they’ve tasted something / Bitter as a broth of blood.” Zuss’s mask has a look of “cold complacence”; Nickles’, one of pity. When Zuss rebukes Nickles for laughing, for being irreverent to God, Nickles retorts that, having seen, he cannot laugh. Having seen the world, he says, “I know what Hell is now—to see. / Consciousness of consciousness.” Nickles repeats that it is not the little Freudian insights but the sickening rape of innocence that
He sees the parked car by the plane tree.
He sees behind the fusty door,
Beneath the rug, those almost children
Struggling on the awkward seat—
Every impossible delighted dream
She’s ever had of loveliness, of wonder,
Spilled with her garters to the filthy floor.
Absurd despair! Ridiculous agony!
What has any man to laugh at!
For Zuss, the Job story is a simple scene; and, unaware of Nickles’ perception of the suffering involved, he directs him to play his part. These two old actors, modifications of Good and Evil, are not only rivals for supremacy but for domination over this rich American banker, the current Job.
J. B., the twentieth-century Job, is a New England millionaire who with his attractive wife Sarah and their five children—David, thirteen; Mary, twelve; Jonathon, ten; Ruth, eight; Rebecca, six—celebrate an abundant, happy Thanksgiving. The euphoric J. B. has ridden the crest of good luck; his business, his family, and his friends seem never to have created any problems. Sarah, nagged by a conscience that demands verbalized thanks and humility before God, expresses the simple, conventional faith that, if man does his part, God will not forget. J. B., intuitive like his children, glories in the grace of God. He never doubted that God was on his side. Sarah’s God, who punishes and rewards, is just; but she fears her “happiness impending like a danger.” The spirit of this opening scene is one of innocence, goodness, and optimism; no chastening experience has ever made this banker question the meaning of his life.
Zuss and Nickles recognize this J. B. as their pigeon, the good man to be tested to prove a point—“the victim of a spinning joke,” as Nickles calls it. From their point of view, he is a lousy actor. They spar over concepts of piety among the poor and among the rich. When Zuss asserts that “God will show him what God is... Infinite mind in midge of matter!” Nickles caustically asks why J. B. must suffer. “To praise!” answers Zuss. Nickles deplores man’s credulity, his certainty that he “Is born into the bright delusion / Beauty and loving-kindness care for him.” When he rejects the concept that suffering teaches, Zuss asserts that man can best see God from the ash heap. Nickles answers that “A human / Face would shame the mouth that said that!”
They put on their masks and in “magnified and hollow voices” repeat the Biblical wager over “A perfect and upright man, one / Thatfearest God and escheweth evil!” Satan mask taunts his rival with the proposition that this good man, deprived of all his good fortune, would rise and curse him. The God mask, furious, “his arm thrown out in a gesture of contemptuous commitment,” gives his man over to the Satan mask: “All that he hath is in thy power!” Suddenly the Distant Voice prompts the faltering actor to finish his lines: “Only/Upon himself / Put not forth thy hand!”
Messengers appropriate to each tragedy report to the parents what has happened, and both the hamactors and the audience watch their reactions. These several tragedies are reported without emotion; the repeatedly senseless destruction of innocence makes the bargain between the God and the Satan masks increasingly horrible. Sarah rebels, as she does in the Biblical story, against this ruthlessness; but J. B. does not question God’s plan. The vividly described deaths of the children make the yea-saying of J. B. difficult to accept and account for some of the questions about the characterization.
In the first of these scenes two drunken, foulmouthed soldiers, welcomed by J. B. and Sarah as David’s friends, bumble words about the war’s end, an unaccountable order given, the absence of “the right length of lumber.” Nickles, watching the stunned parents and hearing J. B. assuring himself that it couldn’t happen to him and his wife, jeers at this “pigeon’s” credulity: “Couldn’t it? Suppose it did though:n / What would the world be made of then?”
In the next scene the two messengers are newsmen with camera and notebook, and with them is a girl, the society editor, who protests, “I wish I was home in bed with a good / Boy or something. I don’t like it.” Her part is to keep the parents talking until “a flash bulb / Smacks them naked in the face—/ It’s horrible!” The newsman, indifferent to the suffering of the parents, only thinks of his chance for a prize story:
How do I get the
Look a mother’s face has maybe
Once in a lifetime: just before
Her mouth knows, when her eyes are knowing?
