If you were sick of the "serious" theatre--of playwrights who make love to their anguish; of sonambulists gurgling from garbage cans; of semi-articulate anthropoids stumbling between sets and grunting their soliloquies; all the varied fare of trash and tedium which passes for tragedy on the Stage of the Common Man--then check your despair at the door. A great play given a great production has come to Broadway; one must hang out all the old abused superlatives and this time mean them.
When the best director on Broadway (Elia Kazan for those in doubt), one of the foremost dramatic actors in America, (Pat Hingle) and one of the the finest living poets conspire to produce a play, you are bound to have a masterpiece. And that's what Archibald MacLeish's J.B. is, one of the most distinguished dramatic triumphs of the modern theatre.
MacLeish has a universal axe to grind and he does it without the dogma or confusion which usually attend the dramatic genre. He retells the story of Job in contemporary setting and retells it in poetry. J.B. is a successful business man married to a pretty wife, father of four children and president of a bank, endowed with all the material blessings our time can bestow. And he is a "good and loyal servant" to the God who tempts him in response to the taunts of Satan. His children die by accident, war and murder; his home and his bank are destroyed; his wife leaves him; and he is reduced ultimately to a skin sack of boils and a collection of rags.
So far you remember it from your humanities course: J.B. on a dung heap warmed only by the misery of several old women; "comforted" by a psychiatrist, a communist, and a man of the cloth; crying the old echo for "reason;" demanding justice of God.
God (a deliberative baritone) appears all right, and eagles mount at his command, but when the thunder has subsided and the baritone passed away, J.B. is no longer the Biblical Job, no longer a vile creature in the maw of the great enigma, no longer the object lesson in a parable. He accepts neither "the blood nor the bowing"; he forgives God for his senseless test; J.B. (and man) becomes the hero, in his capacity to accept life on its own terms, in his willingness to love and love again, to accept love in place of "justice."
This is a powerful antidote to the theatre, which when it comes to philosophy mumbles a few catechisms or trumpets ambiguities so all-encompassing as to be transparent, and the New York theatre crowd was jolted out of its sophistication. Milling at the intermission, filing through doors, Manhattan secretaries with their tweedy, nebulous fiances, asthmatic maiden aunts from New York, students and old gentlemen and matron dowagers were discussing innocence and evil and faith and love and what is guilt with a passion admirable in a college freshman.
Hingle (as J.B.), Raymond Massey as Mr. Zuss (the balloon salesman who plays God), Nan Martin as J.B.'s wife, and Christopher Plummer as Nickels (the popcorn vendor who portrays Satan) are all excellent. Boris Aronson's set is magnificent; Miss Ballard's costumes catch the proper blend of the gaudy and grotesque; David Amram's music and Tharon Musser's lighting lend almost surrealistic overtones to the drama. And Kazan ringmasters his menagerie with the genius which has earned him his reputation.
Those of us (me) who though last year that MacLeish's abbreviated line form would sound too much like a staccato chant on stage got our preconceptions singed. Here is a playwright who is not afraid of beautiful literate language, and none too soon. He has rejuvenated the anemic field of Poetic Drama Since Shakespeare. J.B.'s quality of language and quality of thought make it one of the few plays worth paying Broadway's orchestra-seat ransoms to see.
This is a singular achievement, and complaints (When was it last said?) are profane.