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Thursday, April 18, 2013

What I'm Reading - J.B. A Play in Free Verse

When I was a Senior in high school, while many of my classmates were busy watching Beverly Hills 90210, I was reading J.B.[i] the play in free-verse by Archibald MacLeish based on the book of Job.  I was a strange kid, I know.

Anyone who tries to tell you that there is comfort in the book of Job is wrong. There isn’t.  There is only mystery and overwhelming wonder.  Injustice, death, calamity – these fall on men and cannot be resolved, not with an appeal to God’s justice, nor to his righteousness.  But still we love, or rather, we struggle to love.

J.B., the eponymous protagonist of the play is Job – blessed and fortunate, with a wife and children and a fortune – and if “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” his life will be played out on the stage, beneath the lights, beneath the dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy.  The story has been written, the dialogue composed.  The play will be performed and we will observe.

We watch along with two broken down circus vendors who assume the roles of God and the Satan.  We know the story, just as they do, yet Nickles – the stand in for the Satan- becomes our stand in as well, arguing and railing against the inevitable injustices that must fall upon J.B. And, what is more, he rails against J.B.’s acceptance of all of this.

Nickles:                Everything he ever had!
                             And all he asks is answers of the universe:
                             Why ? Why? And God replies to him:
                             God come whirling in the wind replying  -
                             What?  That God knows more than he does.
                             That God’s more powerful than he! -
                             Throwing the whole weight of creation at him!
                             Throwing the Glory and the Power!
                             What’s the Power to a broken man
                             Trampled beneath it like a toad already?
                             What’s the Glory to a skin that stinks!
                             And this ham actor! – what does he do?
                             How does he play Job to that?
     “Thank you!”  “I’m a worm!”  “Take two!”
     Plays the way a sheep would play it -
     Pious, contemptible, goddam sheep
     Without the spunk to spit on Christmas!

You know the story as well as I – even if you’ve never read J.B. or Job.  Life is full of disaster, even for the faithful. There is no need for me to rehearse the plot.  We know how the story ends. Yet it is still and always a surprise that J.B. can forgive God – that he can endure all that is flung his way, accept it all, retain his integrity and in humility forgive God.

I re-read this play every so often.  Not because there is comfort in it – no more comfort than there is in its ancient source material – but because of the challenge and the hope it proffers.  Even on that dung heap played out in front of the audience there remains a breath to blow upon the coal of the heart.

[i]  MacLeish, Archibald J.B.  Houghton Mifflin Company,  Boston, MA 1956.

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