J. B.: The Artistry of Ambiguity

by J. E. Dearlove

Dr. Dearlove is assistant professor of English at the College of Wooster (Ohio).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 19, 1976, pp. 484-487. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


From a limited, bitter satire, Archibald MacLeish’s verse drama grew into a larger, poetic statement about the human condition. Job asks “Why?” He gets no reasoned answers but rather and act of faith. MacLeish’s modern story seeks not rationally comprehensible solutions but rather an artistic evocation of this “leap of faith.”

Job asks "Why?" But no satisfactory answer to his question emerges -- not from the confrontation with the three comforters, nor from the arguments of Elihu, nor from the framing device of Satan’s wager, nor even from the voice in the whirlwind. In all his glory God appears to Job, who, abhorring himself, repents in dust and ashes. The beauty and the power of the biblical story of Job depend finally not on reasoned answers but rather on an act of faith.

In like manner the verse drama J. B. -- Archibald MacLeish’s modern retelling of the Job story -- seeks not rationally comprehensible solutions but rather an artistic evocation of this "leap of faith." In the process of writing his play, MacLeish achieved aesthetic complexity only after a struggle to move beyond solution-seeking. In this evolution not only did his play improve in dialogue, imagery and timing; more significantly, its artistic vision widened. Changes in elements such as setting, character and plot resulted in the transformation of a limited, bitter satire into a larger, poetic statement about the human condition.

The shaping of this poetic statement was a slow and difficult process. MacLeish began working with J.B.’s central visual image -- the circus-tent world and the infinite sky -- in an early poem, "The End of the World." The first stanza of this poem describes a dynamic, colorful circus world which comes to a halt when the big top blows off unexpectedly. All turn to see what lies beyond. The second stanza, one long sentence, propels us toward the culminating lines of the poem to learn what the people see: "There in the sudden blackness of the black pall/Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all." Thirty-two years passed before MacLeish replaced this vision of "nothing at all" with Sarah’s injunction to see by love in the dim light of J. B.’s last scene:

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. . . .

J. B. underwent several "visions and revisions before reaching its final form. MacLeish began it in 1953 as a one-act drama for BBC production, but by 1956 the still unfinished J. B. had already undergone three drafts to become a three-act play with acted prologue. Not until two years later was the play ready for performance. It premiered at Yale University in May 1, 1958 and was performed again that summer at the World’s Fair in Brussels. MacLeish then rewrote the play and served as consultant for its Broadway production, directed by Elia Kazan. The result was the present J. B., a play which by January 1959 was being acclaimed a "smash success."


An intriguing thing about this "smash success" is that reviewers could not agree on what the play meant. In the Saturday Review John Ciardi saw the Yale production as a human triumph (March 8, 1958, p. 48), while Henry Hewes argued that the play was a pageantry lacking any real humanity (May 10, 1958, p. 22). Christian Century reviewers also disagreed: Samuel Terrien thought that J. B. presented "modern man’s reaction to the problem of evil without the category of faith in a loving God" (January 7, 1959, p. 9); Tom F. Driver found the play afflicted with "a sort of theological schizophrenia," divided between its religious and humanistic dimensions (January 7, 1959. p. 22); and Henry P. Van Dusen found the protagonist of J. B. more convincing, more moving than the biblical Job (January 28, 1959, p. 107). Such critical diversity is not surprising given the ambiguity within the play itself. Since the play proposes no logically convincing answers, members of the audience must either come away from the play in doubt or make their own leap of faith. Unfortunately, many viewers who did make the leap also tried to impose their beliefs upon the play -- and then criticized J. B. for not sustaining their interpretation.

An instructive way of understanding the play’s hard-earned aesthetic complexity which so plagued the reviewers is to compare an earlier manuscript version (held by the Lilly Library, Indiana University) with the later published play (Houghton Muffin, 1958). The first things that strike the reader in such a comparison are the slight but important changes in the setting. The manuscript version gives extensive and detailed description of the setting and its significance. As the audience enters the theater the stage is dimly lit, revealing a few circus hands cleaning up. On the stage are two circus rings -- Job’s house and Satan’s arena. A railed platform represents heaven, with a perch to mark that part of heaven to which only God can climb. Scattered about the stage are clown costumes, while the backdrop suggests a circus tent bedecked with colorful signs of the zodiac. Into this scene come Mr. Zuss and Nickles, who will play-act the parts of God and Satan.

In the later published play, the scene is less specific, more universal. The significance of the platform, stage, deal table, and seven chairs is left up to the director and the audience to determine. The clothing lying about has "the look of vestments of many churches and times." The tent is a simple and unobtrusive, if not tattered, canvas. The circus hands are absent. The play’s tone and atmosphere -- rather than being confined to a circus performance -- are more generalized and familiar, as the stage directions explain: "The feel is of a public place at late night, the audience gone, no one about but maybe a stagehand somewhere cleaning up, fooling with the lights." The resulting increase in objectivity not only makes it easier for the audience to identify with the action; it also leaves interpretation of that action open. Mr. Zuss’s performance may invite us to see the platform as "heaven," but the play does not insist solely on that view.


