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 never be removed. Nickles and Zuss plot his destruction.
In succession, two messengers in the roles of soldiers, newspapermen, and police officers meet with Job and Sarah to announce the horrifying deaths of their children: first David, shot by his own men after the war ends; then Mary and Jonathan, slammed into a brick wall in a car wreck; Rebecca, raped and killed by a nineteen-year-old; and finally Ruth, crushed beneath a falling wall in their bombed-out city. In every case, the second messenger declares, like his biblical counterpart, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” This messenger also suggests that some are doomed to witness the destruction and the losses of other people—witnesses, too, suffer.
After every revelation, Sarah weeps and withdraws, while Job continues to believe in God and his goodness. He also calls out to the silence as he seeks an answer to humanity’s eternal question—why does God permit the suffering of innocent people? Meanwhile, as J. B. and Sarah sit in the rubble of their home, Nickles sarcastically mocks Zuss for his bad aim—he destroyed an entire city to “blister one man’s skin.”
For J. B., the meaninglessness of his...
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children’s suffering is worse than the curses inflicted upon them. In their despair at losing all of their children, the couple split up rather than hold on to each other. J. B. tries to pray while Sarah rocks and weeps. Nickles is disgusted at Job’s acceptance of “God’s will”; it is not decent to still love a God who takes those children. Finally, Sarah leaves Job because he insists that he or their children must have been guilty of something for which they were punished. To her, this is a lie calculated to save God’s image of goodness. Sarah says that she will not love Job any more if he buys God’s goodness in exchange for their children.
Like biblical Job, J. B. is visited by his three “comforters.” In the 1950’s world, they are a fat priest, a psychiatrist, and a communist. Eliphaz the psychiatrist argues that guilt is an illusion or disease, and Zophar the priest explodes with the cry that guilt is the only reality. The communist also is not much help.
Finally, Job hears the Distant Voice from the Whirlwind, and he matches his silence with God’s earlier refusals to speak with Job. Nickles is angry that Job knuckles under to God’s grandeur, but it seems that J. B. actually forgives God, as if Job’s suffering is justified by his acceptance of God’s will.
As Zuss attempts to restore J. B.’s family and wealth, Nickles tries to convince J. B. to renounce God’s creation by committing suicide. What saves J. B. is the return of his wife Sarah. As she wandered through the rubble of their bombed-out city, also contemplating suicide, Sarah found forsythia blooming in the debris of ashes and death. This silent promise of life brings J. B. and Sarah back together as she declares that there is no justice in the world, a concept Job believed throughout their ordeal. The only thing left is love. They trust now in each other’s love, not in God’s justice.