The Play

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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...

(This entire section contains 862 words.)

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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. There is liberation in assigning responsibility for one’s trials and tribulations to lack of knowledge instead of sin. Finally, Zophar, a theologian, tries to convince J.B. that guilt is an inevitable part of personhood: His “sin” was simply being born a man. J.B. rejects all of their panaceas, finding the words of Zophar most horrendous, for he truly wants to vindicate God and absolve him as the source of his misfortune—even if it means “earning his suffering” to uncover the answer.

In scene 10, at the moment that J.B. reaffirms his faith in God’s righteousness, justice, and mercy, God speaks—in the form of a disembodied voice over the public address system at the circus grounds. To J.B.’s incredulity, God speaks not to comfort or console, but to question J.B.’s presumption in trying to instruct him. Humbled by God’s chastening, J.B. confesses his sin. Stepping out from behind the Satan mask, Nickles speaks to J.B. as a circus vendor, urging him to return all that God is about to restore to Him, but J.B. rejects these Satanic taunts and reunites with Sarah to rebuild their lives, seeking to begin a new world.

Dramatic Devices

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While the play-within-a-play device is somewhat conventional by twentieth century standards, Archibald MacLeish uses it to great advantage here. Depicting Zuss and Nickles as simultaneously transcendent and immanent character/narrators (both deity and human) and as part Greek chorus, part spectator, MacLeish manages to juxtapose orthodoxy and rebellion; he portrays both the cold justice and the compassionate mercy of religion with dexterity and unobtrusiveness. This quadruple role-playing allows the playwright to examine critically the cynicism and the false realism of the modern world without resorting to gross moralism or speechmaking—a problem from which a play of ideas such as J.B. could easily suffer.

MacLeish’s further challenge in the writing and staging of the play was to take the ancient and presumably familiar story of the biblical Job and both defamiliarize and contemporize it in ways that would engage the audience and minimize the impact of their expectations. In the retelling of any ancient or mythical tale, an author invites comparison with the original. The options open to the author include deliberately altering parts of the original story to fit the times in which he or she is writing, changing the essential conflicts within the story to make them more relevant to contemporary concerns, or reversing the story so that protagonist and antagonist trade places. Any of these options is a perilous undertaking, and it is to MacLeish’s credit that he successfully employs all three devices.

First, MacLeish moved the setting of God and Satan’s conversation out of heaven and onto earth—into the unlikely locale of a circus big-top. This reverse anthropomorphism—turning men into gods—underscores the dramatic irony that occurs when Nickles and Mr. Zuss later debate the meaning of the lesson J.B. learned, and mirror the more skeptical religious culture of his times. Second, MacLeish took the core conflict of the biblical story, Job’s search for an answer to his suffering, and altered it to encompass J.B.’s search for the specific sin he has committed. Familiar with Job’s plight, J.B. already assumes he has done something to offend God—and proceeds to identify it. This acceptance of responsibility is a different slant on the ancient confrontation between man and God. Finally, MacLeish chooses to make J.B. as much antagonist as protagonist in his story. It is God who is on trial, who is being tested, as much as his servant. The dialogue between Nickles and Zuss continually emphasizes this essential role reversal; Satan is struck by the nobility of J.B.’s fidelity, while God is depicted as seemingly contemptuous of it except in the sense that it corroborates his own faith in J.B.

Places Discussed

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Heaven. Place where God and Satan dispute about the character of people on earth. The simple setting of this play symbolizes the ancient and timeless nature of this drama. Heaven is presented as a flat set of planks set six or seven feet off the floor of the main stage. As the vendors, Mr. Zuss, who sells balloons, and Garrick Nickles, who sells popcorn, search the upper stage, they discover two masks. The mask for God resembles the face of Michelangelo’s Night sculpture with its closed eyes, and the mask for Satan has eyes “wrinkled with laughter,” but a mouth “drawn down in agonized disgust.” These masks recall the ancient Greek tradition of presenting plays by using masks through which actors spoke while conveying their characters through fixed expressions. Mr. Zuss also has a name resembling that of the Greek god Zeus. When he and Nickles don their masks, they take on the masks’ characters and speak timeless insights, much like the Old Testament’s Book of Job, which is thought by many scholars to be the oldest book in the Bible.


