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Given that Truth is Beauty…

June 16, 2011

I heard upon his dry dung-heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
“If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God . . .

It’s been a couple of days since I finished J.B., but, to be honest, I still don’t know what to think of it. The play itself is a modern adaptation of the Book of Job, in that omphaloskeptic play-within-a-play sort of way. My unease might just stem from the fact that I always get nervous when people adapt stories from the Bible. The way I see it, there are only two ways to do it without being blasphemous: 1) you can adapt it directly and word for word, but this would end up being indirectly blasphemous anyway, as all bad plays are blasphemous; or 2) you can adapt thematically. This means, as in West Side Story’s take on Romeo & Juliet, many of the details are fudged, shifted, or altogether changed, but the overarching theme remains the same. The result would, hopefully, steer away from blasphemy and be a good play to boot.

But Archibald MacLeish seems to be taking a third route. His adaptation is an excuse to subversivly argue with Job’s theme. I say this not actually knowing what the them of Job is, because no book of the Bible has been as able to thoroughly confuse me. But I know what the theme is not. And the theme is not MacLeish’s assertation that mankind’s love for each other can overcome all, including the supposed failures of God. I trust it is clear to all who read this why that is decidedly not the theme of Job.

All the same, MacLeish’s poetry is so compelling that it might as well be literally pulling you along. In its first two-thirds, the play is so orthodox in its beauty that I repeatedly mined its depths for some choice ore in the form of commonplaces. But as truth begins to slip, so does beauty, rather proving the immortal words of Keats. A play that should have brought us, like Job, in submission to the often mysterious will of God, instead ends up equating God and the Devil, bringing the play to an ultimately ugly and cacophonic conclusion. “If God is

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