A Revival of J.B.?

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

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...

(The entire section contains 7653 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this J. B. study guide. You'll get access to all of the J. B. content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
  • Teaching Guide
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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.

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 faith and references to the Bible in public.

How could one best approach J.B. in the new century, when things seemed to be going so well. What would North American students understand about J.B.' s suffering and his need to make sense of it? What would they know of World War II or of living in a climate of fear and suspicion? What would they make of Nickles's bitterness and anger or of J.B.'s search for justice? The answers to these questions came when the events of September 11, 2001, made J.B. horribly relevant again.

The play centers on the character of J.B., a good, decent, upright man. He is wealthy and part of a loving family; he has been blessed by God, and he is grateful to God. He is also largely unaware of the lives of other less fortunate people, although neither Zuss nor Nickles blames him for this. J.B. appreciates what he has been given and enjoys it fully, but there is no sense that he is aware that on a chilly Thanksgiving Day there are people outside sleeping on a grate. MacLeish was said to have been taken aback when some critics pointed out that they found the man J.B. unlikable, self-satisfied. Nickles cannot stop thinking about:

Millions and millions of mankind / Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated, / Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking! / For walking around the world in the wrong / Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids: / Sleeping the wrong night wrong city— / London, Dresden, Hiroshima. / There never could have been so many / Suffered more for less.

Why is J.B. oblivious?

One reason J.B. languished for several years is that it has not seemed urgent. Like J.B., Americans (at least that portion of the population that attends plays) have been largely protected from catastrophe. London, Dresden, and Hiroshima were long ago. More recent suffering in Cambodia and Rwanda and Bangladesh was far away. MacLeish's original audiences were afraid, but audiences in the 1990s were not.

Of course, suffering does reach J.B. He loses his children one-by-one, the last in a bombing. This is the event that pushes Sarah over the brink into despair. She was one of those who were pulled from the wreckage. Someone ‘‘heard her underneath a wall / Calling'' the name of her last daughter, Ruth, who died in the explosion. When he wrote the images, MacLeish was remembering what he had heard of the Blitz, but today's readers will picture the countless scenes, played over and over on TV, of people pulled from the wreckage, living or dead, in Oklahoma City, in New York City, in Washington, D.C. Nickles predicts that when J.B. suffers as Sarah has, not just seeing her children killed but herself physically injured, when J.B.'s body ‘‘hurts him—once / Pain has penned him in,’’ he will despair and reject God.

Sarah rejects J.B. when he will not curse God. She leaves him and goes ‘‘Among the ashes. / All there is now of the town is ashes. / Mountains of ashes. / Shattered glass. / Glittering cliffs of glass all shattered.’’ Nickles is disgusted by J.B. when he actually thanks God for his punishment. In the end, J.B. chooses life, though he does not know how he will live it, and it is Sarah who shows him how.

The tensions in the United States today make Americans ready, in a way that they have not been for twenty years, to contemplate the questions so large that MacLeish could not stop asking them. When people suffer, when they die, when they are afraid, how can they go on? When the forces that act on them are beyond their comprehension, how can they support each other? If the answers to these essential questions are not found in psychiatry or politics or religion, where are they? Why don't we all follow Nickles's advice and take a rope, or take "a window for a door?'' Is MacLeish's answer, that there is no justice but there is love, sufficient?

These questions had people talking all night in 1958, arguing in the newspapers, shouting out comments in the theatre. Complacency put the questions to bed for awhile, but many of them are being voiced again, on talk shows, on the twenty-four-hour news channels, in church services and coffeeshops. The Doonesbury cartoon by Gary Trudeau that ran in newspapers on October 5, 2001, had Boopsie asking, ‘‘What kind of God allows such terrible suffering and death?’’ When J.B. was new, critics and reviewers argued over MacLeish's answers to big questions. With the North American corner of the world in turmoil, the old questions seem new again.

It will remain the work of historians, sociologists, political scientists, and religious scholars to sort out who was innocent and who was guilty on the day of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and all the days leading up to it, and all the days after. As J.B. does, a person or a country might cry out for justice, but there is none. Sarah learns about justice and explains to J.B., "Cry for justice and the stars / Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep, / Enormous winds will thrash the water.’’ In a way that the Americans have recently been reminded, the world is a big place full of ungovernable forces, security is fragile, and innocent people do suffer. As Zuss says at the beginning of J.B., ‘‘there's always / Someone playing Job.’’

Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on J.B., in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Bily is an instructor of writing and literature at Adrian College.

Archibald MacLeish

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157

Commercially and critically, MacLeish earned the great bulk of his reputation as playwright with J.B. Originally staged by the Yale School of Drama in April 1958, J.B. played at the Brussels World's Fair in September and opened at the ANTA Theatre in New York on 11 December, 1958. After a run of 364 performances, the play closed on 24 October 1959. In published form, J.B. was a bestseller and translated into many foreign languages. Later productions were mounted in many nations including England France Egypt Israel, and Mexico.

Essentially the Book of Job transplanted into the twentieth century, J.B. asks how man, with dignity and hope, can love and serve a god who allows so much evil to exist in the world. The action unfolds under a giant circus tent, recreating the universe-as-big-top analogy earlier seen in MacLeish's own poem ‘‘The End of the World.’’ As a play-within-a-play, J.B. begins with the entrance of two ragtag gentlemen named Mr. Zuss and Nickles. The pair discover and don masks of God and Satan, thus setting the inner play into motion. For the rest of the play Zuss and Nickles each fulfill a dual role, one deified and one human. Together they act as a Greek chorus, both taking part in and commenting upon the action of the play, Zuss as orthodox believer and Nickles as rebellious cynic.

When we first see Job's modern counterpart, J.B., he is celebrating Thanksgiving with his wife and children. Prosperous and happy, J.B. is overflowing with love of God. Then, the senseless misfortunes begin. One son is killed overseas in an absurd accident following the Armistice. One daughter is brutally raped and murdered by a sexual psychopath. Two other children die in a gruesome automobile accident. The last child perishes when J.B.'s bank is bombed. In each case, the news is borne to J.B. by callous messengers—drunken soldiers, photographers with glaring flashbulbs, raincoated policemen, and steel-helmeted civil defense officers. J.B. himself is stricken with boils and, with his wife Sarah, left the pitiful survivor of an atomic blast. Sarah, however, soon leaves, urging J.B. to denounce God and surrender life. As the first half of the play comes to a close, J.B., wounded and bewildered, cries out: ‘‘Show me my guilt, O God!’’ God responds with agonizing silence.

In the second half comes the parade of comforters, giving no comfort at all. Bildad expounds Marxist jargon about collective humanity. Eliphaz, a Freudian psychiatrist, talks about guilt as an illusion. Finally, Zophar, a theologian, argues that guilt is an inevitable part of being human. J.B. rejects panaceas of all the comforters but finds the words of Zophar most cruel because they imply a gamester-God who creates sin to punish sin. With nothing left to do, J.B. simply restates his faith and trust in God. This time God answers, in the form of a distant, disembodied voice over the public address system. But to J.B.'s surprise, God speaks only to question him and rebuke him for his presumptuousness in trying to instruct the Lord. In MacLeish's words, J.B. ‘‘has not been answered at all—he has merely been silenced.'' Humbled by God's chiding, J.B. repents. Not long after, Sarah returns to him out of love and together they resolve to begin a new world.

This was the version of J.B. staged at Yale University. Before the play reached New York, however, it underwent a significant metamorphosis, mostly at the behest of director Elia Kazan. The multi-scene structure of the original gave way to a more conventional two-act form. Zuss and Nickles, segregated from the J.B. scenes in the Yale version, were more fully incorporated into the total action of the play. Most significant, especially in terms of later critical opinion, was the addition of what Kazan called a recognition scene, in which J.B. rejects both complacent ignorance and cynicism in facing the ills of the world. Instead, he finds hope and salvation inside himself, inside the human heart, saying to his wife: "The candles in the church are out. / The lights have gone out in the sky! / Blow on the coal of the heart / And we' ll see by and by..." From a solid majority of the critics, J.B. harvested high praise. John Gassner called it an "exalted work of the dramatic and poetic imagination in a generally commonplace theatre.’’ John Ciardi of the Saturday Review called it "great poetry, great drama, and ... great stagecraft’’ and added, ‘‘the poetry and the drama are organically one.’’ Dudley Fitts, mixing prophecy with praise, wrote: "A passionate work, composed with great art ... a signal contribution to the small body of modern poetic drama, and it may very well turn out to be an enduring one.’’ Citing the emotional power of the play, Samuel Terrien of the Christian Century observed that even ‘‘the most blase audience submits to the spell in an almost unbearable experience of empathy.’’ Finally, Brooks Atkinson, writing for the New York Times, said: ‘‘It portrays in vibrant verse the spiritual dilemma of the twentieth century.''