*Earth. Place where the life and tragedies of the banker J. B. and his wife Sarah are worked out. This setting is also simple—with a table and chairs that make the events seem universal. As these parents lose their children to war, accidents, and crime, and as J. B. loses his wealth and health, they wrestle with the problem of evil in the world, until even Sarah abandons J. B. Once J. B. has lost everything, he is visited by Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz, the biblical characters who question his integrity. Eventually, the voice of God thunders and silences all questions, including J. B.’s. Then the love between Sarah and J. B. is restored and they begin to build anew on the ash heaps of past disasters. In the end, on Earth no one finds an answer to the problem of evil. Earth is filled with injustice and inexplicable disasters. Only in moving forward with love for the life God gives does life become bearable for J. B. and his wife.

Historical Context

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World War II With the development of new technologies World War II saw more civilian casualties than any previous war. Bombs from the air could deliver more destructive power than single bullets from a rifle, but they did not kill only soldiers, nor were they intended to. Nickles comments in scene 1 that ‘‘Millions and millions of mankind’’ have been ‘‘Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated,’’ and he particularly mentions those who died because they were ‘‘Sleeping the wrong night wrong city—/ London, Dresden, Hiroshima.’’ These three cities stand for the thousands of innocent civilians who died on both sides of the war.

London, the capital city of England, was bombed by the Nazis for fifty-eight consecutive days in 1940 and less frequently for the following six months, in the series of raids known as the Blitz. Nearly a third of the city was brought to ruins, and nearly 30,000 Londoners were killed. Dresden was one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, a center for art and culture. In February 1945, six square miles of its downtown were destroyed by Allied bombing, resulting in the deaths of between 35,000 and 135,000 people in two days. Six months later, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing almost 150,000 people.

When World War II ended in 1945, the misery did not end for people who had lived through it, particularly for people who lived in the areas that had been hardest hit by the bombing. MacLeish got the idea for J.B. in the late 1940s, when he visited a London suburb that had been nearly flattened by Nazi bombing. There, he met families who had been bombed in one town, moved away, and had been bombed in the new place. Many had lost relatives and friends. The senselessness of their suffering and the increasing human capacity to inflict more suffering troubled him and eventually led to J.B.

Cold War Contrary to the common, nostalgic view that the 1950s was a time of unbroken happiness and prosperity, many people suffered greatly, both inside and outside the United States. World War II had just ended, and many people had lost loved ones and property. The extent of the horrors of the Holocaust was gradually becoming known. In short, the world seemed to many people like a place where suffering and evil were not only possible but present, and without measure.

The Cold War with the threat of nuclear annihilation, was constantly in the back of many Americans' minds. The term ‘‘Cold War’’ referred to the idea that the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were waging a political and economic battle (not a "hot" war with weapons) for influence in the world. As the two "superpowers" gained political strength, each also increased its capacity to engage in an armed conflict if necessary. The resulting arms race, in which each side eventually created enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire planet, left people on both sides of the Cold War feeling not safer but more anxious. Even young people were exposed to the climate of fear. School children were trained to ‘‘duck and cover'' in the event of an atomic bomb threat. As horrible as the destruction caused by World War II had been, the next major war threatened to leave even more misery in its wake.

Renaissance of the Verse Play Most students are aware that Shakespeare wrote plays in iambic pentameter lines, but have come to expect modern drama to be written in simple, conversational language. Some writers have felt, as the poet T.S. Eliot did in the 1930s, that the conventional language of everyday speech is not grand enough to raise important questions. Eliot decided to try to revive the verse play, producing a half dozen dramas in verse including Murder in the Cathedral (1935), an historical play about the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century; and The Cocktail Party (1950), a combination of drawing room conversation and incantation. Audiences and critics were curious but not enamored of the form. Eliot's plays were profound and thoughtful, but often they were not good drama. Murder in the Cathedral, his first verse play, is generally considered his best.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, other playwrights attempted verse drama. The British playwright Christopher Fry wrote and directed eight plays in verse. Some, including A Sleep of Prisoners (1951), were serious, based on religious themes; the verse supported a mystical, ponderous tone. These plays were well regarded by the critics and compared favorably with the earlier work of Eliot. Audiences much preferred Fry's comedies, including The Lady's Not for Burning (1948), in which the verse was a vehicle for wit, wordplay, and surprising rhythm. Fry's comedies were the first modern verse plays to be both critical and popular successes. Significantly, Fry was a playwright and director, not a poet, when he turned to this form.

