The main religious topic of J. B. is the theodicy paradox: Why does a presumably benevolent, omnipotent God allow evil and suffering to exist in the world he created? All religions have tried to find answers to this paradox, usually asked by a person who is suffering greatly without knowing why. Like the biblical Job, J. B. is willing to accept all his suffering without losing faith in God, if only God would show him why he deserves such punishment. However, he rejects the supercilious pseudo-explanations of the modern comforters: the priest, the Marxist, and the psychologist.
The traditional biblical answer is given when God appears to Job in a whirlwind: It is presumptuous for humans with their limited understanding to question the omniscient creator of the universe. Instead Job is asked to accept God’s will unquestioningly, and he does. J. B. responds similarly to the Distant Voice; he accepts, as he must, God’s assertion of his superior power and wisdom, but his acceptance has a tone of melancholy and resignation that irritates Zuss/God, who had clearly expected more exuberant praise. J. B., as Archibald MacLeish would have it, has not been answered, he has been silenced.
Nickles/Satan is even more infuriated by J. B.’s decision to make a fresh start in life, despite the absence of a clear answer from God with regard to the reason and justice of his sufferings. How can J. B. live his life over again, knowing that there is no justice in the world and that he might have to repeat his ordeal? Just like some theologians have answered the theodicy paradox by redefining the attributes of God, J. B. realizes that he cannot continue to base his life on the existence of divine justice, because if it exists at all, God refuses to reveal it to him. His new life will not be founded on philosophical abstractions; instead it is the love for his wife and the world around him that will replace theology and help him to put his life in order. This virtual elimination of God from daily human life is very close to the traditional Deist position of François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, as well as to post-World War II existential philosophy.
As a twentieth century Job, J.B. could have been depicted as a victim of his own success—some selfish or arrogant businessman who takes credit for his high standard of living. Archibald MacLeish chooses, however, to make him an unwilling but empathetic participant in his century’s meaningless suffering. MacLeish has explained that he saw in the biblical Job a vehicle for examining the “inexplicable sufferings” of humankind in the modern world—a world in which millions could be killed because of their race or simply because they were inhabitants of a certain city. J.B. is delivered into the hands of a God who mistrusts him more than Satan does, indeed, a God who is more satisfied with winning a bet than in proving the faithfulness of his disciple.
It can be said that J.B. asks questions similar to those asked by the biblical Job, but in a different religious context. J.B. lives in a postbiblical—specifically post-Christian—world; piety and fidelity are ornaments to be hung on already achieved success, not the means toward achieving it. In the midst of his grand achievements, J.B. would never have been prompted to ask: How can man love and serve a God who seems to be indifferent to (or unable to resolve) the issue of cosmic evil as it manifests itself on the earth? To ask this question, one must...
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step into history and not cocoon oneself within the sanctity of home and family. The biblical Job finally accepts the answer that God’s justice and mercy escape mankind’s ability to understand it, and thus Job must simply accept what has happened to him as an exercise of Divine freedom that ultimately has restored Job’s losses. In contrast, the answers discovered in the course ofJ.B. are less orthodox and less theological.
One response to J.B.’s predicament in the play is foreshadowed by J.B.’s wife, Sarah. Early in the play, she is as likely to attribute their affluence to luck as to God’s grace. It is she who, in the end, returns to J.B. and announces that there is no justice in the world and, perhaps, no God to fear offending—or, at least, no God worth trying to offend. J.B., though he has defended the “system” of God’s justice throughout—wishing only he could see what his sin is—reluctantly concedes this point, proclaiming that the light they need to build a new life will come from within, not from without. J.B. is thus a product of the emerging humanist consensus and bears the marks of its earthbound theology: Without mankind’s love and obeisance, God is at best a creator; it is only in mankind’s ups and downs, mankind’s tragedies and victories, that God can be seen as superior and worthy of honor. In the climax of J.B., it is Satan—as he arguably does in John Milton’s Paradise Lost—who seems to emerge as the more sympathetic and compassionate character. The implication is that as soon as men and women discover this—as J.B. and Sarah do at the play’s end—they no longer need God; they have the opportunity to grapple with human suffering without slogans and empty religious dogma.