Transforming a familiar story, however, invites comparison with the original, and here the critics butted heads. In the view of Henry Hewes, J.B. ‘‘adds precious little to what has already been said more beautifully in the Bible.’’ In a more orthodox vein, another spokesman for Christian Century concluded: "While Mr. MacLeish' s drama is a brilliant recreation of the story of Job, the character of J.B. is completely foreign to that of the hero who speaks in the biblical poem.'' Joseph Wood Krutch disagreed with both of these critics, saying: ‘‘MacLeish's interpretation is strong and interesting, neither merely repeating what the biblical drama says nor perverting it into something else.’’

Without doubt, the religious implications of the recognition scene in J.B. stirred the greatest controversy and inspired the most biting detractions. Scores of critics, religious and secular, agreed with Martin D'Arcy of Catholic World that ‘‘evil cannot be solved within us; help and grace must come from outside, from a God.’’ As Brooks Atkinson added, ‘‘a declaration of individual independence from God differs from cursing God only in degree, and it weakens the force of the purity of J.B.' s character.'' Henry Van Dusen alone came to MacLeish's defense in the matter of religious doctrine, arguing in Christian Century after the detractors had spoken: ‘‘If MacLeish has recourse to human integrity and human love for the answer to J.B.'s need, it is, again, because the biblical Job offers him nothing beyond obeisance before an arbitrary and heartless Cosmic Power.’’ All critics concurred on one final point: J.B. was a genuine rarity—a commercially successful religious verse play.

Source: James L. McWilliams III, ‘‘Archibald MacLeish,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Part 2: K—Z, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 58-61.

Later Poetry and Drama

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4915

Writing in 1955, MacLeish rejected T.S. Eliot's statement that no play should be written in verse if prose were ‘‘dramatically adequate.’’ He answered Eliot by saying that prose is adequate for an illusion of the actual; but, if the dramatist is concerned with the "illusion of the real,’’ then he is concerned with ‘‘the illusion which dramatic poetry can pursue.’’ He gave as examples "the illusion of Oedipus apart from the plot,’’ or ‘‘the metaphor of Prospero's island,’’ or ‘‘Yeats' Purgatory,’’ or Hamlet which offers ‘‘a perception of the nature of the human heart.’’ Only poetry creates an illusion which can foster an understanding by the mind, by the emotions, and by the senses—that is, by the whole being.

In the undergraduate verse in Tower of Ivory (1917) MacLeish was concerned with man's interpretation of God and with the meaning of human experience. In the early poetic drama Nobodaddy (1925), he reflected an interest in Blake's attitudes toward conventional religion and morality. In that early play the serpent tempted Adam to raise questions and to use his power of reason. This same voice, more fully developed in Cain, made him ask what kind of God demands sacrifice of the trusting and destroys the innocent. The sonnet "End of the World’’ as well as parts of Einstein (1926) and The Hamlet of A. MacLeish (1928), also questioned the place of man in an indifferent universe. Another kind of callousness—a human kind of indifference—was reflected by the Announcer to the suffering of the village inhabitants in Air Raid (1939). The pattern of thought to be found in these earlier poems and plays is more fully developed in the play about the modern Job.

MacLeish compounded problems for himself when he set out to recast the Old Testament poem into a modern drama. The Book of Job is one of the most controversial in the Bible. The text itself raises innumerable problems. Because of the nature of the contestants, man against God and Satan, there can be no real dramatic conflict. The extended arguments between Job and the three comforters, which consume the major part of the Bible story, are not material for drama. After the terrible sufferings of Job, his restoration at the end negates any possibility of the poem as tragedy in the usual sense of the term.

MacLeish turned to the Book of Job to raise questions about the nature of a God who would consent without cause to the destruction of a good man, the killing of all his children, and the infliction of physical suffering upon him. MacLeish seems to be raising questions whether this concept of God—the God of the Old Testament, the God of Vengeance—belongs to a world in which Germans murdered millions of Jews in gas chambers and Americans destroyed Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Good" Germans and "good" Americans, indifferent about their own guilt, obviously need to find another image of God, and of goodness, one that incorporates love with a sense of responsibility, one that can unite a compassion for others with a concern for the individual spirit. MacLeish, as he has asked other poets to do, seems to be casting off a metaphor that belongs to the past and to be seeking a new metaphor for our own time.