The second newsman makes the report: four kids in a car—two of them J. B.’s son and daughter, Jonathon and Mary—the drunk kid was driving seventy or seventy-five. Sarah, moving like a sleepwalker, asks, “Why did He do it to them? / What had they done to Him—those children... What had we done?” J. B. answers that they have to take the evil with the good: “It doesn’t mean there / Is no good!” Nickles prompts, “Doesn’t it?” Sarah rejects J. B.’s certainty.
Nickles taunts Zuss about the way “a perfect and upright man” learns God’s purpose for him. Zuss indifferently observes, “He can’t act and you know it.” Nickles, the Satan mask, which wears a look of pity, answers the God mask: “He doesn’t have to act. He suffers. / It’s an old role—played like a mouth-organ.” Cynically, he remarks that what Job needs to see is “That bloody drum-stick striking; / See Who lets it strike the drum!”
In the scene that follows, the messengers are two policemen making their early morning report. They identify the youngest of the four children, Rebecca, as the little girl dressed in white, with red shoes and a red toy umbrella; they puzzle over the enigma of why the potter worked equally in worthies and monsters. One policeman finally blurts out the story to the parents: just past midnight they stumbled upon a big nineteen-year-old, “Hopped to the eyes and scared.” They ordered him to take them to “it.” Their suspicions were justified when they found the little girl’s body. As J. B., holding the child’s red parasol, speaks brokenly, “The Lord giveth... the Lord taketh away,” the two masks argue over their “pigeon.” Zuss asks why he won’t act; Nickles answers that he isn’t playing, “He’s where we all are—in our suffering. / Only... (Nickles turns savagely on Mr. Zuss.) Now he knows its Name!”
In the next catastrophe the messengers in steel helmets and brassards return with Sarah, who had been looking for her lost child, Ruth, in the bombed ruins. J. B.’s millions, the bank, the whole block are gone; only a floor remains. Still believing that he shares desperation with God, he tries to make Sarah repeat after him, his certainty, “The Lord giveth—” She rebels and shrieks, “Takes! / Kills! Kills! Kills! Kills!” J. B. answers, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Mr. Zuss preens over the yea-saying of J. B., but Nickles is disgusted over man’s insensitivity to others’ suffering; to Nickles it is indecent to be thankful when twenty thousand have been suffocated in a bombed-out town. He resents the hideous, senseless deaths of the children: “And all with God’s consent!—foreknowledge!—/ And he blesses God!” God, not content with this victory—according to Nickles—overreaches himself to demand Page 86 | Top of Article“the proof of pain.” When Mr. Zuss chants the equation that man’s will is God’s peace, Nickles retorts, “Will is rule: surrender is surrender. / You make your peace; you don’t give in to it.” Nickles seems to cling to the belief that, when man is himself trapped in pain, he will learn to “Spit the dirty world out—spit.” Nickles insists that, “when his suffering is him,” he will not praise. As they put on their masks for the next test, the old Biblical words flood over them. The Distant Voice repeats the lines, concluding
And still he holdeth fast his integrity...
Although thou movedst me against him
To destroy him...
The God-shadow raises its arm again “in the formal gesture of contemptuous commitment” and intones the words: “Behold he is in thine hand... but... Save his life!”
When the modern J. B. is revealed as the one pitiful survivor of an atomic blast, Nickles cackles to Zuss that, as usual, he has blundered: “Tumbled a whole city down / To blister one man’s skin with agony.” A few women and a girl sarcastically comment on the sufferings of the rich they have known only through news pictures and review without feeling the catastrophes. J. B., though raising questions about the blindness, the meaninglessness of what has happened, clings to the belief that God is just, that he himself is guilty. Sarah says that, if God demands deception, she will not buy quiet with her children’s innocence:
Dead and they were innocent: I will not
Let you sacrifice their deaths
To make injustice justice and God good!
When in her anguish she urges J. B. to “curse God and die” and then leaves him, he insists, “We have no choice but to be guilty. / God is unthinkable if we are innocent.” When in his agony he prays to God to show him his guilt, Nickles caustically prompts Zuss to bring on the cold comforters “Who justify the ways of God to / Job by making Job responsible.”
The major part of the Biblical poem is the extended dialogue with the three comforters; the modern playwright, by involving the audience in the violent deaths of the children, increased the difficulties of maintaining dramatic tension in the latter part of the play. He must try to give dramatic form to philosophical material: ideas about guilt and innocence, about suffering and responsibility, about the relationship between man and the forces of good and evil. MacLeish adapted the three comforters into approximations of three phases of modern society: Zophar, a fat priest; Eliphaz, a lean psychiatrist in a dirty interne’s jacket; and Bildad, a Marxist, a thick short man in a ragged windbreaker.
