MacLeish's 'J. B.': A Review of Reviews

'Who Is He That Hideth Wisdom Without Knowledge?'

There is probably no way to prove that the people who like J.B. are the same ones who read Time Magazine every week, laugh at all of Schlesinger's jokes, find themselves existentially challenged by Reverend But-trick's sermons, own stacks of Rodgers and Hammerstein records, and think James Gould Cozzens should have gotten the Nobel Prize, but one would like to believe it. If only all the forms of intellectual laziness and disinfected passion were some-how congruent, the Enemy would be more clearly defined, easier both to see and to grapple with. But, alas, what Dwight MacDonald has dubbed "the Middlebrow Counter-Revolution" is a more diffuse and deceptive thing than that: it manifests itself in lush arrangements of Bach and suburban productions of Shakespeare, its artifacts are slow to be recognized because they are forever hiding themselves behind the skirts of greatness.

Good grounds do exist, however, for holding that the J.B. boosters tend to think of the Saturday Review as the house organ of higher culture in America. For it was from there, a year ago last May, that the first salvo of literary enthusiasm was discharged, by the noted American poet and fearless antagonist of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, John Ciardi. "Archibald MacLeish's J.B. is great poetry, great drama, and--as far as my limitations permit me to sense it--great stagecraft," he proclaimed in the opening sentence of his article, "The Birth of a Classic." A prefatory note explained that SR's poetry editor was saluting the work "in the deep conviction that it is not only an intrinsically great play but that it sets the model from which great poetic drama may hope to flow in our times." And, indeed, Ciardi contended that "MacLeish's great technical achievement is in his forging of a true poetic stage line for our times." Dismissing Eliot, Auden, Fry, and lesser ilk as failures in this respect, he pointed out that "until now, no one since Shakespeare has found a sufficient answer to the problems that arise from the combination of poetry and the stage ... Only MacLeish has found the line that teaches the American language how to go greatly on the stage." "Great" was a word Mr. Ciardi felt he couldn't escape that day. "J.B. is a great dramatization of the human position," he wrote; "great themes can be truly engaged only by great art. MacLeish's triumph is that he has been equal to his great theme."

But Mr. Ciardi had misgivings about the ability of commercial old lowbrow America to recognize true Greatness overnight. "J.B., it must be added, is strong stuff," he warned. "Too strong, one knows, for Broadway success this season or next." But eventually all would be well, he concluded: "And yet Broadway will come to it in time, because it must, because great imagination and great talent cannot be denied forever. Meanwhile, Yale is preparing it for production, and certainly the summer theatres and the college groups throughout the country will have found a new star forever. For J.B. adds a dimension to the accomplishment of American literature. We now have a great American poetic drama."

The CRIMSON, of course, had to carp somewhat. "J.B. is probably neither great poetry nor great poetic drama," wrote a tough-minded member of the Editorial Board--"although it is good enough in both respects. What it mainly offers for the modern reader is a literate statement of philosophy which finds the middle ground between religious panacea and existentialist despair." This "middle ground" was explained as the fact that "J.B. forgives God. This is not the tragedian's agnosticism or the atheist's bland facility--MacLeish has added to the stature of man at the expense of God. If man can presume to forgive his maker, then his maker, although omnipotent, is no longer omniscient. MacLeish has humanized his God." Anyway, all theological niceties aside, it was felt that J.B. "opens a fresh dimension in American stagecraft, and presents a challenging statement of philosophy in literature."

The Yale production created a stir in drama circles up and down the Ivy League, drew in droves of New Haven academics and New York critics, and was shipped off to Brussels by the State Department to represent the American theatre at the World's Fair. Charles A. Fenton, Assistant Professor of English at Yale, hailed the New Haven production in the pages of the Nation as a "moving and exciting play" notable for its "superb craftsmanship." "J.B., it's a pleasure to report, is good theatre and a fine display of a writer of genuine intellectual substance who has nevertheless always remembered and created emotion." But to Professor Fenton it represented even more than that: "To the literary historian J.B. is a fruitful document, reminding us by its vibrancy and courage of the achievement of American literature in the past half-century ... of the zest and grace with which MacLeish's literary generation has performed."