As the framework for J.B. MacLeish returned to the image he used in the early sonnet, "The End of the World’’, in which man's life is likened to a circus performance, his universe indifferent and meaningless. J.B. is very much like a morality play. It also a play within a play: two broken-down, ham-actors—one wearing the God mask, the other the Satan mask—observe and comment upon the lives and misfortunes of an American family. The stage is bare except for a low platform on which J.B.'s family act out their story; the stage level represents the earth upon which Satan walks to and fro, and an elevation to the right suggests heaven. During the first part of the play, a huge circus tent covers the acting area. It is like the protection of a friendly universe, or perhaps the inherited beliefs about a friendly universe. During the last part of the play, this tent disappears; its absence gives the effect of exposing J.B. completely to indifference and meaninglessness. Scattered around the stage are what seem to be vestments of several times and churches. Even the God mask and the Satan mask, Mr. Zuss and Mr. Nickles, seem to be relics of the past, to be parodies of man's sometime religious experience.

Mr. Zuss is an imposing, deep-voiced man of "magnificent deliberation'' suitable to play a God who never laughs, who sees nothing wrong with the arrangement of the world. Nickles says that the ‘‘blank, beautiful, expressionless mask with eyes lidded like the eyes of the mask in Michelangelo's Night’’ belongs to God and the Creator of animals. He says God fumbled Job when He gave him a mind, made him grateful, and made him think ‘‘there should be justice somewhere.’’ When Mr. Zuss answers that "Demanding justice of God'' is rank irreverence, Nickles retorts that God's reasons are for animals, not for men.

Nickles, who plays ‘‘the opposite,’’ traditionally called Father of Lies, but whom Zuss sneeringly describes as "the honest, disillusioned man,’’ feels sympathy for J.B., a man given the light of reason but deprived of the answers. When Mr. Zuss indifferently observes that there is always someone playing Job, Nickles agrees; but he is appalled by the frequency:

There must be Thousands! What's that got to do with it? Thousands—not with camels either: Millions and millions of mankind Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated, Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking! For walking round the world in the wrong Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids: Sleeping the wrong night wrong city— London, Dresden, Hiroshima. There never could have been so many Suffered more for less.

In answer to Mr. Zuss's indifference, Nickles reiterates that Job is everywhere. Nickles' mask is dark in contrast to Zuss's white one, and it is open-eyed: "The eyes, though wrinkled with laughter, seem to stare and the mouth is drawn down in agonized disgust.'' According to Zuss, it is the traditional image of evil, or of spitefulness, an echo from ‘‘some subterranean memory probably.'' Nickles answers that it is not an expression of evil, but of disgust: ‘‘Look at those lips: they've tasted something / Bitter as a broth of blood.’’ Zuss's mask has a look of ‘‘cold complacence’’; Nickles', one of pity. When Zuss rebukes Nickles for laughing, for being irreverent to God, Nickles retorts that, having seen, he cannot laugh. Having seen the world, he says, "I know what Hell is now—to see. / Consciousness of consciousness.’’

Nickles repeats that it is not the little Freudian insights but the sickening rape of innocence that:

Satan sees. He sees the parked car by the plane tree. He sees behind the fusty door, Beneath the rug, those almost children Struggling on the awkward seat—Every impossible delighted dream She's ever had of loveliness, of wonder, Spilled with her garters to the filthy floor. Absurd despair! Ridiculous agony! What has any man to laugh at!

For Zuss, the Job story is a simple scene; and, unaware of Nickles' perception of the suffering involved, he directs him to play his part. These two old actors, modifications of Good and Evil, are not only rivals for supremacy but for domination over this rich American banker, the current Job.

J.B., the twentieth-century Job, is a New England millionaire who with his attractive wife Sarah and their five children—David, thirteen; Mary, twelve; Jonathon, ten; Ruth, eight; Rebecca, six—celebrate an abundant, happy Thanksgiving. The euphoric J.B. has ridden the crest of good luck; his business, his family, and his friends seem never to have created any problems. Sarah, nagged by a conscience that demands verbalized thanks and humility before God, expresses the simple, conventional faith that, if man does his part, God will not forget. J.B., intuitive like his children, glories in the grace of God. He never doubted that God was on his side. Sarah's God, who punishes and rewards, is just; but she fears her ‘‘happiness impending like a danger.’’ The spirit of this opening scene is one of innocence, goodness, and optimism; no chastening experience has ever made this banker question the meaning of his life.

