Download J. B. Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

J.B., a brief but intense restaging of the story of Job, consists of a prologue and eleven scenes that flow into one another without observing the conventional structure of a three-act play. The play primarily comprises the dialogue between observers of and participants in the agonizing plight and despair of an American family undergoing perverse human suffering. The play begins in the shadows of an apparently abandoned circus site as two circus vendors converse, dressed characteristically in white caps and jackets. Each bears his wares—one popcorn, the other balloons. They exchange references to Hamlet, then the Bible, and eventually their true subject is revealed: Each of them will don a mask and play the respective parts of God and Satan in observing and evaluating the life of a father and husband in an American family.

From here, the audience watches unfold a play-within-a-play as these two vendors—Mr. Zuss, wearing a God mask, Nickles, a Satan mask—confront the misfortunes, doubts, and trials of faith that the play’s protagonist will face. Though the stage remains deliberately barren of props and staging, scattered around it are clothes that resemble vestments from the churches and hallows of other times—relics of a place and time wherein mankind’s religious experience could give him guidance and comfort.

The audience first encounters J.B. celebrating Thanksgiving with his family—a prospering, happy family consisting of a wife and five children, seemingly immune to the vagaries of sacrifice, fate, or the spoils of evil. J.B., a New England millionaire banker, believes in the Divine love that has granted him such contentment and peace; despite his wife’s gentle skepticism, he is convinced that theirs is indeed the abundant life granted by God to those who faithfully serve Him. Soon, however, unexplainable and unimaginable horrors begin to plague his family. Zuss and Nickles recognize the emerging role: J.B. as a representative “Good Man,” who will be tested to make a point. Putting on their masks, they repeat the biblical bargain to tempt J.B. and observe the consequences. Messengers approach in subsequent scenes to announce one tragedy after another. One of J.B.’s sons is killed in an absurd overseas accident after the celebration of the Armistice. One of his daughters is brutally raped and murdered by a sociopath, followed by the death of two other children in a horrific automobile accident. J.B.’s last child perishes when his bank is bombed. In each case, J.B. and Sarah learn the ghastly news from callous, grossly uncouth newsbearers: drunken soldiers, photographers and reporters with flashbulbs popping, bumbling policemen, and civil defense officers. Throughout these horrible reports, Zuss and Nickles—as God and Satan—debate the senselessness of evil and of J.B.’s consistent thankfulness in the face of corporeal evil.

Like the biblical Job, J.B. is eventually stricken with boils. He and his wife become pitiful survivors of an atomic blast. Sarah herself soon departs, unforgiving of a deity so powerless or cruel. She urges her husband to abandon this indifferent God, to curse Him, and to surrender his own miserable soul. As the first two-thirds of the dramatic action closes in scene 8, J.B., bewildered and crushed, cries out, “Show me my guilt, O God!” God’s palpable silence is deafening.

In the ninth scene of the play, J.B. encounters a parade of three comforters, each bearing the name of one of the biblical Job’s counselors, Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, and each offering banal wisdom on the topic of guilt. Bildad is a prototypical Marxist, who spouts platitudes about collective humanity and the virtues of socialized justice: No one man can be thought a victim—only humanity as a whole. Anything less is capitalistic propaganda: “guilt is a sociological accident.” Eliphaz, a Freudian psychiatrist, offers J.B. a diatribe about the illusion of guilt: Men are victims of ignorance, not guilt....

(The entire section is 4,758 words.)