MacLeish was taking a chance when he wrote J.B. in verse. He had written two minor radio plays in verse, and he had written hundreds of poems, but he did not have much experience as a playwright. Still, he felt as Eliot and Fry and others before him that the question he was addressing was too large and important to be expressed in prose. When he took the play to Broadway, his director Elia Kazan supervised months of revision because the play as written did not work dramatically. Everyone was surprised that the new version of the play turned out so well; it was assumed that a play based on the Bible and written in verse would draw only a small intellectual audience. Instead, J.B. enjoyed a long run on Broadway, won two major awards, and made a lot of money.

It was not the beginning of a trend. Verse plays continue to appear occasionally, but none has matched the success of J. B. Even this play, which was a staple of college theatre companies through the 1960s and 1970s, has rarely been performed since.

Literary Style

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Allusion When a writer refers to a well-known character or story from the past, either from fiction or nonfiction, that writer is said to be using an allusion. This device works as a kind of shorthand, enabling a writer to convey a lot of information quickly and without explanation, because the reader can be assumed to bring knowledge about and responses to the things alluded to. Clearly, MacLeish's play is at least in part a retelling of the biblical story of Job. There are several parallels between the two stories. The name ‘‘J.B.’’ echoes the name "Job.'' What is more, Sarah, Nickles, and Zuss all sometimes call him by the name Job. The names of J.B.'s comforters in scene 9, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad, are the names of the three comforters in the Biblical story. Although Sarah and the children are not named in the Bible, MacLeish has chosen Biblical names for each of them. The overall story, with the wager between God and Satan and the systematic destruction of all of J.B.'s possessions, echoes the story of Job. Some of the lines are direct quotations from the King James Version of the Bible.

MacLeish—and his characters Zuss and Nickles—expects that the audience is already familiar with the biblical story. When the two circus vendors arrive on the scene, Zuss indicates the stage area and comments, "That's where Job sits—at the table. / God and Satan lean above.’’ Nickles does not ask Zuss who or what he is talking about; he knows the story and knows that the audience knows. In fact, a bit later in scene 1, Nickles summarizes the torments that Job suffered and that J.B. is about to suffer: ‘‘God has killed his sons, his daughters, / Stolen his camels, oxen, sheep, / Everything he has.'' Apparently, MacLeish not only does not mind that his audience knows what is going to happen to J.B.; he insists upon it.

Throughout the play, Zuss and Nickles refer to what is about to happen and occasionally speak directly to the characters to urge them to play—or not to play—their roles as written. When Rebecca's body is found, J.B. tries to utter one of the most well-known lines from the Job story. He is able to get most of the words out (‘‘The Lord giveth . . . the Lord taketh away!’’), but even with Zuss's urging he cannot overcome his grief and finish the line (‘‘Blessed be the name of the Lord’’ ). This scene works only if the audience knows the words and knows how the line is supposed to end. The point is not to tell the story, but to retell it and to comment on it, to point out that this story is reenacted over and over again.

Verse Although he wrote plays and essays and even a screenplay, MacLeish is primarily known as a poet, and he devoted much of his life to studying poetry. J.B. is written entirely in verse, which was a common form for English drama in earlier centuries (many of Shakespeare's play, for example, are written in iambic pentameter verse) but extremely rare in the 1950s. When the play did well on Broadway, critics marveled that a play in verse could find an audience. J.B. is written in unrhymed four-stress lines without strict meter. In a conversation with college students cast for a production of the play, published as ‘‘MacLeish Speaks to the Players,'' the author explains that "those four syllables are accented ... by the sense of the words; if you read the words to mean, they will take their right emphasis.’’

