Archibald MacLeish's J.B.


Ronald L. Ecker





In the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetic drama J.B., Archibald MacLeish has fashioned a tense and powerful retelling of the biblical story of Job. MacLeish's Job, like the original, is "a perfect and an upright man" whose faith in divine justice is put to a severe test by the tragic calamities that befall him. At the beginning, J.B. is a wealthy businessman with a loving wife and five wonderful children; but after he and his wife Sarah go through the slow agony of losing the five children by violent deaths, the entire city is devastated by an air attack, wiping out "J.B.'s millions," and leaving the afflicted protagonist piteously asking for reasons and praying for death. The great sufferings of Job are thus frighteningly recast by MacLeish in terms of the modern world. But more significantly, MacLeish's attitude toward the basic question involved--the question of why man suffers--is one that is unconfined to the ancient sphere of Old Testament tradition. The playwright moves not with the intention of reaffirming traditional faith, but with the recognition that for modern man perhaps a new kind of faith is needed.

The play opens with two elderly circus vendors, Mr. Zuss and Mr. Nickles. The set is a side-show tent wherein dramatizations of Job are regularly performed. The tent is deserted for the night, so the two vendors decide to amuse themselves by mounting the platform and enacting the parts of God and Satan. But their enactments prove to be a strange causation, for the dramatic story of J.B. and his family suddenly begins unfolding on the stage below them. And throughout the drama, Zuss and Nickles now remain as commentators whose choruslike observations and often heated arguments profoundly accentuate the impact of events.

Zuss and Nickles are completely antipodal. Nickles, "gaunt and sardonic," is the bitter pessimist who views life as nothing more than unjustified pain. Job, according to Nickles, is the example of all men: "Job is everywhere we go." Man is "sick and stricken on a dung heap," and is not even given "the rags of reasons." Mr. Zuss, on the other hand, stands up for traditional faith, and believes that suffering is never without reasons because "God is reasons." But this answer is no answer at all to such a man as Nickles, and one may see in Nickles's scathing remarks to Zuss the forces of cold rationalism storming the ancient bastions of religious faith. The aphorisms of Nickles are unrelenting in their bitterness:

There never could have been so many
Suffered more for less.
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Best thing you can teach your children
Next to never drawing breath
Is choking on it.
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What once was cuddled must learn to kiss
The cold worm's mouth. That's all the mystery.

During the progress of the play, it is quite interesting to observe how J.B.'s wife Sarah, through her encounters with tragedy, moves all the way from Zuss's view to that of Nickles. In Scene One, blessed with family and wealth, her love for God is without bound:

Mouth and meat by grace amazed,
God upon my lips is praised.

But by Scene Eight, having lost everything but her now wretched husband, she is completely disillusioned. When J.B. despairingly prays for death, Sarah remarks, "You think He'd help you even to that?"

But J.B., despite his staggering misfortunes, still clings desperately to the belief that God is just:

We have no choice but to be guilty.
God is unthinkable if we are innocent.

His bitter pains are nonetheless heightened by the fact that he cannot understand what he might have done to deserve such punishment: "Show me my guilt, O God!" Nor is his suffering appeased by Sarah when she, no longer able to assist or even accept his striving for knowledge, abandons him in Scene Eight with these cold words:

We have the choice to live or die,
All of us . . . curse God and die . . .

With the visit of those "cold comforters," Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, there is still more exacerbation to be suffered. The arguments presented to J.B. by these three are quite familiar approaches to the ageless problem of evil.


Job and His Friends
Gustave Doré



Bildad, "all park-bench orator," argues that ultimate justice is being engendered by the steady march of time:

History is justice!--time
Inexorably turned to truth!--
Not for one man. For humanity,
One man's life won't measure on it.

J.B. finds little comfort in this, however, and is firm in his belief that "Guilt must always matter." But Eliphaz, wearing the white jacket of an intern, asserts that what J.B. calls guilt is really a "psychophenomenal situation--An illusion, a disease, a sickness," for "self has no will, cannot be guilty." But such psychology as this is quickly voted down by Zophar the priest. The reality of man's guilt, Zophar insists, is the very thing that separates man from animals and gives him hope of salvation:

Happy is the man whom God correcteth!
He tastes his guilt. His hope begins.

But to this argument J.B. firmly reiterates his demand for the reason for his own suffering:

Teach me and I will hold my tongue.
Show me my transgression.

J.B., like the original Job, is never given a reason. He is visited by The Distant Voice and reminded that God is all-powerful and His ways are beyond man's understanding. "Where was thou?" the Voice demands, "when I laid the foundations of the earth?" And thus confronted with the majesty and the mystery of God, J.B. humbly admits his wrong in ever questioning "things too wonderful for me . . . Wherefore I abhor myself and repent."

But while the original tale ends upon this point, MacLeish has something more to say. For like most modern poets, he is keenly aware of the great spiritual uncertainties of our time: our old religious values have not well withstood the onslaughts of modern science, rationalism, and the new world view, and such old, traditional edifications as the Book of Job no longer seem quite adequate enough to appease the modern mind. For this reason, MacLeish attempts to encourage in J.B.'s denouement something of a new direction in faith. He does not emphasize faith to be wholly bestowed upon some traditional image of man's Maker, but faith in man's capacity to save himself. In the play's final scene, J.B. is reunited with Sarah, and only with her does he find the courage to begin life anew. "You wanted justice, didn't you?" Sarah smiles. "There isn't any. There's the world." And when they turn to the dimmed shambles of their home, and J.B. remarks that "It's too dark to see," he speaks not just of their home but of the world, a spiritually darkened world in which "The wit won't burn and the wet soul smolders." But Sarah's closing reply is one that expresses, in spite of everything, a flicker of hope:

Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we'll see by and by . . .

In J.B., MacLeish suggests that the world, however unjust it is, will never be completely darkened as long as man can preserve in his heart the light of compassion and love.



Archibald MacLeish

Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)






Other Links on Poets:

Dark Night of the Soul

The Eolian Harp

The Idea of Work in Frost's Poetry

Religious Crisis in Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets






Copyright 1964, 2004 by Ronald L. Ecker


English 482
Professor Penrod
University of Florida
February 11, 1964



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