Zuss and Nickles recognize this J.B. as their pigeon, the good man to be tested to prove a point—‘‘the victim of a spinning joke,’’ as Nickles calls it. From their point of view, he is a lousy actor. They spar over concepts of piety among the poor and among the rich. When Zuss asserts that "God will show him what God is ... Infinite mind in midge of matter!’’ Nickles caustically asks why J.B. must suffer. ‘‘To praise!’’ answers Zuss. Nickles deplores man's credulity, his certainty that he ‘‘Is born into the bright delusion / Beauty and loving-kindness care for him.’’ When he rejects the concept that suffering teaches, Zuss asserts that man can best see God from the ash heap. Nickles answers that ‘‘A human / Face would shame the mouth that said that!''

They put on their masks and in "magnified and hollow voices’’ repeat the Biblical wager over ‘‘A perfect and upright man, one / That fearest God and escheweth evil!'' Satan mask taunts his rival with the proposition that this good man, deprived of all his good fortune, would rise and curse him. The God mask, furious, "his arm thrown out in a gesture of contemptuous commitment,’’ gives his man over to the Satan mask: "All that he hath is in thy power!'' Suddenly the Distant Voice prompts the faltering actor to finish his lines: ‘‘Only/ Upon himself/Put not forth thy hand!''

Messengers appropriate to each tragedy report to the parents what has happened, and both the ham-actors and the audience watch their reactions. These several tragedies are reported without emotion; the repeatedly senseless destruction of innocence makes the bargain between the God and the Satan masks increasingly horrible. Sarah rebels, as she does in the Biblical story, against this ruthlessness; but J.B. does not question God's plan. The vividly described deaths of the children make the yea-saying of J.B. difficult to accept and account for some of the questions about the characterization.

In the first of these scenes two drunken, foul-mouthed soldiers, welcomed by J.B. and Sarah as David's friends, bumble words about the war's end, an unaccountable order given, the absence of "the right length of lumber.’’ Nickles, watching the stunned parents and hearing J.B. assuring himself that it couldn't happen to him and his wife, jeers at this "pigeon's" credulity: ‘‘Couldn't it? Suppose it did though: / What would the world be made of then?''

In the next scene the two messengers are newsmen with camera and notebook, and with them is a girl, the society editor, who protests, "I wish I was home in bed with a good / Boy or something. I don't like it.’’ Her part is to keep the parents talking until "a flash bulb / Smacks them naked in the face— / It's horrible!’’ The newsman, indifferent to the suffering of the parents, only thinks of his chance for a prize story:

How do I get the
Look a mother's face has maybe
Once in a lifetime: just before
Her mouth knows, when her eyes are knowing?

The second newsman makes the report: four kids in a car—two of them J.B.' s son and daughter, Jonathon and Mary—the drunk kid was driving seventy or seventy-five. Sarah, moving like a sleepwalker, asks, "Why did He do it to them? / What had they done to Him—those children ... What had we done?’’ J.B. answers that they have to take the evil with the good: "It doesn' t mean there / Is no good!'' Nickles prompts, ‘‘Doesn't it?’’ Sarah rejects J.B.'s certainty.

Nickles taunts Zuss about the way "a perfect and upright man’’ learns God's purpose for him. Zuss indifferently observes, ‘‘He can't act and you know it.’’ Nickles, the Satan mask, which wears a look of pity, answers the God mask: ‘‘He doesn't have to act. He suffers. / It's an old role—played like a mouth-organ.’’ Cynically, he remarks that what Job needs to see is "That bloody drum-stick striking; / See Who lets it strike the drum!’’

In the scene that follows, the messengers are two policemen making their early morning report. They identify the youngest of the four children, Rebecca, as the little girl dressed in white, with red shoes and a red toy umbrella; they puzzle over the enigma of why the potter worked equally in worthies and monsters. One policeman finally blurts out the story to the parents: just past midnight they stumbled upon a big nineteen-year-old, "Hopped to the eyes and scared.’’ They ordered him to take them to "it." Their suspicions were justified when they found the little girl's body. As J.B., holding the child's red parasol, speaks brokenly, ‘‘The Lord giveth ... the Lord taketh away,’’ the two masks argue over their "pigeon.'' Zuss asks why he won't act; Nickles answers that he isn't playing, ‘‘He's where we all are—in our suffering. / Only ... (Nickles turns savagely on Mr. Zuss.) Now he knows its Name!’’