They present three different opinions on the question of guilt. To Marxist Bildad the suffering of one is not significant because what matters is not justice for one man but justice for humanity. History is not concerned with the guilt of one man: “Guilt is a sociological accident: / Wrong class—wrong century—” To Eliphaz, the psychiatrist, “Guilt is a / Psychophenomenal situation—/ An illusion, a disease, a sickness”: All men are victims of their own guilt even though they may be ignorant of it. J. B. rejects this idea of “an irresponsible ignorance” as the cause of his suffering, for he needs to know that he “earned the need to suffer.”
Zophar, the priest, says the guilt idea is necessary to man’s quality as a human being, otherwise he would vanish as do the animals: “our souls accept / Eternities of reparation.” When J. B. wants to be shown his guilt, Zophar elaborates upon the “deceptive secret” of guilt that may have been “conceived in infancy.” J. B. tells the priest that, until he knows the reasons for his suffering, even until death he will not violate his integrity. Zophar cynically answers that J. B.’s sin was to be born a man; to be a man is to have a will and a heart that is evil, both “Corrupted with its foul imagining.” J. B. rejects the priest’s answer as the most cruel of the three because it makes God “the miscreator of mankind.”
Still hoping for some justification for his suffering, J. B. repeats his trust in God. The Distant Voice, the Voice out of the Whirlwind, poses a series of questions to J. B. concerning the powers of God and the wonders of His creation; the Distant Voice for the second time rebukes J. B. for trying to instruct God; and the third time, again in a series of questions, the Distant Voice rebukes man for his presumptuousness: “Wilt thou disannul my judgment?... Wilt thou condemn / Me that thou may est be righteous? / Hast thou an arm like God? Or canst thou / Thunderwith a voice like Him?” J. B. humbly concedes the omnipotence of God, confesses to having spoken without knowledge, abhors himself and repents.
In the original version of the play, in the scene following this “repentance,” Zuss uncomfortably asks Nickles how J. B. voiced his repentance, and whether he did it for God or for himself. A scene very important in the development of the experience Page 87 | Top of Articleof Job is thus presented second-hand. At the end of this scene, in very few lines and very briefly, J. B. rejects Nickles’ suggestion of self-annihilation. This affirmation of life is followed by the return of Sarah and by a brief lyrical expression of human love. In this original version there is no scene in which J. B. is made to reveal what he has learned from experience, a scene very much needed in the play and one necessary for the interpretation which MacLeish gives to the Job legend. This so-called “recognition scene” was developed during the rehearsals and was substituted for the original and weaker one.
In the Broadway version J. B., thinking over the magnificent words of God about his own right hand and its power to save him, lifts to his face the scrofulous hand. Zuss, as if he were prompting his suffering victim in order to encourage him in the belief that only in the fear of God lies true repentance and his only comfort, hears J. B. repeat the vow that he abhors himself and repents. Nickles, sickened by what he calls a forced repentance because God threw at J. B. the whole creation, rages that J. B. has forgotten what happened to his little children. In his disgust over the choice that God offered, he thinks it dubious triumph that J. B. swallowed the world rather than rejecting it. Zuss petulantly asks whether or not God is to be forgiven. Nickles with supreme insolence asks, “Isn’t he?”
As Nickles turns away, Zuss reminds him of the final scene in the Bible poem no matter who plays Job. He accuses his cynical opposite of not having the stamina to finish his part in the play. Nickles replies that the restoration illustrates God’s mercy to man who never asked to be born. He refuses to believe that J. B. will begin all over again, risk again “all that filth and blood and / Fury...” The acting version portrays more clearly J. B.’s resolution. As he brings himself to his feet, his voice strong and firm, J. B. asks:
Must I be
Dumb because my mouth is mortal?—
Blind because my eyes will one day
Close forever? Is that my wickedness—
That I am weak?
The two masks are stunned by what they hear, incredulous that J. B. should ask if his breathing should be forgiven. Nickles, sensing an advantage, answers, “Not this generation, Mister.” Professing to be not the Father but the Friend, he tries to impress upon J. B. that death is not the worst alternative; the worst is having to relive all the senseless suffering. He reminds him of the millions who refused the second chance, who found a convenient means to end it all. None of those, says Nickles, knew what J. B. does: “Job’s truth.” Desperately Nickles tries to negate God’s gift by saying that Job would rather take the filthiest kind of death than live his suffering life all over again.
