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 best-seller, translated into many languages. Its poignancy and rarity as a primarily religious verse drama in an age of secular, antisacred prose will certainly sustain its place among the mid-twentieth century literary artifacts that helped define American theater.
J.B., in essence, is the epitome of MacLeish’s personal aesthetic. Writing soon after the publication of the play, MacLeish scorned the New Critical orthodoxies of the theatrical and poetic world by asserting the primacy of the artistic act and decrying the ivory-towerism of many literati: “To declare, as the American aesthetic seems to do, that the effort to act upon the external world in the making of a work of art is a betrayal of the work of art is a misconception of the nature of art. The nature of art is action, and there is no part of human experience, public or private, on which it cannot act or should not.” The words of critic Joseph L. McWilliams seem particularly apropos as an epitaph to J.B.’s achievement: “Certainly, MacLeish will be celebrated as a playwright who insisted upon poetry and humanism in an age of global disaster and national cynicism.”