J. B. is a verse play, based on the King James Version of the Book of Job. The original version of the play (Houghton Mifflin, 1958) is divided into eleven scenes; the acting version (Samuel French, 1958) is divided into two acts, with act 1 ending at the conclusion of scene 8 of the original. This version makes substantial textual and structural changes.
The play is set on the stage of a deserted circus tent. Zuss (an allusion to the Greek god Zeus) and Nickles (a reference to Old Nick, a name for the devil), two former actors turned vendors, have met to stage their version of the Book of Job. During the prologue, they set the stage and don masks appropriate to their roles: Zuss wears a white mask with closed eyes, indicating his lack of compassion, whereas Nickles’s mask is dark and has open eyes. Zuss/God is arrogant, haughty, and distant, while Nickles/Satan shows empathy and pity for J. B.’s suffering. A Distant Voice, representing a “distant” God, is heard several times, urging Zuss and Nickles to move the action along.
Most of the play follows the Book of Job closely. J. B., a wealthy banker, is convinced that he is lucky to have been blessed by God; his wife, Sarah, believes that their wealth is part of a contract: If they fail to live up to their obligations to God, they can lose everything. When Nickles goads Zuss into a wager that J. B. will not curse God regardless of how much he is made to suffer, J. B.’s trials begin: Within a few years, his soldier-son David is killed needlessly by “friendly fire,” his daughter Mary and his son Jonathan are killed by a drunken driver, and his youngest daughter, Rebecca, is raped and murdered by a young drug addict. In a final catastrophe, war breaks out, J. B.’s businesses are destroyed, and his last child, Ruth, is buried under the rubble of a collapsed building.
Throughout all these ordeals, J. B. maintains his trust in God and his firm...
(The entire section is 796 words.)