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.