J.B. is a play written in verse by Archibald MacLeish, copyright 1956. It is a modern day version of the Book of Job, and although it tells basically the same story, it has some important changes.

The basic plot:

Zuss and Nickles are two old actors, supposedly the best in the business, who now work in a circus. They eventually put on masks to play "God" and "Satan" in order to retell the story of Job. Their man is J.B., a highly successful businessman (a billionaire, the First Messenger says in Scene 6, although it could be exaggeration), who has five children and a loving wife. In four successive scenes he loses all of his children, and the news of their deaths is delivered by the two messengers. His house and bank are also destroyed, and he and his wife are left to live in an ash heap. Soon, she leaves him as well. A chorus of women speak, and then the three comforters (made modern as a Freudian psychologist, a priest, and a Marxist) come to J.B. and explain that all men must commit sin, whether they know it or not. "God" speaks to the utterly broken J.B., assuming the lines of the Old Testament, and demands to know why J.B. should even think to question him in all his greatness. He then lists all the great things that he has done. J.B. is, as Job is in the Bible, humbled. He falls to his knees before "God". Then Nickles comes down (see the staging) and tells J.B. that there is a better answer than surrender. He hints at suicide, at destroying the beautiful thing that "God's" gift of life is supposed to be. J.B. refuses, and his wife returns to him with hope for the future.

Staging and Set

The play is modernist and conceptual; however, there are copious descriptions of the stage (some written in verse). There is a high platform, where Zuss and Nickles talk, and then a lower area, where the action of J.B.'s life takes place. Only Nickles crosses this barrier on stage. The platform above is bare; the platform below contains a few basic set pieces (tables, chairs, etc.). My school is currently doing the play, and we are using more lighting than actual scenery for the set. Also, MacLeish specifies that the entire play takes place in a circus tent; the characters of Zuss and Nickles are not only actors, but vendors of balloons and popcorn, respectively.

Major themes and symbols:

1. The solitude of suffering: Man is always alone in his suffering. J.B. is abandoned by Sarah at the height of his pain; Nickles hints that all men, himself included, are forced to endure the pain of life utterly alone. When the Second Messenger brings word that the children have died, he always says, "I only am escaped alone to tell thee."
2. The curse of sight: The act of seeing something-- murder, photographs of dead children-- results in the viewer being forever scarred. The First Messenger takes a picture of Sarah when she learns two of her children have died in order to capture the look on her face.
3. The saving power of love: This is perhaps the most hopeful of all the themes in the book. Unlike in the Book of Job, J.B. and Sarah, when reunited at the end of the play, realize that to "blow on the coals of the heart" is the greatest thing that anyone can do to survive in a terrible, cruel world. This seems in direct contradiction to the first theme I listed, but it relates in that all people must go through suffering alone before they can be redeemed by love.
4. Rebecca's red shoes: One of the most powerful symbols in the book are the red shoes worn by J.B. and Sarah's youngest daughter, Rebecca, who is raped and murdered. When her parents last see her, she is wearing a white dress and red shoes. When the Second Messenger finds her, only her red shoes remain-- her innocence has been stripped away.
5. The meaning of sin: MacLeish is very ambiguous on this subject. By including the three comforters, he presents three different views of what sin could be. These are: a psychological imperative for which man is blameless; a simple alteration in a vast history in which any one man is too insignificant to matter; and the inevitable result of original sin. MacLeish seems to disagree with all three, because the characters of the comforters are very abrasive and seem almost afraid of what the world would be like if they were wrong. He doesn't offer any answers on this subject, unfortunately.
6. The forsythia: At the end of the play, it is implied that Sarah has contemplated suicide, but stopped herself when she saw the branch of a young forsythia, still green amid devastation. This promise of rebirth is the final note of hope on which the play ends.

And Another Thing

There are two endings to the story. In one, it is Sarah who tells J.B. that love is what can save them; in the other, it is the reverse. The former makes more sense in the context of the entire story, and also salvages the character of Sarah by allowing her to show some thought process.

I knew about the kid long before I ever actually met him. His family lived up the street, at the end, and I had to walk or bike past his house at least twice a day on my way to and from the school we all attended in that little town. The rumor was that his dad was filthy rich, which begged the question of what they were doing in our neighborhood. Outside that little box of a house, matching all the other little boxes on our smalltown street, sat two brand new Lincoln Continentals: One for Mr. J.B. and one for Mrs. J.B. The "J.B." appellation came later on, but after it was applied it was the only name they'd ever have, in this life or the next.

His older brother was one of the town bullies. His real name was "Clay," like his dad, but everyone knew him as "Bubby." Bubby was one of the meanest sumbitches ever spawned of human copulation. To make one meaner, it would take the seed of a devil. He had migrated into a Triad of Evil which sometimes became a Foursome with other similar spawn in that small town. Even the police were afraid of them. When you see an old James Dean movie about the black leather jackets and the switchblades and the careless disregard of life and limb, you don't really understand the evil behind that facade. It's a deep-seated evil that comes from eons of layer upon layer of blood and torture and pleasure from destruction. It's what gave us this land on which our little town sat, and no amount of righteous indignation or evangelical verbiage could ever wipe that homemade evil out of the soil. The dust would beget the monsters just as the forebears of the monsters drove the previous landowners into the same dust, laughing all the while.

He was different from Bubby, but it was hard to escape that taint. When your older brother and his pals are the scourge of an entire village, you either have to embrace that and go with the flow or die at the hand of your sibling and his gang. It's not that hard of a choice for a kid. The residual psychological damage, however, is immense; especially when you're just a pussycat by nature.

