Sunday, October 3, 2010

J.B.: A Play in Verse by Archibald MacLeish (1959)

Summary:  Mr. Zuss and Mr. Nickles are omnipresent narrators who guide us through the story of J.B. (a modern-day Job) and his family.   Occasionally, they are joined by "Distant Voice", who we can surmise is God.  After individually revealing each of J.B.'s trials, they return to the scene to swap some theological banter and guide us into the next depiction of things getting progressively worse for the wounded protagonist.

  Ashamedly, I groaned a little when I discovered that this was a 153 page "play in verse."  Wrong!  So wrong!  Structurally, this play is one of the most sound and interesting I have encountered in the project.  With Zuss and Nickles as guides, MacLeish facilitates the telling of a Biblical story in a very human and potentially timeless way.  As things go from wonderful to terrible for J.B. and his wife, their roles and thoughts about God are essentially reversed. 

We know from the outset that, after J.B. has endured all the trails that God has in store for him, things will get better; but MacLeish masterfully makes each new heartbreak a deeper descent into darkness. 

I think my fourth grade brain added the word "rhyming" to the subtitle "a play in verse."  While it did not rhyme, the language of this play was stunning, and for me, reminiscent of the often theological patriotism of Norman Corwin.  For those keeping score at home, MacLeish holds two additional Pulitzer Prizes (for Poetry), an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Because he wasn't busy enough, he also served as the first Librarian of Congress...and came up with the idea that the United States should have a poet laureate.

I can already say that when I finish this project, one of the most substantial riches I will have gained is the discovery of Archibald MacLeish.

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