When J. B. rejects Nickles, Zuss is triumphant. Zuss then restates the position implied by the Distant Voice that there is no resolution to the problem of “unintelligible suffering” but submission to the divine will. But J. B. also sternly rejects this pattern of submissive acceptance:
I will not
Duck my head again to thunder—
That bullwhip cracking at my ears!—although
He kills me with it. I must know.
When Mr. Zuss, astonished over what he has heard, repeats his theme that there is no peace except in obedience, J. B. defiantly answers both the Satan and the God masks: “I’ll find a foothold somewhere knowing.” He vows he will not laugh at life’s filthy farce nor weep among the obedient and the meek, “protesting / Nothing, questioning nothing, asking / Nothing but to rise again and / bow!”
In the final scene Sarah, who had told her husband to “curse God and die,” returns to J. B. because of her love for him. These stricken people, whose experience has shown that they are alone in an indifferent universe and that they can be sure only of their human love for each other, determine to begin their lives again. Depending not on the kind of a God who will destroy children for no reason, nor on churches where the candles have gone out, they will continue to seek the answers—to know. This conviction is stated by J. B. at the close of the play:
The one thing certain in this hurtful world
Is love’s inevitable heartbreak.
What’s the future but the past to come
Over and over, love and loss,
What’s loved most lost most.
In the final lines J. B. expresses the human capacity for suffering and, in spite of the inexplicable, the strength to continue to live and to love:
And yet again and yet again
In doubt, in dread, in ignorance, unanswered,
Over and over, with the dark before,
The dark behind it... and still live... still love.
MacLeish explained that he saw in the Job poem a relation to our own time, a time of “inexplicable sufferings” when millions were destroyed because of their race or because they lived in a certain city. He suggests that God delivered Job into Satan’s hands “Because God had need of the suffering of Job.” In the struggle between God and Satan, Page 88 | Top of Article“God stakes his supremacy as God upon man’s fortitude and love.” It is man alone who can prove that man loves God; only man, by his persistence, can overcome Satan, of the kingdom of death, and love God, of the kingdom of life. Without man’s love, God is only a creator. It is in man’s love, says MacLeish, that God exists and triumphs; in man’s love that life is beautiful; in man’s love that the world’s injustice is resolved. “Our labor always, like Job’s, is to learn through suffering to love—to love even that which lets us suffer.”
The religious implications in J. B. aroused considerable controversy. Charles A. Fenton commented on the original production at Yale: “The notion that the individual is superior to God—is not critically palatable to the institutionalized.” Tom F. Driver, after the Broadway production, described the play as suffering “from a sort of theological schizophrenia” because it began on what he thought a high religious plane and ended on a purely Humanistic one. Theodore A. Webb, who disagreed with Driver, said that MacLeish began the play on a Humanistic level when he depicted broken-down “ham-actors” as gods. Samuel Terrien wrote that “The Joban poet deals with the problem of faith in an evil world, while the author of J. B. presents modern man’s reaction to the problem of evil without the category of faith in a loving God.” He described Job as almost “an incarnation of an anti-God,” but he also thought of him as an emasculated, piously conventional victim of fate who rarely rises above an intellectual stupor. Henry P. Van Dusen took issue with both Driver and Terrien. He considered the three comforters to be a brilliant and sound translation into the realities of our time. He did not find, as did Terrien, “an intelligent, eternal and gracious Power” in a God whose last words begin, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” Richard Hayes summarized the varied opinions expressed for and against the play and added his own reservations: “cultural piety demands each year its raw meat of sustenance.” Reinhold Niebuhr praised MacLeish’s honest statement of the problem and his ingenuity in adapting the ancient poem to modern times. He felt that the emphasis on meaningless suffering led to the neglect of the more searching question in the Book of Job about the meaning of life and thus the “message” to contemporary man: for instance, the paradox of man’s capacity to discover nuclear energy and his lack of wisdom in its use. Niebuhr pointed out that MacLeish does provide two answers to modern man: he repeats the voice out of the “Whirlwind” contrasting the greatness of God’s creation and man’s limitations; he also states his “courageous acceptance and affirmation of life with a modern romantic emphasis on love.”
J. B., published by Houghton Mifflin, March, 1958, was first produced by the Yale School of Drama on April 22, 1958; during the summer it was taken on tour to the World’s Fair at Brussels and to other European capitals. The very favorable review by Brooks Atkinson of the Yale performance led to the Broadway production which opened on December 11, 1958. During the rehearsal period Mrs. Elia Kazan made one of the most perceptive comments on the play when she said that the first act had “tremendous identification” in the scenes of suffering; it had action and interaction of people that had “a forward sweep.” She felt that in the second act there was too much argument, too much philosophy; the events were not dramatically developed; there was “a long presentation, statement of a point of view, followed by a comment or brief rejection.” During the New York production she had reservations about the production’s becoming too theatrical.