The first time we ever communicated was one warm afternoon when I was walking home from school in front of their house. J.B. had a new BB gun and I heard Bubby tell him, "Shoot his ass!" Then I felt the warm sting on my leg. I didn't turn around or act like anything untoward had occurred. I hastened my pace and the next shot threw up some dirt just outside my left foot. I went home and sat on the living room floor, hugging my knees and was just about to start crying when my mom came in the room and asked me what was wrong. I bucked up like all the men in my lineage do when a woman sees you weaken and said, "Nothing."

I turned on the TV and watched Flash Gordon, wistfully ate some BBQ potato sticks and thought about what to do concerning this intrusion of anarchy into my previously safe life. I'm sure it was the first time I'd ever really been scared of the future. I considered going the other way to school and circling around on another street, but this seemed like a cowardly idea, and bullies will kill a coward. I understood that very clearly, even though I'd never really considered the concept before. The clarity of vision came from the hidden dreams of collective consciousness, and as those dreams unearthed a strategy, they also unearthed the torment and dislocation from my childhood: A childhood I remembered having owned just an hour previously. Nothing was going to be the same now.

I decided to stick to my routine and just take another bullet, if that is what the next day offered. My stomach uneasy the entire school day, the final bell rang way too soon and I found my feet moving with a will of their own past the first house on the street. The kid had the gun in his hand, alright, but Bubby wasn't around. He pointed the Daisy air rifle at the ground and said, "I'm sorry." I was going to walk on and pretend I hadn't heard, but the tone in the apology was so profound and full of despair that I stopped and turned to him. "Sorry for what?" I asked, hoping the entire incident would recede into another dimension in which it had never really happened to the two kids awkwardly standing there. I'd never really looked at him closely before. I knew he was overweight, but now I saw that he was obese.

"I'm sorry I shot you yesterday. My brother made me do it." He wanted to cry just about as badly as I had the day before. I walked up to him and told him my name. He told me his. It was "Mike." But it wouldn't be "Mike" for long.

My integration into his life went slowly at first. I'd hang out with him when I had nothing better to do, but the fear of Bubby and his crowd still made me think twice before I ever approached that house. As time went by and Mike and I became best friends, Bubby and his juvenile delinquent gang began to accept me into the fold as the fat little brother's pal. That's when I donned that cloak of invulnerability which I realized Mike had always owned. I was a Made Man. I couldn't be touched. Of course, no one really wanted to "touch" me anyway, so that's when it became important to raise some stinkin' hell and make sure this thing worked. Superman never knew he could fly until he jumped off a ledge one day, did he?

One of the first acts of evil was to give Mike what would become his whole family's nickname. His weight was literally the thousand pound elephant in the living room. No one talked about it around him. His bedroom looked like a small convenience store. There were half-eaten boxes and bags of every kind of cookie and candy and unhealthy snack lying all over the place. There were six-packs of Coke and root beer and other sugary drinks stuffed underneath his furniture. It was as if his parents had hoped that they could feed the incipient devil enough and that would reverse the curse that had befallen his older sibling. Even at a young age prior to "health warning labels," I could tell that this was unhealthy. So I dragged the elephant out of the closet and showed it to him. "Why are you eating all this crap all the time? This ain't good for you, you know." In an earlier incarnation of what would become Eric Cartman many, many years later, he said, "I'm big boned. It takes a lot to fill me up." I said, "I'm going to call you 'J.B.' from now on, you fat son of a bitch." As years went by, there would be college level theses written on the topic of whether that stood for "Jug Butt" or "Jelly Belly." I'm not sure I ever knew for sure which was correct, but "Mike" would never be used again as a name for my fat friend, except by guidance counselors and magazine salesmen.

I gave up encouraging diets (as his family had done long ago) and helped him embrace his obesity and make a stand as the Real J.B. I got him arrested several times in the next few years. I helped him become a high school icon and some of the town's most beautiful girls' "best friend." I got him laid for the first and only time in his life. I gave him some laughs and we shared some of the most in-depth drunken conversations ever known to teenagers in the Deep South. We even totally dislocated and parsed Mr. Tambourine Man on a beach in Florida at 4:00 AM one morning. I had a dog-eared copy of the lyrics in my wallet, and J.B. fell down face-first in the sand while trying to "dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free."

He died at the Sugar Bowl at the age of 22 from a heart attack just as Alabama lost to Notre Dame by one lousy point. It was New Year's Eve in 1973 and I know he was as drunk as any Lord has ever been. I wasn't with him at the time, but I'd been to Nawlins with him before and no one could tear up Bourbon Street like that fat bastard. The Crimson Tide (his alma mater and mine) was ranked Number One that year, under Bear Bryant, the meanest motherfucker to ever coach college football, no matter what anyone from Oklahoma says. The Fighting Irish were Number Three. The game was close throughout, but with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bama scored a touchdown to take the lead 23-21. The kicker made the fatal mistake of missing the extra point and Ara Parseghian's green and gold Catholic hoodlums kicked a field goal with 4:26 left in the game. When that field goal went through the uprights, my overweight friend (they tell me) fell forward like a young Paul Bunyan, spilling his just refreshed Bacardi Rum and cherry Sprite drink all over a young man in the row in front of him. They say it took four paramedics to haul his fat ass down to the ambulance and he was dead before they even got there.

So, did I help kill him with encouragement? Would he have found the will to lose weight and live to a ripe old age had I but chastised instead of embellished his grandeur? Here's what I think. J.B. was born to be J.B. His happiest moments on this spinning planet were when he was downing a twelve-pack of Old Milwaukee and shoving a bagful of sliders down his gullet with Josh White's "One Meat Ball" playing on that turntable in that bedroom where he could hardly catch his breath after a trip to the pisser. Who's to say that's a life less lived? At least he never encumbered another soul with the guilt it must carry to shoot an innocent kid with a BB gun.

His obit in the local paper used J.B. as his given name with "Mike" in quotations as a nick.

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