In the next catastrophe the messengers in steel helmets and brassards return with Sarah, who had been looking for her lost child, Ruth, in the bombed ruins. J.B.'s millions, the bank, the whole block are gone; only a floor remains. Still believing that he shares desperation with God, he tries to make Sarah repeat after him, his certainty, ‘‘The Lord giveth—" She rebels and shrieks, ‘‘Takes! / Kills! Kills! Kills! Kills!’’ J.B. answers, ‘‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’’

Mr. Zuss preens over the yea-saying of J.B., but Nickles is disgusted over man's insensitivity to others' suffering; to Nickles it is indecent to be thankful when twenty thousand have been suffocated in a bombed-out town. He resents the hideous, senseless deaths of the children: ‘‘And all with God's consent!—foreknowledge!— / And he blesses God!’’ God, not content with this victory—according to Nickles—overreaches himself to demand ‘‘the proof of pain.’’ When Mr. Zuss chants the equation that man's will is God's peace, Nickles retorts, "Will is rule: surrender is surrender. / You make your peace; you don't give in to it.’’ Nickles seems to cling to the belief that, when man is himself trapped in pain, he will learn to ‘‘Spit the dirty world out—spit.’’ Nickles insists that, ‘‘when his suffering is him,'' he will not praise. As they put on their masks for the next test, the old Biblical words flood over them. The Distant Voice repeats the lines, concluding

And still he holdethfast his integrity ... Although thou movedst me against him To destroy him ... without cause ...

The God-shadow raises its arm again "in the formal gesture of contemptuous commitment’’ and intones the words: ‘‘Behold he is in thine hand ... but ... Save his life!’’

When the modern J.B. is revealed as the one pitiful survivor of an atomic blast, Nickles cackles to Zuss that, as usual, he has blundered: "Tumbled a whole city down / To blister one man's skin with agony.’’ A few women and a girl sarcastically comment on the sufferings of the rich they have known only through news pictures and review without feeling the catastrophes. J.B., though raising questions about the blindness, the meaninglessness of what has happened, clings to the belief that God is just, that he himself is guilty. Sarah says that, if God demands deception, she will not buy quiet with her children's innocence:

They are
Dead and they were innocent: I will not
Let you sacrifice their deaths
To make injustice justice and God good!

When in her anguish she urges J.B. to ‘‘curse God and die'' and then leaves him, he insists, "We have no choice but to be guilty. / God is unthinkable if we are innocent.’’ When in his agony he prays to God to show him his guilt, Nickles caustically prompts Zuss to bring on the cold comforters ‘‘Who justify the ways of God to / Job by making Job responsible.''

The major part of the Biblical poem is the extended dialogue with the three comforters; the modern playwright, by involving the audience in the violent deaths of the children, increased the difficulties of maintaining dramatic tension in the latter part of the play. He must try to give dramatic form to philosophical material: ideas about guilt and innocence, about suffering and responsibility, about the relationship between man and the forces of good and evil. MacLeish adapted the three comforters into approximations of three phases of modern society: Zophar, a fat priest; Eliphaz, a lean psychiatrist in a dirty interne's jacket; and Bildad, a Marxist, a thick short man in a ragged windbreaker.

They present three different opinions on the question of guilt. To Marxist Bildad the suffering of one is not significant because what matters is not justice for one man but justice for humanity. History is not concerned with the guilt of one man: "Guilt is a sociological accident: / Wrong class—wrong century—" To Eliphaz, the psychiatrist, ‘‘Guilt is a / Psychophenomenal situation— / An illusion, a disease, a sickness’’: All men are victims of their own guilt even though they may be ignorant of it. J.B. rejects this idea of ‘‘an irresponsible ignorance" as the cause of his suffering, for he needs to know that he "earned the need to suffer.''

Zophar, the priest, says the guilt idea is necessary to man's quality as a human being, otherwise he would vanish as do the animals: ‘‘our souls accept / Eternities of reparation.’’ When J.B. wants to be shown his guilt, Zophar elaborates upon the ‘‘deceptive secret’’ of guilt that may have been ‘‘conceived in infancy.’’ J.B. tells the priest that, until he knows the reasons for his suffering, even until death he will not violate his integrity. Zophar cynically answers that J.B.'s sin was to be born a man; to be a man is to have a will and a heart that is evil, both ‘‘Corrupted with its foul imagining.’’ J.B. rejects the priest's answer as the most cruel of the three because it makes God "the miscreator of mankind.’’