Brooks Atkinson said that MacLeish had written “an epic of mankind” and he anticipated a long life for the play. He said that the playwright was not a solemn poet, and that much of the writing, particularly in the characters of God and Satan, was pungent and earthy. Some of the verse, he felt, was too compact for theater, and some of the scenes were begun in the middle. He also noted that the dignity, gravity, and simplicity of the King James Version was hard to match in modern poetry. He called J. B. impressive “in its valiant affirmation at the end,” a play worthy of our time. MacLeish “has imposed his own sense of order on the chaos of the world.”
Source: Signi Lenea Falk, “Later Poetry and Drama,” in Archibald MacLeish, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965, pp. 118-50.
Berrigan, Daniel, “Job in Suburbia,” in America, Vol. 100, October 4, 1958, p. 13.
Bieman, Elizabeth, “Faithful to the Bible in Its Fashion: MacLeish’s J. B.,” in Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, Vol. 4, 1974, pp. 25, 27.
Calhoun, Richard, “Archibald MacLeish’s J. B.: Religious Humanism in the 80s,” in The Proceedings of the Archibald MacLeish Symposium May 7-8, 1982, edited by Bernard A.
Drabeck, Helen E. Ellis, and Seymour Rudin, University Press of America, 1988, pp. 79-80.
Campbell, Shannon O., “The Book of Job and MacLeish’s J. B.: A Cultural Comparison,” in English Journal, Vol. 61, May 1972, pp. 653-57.
Ciardi, John, “Birth of a Classic,” in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 41, March 8, 1958, p. 48.
D’Arcy, Martin, “J. B., Wrong Answer to the Problem of Evil,” in Catholic World, Vol. 190, November 1959, p. 82.
Gledhill, Preston R., “J. B.: Successful Theatre versus ’Godless’ Theology,” in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 3, December 1961, pp. 9-14.
Kahn, Sy, “The Games God Plays with Man: A Discussion of J. B.,” in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, 1970, pp. 250, 255.
MacLeish, Archibald, Foreword to J. B., Samuel French, 1958, p. 6.
_______, “MacLeish Speaks to the Players,” in Pembroke Magazine, Vol. 7, 1976, pp. 80, 82, 83.
_______, “On Being a Poet in the Theatre,” in Horizon, Vol. 12, January 1960, p. 50.
Montgomery, Marion, “On First Looking into Archibald MacLeish’s Play in Verse, J. B.,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 2, December 1959, pp. 231-42.
Porter, Thomas E., Myth and Modern American Drama, Wayne State University Press, 1969, pp. 82, 96.
Roston, Murray, Biblical Drama in England: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Northwestern University Press, 1968, p. 309.
Trudeau, Gary, Doonesbury, Universal Press Syndicate, October 5, 2001.
Donaldson, Scott, in collaboration with R. H. Winnick, Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
In this definitive biography of MacLeish, the discussion of J. B. presents MacLeish’s reasons for writing the play and describes his writing and revising process as he moved from written script to performance.
Drabeck, Bernard A., and Helen E. Ellis, eds., Archibald MacLeish: Reflections, University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.
Arranged in a question-and-answer format, this book was pieced together from several interviews MacLeish granted during the last years of his life. MacLeish considered this book the autobiography of his professional life. His discussion of J. B. focuses on the differences between the published and the performed versions of the play.
Ellis, Helen E., Bernard A. Drabeck, and Margaret E. C. Howland, Archibald MacLeish: A Selectively Annotated Bibliography, Scarecrow Press, 1995.
With more than twenty-three hundred entries and two indices, this book is an excellent starting-place for locating books, articles, and reviews by and about the author. The book also includes a brief biography and a chronology of significant dates in MacLeish’s life.
Falk, Signi Lenea, Archibald MacLeish, Twayne, 1965.
In an analysis of the first half century of MacLeish’s career, Falk demonstrates how MacLeish’s poetry grew out of and then away from the poetry of other important modern poets and how all of his writing came to demonstrate his convictions about a writer’s responsibilities to address the political and social world. The book includes a thirteen-page close reading of J. B.
Gassner, John, Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage, Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1960.
After an analysis that leads toward generalities about the plays produced in New York from the end of World War II through the 1950s, Gassner examines dozens of individual plays. His analysis of J. B. focuses on the differences between the Yale and the Broadway productions.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2694000015