J.B. (play)

J.B. is a 1958 play written in free verse by American playwright and poet Archibald MacLeish and is a modern retelling of the story of the biblical figure Job – hence the title: J.B./Job. The play went through several incarnations before it was finally published. MacLeish began the work in 1953 as a one-act production but within three years had expanded it to a full three-act manuscript.

Written byArchibald MacLeish
CharactersMr. Zuss
First Messenger
Second Messenger
Mrs. Adams
Mrs. Murphy
Mrs. Lesure
Mrs. Botticelli
A Distant Voice
Date premieredDecember 11, 1958
Place premieredANTA Playhouse
New York City
Original languageEnglish
SubjectA retelling of the Book of Job
SettingA stage inside an enormous circus tent

There are two versions of J.B. available: the original book, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the script which MacLeish revised substantially for Broadway, published by Samuel French Inc.

Plot summary

The play opens in "a corner inside an enormous circus tent". Two vendors, Mr. Zuss (evoking the chief Greek god Zeus) and Nickles (i.e. "Old Nick," a folk name for the Devil) [1] begin the play-within-a-play by assuming the roles of God and Satan, respectively. They overhear J.B., a wealthy New York banker, describe his prosperity as a just reward for his faithfulness to God. Scorning him, Nickles wagers that J.B. will curse God if his life is ruined. Nickles and Zuss then watch as J.B.'s children are killed and his property is ruined and the former millionaire is left to the streets. J.B. is then visited by three Comforters: Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar (representing History, Science, and Religion) who each offer a different explanation for his plight. J.B. declines to believe any of them, instead asking God himself to explain. Instead he encounters Zuss and Nickles. Nickles urges him to commit suicide in order to spite God; Zuss offers him his old life back if he will promise to obey God. J.B. rejects them both, and instead finds comfort in the person of his wife Sarah. The play ends with the two building a new life together.


A first production was mounted by the Yale School of Drama at the Yale University Theater, New Haven, opening April 23, 1958. Brooks Atkinson wrote: "Being in an expansive mood, Archibald MacLeish has written an epic of mankind. He calls it "J. B." It was acted for the first time at the Yale University Theatre last evening." Directed by F. Curtis Canfield, the cast included James Shepherd as J.B.[2]

The three-act version premiered on Broadway at the ANTA Playhouse on December 11, 1958 and closed on October 24, 1959 after 364 performances. Directed by Elia Kazan, the cast included Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer, Nan Martin, Ivor Francis, Pat Hingle (J.B.), Clifton James, Judith Lowry, Candy Moore, James Olson, Ford Rainey, and Andreas Voutsinas.[3] Brooks Atkinson wrote: "For 'J. B.,' the title of Archibald MacLeish's new play at the ANTA Theatre, read 'Everyman.' Looking around at the wreckage and misery of the modern world, Mr. MacLeish has written a fresh and exalting morality that has great stature."[4]

An Off-Broadway production by the Equity Library Theatre opened on March 17, 1962, at the Master Theatre, starring John Cazale.[5]

The play was performed at the University of Nevada in Reno and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1963, Hannibal-LaGrange College, Hannibal, MO in 1966, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, in 1971.


  • J.B. – A millionaire; based on the Old Testament character Job
  • Sarah – J.B.'s wife
  • Mr. Zuss – A retired-actor-now-balloon-vendor in a circus; assuming the role of the Abrahamic God
  • Nickles – A retired-actor-now-popcorn-vendor in a circus; assuming the role of Satan
  • The Distant Voice – An anonymous voice that prompts more action in the play, suggested to be the voice of God
  • The Children of J.B. and Sarah – David (13); Mary (12); Jonathan (10); Ruth (8); Rebecca (6)
  • Two 'buxom, middle-aged' Maids
  • Two Messengers: 'dressed as soldiers' in Scene Three; with 'battered felt hats...a news camera... a notebook' in Scene Four; 'wearing steel helmets and brassards' in Scene Six
  • A 'stylishly dressed Girl' (Scene Four)
  • In Scene Eight, et seq.: 'Four Women' (Mrs. Adams, Mrs. Botticelli, Mrs. Lesure, and Mrs. Murphy) and 'a young girl' (Jolly Adams), 'their arms filled with blankets and newspapers.'
  • In Scene Nine: 'Three Comforters ... in worn-out clothing': Zophar, a fat, red-faced man wearing 'the wreck of a clerical collar'; Eliphaz, lean and dark, wearing 'an intern's jacket which once was white'; and Bildad, a squat, thick man in a ragged wind-breaker.'

Awards and nominations

This production won both the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1959 Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction.[3]

The Pulitzer Prize committee wrote: " 'Certainly no other play of this or many seasons has attempted to come to grips with so large and universal a theme and succeeded in stating it in terms more eloquent, moving, provocative' than J.B."[6]


  1. "Old Nick, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 9 April 2015.
  2. Atkinson, Brooks. "Archibald Mac Leish's New Play, 'J. B.': Poet's Epic of Mankind Staged at Yale Title Role Is Modern Counterpart of Job", The New York Times, April 24, 1958, p.37, ISSN 0362-4331
  3. " J.B. 1958" playbillvault.com, accessed November 28, 2015
  4. Atkinson, Brooks. "MacLeish's 'J.B.': Verse Drama Given Premiere at ANTA", The New York Times, December 12, 1958, p.A2, ISSN 0362-4331
  5. J.B. Archived 2012-10-11 at the Wayback Machine Lortel.com
  6. Fischer, Heinz-Dietrich. "1959 Award", Outstanding Broadway Dramas and Comedies: Pulitzer Prize Winning Theater Productions, LIT Verlag Münster, 2013, ISBN 3643903413, p. 88
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