Still hoping for some justification for his suffering, J.B. repeats his trust in God. The Distant Voice, the Voice out of the Whirlwind, poses a series of questions to J.B. concerning the powers of God and the wonders of His creation; the Distant Voice for the second time rebukes J.B. for trying to instruct God; and the third time, again in a series of questions, the Distant Voice rebukes man for his presumptuousness: ‘‘Wilt thou disannul my judgment? ... Wilt thou condemn/Me that thou mayest be righteous?/Hast thou an arm like God? Or canst thou/Thunder with a voice like Him ? " J.B. humbly concedes the omnipotence of God, confesses to having spoken without knowledge, abhors himself and repents.

In the original version of the play, in the scene following this "repentance," Zuss uncomfortably asks Nickles how J.B. voiced his repentance, and whether he did it for God or for himself. A scene very important in the development of the experience of Job is thus presented second-hand. At the end of this scene, in very few lines and very briefly, J.B. rejects Nickles' suggestion of self-annihilation. This affirmation of life is followed by the return of Sarah and by a brief lyrical expression of human love. In this original version there is no scene in which J.B. is made to reveal what he has learned from experience, a scene very much needed in the play and one necessary for the interpretation which MacLeish gives to the Job legend. This so-called "recognition scene’’ was developed during the rehearsals and was substituted for the original and weaker one.

In the Broadway version J.B., thinking over the magnificent words of God about his own right hand and its power to save him, lifts to his face the scrofulous hand. Zuss, as if he were prompting his suffering victim in order to encourage him in the belief that only in the fear of God lies true repentance and his only comfort, hears J.B. repeat the vow that he abhors himself and repents. Nickles, sickened by what he calls a forced repentance because God threw at J.B. the whole creation, rages that J.B. has forgotten what happened to his little children. In his disgust over the choice that God offered, he thinks it dubious triumph that J.B. swallowed the world rather than rejecting it. Zuss petulantly asks whether or not God is to be forgiven. Nickles with supreme insolence asks, ‘‘Isn't he?’’

As Nickles turns away, Zuss reminds him of the final scene in the Bible poem no matter who plays Job. He accuses his cynical opposite of not having the stamina to finish his part in the play. Nickles replies that the restoration illustrates God's mercy to man who never asked to be born. He refuses to believe that J.B. will begin all over again, risk again "all that filth and blood and / Fury ...’’ The acting version portrays more clearly J.B.'s resolution. As he brings himself to his feet, his voice strong and firm, J.B. asks:

Must I be
Dumb because my mouth is mortal?—Blind because my eyes will one day Close forever? Is that my wickedness—That I am weak?

The two masks are stunned by what they hear, incredulous that J.B. should ask if his breathing should be forgiven. Nickles, sensing an advantage, answers, ‘‘Not this generation, Mister.’’ Professing to be not the Father but the Friend, he tries to impress upon J.B. that death is not the worst alternative; the worst is having to relive all the senseless suffering. He reminds him of the millions who refused the second chance, who found a convenient means to end it all. None of those, says Nickles, knew what J.B. does: ‘‘Job's truth.’’ Desperately Nickles tries to negate God's gift by saying that Job would rather take the filthiest kind of death than live his suffering life all over again.

When J.B. rejects Nickles, Zuss is triumphant. Zuss then restates the position implied by the Distant Voice that there is no resolution to the problem of ‘‘unintelligible suffering’’ but submission to the divine will. But J.B. also sternly rejects this pattern of submissive acceptance:

I will not
Duck my head again to thunder—
That bullwhip cracking at my ears!—although
He kills me with it. I must know.

When Mr. Zuss, astonished over what he has heard, repeats his theme that there is no peace except in obedience, J.B. defiantly answers both the Satan and the God masks: "I'll find a foothold somewhere knowing.'' He vows he will not laugh at life's filthy farce nor weep among the obedient and the meek, "protesting / Nothing, questioning nothing, asking / Nothing but to rise again and / bow!’’

In the final scene Sarah, who had told her husband to ‘‘curse God and die,’’ returns to J.B. because of her love for him. These stricken people, whose experience has shown that they are alone in an indifferent universe and that they can be sure only of their human love for each other, determine to begin their lives again. Depending not on the kind of a God who will destroy children for no reason, nor on churches where the candles have gone out, they will continue to seek the answers—to know. This conviction is stated by J.B. at the close of the play:

The one thing certain in this hurtful world Is love's inevitable heartbreak. What's the future but the past to come Over and over, love and loss, What's loved most lost most.

