Critical Context

Commercially and critically, Archibald MacLeish earned his rather disputed reputation as a playwright with J.B. Some harsher critics have opined that without J.B., MacLeish would have left no appreciable or enduring reputation as a dramatist; indeed, none of MacLeish’s other seven plays held the stage for more than thirty performances. Much of the framework for J.B. had been traced out originally within MacLeish’s poetry, especially in “The End of the World,” in which MacLeish used the “universe-as-circus big-top” image, and in the verse play Nobodaddy (pb. 1926), which established a precedent for the character of Nickles in J.B. There is no question but that literary historians will primarily record MacLeish as one of America’s finest dramatic poets of the twentieth century—an unfashionable professional commitment in an age of naturalism and obtuse realism.

Opening first at Yale University Theatre in April, 1958, J.B. was staged at the Brussels World’s Fair in September of that year, then eventually moved to Broadway for a year’s run under the innovative direction of Elia Kazan, who amplified some of the play’s theological themes by adding a “recognition scene” in which J.B. determines to find hope and salvation within himself and his new knowledge of the source of good and evil rather than through transcendent deity. In published form, J.B. was an international...

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