Places: J. B.

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1958

First produced: 1958, at the Yale University Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Symbolism

Time of work: 1940’s to 1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedHeaven

Heaven. J. B.Place where God and Satan dispute about the character of people on earth. The simple setting of this play symbolizes the ancient and timeless nature of this drama. Heaven is presented as a flat set of planks set six or seven feet off the floor of the main stage. As the vendors, Mr. Zuss, who sells balloons, and Garrick Nickles, who sells popcorn, search the upper stage, they discover two masks. The mask for God resembles the face of Michelangelo’s Night sculpture with its closed eyes, and the mask for Satan has eyes “wrinkled with laughter,” but a mouth “drawn down in agonized disgust.” These masks recall the ancient Greek tradition of presenting plays by using masks through which actors spoke while conveying their characters through fixed expressions. Mr. Zuss also has a name resembling that of the Greek god Zeus. When he and Nickles don their masks, they take on the masks’ characters and speak timeless insights, much like the Old Testament’s Book of Job, which is thought by many scholars to be the oldest book in the Bible.


*Earth. Place where the life and tragedies of the banker J. B. and his wife Sarah are worked out. This setting is also simple–with a table and chairs that make the events seem universal. As these parents lose their children to war, accidents, and crime, and as J. B. loses his wealth and health, they wrestle with the problem of evil in the world, until even Sarah abandons J. B. Once J. B. has lost everything, he is visited by Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz, the biblical characters who question his integrity. Eventually, the voice of God thunders and silences all questions, including J. B.’s. Then the love between Sarah and J. B. is restored and they begin to build anew on the ash heaps of past disasters. In the end, on Earth no one finds an answer to the problem of evil. Earth is filled with injustice and inexplicable disasters. Only in moving forward with love for the life God gives does life become bearable for J. B. and his wife.

Sources for Further StudyAtkinson, Brooks. “From Job to J.B.,” in The New York Times. May 4, 1958, sec. 2, p. 1.Campbell, Shannon O. “The Book of Job and MacLeish’s J. B.: A Cultural Comparison.” English Journal 61 (May, 1972): 653-657. Clarifies the connections between the Old Testament story and the poet’s unique approach to it.Ciardi, John. “The Birth of a Classic,” in Saturday Review. XLI (March, 1958), pp. 11-12, 48.Drabek, Bernard A., Helen E. Ellis, and Seymore Rudin, eds. The Proceedings of the Archibald MacLeish Symposium, May 7-8, 1982. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. More than twenty articles on various aspects of MacLeish’s work, including J. B., with tributes to the author by various notables. No index.Falk, Signi Lenea. Archibald MacLeish. New York: Twayne, 1965. A brief, chronological overview of the author’s life and works. Ample notes and an index.Fitts, Dudley. “Afflictions of a New Job,” in The New York Times Book Review. March 23, 1958, p. 3.Hewes, Henry. “A Minority Report on J.B.,” in Saturday Review. XLII (January 3, 1959), pp. 22-23.Krutch, Joseph Wood. “The Universe at Stage Center,” in Theatre Arts. XLII (August, 1959), pp. 9-11.Lutyens, David Bulwer. “Archibald MacLeish,” in his The Creative Encounter, 1960.MacLeish, William H. Uphill with Archie. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. A memoir by his son, with most of the work devoted to a description of the dramatist’s personal life and his famous friends.Roston, Murray. “MacLeish’s J. B.” In Biblical Images in Literature, edited by Roland Bartel. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975. Analyzes the supernatural elements in J. B. in contrast to the ordinary modern scene of horror.Smith, Grover. Archibald MacLeish, 1971.Sanders, Paul S., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Book of Job: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An excellent collection of critical articles on the Old Testament Book of Job, including one by Richard B. Sewall, who calls Job the symbol of undeserved suffering.
Categories: Places