Theatre at Grand Valley Presents J. B.
March 23 - 31, 2018
Written by Archibald Macleish
Directed by Roger Ellis
Louis Armstrong Theatre, Haas Center for Performing Arts, Allendale Campus
March 23, 24, 28, 29, and 30 at 7:30 p.m.
March 25 and 31 at 2:00 p.m.
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) begin the play-within-a-play by assuming the roles of God and Satan, respectively. They overhear J.B., a wealthy 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.
Archibald MacLeish and J.B.
Archibald MacLeish (1892 - 1982) studied English at Yale and law at Harvard. He enlisted and saw action during World War I. In 1923 MacLeish left his law firm and moved with his wife to Paris, where they joined the community of literary expatriates that included Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Fernand Léger, Cocteau, Picasso, Cole Porter, and Dorothy Parker. From 1930 to 1938 he worked as a writer and editor for Henry Luce's Fortune Magazine, during which he also became increasingly politically active, especially with anti-fascist causes. For five years MacLeish was Librarian of Congress, a post he accepted at the urging of President Roosevelt; and from 1949 to 1962 MacLeish was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard.
J.B. was something of a sensation in its time, especially because of MacLeish's audacity and deftness in attempting to write verse drama for a modern audience. Because MacLeish was well-known as a poet, his play in verse received more critical attention in the major newspapers and magazines than it might have otherwise. The Broadway version of J.B. was widely reviewed and much discussed in bars and coffeehouses. The morning after the opening, MacLeish appeared on the Today show to talk about the play, and open forums were held after some of the early performances so that religious scholars could debate theology with the playwright.
The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1959 (MacLeish's third Pulitzer), as well as the Tony Award for best play. It had a long run on the British stage and was translated and performed in other European countries as well. Although the play enjoyed a long run on Broadway in 1958 and 1959 and twenty years as a staple of college theatre companies, it has been infrequently performed since MacLeish's death in 1982.