J.B. (play)

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Written by Archibald MacLeish
Characters Mr. Zuss
First Messenger
Second Messenger
Mrs. Adams
Mrs. Murphy
Mrs. Lesure
Mrs. Botticelli
A Distant Voice
Date premiered 11 December 1958
Place premiered ANTA Playhouse
New York City
Original language English
Subject A retelling of the Book of Job
Genre Drama
Setting A stage inside an enormous circus tent

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.

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[edit]

The play opens in "a corner inside an enormous circus tent". Two vendors, Mr. Zuss (evoking the chief Greek god Zeus; zuss is also German for "sweet") 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 (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.

Original productions[edit]

A first production was mounted at the Yale University Theater, opening April 23, 1958 (reviewed by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times of April 24, 1958). The three-act version was first performed on 11 December 1958 in New York City at the ANTA Playhouse in a production directed by Elia Kazan with a cast including Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer, Nan Martin, Ivor Francis, Pat Hingle, Clifton James, Judith Lowry, Candy Moore, James Olson, Ford Rainey, and Andreas Voutsinas (reviewed by Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times of December 12, 1958). This production won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama[2] and the Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction[3] in 1959.

An off-Broadway production opened on March 17, 1962, at the Master Theatre, starring John Cazale. [4] The play was performed at the University of Nevada in Reno and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1963.


  • 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.'


  1. ^ "Old Nick, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 9 April 2015.
  2. ^ Pulitzer Prize for Drama 1950s
  3. ^ Tony Award for Best Play 1950s
  4. ^ J.B. at the Lortel Archives

External links[edit]