Job in Modern Dress
J.B. A Play in Verse.
by Archibald MacLeish.
Houghton Mifflin. 153 pp. $3.50.
Archibald MacLeish has shown great daring in basing his new poetic drama, J.B., on the Book of Job. From a strictly literary point of view, the Biblical version offers few possibilities of expansion into a full-length drama. Its incidents are few, and most of them—the wager between God and Satan, the restoration of Job’s family and fortune—are mere plot rationalizations of the work’s central religious problem; indeed, they even obscure it. Furthermore, the development of the argument between Job, his three friends, and Elihu is not clearly articulated. From the poetic and religious points of view, any version of the Job story must beg comparison with one of the world’s most magnificent works of poetic and religious experience, a work, moreover, whose religious vision is secured by the grandeur and vitality of its poetry. Unhappily, Mr. MacLeish has failed.
He has tried to solve the literary problem, in part, by showing the prosperous J.B. at Thanksgiving dinner with his happy family, and thereafter, death by death, the disappearance of this family and fortune. But the author’s J.B. is so fatuous that most readers will be tempted to applaud Satan for wiping the turkey-stuffed grin off his face. And the succeeding scenes, which show J.B.’s misfortunes at tedious length, lack any kind of development of character, philosophy, or passion.
Mr. MacLeish’s chief innovation is the addition of a “Mr. Zuss” (Zeus) and one “Nickles” (Nicholas Brimstone) who, in the guise of down-and-out actors, set the scene, comment on the story, and drive it forward by speaking the parts of God and Satan. Their presence weighs heavily on the drama. Most of their comments properly belong to J.B. and his wife, who develop the same dialectic that Nickles and Mr. Zuss argue out between themselves; lacking these speeches, J.B. and Sarah fall into a heavily scored mutism. All this is not a result of Mr. MacLeish’s imperfect stagecraft, but derives from his vision of the world.
But this is poetic drama—what of its poetry? I find it pale, feeble, and impoverished. Its only resources for achieving the modest and often superficial intensity it occasionally has are awkward syntax, labored alliteration, and, as a last resort, sheer automatism. From Sarah’s outcry, “Our son, our son, our son” (the editorial we parodying David’s lament for Absalom) to J.B.’s poeticizing of his own pain, “What I can’t bear is the blindness—Meaninglessness—the numb blow/Fallen in the stumbling night,” this attitudinizing sits ill beside the precise, vibrant, outspoken language of the Book of Job. Each time that Mr. MacLeish quotes from the Biblical version (and he does so often), its words dominate the stage and sweep away whatever speeches he has put into the mouths of his characters.
This artistic failure might have been salvaged in some measure were Mr. MacLeish’s moral vision adequate. It is not. By dwelling so long on the wager and on J.B.’s misfortunes, and by giving “Nickles” more and better lines than “Mr. Zuss,” Mr. MacLeish has managed to portray God (“Jahveh,” he calls him once) as a tyrannical despot. The final touch is J.B.’s ultimate religious vision: “He does not love. He is.” Mr. MacLeish is, of course, free to interpret the Book of Job as he wishes. But to my mind its essential, overwhelming vision is that the presence, the “thereness,” of God antecedes (and includes) his qualities as legislator, judge, and, even, maker of the universe. Job’s three friends are condemned for assuming that because he suffers Job must have sinned, that is, for putting forward a known, a rationalized, God. Yet the God of Job is no simple inscrutability. As the Voice in the Whirlwind, he steps forward and discovers himself. His presence is nothing less than the total and immediate creation of the world.
Mr. MacLeish’s deity, a “white, calm, unconcerned mask,” is closer to the God of Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz than he is to Him who spoke in the Whirlwind. A known inscrutability, I would call him. Mr. MacLeish quotes extensively from the Voice in the Whirlwind and even has J.B. repeat Job’s key speech, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” But we have here only the shell of a deity, a God without presence. And as Mr. MacLeish’s deity is no God, so his J.B. is no man. Deaf to God’s presence, J.B. lacks human presence, being half literary creature, half solution to the ills of the world. For the pseudo-position of calling the meaninglessness of the universe “God” can only lead to a pseudo-solution, in this case humanistic love, that halfway convalescent home on the road of the Absurd. “He does not love. He is,” says J.B., to which Sarah responds, “But we do. That’s the wonder.” And quickly this leads to the final curtain speech:
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. . . .
Dramatically, the question of inter-personal relations has nothing to do with the problem of Job before God, or even of J.B. before the universe. Morally, it suggests bourgeois humanism. (Even Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” ended with the same love-coated nihilism.) For, as it stands, Mr. MacLeish’s formula begs the question. Is it so much a matter of what the light of love may permit modern man to see, as—the eternal question—in what light shall he see love, and, indeed, everything else?
It has not been my intention here to beat down contemporary humanism with the stick of Biblical God-consciousness. Rather, I have wanted to point out that so long as humanists like Mr. MacLeish fail to understand such God-consciousness, they will also fail in their specifically humanist task: to come to a vision of man which would create, sustain, impassion, and move the world in the same way that the God who appeared in the Whirlwind did.