A Revival of J.B.?

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1581

Although some pieces of literature feel timeless, like Homer's Odyssey or some of the plays of Shakespeare, other perfectly fine works are products of a specific time and place and belong so strongly to that setting that they languish when their time is past. A cursory look at lists of winners of the Pulitzer Prizes or the National Book Awards reveals many works that have stood the test of time: novels and poetry that are still in print, plays that are still performed. Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, which won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Edward Arlington Robinson's Collected Poems, winner of the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for poetry; Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, winner of the 1953 National Book Award for fiction; A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams the 1948 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Other names have disappeared from our collective awareness, known to scholars but not frequently sought out by readers and directors: the poets Alan Dugan and Leonora Speyer, the novelists J. F. Powers and Julia Peterkin, the plays Miss Lulu Bett and Craig's Wife.

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Archibald MacLeish's play J.B. has seemed, for at least two decades, like one of the forgotten works, destined to be read occasionally in English classes but overlooked by serious scholars and producers. A search of the Modern Language Association Bibliography database turns up only two articles about the play in the 1980s and none since. Although the play enjoyed a long run on Broadway in 1958 and 1959 and twenty years as a staple of college theatre companies, it has been infrequently performed since MacLeish's death in 1982.

Ten years after the Broadway opening, when the reviewers were done with the play and the literary critics took over, J.B. was hailed as a play of its own time. Murray Roston included J.B. in his discussion of Biblical Drama in England and explained why the Bible was a sensible source for MacLeish: "In the mid-twentieth century, the obliteration of Hiroshima provided the most glaring modern instance of such indiscriminate slaughter, the Bible had reached the nadir of its sanctity, and the time was ripe for a new surge of interest in its themes, and particularly in the Jobian quest translated into modern terms.’’ In 1970, Sy Kahn located the play squarely in the 1950s, when ‘‘writers reverberated to the impact of the events of World War II and especially to the accumulating evidence of Nazi persecution and extermination programs, and these events sharpened the points of the old, excruciating questions.’’ He concluded that J.B. was "a play right for MacLeish, right for a post-war and war-fearing world, right for America in mid-century.’’ More recently, in 1982, Richard Calhoun looked back on the play and its reception, commenting that "In my view MacLeish intended to give his audience an American version of Job appropriate for the 1950s, a decade not as blandly idyllic as that popular TV series Happy Days made it appear. This was a time of a cold war that became a mall but fierce hot war in Korea. It was a decade of suspicion and of communist witch-hunting ... J.B. was written at a time for serious questions about the human costs of mid-twentieth-century destruction and whether under such conditions it was possible to have a belief in life.''

Calhoun's use of the past tense is telling. Over the next twenty years, the world underwent drastic changes, socially and politically. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Cold War came to an end. Wars were fought far away, "cleanly," with precision missiles that in theory hit only their targets. Americans enjoyed a strong economy and peace at home. Although membership in Bible-based organized churches was growing, the United States was determined to maintain a separation of church and state and was growing increasingly uneasy with professions of...

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