J. B. Critical Overview
by Archibald MacLeish

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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

Playbill cover from the 1959 theatrical production of J.B. Published by Gale Cengage

J.B. was something of a sensation in its time, especially because of MacLeish's audacity and deftness in attempting to write verse drama for a modern audience. The play was published as a book months before it was ever performed, and so its first reviewers were readers, not members of an audience. Because MacLeish was well-known as a poet, his play in verse received more critical attention in the major newspapers and magazines than it might have otherwise. The poet John Ciardi, in a review titled ‘‘Birth of a Classic,’’ written for the Saturday Review of Literature, called the play "great poetry, great drama, and ... great stagecraft.'' Other critics were more modest in their praise but were largely favorable. After its first production, at Yale University in 1958, the play was selected for the World's Fair at Brussels.

The substantially revised Broadway version of J.B. was widely reviewed and much discussed in bars and coffeehouses. The morning after the opening, MacLeish appeared on the Today show to talk about the play, and open forums were held after some of the early performances so that religious scholars could debate theology with the playwright. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1959 (MacLeish's third Pulitzer), as well as the Tony Award for best play. It had a long run on the British stage and was translated and performed in other European countries as well. Until the early 1980s, the play was frequently performed at colleges and universities, and the book form of the play became MacLeish's best-selling work.

Criticism of the play can be divided roughly into two types: criticism (often negative) that speaks to MacLeish's religious views, reflecting on his treatment and understanding of the biblical story, and criticism (often positive) that speaks to the play as art and reflects on the author's handling of character or language or on the differences between the book and the acting edition of the play. Typical of the first type is ‘‘J.B., Wrong Answer to the Problem of Evil,’’ written by Martin D'Arcy for Catholic World. D'Arcy acknowledges that J.B. is ‘‘good theater,’’ but he concludes that it is bad theology because "In the solution which MacLeish offers, no reference is made to immortality nor to the Christian Cross.’’ The conflict is summed-up neatly in the title of Preston R. Gledhill's analysis in Brigham Young University Studies: ‘‘J.B.: Successful Theatre versus 'Godless' Theology.’’ Several of these critics have quarreled with MacLeish's interpretation of the Job story, believing that in his retelling he has a duty to be completely faithful to his original source. But in a 1974 article in Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses , Elizabeth Bieman bemoans "the chasm which separates the humane vision of MacLeish's play from the conservative theology’’ and describes several ways in which...

(The entire section is 716 words.)