And then, on the cold, wet night of December eleventh, 1958--just eight short months after John Ciardi had despaired of a major professional production for years to come--on the stage of the ANTA Theatre, at the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway, Archibald MacLeish's "play in verse" received its New York City premiere. The production had enlisted a somewhat disparate but unquestionably distinguished group of the biggest talents in the business: Elia Kazan, Boris Aronson, Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer, Pat Hingle. Everyone involved, in Newsweek's candid prose, was taking "a calculated risk; the drama had arrived via the egghead circuit." But virtue was rewarded, for J.B. proved to be "a sort of theatrical thunderbolt that strikes about once in a decade," according to Newsweek, "... a burst of magnificent, enthralling theatre that kept a fascinated audience of first-nighters applauding long after the stage hands wanted to call it a night." "New York critics were spellbound by the play," it reported, and they did seem to break into a kind of dithyrambic dance, as if Hamlet had just opened at the Globe.

"The best play of this or many seasons ... reaches heights of poetry and performance seldom attempted in the recent history of the American stage," cried John MacLain in the Journal American. Hobe Morrison in Variety spoke of "this exalted drama," John Chapman of the Daily News thought it "a magnificent production of a truly splendid play," Richard Watts of the Post called it "a fine drama" with "stunning performances" and Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune felt he stood before "a sober and handsome monument" that was "enormously impressive" and, of course, "sheer theatre." Exclaimed John Mason Brown, Critic Emeritus of the Saturday Review (and Harvard, '23): "Never such greatness in the theatre--not since Mourning Becomes Electra, Green Pastures, or Our Town!"

But the most moving critical tribute was yet to come. The great newspaper strike was on in New York at the time, and early the morning after, all those involved in the production appeared on NBC's Dave Garroway Show to hear the reviews read to the world for the first time over the airways. "I knew about the audience," Mr. MacLeish reported later. "But I guess the first time I was really knocked over was then." In a tense hush, Garroway read aloud the considered judgement of the dean of theatrical journalists and single most commercially powerful critic in New York or Boston, Brooks Atkinson (Harvard, '17) of the New York Times: "One of the memorable works of the century as verse, as drama and as spiritual inquiry ... magnificent ... In every respect J.B. is theatre on its highest level ... a stark portrait of ourselves composed by a man of intellect, faith and literary virtuosity." "This was the first inkling I had that Mr. Atkinson had called J.B. 'one of the memorable works of the century'," the poet said. "Well, after you've worked five years on a play and your whole heart's in it ... well, it's a funny thing to say, but right then I thought I'd break down and cry in front of the camera."

The magazine critics had time for second thoughts but most of them joined in with the newspaper hymnsinging. Marya Mannes of the Reporter complained about Hingle's naturalistic acting in the title role--"This is a classic role that demands a classic actor with the kind of diction only the classicists of the theatre possess"--and would have preferred to see "Olivier or Richardson" in "MacLeish's exalted poem"; but she had no reservations about the play itself--"I know of no other American poet who could write this legend in such noble and flexible language or maintain, as he does much of the time, its purity and its dimensions." Newsweek concluded its account of opening night by reporting that "the box-office lines stretched around the corner the next day, assuring the author that the audiences were eager to see the newborn classic. Summing Up: One you shouldn't miss."

And Life had the great good fortune to be publishing, that very week, their huge, astoundingly vulgar "Entertainment Issue;" it sang of "verse that is both savagely rugged and soaringly lyrical," and used the occasion to add several hundred decibels more to Henry Luce's loud, everlasting orgy of American self-congratulation: "As news about J.B., even without newspapers, spread through New York, the theatre box office was beseiged, and a great play was on its way to being a great hit--proof that the public appreciates exceptional merit." (Earlier in the same issue on "the glittering, gossamer world of American entertainment," it had been reported that the country spends $125 million a year on rock-and-roll records, supports no fewer than 3500 disk jockeys, and has bought 30 million Elvis Presley records alone--but Life refrained from speculating on what was "proved" about "the public" in this instance.)

The CRIMSON, which has somehow acquired a reputation for excessive rigor among its readers, had the same editor on hand for opening night as had previously reviewed the text of the play with deep qualms about the verse. He underwent a positively Pauline conversion. "A great play given a great production has come to Broadway," the Harvard community was told; "one must hang out all the old abused superlatives and this time mean them.... Here is a playright 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.... a masterpiece ... one of the most distinguished dramatic triumphs of the modern theatre ... 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.... a singular achievement, and complaints ... are profane."

The Modern Language Association dubbed J.B. "highly recommended" for the 5,000 college professors attending the annual New York convention during the Christmas holidays. Joseph Wood Krutch