In the final lines J.B. expresses the human capacity for suffering and, in spite of the inexplicable, the strength to continue to live and to love:

And yet again and yet again
In doubt, in dread, in ignorance, unanswered,
Over and over, with the dark before,
The dark behind it ... and still live ... still love.

MacLeish explained that he saw in the Job poem a relation to our own time, a time of ‘‘inexplicable sufferings’’ when millions were destroyed because of their race or because they lived in a certain city. He suggests that God delivered Job into Satan's hands "Because God had need of the suffering of Job.'' In the struggle between God and Satan, ‘‘God stakes his supremacy as God upon man's fortitude and love.’’ It is man alone who can prove that man loves God; only man, by his persistence, can overcome Satan, of the kingdom of death, and love God, of the kingdom of life. Without man's love, God is only a creator. It is in man's love, says MacLeish, that God exists and triumphs; in man's love that life is beautiful; in man's love that the world's injustice is resolved. ‘‘Our labor always, like Job's, is to learn through suffering to love—to love even that which lets us suffer.’’

The religious implications in J.B. aroused considerable controversy. Charles A. Fenton commented on the original production at Yale: ‘‘The notion that the individual is superior to God—is not critically palatable to the institutionalized.'' Tom F. Driver, after the Broadway production, described the play as suffering ‘‘from a sort of theological schizophrenia'' because it began on what he thought a high religious plane and ended on a purely Humanistic one. Theodore A. Webb, who disagreed with Driver, said that MacLeish began the play on a Humanistic level when he depicted broken-down "ham-actors" as gods. Samuel Terrien wrote that ‘‘The Joban poet deals with the problem of faith in an evil world, while the author of J.B. presents modern man's reaction to the problem of evil without the category of faith in a loving God.’’ He described Job as almost "an incarnation of an anti-God,'' but he also thought of him as an emasculated, piously conventional victim of fate who rarely rises above an intellectual stupor. Henry P. Van Dusen took issue with both Driver and Terrien. He considered the three comforters to be a brilliant and sound translation into the realities of our time. He did not find, as did Terrien, ‘‘an intelligent, eternal and gracious Power'' in a God whose last words begin, ‘‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’’ Richard Hayes summarized the varied opinions expressed for and against the play and added his own reservations: ‘‘cultural piety demands each year its raw meat of sustenance.’’ Reinhold Niebuhr praised MacLeish's honest statement of the problem and his ingenuity in adapting the ancient poem to modern times. He felt that the emphasis on meaningless suffering led to the neglect of the more searching question in the Book of Job about the meaning of life and thus the "message" to contemporary man: for instance, the paradox of man's capacity to discover nuclear energy and his lack of wisdom in its use. Niebuhr pointed out that MacLeish does provide two answers to modern man: he repeats the voice out of the "Whirlwind" contrasting the greatness of God's creation and man's limitations; he also states his ‘‘courageous acceptance and affirmation of life with a modern romantic emphasis on love.’’

J.B., published by Houghton Mifflin, March, 1958, was first produced by the Yale School of Drama on April 22, 1958; during the summer it was taken on tour to the World's Fair at Brussels and to other European capitals. The very favorable review by Brooks Atkinson of the Yale performance led to the Broadway production which opened on December 11, 1958. During the rehearsal period Mrs. Elia Kazan made one of the most perceptive comments on the play when she said that the first act had ‘‘tremendous identification’’ in the scenes of suffering; it had action and interaction of people that had "a forward sweep.'' She felt that in the second act there was too much argument, too much philosophy; the events were not dramatically developed; there was "a long presentation, statement of a point of view, followed by a comment or brief rejection.’’ During the New York production she had reservations about the production's becoming too theatrical.

Brooks Atkinson said that MacLeish had written "an epic of mankind'' and he anticipated a long life for the play. He said that the playwright was not a solemn poet, and that much of the writing, particularly in the characters of God and Satan, was pungent and earthy. Some of the verse, he felt, was too compact for theater, and some of the scenes were begun in the middle. He also noted that the dignity, gravity, and simplicity of the King James Version was hard to match in modern poetry. He called J.B. impressive "in its valiant affirmation at the end,'' a play worthy of our time. MacLeish "has imposed his own sense of order on the chaos of the world.’’

Source: Signi Lenea Falk, ‘‘Later Poetry and Drama,’’ in Archibald MacLeish, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965, pp. 118-50.

Illustration of PDF document

Download J. B. Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Overview