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Theatre / J.B.

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Raymond Massey as Zuss and Christopher Plummer as Nickles, from the original Broadway production.

"I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
'If God is God, He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water.'"

J.B. is a 1958 play in free verse by Archibald MacLeish. It is an Americanized, metatheatrical retelling of the Book of Job.

Two circus vendors, Mr. Zuss and Nickles, are left in an empty tent after a show. Finding a pair of drama masks, they decide to put on a show — namely, the story of Job. Actors then appear out of nowhere.

J.B., sometimes also called Job, is a wealthy banker, married to Sarah. They are parents to five children. Nickles, who is playing the part of Satan, challenges Zuss, playing the part of God. Nickles maintains that J.B. only worships God because he imagines God to be the source of his earthly prosperity and happiness. Zuss, as God, proceeds to put J.B. to the test by utterly destroying his life, killing all his children and leaving him homeless.

The original 1958 Broadway production (which used a somewhat altered script) was directed by Elia Kazan and featured Christopher Plummer as Nickles, Raymond Massey as Zuss, and Pat Hingle as J.B.


  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: In neither version of the play does J.B. get the Replacement Goldfish children that Job does. In the original version Mr. Zuss offers to bring the kids back and J.B. rejects him. In the published version that scene is cut, and the play ends with J.B. finding Sarah again.
  • As the Good Book Says...:
    • Zuss and Nickles speak in modern English vernacular (although in a very stilted way), but when they put on the masks they start quoting directly from the book of Job, King James Version, with God saying "Whence comest thou?" and Satan answering "From going to and fro in the earth."
    • The Second Messenger says "I only am escaped alone to tell thee," another direct lift from the Bible story.
    • Lampshaded near the end of Scene Five:
      Nickles (leaning forward toward J.B., a wheedling whisper): Now's the time to say it, mister.
      Mr. Zuss: Leave him alone!
      J.B. (touching the parasol): The Lord giveth... (His voice breaks.) the Lord taketh away!
      Mr. Zuss (rising, whispering): Go on! Go on! Finish it! Finish it!
    • Later God and J.B. have an exchange where they rattle off verbatim from the Bible for over a page.
  • Atomic Hate: J.B.'s last child is killed in an atomic blast that leaves his body hideously scarred and covered in radiation burns.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Much as in the Bible story, God really, really screws with Job, just to make a point.
  • God: Not Mr. Zuss, who even when he's wearing the mask and performing the role of God in the story is still identified in the script as "Godmask," with Nickles as "Satanmask" ("Maybe Satan's playing you," he suggests to Nickles). No, there's a voice from Heaven identified only as a "Distant Voice" or "Prompter" (the Dramatis Personae uses the latter) who is heard from time to time pushing the story along. That voice always is quoting from the Book of Job.
  • Greek Chorus: When Zuss and Nickles take off their masks and essentially speak as themselves, they comment on the action.
  • Initialism Title: J.B. for the main character's initials, although he's still sometimes called "Job".
  • Our Acts Are Different: Three acts formed out of nine scenes, which is pretty standard. But a stage direction specifies that the play is written to be performed without breaks between scenes or acts, although a production may insert breaks after scenes two and seven as desired.
  • Revised Ending: When the play was originally performed off-Broadway (namely, at Yale and at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels), Mr. Zuss comes to J.B. and offers to give everything back. J.B. scorns him and goes off with Sarah. In the version that debuted on Broadway and was later published, the last appearance of Mr. Zuss is cut. Instead, Nickles says that Zuss will come and offer to give everything back, but J.B. ignores him, instead finding Sarah again.
  • Setting Update: The Book of Job in the modern day.
  • Significant Name: "Zuss" is evocative of Zeus and "Nickles" is an allusion to "Old Nick", a traditional nickname for the Devil.
  • Those Two Guys: The two Messengers, who keep appearing to deliver the latest news of disaster to poor J.B. and Sarah. Sometimes they're dressed as soldiers, sometimes as reporters, sometimes as construction workers, but every time they show up they tell of something very bad.
  • The Voice: The real voice of God, heard only as a "Distant Voice", as opposed to Mr. Zuss who is just playing a role. Near the end the Distant Voice and J.B. talk directly.
  • We Are as Mayflies: J.B. cites this as a reason to believe in God even in the face of disaster; man is too insignificant to not believe in something greater.
    "God is God or we are nothing—/Mayflies that leave their husks behind—"