Hopelessness and Despair The world of J.B. is a frightening world. In the beginning of the play, J.B. and his family are healthy and wealthy, happy and loving. J.B.'s children have never known suffering or deprivation; as J.B. tells Sarah, the world seems to them ‘‘New and born and fresh and wonderful.’’ J.B. himself trusts his "luck'' because it comes from God. He is safe in his knowledge that God is "just. He'll never change.’’
But without warning—and without cause—J.B.'s luck does change. His children are killed in particularly senseless ways: David by accident, by his own men when the war is over; Mary and Jonathan by a drunken teenaged driver; Rebecca by a teenager on drugs; Ruth in a bombing. J.B. himself is injured in an atomic blast, and his body is covered with radiation burns. There is no sense to it all, and that is the point. The world is so violent and frightening that even blameless people will be driven to despair. The surprising thing is not that Sarah eventually loses all hope, but that J.B. does not.
The hopelessness and senselessness of the world is first decried by Nickles, who speaks bitterly to Zuss, comparing the world to a "dung heap'' and a "cesspool." Remembering the bombed-out cities of World War II he says, "There never could have been so many/Suffered more for less.’’ Throughout the play, Nickles badgers Zuss about suffering in the world and mocks humans like J.B. for thinking God cares about their suffering. The masks that Nickles and Zuss wear emphasize their relationship to human pain: Zuss's God-mask has blind eyes, but Nickles's Satan-mask has open eyes, and, as Nickles says, ‘‘Those eyes see.’’ In the end, J.B. is not driven to despair, but Nickles is. Nickles comes to believe that the best thing for J.B. to do would be to commit suicide, to refuse to live in the world God has given him. For many readers, this hopelessness is the central theme of the play. It is not until the last scene that the reader has any reason to see anything more promising in the play.
Justice versus Love MacLeish himself spoke publicly and wrote about J.B. several times, and he was always clear as to what he believed his play was "about" (although, as the poet who created the famous lines "A poem should not mean / But be,’’ he discussed themes with some reluctance). When he addressed the cast of a college production of the play in 1976, he stated, "The play is not a struggle between God and J.B.’’ The central question of the play, according to the author, is "the question of the justification of the injustice of the Universe.’’
This theme is played out in the characters of J.B. and Sarah. From the beginning, J.B. believes that he is lucky and blessed because he has earned God's favor—that his bounty is a form of justice. When his children are taken away from him violently, one-by-one, he looks for reasons for his suffering. Although Nickles and Zuss (Satan and God) agree that J.B. is an innocent man who has done nothing to deserve his punishment, J.B. can think only in terms of justice, and so he concludes that he and the children must have sinned. Sarah rejects justice as the reason for their trials. In scene 8, she begs J.B. not to "betray" the children by calling them sinners: ‘‘I will not / Let you sacrifice their deaths / To make injustice justice and God good!'' When J.B. refuses to listen, she leaves him.
When Sarah returns in scene 11, it is because she has learned that the world, and the humans who love in it, are reason enough to live. She explains to J.B., "You wanted justice, didn't you? / There isn't any. There's the world.’’ She left him, she says, because ‘‘I loved you. / I couldn't help you any more. / You wanted justice and there was none—/ Only love.’’
When MacLeish took J.B. to Broadway, he and the director Elia Kazan agreed that for the play to work on stage, J. B. should be the one to settle the conflict between justice and love in the end. In the acting edition, therefore, the last scene was rewritten to give J.B. most of Sarah's final lines and to expand on them. In both versions, it is clear that God does not love humans, and He does not act out of justice or injustice. He simply is. It is humans who have the capacity for love. In a world where blessings and sufferings cannot be earned or deserved, people must love each other, or despair.