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...
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Two broken-down actors—Zuss is a large, red-faced, and dignified man, and Nickles is sarcastic and gaunt to the point of grotesqueness—are drawn into a drama involving J. B., a character who resembles Job. The book of Job is the Old Testament story of a good man who is punished so that God can prove to Satan, his adversary, that there are good people who love God despite their hardships. Unlike Satan in the book of Job, Nickles seems to sympathize with humanity and denounce God for torturing innocent people. It would be Job’s demand for reasons, for justice, that would force him to confront God.
In a bedraggled circus sideshow, Zuss (whose attitude reinforces his self-image of what God would be like) and Nickles (who is disillusioned and bitter because this play had been done over and over throughout the centuries, with the same actions and ending) argue over Heaven and Hell as they watch modern Job (J. B.) and his happy family. Nickles mocks Zuss’s sincerity, and Zuss declares that God has reasons for testing Job (who represents humanity). Nickles tends to see himself as Job as he claims that God is jealous because Job has a soul and intellect that allows him to question God’s actions. As Nickles chants, “If God is God He is not good, If God is good He is not God.”
Zuss recalls World War II and its horrors to reveal that someone is always playing Job, punished “for walking round the world in the wrong skin.” Modern Jobs are no longer perfect, as Job is described; rather, they are average people trying to survive in an unfriendly universe. Hell is not only suffering, however. According to Nickles, Hell is Job’s consciousness of consciousness—knowing that he will continue to love God even though he is destroyed and loses his wealth, his children, and everything else.
J. B. is a complacent, successful New Englander in his thirties, with children appropriately named David (age thirteen), Mary (age twelve), Jonathan (age ten), Ruth (age eight), and Rebecca (age six). His wife, Sarah, warns Job not to trust in their “luck” or success. It is Sarah who is devoted to God and Sarah who insists that they give proper thanks to God. She says that justice demands that God punish as well as reward, but J. B. refuses to listen. He trusts that God’s gift, symbolized in the greening of the leaves, will...
(The entire section is 959 words.)