Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

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...

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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 ‘‘MacLeish opens the door to profound mystery.’’

Another body of criticism is willing to meet MacLeish on his own terms. They approach the play with the expectation that the author has used the story of Job as a framework for his own work and accept that any variations he may create in his version are conscious choices, not failings to understand. As explained by Thomas E. Porter in Myth and Modern America Drama, MacLeish ‘‘cannot simply retell the Job story in modern terms. He has to reshape his source so that the message he finds there is translated into dramatic terms for the audience.’’ Shannon O. Campbell, who admires MacLeish's adaptation, explicates the differences between the two versions of the story, attributing the variations to the different cultural settings, in English Journal. Marion Montgomery, in the journal Modern Drama, closely examines the four-stress line and how MacLeish varies the lines to demonstrate character and emotional states. She concludes that much of the verse is effective but that the play overall is not.

The character of J.B. is a subject for discussion. Early audiences surprised MacLeish by finding J.B. unlikable. Daniel Berrigan, in a review for America, comments that J.B. is not ‘‘marked by depth of character, skill and command in giving point to thought’’; rather, he is ‘‘a rather simple overdrawn Main Street Type, so pale as to be invisible at noon.'' To Porter, however, J.B. is "the humanist hero, a responsible free agent.’’

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