Into this more universal setting MacLeish puts less obtrusive and more human characters than those he had initially created. In the manuscript, Mr. Zuss is an’ old and pompous actor with a resonant voice. Nickles is a gaunt, sardonic youth with a cracked, harsh voice. While these two characters who frame the main action seldom agree with each other, both men repeatedly interrupt the scenes involving J.B. They discuss him while he discusses Thanksgiving with his family. Like a stage manager, Nickles dresses and prompts the soldiers and reporters for their roles as messengers of death. Indeed, he himself acts as J.B.’s butler, admitting the soldiers who will report the first loss -- the death of J.B.’s son. Mr. Zuss also directs the action, beating a dull and ominous thud on the drum before the announcement of each disaster. Moreover, it is to Mr. Zuss on his perch that Sarah looks after the reports of the first and second losses. A spotlight follows her gaze to reveal Mr. Zuss stepping back -- as though to avoid her eyes -- and raising his God-mask, as though to hide behind it. The masks themselves further isolate the God and Satan of the wager from the human level of the action. They are oblivious of J. B.’s suffering. When Mr. Zuss raises the Godmask, it appears to go as blank as the moon in a hard glare. It is the mask of a God of cold, impersonal force with blind eyes and a face of stone. These massive mask figures upstage not only J. B. in his suffering, but even Mr. Zuss and Nickles themselves. The human beings are engulfed by the roles they play: the allegory consumes the humanity.

In the revised play Mr. Zuss and Nickles are both old men who "betray in carriage and speech the broken-down actor fallen on evil days but nevertheless and always actor." They are contemporaries in age and experience. Unlike the earlier characters, the pair can’t be misread as the man of faith opposing the man of despair, as age and experience posed against youth and naïveté, or as the quarrel of traditional beliefs with modern mores. Nor can the questions which arise from their wager be reduced to social issues. The equality of these two later characters frees the audience to judge for itself between their positions.

Just as the roles of Mr. Zuss and Nickles are made more balanced, they are also made more human. They no longer direct the action. They may play at being God and Satan, but we are always aware of them as broken-down actors playing. They speak between J. B.’s scenes, not during them. Nickles no longer prompts the messengers. The first two drum-beats are offstage, while the stage directions for the third leave it unclear whether Mr. Zuss actually strikes the drum or whether the sound comes from offstage as the light fades. Neither Sarah nor the spotlight looks toward Mr. Zuss after the losses. Thus he does not need to step back or hide behind an impersonal Godmask.

These changes result in the greater importance of J. B. As a character suffering his losses, J. B. attracts our attention and sympathy in a way that J. B. as a puppet of the gods never could. Moreover, the suffering of the later J. B. is inexplicable, not the easily dismissed consequence of a wager as in the first version. We are, like Job, uncomforted before the contingencies of the human condition. The changes in the roles of Mr. Zuss and Nickles turn them into persons who under other conditions might themselves have Job’s role to play. Even as they fumble for their masks of God and Satan, they, too, hear a "Distant Voice" anticipating their own lines (Job 2:3), and they respond to the voice:

Nickles: Who said that?


Mr. Zuss: They want us to go on.

Nickles: Why don’t you?

Mr. Zuss: He was asking you.

Nickles: Who was?

Mr. Zuss: He was.

Nickles: Prompter probably. Prompter somewhere.

Your lines he was reading weren’t they?

Mr. Zuss: Yes but...

Nickles: shouting Anybody there?


Mr. Zuss: They want us to go on. I told you.

Nickles: Yes. They want us to go on...

I don’t like it.

This mysterious voice serves as a reminder to us that we too are in a play under another’s control. We too might one day have Job’s role to play. And as a result, suddenly that role takes on larger dimensions for us. We are personally implicated in the suffering and challenged by the subsequent leap of faith -- rather than being concerned merely with the intellectual interpretations others place upon that suffering and faith.

MacLeish’s efforts to focus upon J. B.’s role lead to changes in the roles of even the minor characters. For example, in the manuscript the women pity J. B.; they go to him and invite him to join them. Although J. B. in his agony does not see or hear them, they sit in a circle about him shielding him from .the night. Indeed, they are to remain in this circle throughout intermission. In the published version of the play, on the other hand, they enter later, say less, and make no attempt to mitigate his suffering. J. B. remains alone, unspoken to, unshielded. No human kindness reduces his suffering; no human intervention diverts the man’s desire to know why he suffers. The central question of the play remains uncluttered.


MacLeish’s revisions of the final scenes provide perhaps the clearest examples of his changing attitude toward the role of J. B. and the nature of the play. In the earliest version J. B.’s repentance is portrayed as defeat and humiliation. J. B. sees himself as nothing and therefore as unworthy of receiving answers. He utters the biblical line "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent" (Job 42:6) and sinks to his knees. Unsatisfied with this version, MacLeish corrected the manuscript by hand to give J. B. a triumph even in repentance. Although in the depths of abnegation he sees himself as nothing, J. B. finds freedom in acceptance of this condition. After reciting Job’s confession, this second J. B. slowly raises his head and squares his shoulders.

