J. B. is a verse play, based on the King James Version of the Book of Job. The original version of the play (Houghton Mifflin, 1958) is divided into eleven scenes; the acting version (Samuel French, 1958) is divided into two acts, with act 1 ending at the conclusion of scene 8 of the original. This version makes substantial textual and structural changes.
The play is set on the stage of a deserted circus tent. Zuss (an allusion to the Greek god Zeus) and Nickles (a reference to Old Nick, a name for the devil), two former actors turned vendors, have met to stage their version of the Book of Job. During the prologue, they set the stage and don masks appropriate to their roles: Zuss wears a white mask with closed eyes, indicating his lack of compassion, whereas Nickles’s mask is dark and has open eyes. Zuss/God is arrogant, haughty, and distant, while Nickles/Satan shows empathy and pity for J. B.’s suffering. A Distant Voice, representing a “distant” God, is heard several times, urging Zuss and Nickles to move the action along.
Most of the play follows the Book of Job closely. J. B., a wealthy banker, is convinced that he is lucky to have been blessed by God; his wife, Sarah, believes that their wealth is part of a contract: If they fail to live up to their obligations to God, they can lose everything. When Nickles goads Zuss into a wager that J. B. will not curse God regardless of how much he is made to suffer, J. B.’s trials begin: Within a few years, his soldier-son David is killed needlessly by “friendly fire,” his daughter Mary and his son Jonathan are killed by a drunken driver, and his youngest daughter, Rebecca, is raped and murdered by a young drug addict. In a final catastrophe, war breaks out, J. B.’s businesses are destroyed, and his last child, Ruth, is buried under the rubble of a collapsed building.
Throughout all these ordeals, J. B. maintains his trust in God and his firm belief that he must be guilty, because God is unthinkable if he is innocent and still allowed to suffer. However, when an atomic bomb kills many people, some of whom at least must have been good and honest, J. B. starts to waver and asks God to show him why he is being punished. Sarah no longer believes that God is just and that their suffering is the result of their own actions. When J. B. refuses to curse God and to kill himself, she runs away intending to commit suicide.
J. B.’s quest to discover why God punishes him brings the three “comforters” to the scene. Here they are Zophar, a seedy Catholic priest who attributes all human suffering to Original Sin; Eliphaz, a psychiatrist who claims that guilt is merely illusion and mental illness; and Bildad, a Marxist who claims that guilt is a class-and time-related accident.
J. B., alone and stricken by disease, rejects these explanations and persists in wanting to be shown his guilt. Finally, the Distant Voice answers him with the well-known words from the Book of Job, asking him how he dare demand an explanation from the God who created the earth and everything in it. J. B., confronted by the presence and the reproach of God, humbly subsides, but his submission sounds more like resignation and forgiveness than a reaffirmation of his faith. After his submission, Job is to get back all he had and more. However, surely now, after having been made to suffer without ever having been shown his (nonexistent) guilt, would he choose not to accept this reward and kill himself instead? Once more, J. B. rejects that solution.
In the last scene, Sarah returns to J. B. She has found a flower blooming among the ashes and this has led her to realize that there is no justice in the world, only love, and that God does not love or hate, but that he merely is. It is this love that humans must discover and base their lives on, not on trying to discover the ways of the Lord. Armed with this knowledge, they begin to put their world back in order.
There are some substantial textual and structural...
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