Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1037
Awarded three Pulitzer Prizes (one for J. B.) and enjoying an illustrious career as a poet, Librarian of Congress, and playwright, Archibald MacLeish relied upon myth and symbolism, particularly biblical symbols, to focus and inform his work. Like T. S. Eliot, MacLeish allowed past and present to intertwine as he sought to create a recurring image of fertility (as in The Pot of Earth, 1925) or a determined rationality (as in Nobodaddy, 1926) that reinforced the notion of humanity’s domination of nature.
J. B. is MacLeish’s response to the wanton slaughter of innocent people in World War II. In this play, modern Job is a typical American businessman who takes his good fortune for granted, as somehow “deserved.” This humanistic drama elevates humanity while lessening the importance of God, perhaps explaining the negative critical response the play suffered when presented on Broadway in 1958.
Unlike other versions of the Job story, J. B. gives Job’s wife Sarah (who has the same name as Abraham’s wife, who created the Hebrew “dynasty” in the Old Testament) as much a part in the suffering as Job has. Sarah is the one who recognizes that it is God who is killing their children, and it is Sarah’s love, not God’s, that brings the couple back together and renews their faith in life.
The broken-down actor who plays God is aptly named Zuss, to reinforce his image—Zeus is the king of the ancient Greek gods. That he is a has-been, a failure, adds dimension to the story. Nickles is not only a nickel-plated clown or a phony but also “Old Nick”—the deceiver, Satan himself. The children all have biblical names to reinforce MacLeish’s frame of reference. Zuss represents the traditional, theistic (believing in God) view, and Nickles presents a more humanistic interpretation of innocent suffering.
To MacLeish, it is the poet’s duty to use his or her experience of life to bring a “human focus” and understanding. This can be seen clearly in his political writings as well. For him, it is humanity’s love of life and the urge to endure that is the miracle of existence. J. B. reveals that answers come not from a distant or nonexistent God but from humanity itself. MacLeish believed that the answers to the mystery of life must come not from without but from within each person. To deal with the tragic meaninglessness of World War II, MacLeish needed Job as a symbol for those who died senselessly, needlessly, because they were “in the wrong skin” or because the moonlight shone on the water, making an easy bombing target. Although Job is an appropriate myth for humanity’s attempt to confront an unjust universe, this play is also a “supreme affirmation of the love of life.” That love, MacLeish says, is where “God exists and triumphs.”
Some critics derided J. B. (Job) as shallow and self-righteous, but that is the poet’s point—humans are no longer the Promethean heroes of the past. (Prometheus stole fire from the gods to help humanity and was tortured by Zeus for this outrage.) People are ordinary, with faults, doubts, and failings.
Nickles insists on humanity’s spiritual independence from God, but Zuss reiterates the Distant Voice from the Whirlwind that silences Job. At times, the actors hear another Voice intoning the words from the Bible’s book of Job, and their masks seem to have lives of their own. The audience begins to suspect that there still is a Voice beyond the mask—God may be distant, but He still controls the good and the evil that humanity must confront and defeat.
If Job is complacent at first and bitter after his catastrophes, Sarah is a better wife than he deserves. Like William Blake (the English Romantic poet of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) and Robert Frost (the twentieth century American poet and author of A Masque of Reason, 1945, a verse play about modern Job), MacLeish insists on Sarah’s equal participation in the suffering as well as in the renewal of life following the test. She knows before Job that it is God who is torturing them. It is also Sarah who returns with the greening forsythia to rekindle her love of Job and of life.
The suffering, though, is shared by the second messenger, who witnesses each act of terror and so is doomed as well. His repeated line of “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” is key to his character. People of the twentieth century are witnesses to the most heinous crimes imaginable, however, they seem to share the guilt of the victimizers.
J. B. denies Sarah the right to suffer as much as he in the deaths of their children. He makes the deaths a contest between himself and God and ignores the fact that Sarah is as guilty or as innocent as he. She leaves him because of his seeming lack of emotion and of anger and despair at the horrifying details of their children’s deaths.
MacLeish must separate J. B. and Sarah so that they face the final crisis alone. Job thus confronts his false comforters and rejects the cliché that he has been spouting—“The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.” It is not the pain they have suffered so much as the meaninglessness of it all that grieves him.
According to MacLeish, modern humanity’s comforters—psychiatrists and religious and political leaders—deny people their individual right to guilt and individual responsibility for the sins of the world. Without individual guilt, there can be no identity, no innocence, and no humanity.
When God speaks out of the Whirlwind, he silences Job without answering his complaints. Job bows and forgives God. Like Satan, Nickles thinks incorrectly that Job will reject his newly reconstituted life. The play’s ending, in which Job and Sarah are reconciled, has been controversial since the play’s publication. Critics who deride the playwright do so because J. B. does not focus the Job story on God and his majesty. Instead, MacLeish gives humanity center stage and insists in this humanistic drama that Job and Sarah’s choice of life comes from within, where God is.
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