The effect of the four stresses is subtle at best; it is possible to read the dialogue without paying attention to the sound, and many readers of the text will not hear the rhythm. But when the play is performed, the four-stress line creates an undercurrent that works emotionally on the audience. For MacLeish, this undercurrent was grounded in an essential difference between poetry and prose and between myth and history. In an interview in Horizon magazine, he explained that while history is true at a particular place and time, stories like the story of Job are mythical, "true at any place and time: true then and therefore true forever; true forever and therefore true then.’’ Chronological time, therefore, is less important than "always " in a drama based on myth, and ‘‘'always' exists in poetry rather than prose.’’

For secular readers and audiences of the early twenty-first century, drama in verse may seem as exotic as the language of the King James Bible. The language and the four-stress line serve to elevate the drama, to place it in a not-quite-familiar place and time. While the trials J.B. and his family suffer are brutally recognizable even today, the poetry of the lines achieves MacLeish's purpose: it prevents the audience from sinking into familiarity, from seeing J.B.'s story as the story of one individual man.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: Major cities in Europe and Japan suffer thousands of casualties in bombings during World War II.

1950s: Americans live in fear of a nuclear attack.

2001: Terrorists flying hijacked airplanes crash into the World Trade Center in New York City, into the Pentagon Building in Washington, D.C., and into the ground at another crash site, killing or wounding over 3,000 people. It is the first time the United States has suffered a large number of civilian casualties from attackers from outside the country.

1940s: CBS demonstrates color television in New York City, and WNBT, the first regularly operating television station, debuts in New York with an estimated 10,000 viewers.

1950s: Some 29 million American homes have television—approximately one in five. Most people still get their news from newspapers.

Today: Nearly every American home has at least one television, and most have two or more. With twenty-four-hour news channels and the ability to broadcast live from any location, television is the source most Americans turn to for news.

1940s: During World War II with the United States and the Soviet Union as wartime allies, membership in the American Communist Party reaches an all-time high of 75,000.

1950s: Communists are hated and feared throughout the United States. Senator Joseph McCarthy investigates alleged Communist activity within the United States and is denounced as a witch-hunter. The fear of a Communist takeover of Vietnam and then the rest of Asia involves the United States in Vietnam.

Today: The American Communist Party is small, and Communism has lost much of its influence on world politics.

1950s: The United States, the U.S.S.R., and Great Britain have the capability of detonating atomic bombs. Americans build bomb shelters in their homes and practice safety measures to take if a bomb is dropped on them.

Today: Although more than a dozen nations have nuclear weapons, including several "rogue nations’’ with unstable, unpredictable governments, Americans largely disregard the threat of nuclear attack.

Media Adaptations

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A recording of J.B., performed by some of the actors from the Broadway production, was issued by RCA Victor (LD6075) as a record album around 1960. It has not been reissued on compact disc or audio cassette.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Berrigan, Daniel, ‘‘Job in Suburbia," in America, Vol. 100, October 4, 1958, p. 13.

Bieman, Elizabeth, ‘‘Faithful to the Bible in Its Fashion: MacLeish's J.B.,'' in Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, Vol. 4, 1974, pp. 25, 27.

Calhoun, Richard, ‘‘Archibald MacLeish's J.B.: Religious Humanism in the 80s,’’ in The Proceedings of the Archibald MacLeish Symposium May 7—8, 1982, edited by Bernard A. Drabeck, Helen E. Ellis, and Seymour Rudin, University Press of America, 1988, pp. 79-80.

Campbell, Shannon O., ‘‘The Book of Job and MacLeish's J.B.: A Cultural Comparison,’’ in English Journal, Vol. 61, May 1972, pp. 653-57.

Ciardi, John, ‘‘Birth of a Classic,’’ in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 41, March 8, 1958, p. 48.

D'Arcy, Martin, "J.B., Wrong Answer to the Problem of Evil,’’ in Catholic World, Vol. 190, November 1959, p. 82.

Gledhill, Preston R., "J.B.: Successful Theatre versus 'Godless' Theology,’’ in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 3, December 1961, pp. 9-14.

Kahn, Sy, ‘‘The Games God Plays with Man: A Discussion of J.B.,'' in The Fifties: Fiction Poetry Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, 1970, pp. 250, 255.

MacLeish, Archibald, Foreword to J.B., Samuel French, 1958, p. 6.

MacLeish, Archibald, ‘‘MacLeish Speaks to the Players,’’ in Pembroke Magazine, Vol. 7, 1976, pp. 80, 82, 83.

