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....

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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

(Drama for Students)

World War II
With the development of new technologies World War II saw more civilian casualties than any previous war....

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

When a writer refers to a well-known character or story from the past, either from fiction or nonfiction,...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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


(The entire section is 323 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the theories of communism, socialism and Marxism. What do these groups believe about the ways societies function and should...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A recording of J.B., performed by some of the actors from the Broadway production, was issued by RCA Victor (LD6075) as a record...

(The entire section is 37 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

MacLeish draws heavily on the Book of Job, part of the Old Testament, for the basic plot and some of his characters' names. The italicized...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 319 words.)