In the published play MacLeish uses neither of these responses. Instead, J. B. utters his line and the light fades out, relieving him of the necessity to act in either manner. The audience must decide if J. B.’s repentance is a Victory or a defeat. Not even Mr. Zuss and Nickles know for sure whether J. B. has been ennobled or crushed: Nickles sees submission; Zuss, defiance.

Nickles: He misconceived the part entirely.

Mr. Zuss: Misconceived the world! Buggered it!

Nickles: Giving in like that! Whimpering!

Mr. Zuss: Giving in! You call that arrogant,

Smiling, supercilious humility

Giving in to God?

After their debate Mr. Zuss informs Nickles that the play is not over -- God restores J.ÊB. at the end. Nickles, snorting, refuses to believe that J. B. could start over again. He then tries to persuade J. B. to reject God’s offer, but J.B. ignores this advice. At this point the, two versions again differ. In the original Mr. Zuss also tries to win J. B. to his viewpoint and receives a similar rebuff. In the published play, however, Mr. Zuss is spared the indignity of pleading his cause and, by implication, God is also spared’ the indignity of justifying his ways to man. Moreover, God’s position is not defined in the limited terms of the early Zuss’s proposal. In the closing scene J. B. accepts his wife Sarah in what may well be. also an acceptance of God -- the human affirmation of divine love. As MacLeish said in the playbill for the Yale production: "It is in man’s love that God exists and triumphs: in man’s love that life is beautiful; in man’s love that the world’s injustice is resolved" (as quoted by Tom F. Driver, "Clean Miss," The Christian Century [June 11, 1958], p. 693).

This acceptance of Sarah differs greatly in the two versions of the drama. In the original, J. B.’s initial response to her is harsh and bitter. He demands to know what she wants. He then launched into a diatribe reciting ‘his interview with God. He had sought reasons a man could live with: God had had no reasons, only wonders and omnipotence. In the middle of his harangue J. B. suddenly stops and asks Sarah why she has returned. She says that she has done so for love, but J. B. mocks the idea of love in a world where one must lose what one loves most. During J. B.’s speech, Sarah begins to restore order. When she picks up an unlit lantern, J. B. tells her to use her love to light it. Then he himself lights the lantern, Sarah leans her head on his shoulder, and a warm, intimate, human light fills the room. Sarah suggests that love will yield understanding. J. B. takes her in his arms, but he cannot accept her suggestion. He says that man can never understand: he exists and that is all. He can suffer and because he suffers, love; because he loves, suffer. But it is in ignorance that human beings still must live.

In the published play J. B. is not the bitter and defiant man who resents his position and almost rejects Sarah and love. When he finds her sitting on his doorstep, J. B. exclaims "Sarah!" and tells her. "roughly" to "Get up!" Although he starts to make her leave, J. B. reconsiders and asks "more gently" where she has been. Sarah describes the "mountains of ashes" that are the world now and tells J. B. why she had deserted him: He had wanted justice in the world and she could offer only love. She thought she knew an answer:

I thought there was a way away...

Water under bridges opens

Closing and the companion stars

Still float there afterwards. I thought the door

Opened into closing water.

Overcome at this suggestion, J. B. drops "on his knees beside her in the doorway, his arms around her." Sarah reveals that her love for life was too strong to let her find her way away: "Even the forsythia beside the/Stair could stop me." Together J. B. and Sarah rise and look into the darkness of their home. J. B. remarks that it is too dark to see. It is Sarah who replies that one must trust in love to see, for love is "all the light now":

Blow on the coal of the heart and we’ll know . . .

We’ll know. . .

Rather than insisting that J. B.’s repentance and acceptance of life is some third possibility opposing those offered by the Godmask and Satanmask, the new ending leaves our interpretation of his actions open. By reducing J. B.’s bitter defiance and by eliminating his comments about his interview with the whirlwind, MacLeish has successfully avoided dictating to us the nature of J. B.’s repentance and the adequacy of God’s answers. By letting Sarah propose love as a reason to begin again, MacLeish is able to leave J. B.’s own reasons ambiguous or at least unarticulated. We no longer have J. B. talking of the human tendency to start again in blind ignorance. J. B. suffers, questions, repents, and begins again through love. This human love may or may not be an attribute of divine love. His repentance may or may not be a victory. His questions may or may not be sufficiently answered. The play does not seek to solve these issues. Rather, it seeks to embody them in dramatic art.

MacLeish’s changes between the manuscript and published form of J. B. move the play from specifics to the universal, from the allegorical to the human, from mediated to unmitigated suffering, from imposed rationalizations to the dramatic action which is left to speak for itself. Not only do ‘these changes help to define J. B.’s suffering and repenting as the central images of the play, but they also effectively hide MacLeish’s own interpretations of these images. The critics who look to the play for answers will be disappointed. J. B.’s aesthetic ambiguity evokes in us Job’s question "Why?" and demands that our own leap of faith supply the answer.