MacLeish, Archibald, "On Being a Poet in the Theatre,'' in Horizon, Vol. 12, January 1960, p. 50.

Montgomery, Marion, ‘‘On First Looking into Archibald MacLeish's Play in Verse, J.B.,'' in Modern Drama, Vol. 2, December 1959, pp. 231-42.

Porter, Thomas E., Myth and Modern American Drama, Wayne State University Press, 1969, pp. 82, 96.

Roston, Murray, Biblical Drama in England: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Northwestern University Press, 1968, p. 309.

Trudeau, Gary, Doonesbury, Universal Press Syndicate, October 5, 2001.

FURTHER READING Donaldson, Scott, in collaboration with R. H. Winnick, Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, Houghton Mifflin, 1992. In this definitive biography of MacLeish, the discussion of J.B. presents MacLeish's reasons for writing the play and describes his writing and revising process as he moved from written script to performance.

Drabeck, Bernard A., and Helen E. Ellis, eds., Archibald MacLeish: Reflections, University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Arranged in a question-and-answer format, this book was pieced together from several interviews MacLeish granted during the last years of his life. MacLeish considered this book the autobiography of his professional life. His discussion of J.B. focuses on the differences between the published and the performed versions of the play.

Ellis, Helen E., Bernard A. Drabeck, and Margaret E. C. Howland, Archibald MacLeish: A Selectively Annotated Bibliography, Scarecrow Press, 1995. With more than twenty-three hundred entries and two indices, this book is an excellent starting-place for locating books, articles, and reviews by and about the author. The book also includes a brief biography and a chronology of significant dates in MacLeish's life.

Falk, SigniLenea, Archibald MacLeish, Twayne, 1965. In an analysis of the first half century of MacLeish's career, Falk demonstrates how MacLeish's poetry grew out of and then away from the poetry of other important modern poets and how all of his writing came to demonstrate his convictions about a writer's responsibilities to address the political and social world. The book includes a thirteen-page close reading of J.B.

Gassner, John, Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage, Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1960. After an analysis that leads toward generalities about the plays produced in New York from the end of World War II through the 1950s, Gassner examines dozens of individual plays. His analysis of J.B. focuses on the differences between the Yale and the Broadway productions.


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Sources for Further Study

Atkinson, Brooks. “From Job to J.B.,” in The New York Times. May 4, 1958, sec. 2, p. 1.

Campbell, Shannon O. “The Book of Job and MacLeish’s J. B.: A Cultural Comparison.” English Journal 61 (May, 1972): 653-657. Clarifies the connections between the Old Testament story and the poet’s unique approach to it.

Ciardi, John. “The Birth of a Classic,” in Saturday Review. XLI (March, 1958), pp. 11-12, 48.

Drabek, Bernard A., Helen E. Ellis, and Seymore Rudin, eds. The Proceedings of the Archibald MacLeish Symposium, May 7-8, 1982. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. More than twenty articles on various aspects of MacLeish’s work, including J. B., with tributes to the author by various notables. No index.

Falk, Signi Lenea. Archibald MacLeish. New York: Twayne, 1965. A brief, chronological overview of the author’s life and works. Ample notes and an index.

Fitts, Dudley. “Afflictions of a New Job,” in The New York Times Book Review. March 23, 1958, p. 3.

Hewes, Henry. “A Minority Report on J.B.,” in Saturday Review. XLII (January 3, 1959), pp. 22-23.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. “The Universe at Stage Center,” in Theatre Arts. XLII (August, 1959), pp. 9-11.

Lutyens, David Bulwer. “Archibald MacLeish,” in his The Creative Encounter, 1960.

MacLeish, William H. Uphill with Archie. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. A memoir by his son, with most of the work devoted to a description of the dramatist’s personal life and his famous friends.

Roston, Murray. “MacLeish’s J. B.” In Biblical Images in Literature, edited by Roland Bartel. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975. Analyzes the supernatural elements in J. B. in contrast to the ordinary modern scene of horror.

Smith, Grover. Archibald MacLeish, 1971.

Sanders, Paul S., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Book of Job: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An excellent collection of critical articles on the Old Testament Book of Job, including one by Richard B. Sewall, who calls Job the symbol of undeserved suffering.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide