J.B.: A Play in Verse


Welcome to the world of Archibald MacLeish and his profound creation, “J.B.: A Play in Verse”! πŸ“šβœ¨ Archibald MacLeish, an acclaimed American poet and playwright, introduces us to a unique piece that beautifully marries the art of drama with poetic verse. Born in 1892, MacLeish had a vibrant career, not just in literature but also in public service, which deeply influenced his writings. “J.B.” is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Job, and it stands as a testament to MacLeish’s prowess in weaving complex themes through the fabric of verse and drama.

Set against the backdrop of the 20th century, amidst wars and moral dilemmas, “J.B.” explores themes of suffering, faith, and the human condition. It’s a genre-defying work that challenges the conventions of traditional playwriting, inviting readers and audiences into a reflective exploration of life’s profound questions.

By integrating the rhythm and depth of poetry into the dramatic structure, MacLeish offers us a piece that is both intellectually engaging and emotionally resonant. So, let’s dive into this fascinating intersection of drama and poetry, where the ancient and the modern blend seamlessly to tell a story that’s as timeless as humanity itself. Welcome to the journey through “J.B.: A Play in Verse”! πŸŒŸπŸ“–

Plot Summary

“J.B.: A Play in Verse” by Archibald MacLeish unfolds in a modern setting, transforming the ancient story of Job into a compelling 20th-century drama. Here’s how the plot develops through its key stages:

Exposition β€” The play begins with a rather unconventional start: two characters, Mr. Zuss (resembling God) and Nickles (resembling Satan), find themselves in a circus. They come across a pushcart containing masks of suffering and decide to stage a play about Job, with Zuss as God and Nickles as Satan. They choose J.B., a wealthy and upright man blessed with a large family and prosperity, as their protagonist.

Rising Action β€” Tragedy strikes J.B. as he loses his wealth, his children die in accidents, and he is afflicted with sores. Despite his immense suffering, J.B. refuses to curse God. His steadfastness prompts a debate between Zuss and Nickles about the nature of God’s justice and whether J.B.’s faith is genuine or simply the result of his previously untroubled life.

Climax β€” The climax of the play is reached when J.B.’s wife, Sarah, unable to bear their losses, leaves him. J.B. is now utterly alone, wrestling with his faith and the absence of God’s voice in his suffering. This moment of profound isolation and doubt represents the peak of J.B.’s trials.

Falling Action β€” In his desolation, J.B. is visited by four comforters, who, rather than offering solace, blame him for his misfortunes, suggesting that his suffering is a punishment for sin. J.B. rejects their arguments, asserting his innocence and demanding an explanation from God.

Resolution β€” The resolution comes when Sarah returns, bringing a new perspective on faith and suffering. She suggests that the search for reasons behind suffering is futile and that what matters is the human capacity for renewal and love. Together, they begin to rebuild their lives from the ruins, finding solace in their love and the possibility of new beginnings. This ending contrasts the original Job story by focusing on humanistic values rather than divine intervention.

Through this narrative arc, MacLeish explores profound questions of faith, the nature of God, and the human condition, leaving the audience with much to ponder about the meaning of suffering and the power of human resilience.

Character Analysis

In “J.B.: A Play in Verse,” Archibald MacLeish presents characters that are complex and undergo significant development through the narrative. Here’s an analysis of the main characters:

J.B. β€” J.B. is the modern embodiment of the biblical Job, a wealthy and righteous man faced with unfathomable suffering. His journey from prosperity to despair and eventually to a new understanding of life and love forms the crux of the play. Initially, J.B. believes in a just and benevolent God but is forced to question this belief as he endures loss and suffering. His character development is profound, moving from faith based on prosperity to a deeper, more nuanced understanding of faith and human existence.

Sarah β€” Sarah, J.B.’s wife, represents loyalty, love, and resilience. She suffers alongside J.B. but initially reacts differently, suggesting they curse God and die to escape their misery. However, her return marks a pivotal moment in the play, embodying hope and the ability to find meaning and renewal in love and human connection, even after unimaginable loss.

Mr. Zuss β€” Representing the figure of God, Zuss engages in a cosmic play with Nickles, using J.B. as a pawn to explore themes of justice, faith, and suffering. Zuss is portrayed as powerful yet distant, embodying the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God. His character challenges viewers to contemplate the nature of divine justice and the role of God in human suffering.

Nickles β€” As the Satan figure, Nickles is cynical and challenges the notions of faith and goodness. He taunts J.B. and argues that human faith is conditional, dependent on prosperity and health. Nickles represents skepticism and the questioning of divine justice, pushing J.B. (and the audience) to question the nature of suffering and the existence of a just and loving God.

The Comforters β€” The comforters are reminiscent of Job’s friends from the Bible, each offering explanations for J.B.’s suffering based on traditional religious and moral assumptions. Their failure to provide true comfort and their insistence on J.B.’s guilt reflect the inadequacy of conventional responses to suffering and the complexity of human pain.

J.B.Righteous, resilientTo find meaning in sufferingMoves from unquestioning faith to a deeper, more personal understanding of life
SarahLoyal, hopefulTo find renewal in loveTransforms from despair to a beacon of hope and renewal
Mr. ZussPowerful, distantTo justify divine justiceServes as a constant, challenging the human understanding of God
NicklesCynical, questioningTo challenge the concept of faithProvokes critical thinking about faith and divine justice
The ComfortersDogmatic, misguidedTo explain suffering through traditional moralsHighlight the complexity of suffering and the inadequacy of simple explanations

This character analysis reveals MacLeish’s exploration of deep philosophical and theological questions through complex character dynamics and development, offering a rich tapestry of human experience and divine mystery.

Themes and Symbols

“J.B.: A Play in Verse” by Archibald MacLeish is rich in themes and symbols that explore the depths of human existence, suffering, and faith. Here’s a closer look at the major themes and symbols throughout the play:


Suffering and Innocence β€” The central theme revolves around the suffering of an innocent man, J.B., which challenges traditional beliefs about divine justice and the reasons for human suffering. This theme questions the notion that suffering is a punishment for sin, suggesting instead that suffering is a part of the human condition that must be faced with resilience and faith.

Faith and Doubt β€” The play deeply explores the nature of faith, especially when confronted with overwhelming adversity. J.B.’s journey illustrates a shift from a faith that is contingent on divine blessings to a faith that exists despite unexplained suffering, embodying a more profound, albeit challenging, understanding of belief in God.

The Human Condition β€” Through J.B.’s trials, MacLeish examines the essence of the human condition, including the capacity for love, endurance, and renewal in the face of existential despair. This theme is a celebration of the human spirit’s resilience and its ability to find meaning beyond suffering.


The Circus β€” The setting of a circus at the beginning of the play symbolizes the chaotic and often absurd nature of life. The circus, with its masks of suffering and its role as the stage for J.B.’s story, serves as a metaphor for the world, where human lives are played out amidst a mixture of tragedy and spectacle.

The Ashes β€” Ashes are a recurring symbol throughout the play, representing mortality, mourning, and the aftermath of destruction. J.B.’s sitting in ashes echoes the biblical Job’s act of mourning, symbolizing humility and the recognition of human vulnerability.

The Masks β€” The masks worn by Mr. Zuss and Nickles, representing God and Satan, symbolize the roles that they play in the cosmic drama of J.B.’s life. These masks also reflect the play’s exploration of identity and the nature of good and evil, highlighting the performative aspects of these concepts in the human search for meaning.

The Collapsing Tower β€” The recurring image of a tower falling, killing J.B.’s children, symbolizes the sudden and inexplicable nature of tragedy in human life. It serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of human constructs and the precariousness of security and happiness.

Through these themes and symbols, “J.B.: A Play in Verse” offers a profound commentary on the human experience, challenging readers and viewers to reflect on the complexities of faith, suffering, and the enduring capacity for renewal and love.

Style and Tone

“J.B.: A Play in Verse” by Archibald MacLeish showcases a unique blend of literary styles and tones, which contribute significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the play. The integration of verse into the structure of a dramatic play sets “J.B.” apart, offering a rich, lyrical experience that deepens the thematic exploration of the text.

  • Poetic Verse: The use of verse rather than prose gives the dialogue a rhythmic quality that elevates the play’s thematic concerns and emotional impact. This stylistic choice reflects the play’s roots in the biblical story of Job and the ancient tradition of storytelling through poetry, adding a timeless, universal aspect to its modern setting and themes.
  • Allegorical Style: MacLeish employs allegory to discuss profound philosophical and existential questions. The characters of Mr. Zuss and Nickles serve as more than mere individuals; they are symbolic representations of divine and diabolical forces, respectively. This allegorical style allows the play to operate on multiple levels, inviting the audience to engage with the narrative both as a personal story of J.B. and as a larger commentary on the human condition.
  • Realism and Existentialism: Despite its allegorical and poetic layers, the play maintains a tone of realism in its depiction of suffering and human emotions. The realistic portrayal of J.B.’s trials and his existential questioning grounds the play in human experience, making the philosophical debates and moral dilemmas it presents relatable to the audience.
  • Tone of Inquiry and Doubt: The overall tone of the play is one of inquiry and doubt, reflecting the central characters’ struggles with faith and the meaning of suffering. This questioning tone encourages the audience to reflect on their own beliefs and the nature of human existence, fostering a sense of empathy and shared exploration of the play’s themes.
  • Hope and Resilience: Despite the heavy themes of suffering and doubt, the play concludes on a hopeful note, emphasizing themes of love, renewal, and resilience. This shift in tone towards the end suggests a belief in the possibility of finding meaning and purpose in life, even after profound loss.

Through its distinctive combination of poetic verse, allegory, realism, and a tone that balances inquiry with hope, “J.B.: A Play in Verse” creates a deeply immersive and thought-provoking experience. MacLeish’s stylistic choices contribute to a work that is both intellectually engaging and emotionally resonant, inviting readers and audiences into a reflective exploration of some of life’s most profound questions.

Literary Devices Used in J.B.: A Play in Verse

Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.: A Play in Verse” utilizes a variety of literary devices that enrich the text, adding layers of meaning and enhancing the reader’s experience. Here are the top 10 literary devices used in the play:

  1. Allusion β€” MacLeish frequently alludes to the biblical story of Job, upon which “J.B.” is based. This allusion provides a framework for the play’s exploration of suffering, faith, and redemption, allowing readers to draw parallels between the ancient text and the modern retelling.
  2. Symbolism β€” Symbols such as the circus, masks, ashes, and the collapsing tower convey deeper meanings about life, the human condition, and the nature of God. These symbols serve to underscore the play’s themes and invite reflection on their broader implications.
  3. Metaphor β€” The play itself is a metaphor for the human struggle with suffering and the search for meaning. Characters like Mr. Zuss and Nickles represent metaphoric embodiments of divine and satanic forces, further enriching the narrative’s thematic complexity.
  4. Irony β€” Dramatic irony is present throughout “J.B.” as the audience knows more about the cosmic bet between Zuss and Nickles than J.B. does. This irony heightens the tragedy of J.B.’s ignorance and his search for answers.
  5. Personification β€” MacLeish personifies abstract concepts such as justice, evil, and love, giving them tangible presence through the characters and their actions. This personification makes the play’s philosophical inquiries more accessible and emotionally impactful.
  6. Foreshadowing β€” The initial scene in the circus and the discussion between Zuss and Nickles foreshadow the trials that J.B. will face. This foreshadowing sets the tone for the play and prepares the audience for the exploration of suffering and faith.
  7. Paradox β€” The play is filled with paradoxes, particularly in the portrayal of divine justice and the nature of suffering. These paradoxes challenge conventional wisdom and provoke deeper contemplation about the mysteries of life.
  8. Imagery β€” Vivid imagery is used to convey the intensity of J.B.’s suffering and the desolation he feels. The descriptions of the disasters that befall J.B. and his family, as well as the physical depiction of his sores, create a powerful visual impact that emphasizes the play’s themes.
  9. Alliteration and Assonance β€” The use of alliteration and assonance in the verse contributes to the musicality of the language, enhancing the poetic quality of the play and reinforcing its emotional resonance.
  10. Dialogue and Monologue β€” The interplay between dialogue and monologue drives the narrative forward, revealing character motivations and philosophical positions. These techniques allow for a dynamic exploration of the play’s themes, providing insight into the internal struggles of the characters.

Through the adept use of these literary devices, MacLeish crafts a complex and layered narrative that invites readers to engage with profound questions about faith, suffering, and the human capacity for resilience and love.

Literary Devices Examples

Each of the top 10 literary devices used in “J.B.: A Play in Verse” by Archibald MacLeish enhances the narrative and thematic depth of the play. Below are tables providing examples and explanations for each device:


The entire narrative’s reference to the story of Job from the BibleMacLeish’s play is a modern retelling of the biblical Job story, using this allusion to explore themes of suffering, faith, and righteousness in a contemporary context.


The circus settingSymbolizes the chaotic, performative aspects of life, where human suffering and joy are on display, reflecting the absurdity and spectacle of human existence.
AshesRepresent mourning, loss, and the transient nature of human life and achievements, echoing the biblical imagery of repentance and humility.


J.B.’s suffering as a test of faithActs as a metaphor for the human condition, questioning the nature of suffering and the existence of a just and loving deity in the face of inexplicable pain.


The audience’s awareness of the cosmic betCreates dramatic irony, as we know J.B.’s sufferings are the result of a wager between Zuss and Nickles, highlighting the cruel randomness of his misfortunes.


Characterization of Mr. Zuss and NicklesPersonifies divine and satanic forces, respectively, bringing abstract concepts of good, evil, and divine will into the narrative as active, influencing forces.


Early references to potential disastersForeshadow the tragic events that will befall J.B., setting the stage for the exploration of suffering and the human response to it.


J.B.’s righteousness despite his sufferingPresents a paradox of faith, where the most faithful suffer the most, challenging simplistic notions of divine reward and punishment.


Descriptions of J.B.’s physical afflictionsCreates vivid, distressing imagery that underscores the depth of J.B.’s suffering and evokes a visceral reaction from the audience, highlighting the play’s exploration of physical and emotional pain.

Alliteration and Assonance

“Satan in silk” or “Doubt, dark and deep”Uses alliteration and assonance to create a lyrical quality in the text, enhancing the poetic nature of the dialogue and adding depth to the play’s atmosphere.

Dialogue and Monologue

J.B.’s soliloquies and the debates between Mr. Zuss and NicklesUse dialogue and monologue to delve into the characters’ motivations, beliefs, and transformations, providing insight into their philosophical and emotional journeys.

Through these examples, it’s clear how MacLeish expertly employs literary devices to enrich “J.B.: A Play in Verse,” inviting readers into a multi-layered exploration of complex themes and human experiences.

J.B.: A Play in Verse – FAQs

What is “J.B.: A Play in Verse” about?
“J.B.: A Play in Verse” is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Job, exploring themes of suffering, faith, and the human condition. The play follows J.B., a wealthy and righteous man who faces tremendous personal loss and physical suffering, challenging his faith in a just and loving God.

Who wrote “J.B.: A Play in Verse” and when was it published?
Archibald MacLeish, an American poet and playwright, wrote “J.B.: A Play in Verse.” It was first published in 1958.

What literary style is “J.B.: A Play in Verse”?
The play is written in verse, combining elements of poetry with drama. It uses allegorical characters, symbolic imagery, and a mixture of dialogue and monologue to explore its themes.

How does “J.B.: A Play in Verse” differ from the biblical story of Job?
While “J.B.” is based on the biblical story of Job, it offers a modern interpretation, focusing on contemporary issues of faith, suffering, and morality. The play also incorporates modern characters and settings, providing a new perspective on the ancient tale.

What are the main themes in “J.B.: A Play in Verse”?
The main themes include the nature of suffering, the challenge of maintaining faith in the face of adversity, the quest for meaning in life’s trials, and the power of human resilience and love.

Can you explain the significance of the play’s title?
The title “J.B.: A Play in Verse” highlights the protagonist, J.B., as a modern counterpart to the biblical Job, while “A Play in Verse” underscores the poetic form used to tell the story, emphasizing its lyrical and allegorical qualities.

What is the message of “J.B.: A Play in Verse”?
The play conveys that suffering is an inherent part of the human experience that cannot always be explained or justified. It suggests that faith, love, and the capacity for renewal are crucial for finding meaning and resilience amid life’s challenges.

Who are the main characters in “J.B.: A Play in Verse”?
The main characters include J.B., his wife Sarah, Mr. Zuss (representing God), and Nickles (representing Satan). Other characters, such as J.B.’s children and the comforters, play significant roles in the narrative.

How does “J.B.: A Play in Verse” explore the concept of faith?
The play examines faith through J.B.’s unwavering belief in God’s goodness, despite his immense suffering. It challenges traditional notions of faith, suggesting that true faith might lie in the ability to question and seek understanding, rather than in blind acceptance.

What role do Mr. Zuss and Nickles play in the narrative?
Mr. Zuss and Nickles represent divine and diabolical forces, respectively. Their debate over J.B.’s faith and the nature of human suffering serves as a framework for the play’s exploration of philosophical and theological questions.


What is the primary setting of “J.B.: A Play in Verse”?A modern cityA circusJ.B.’s homeA courtroom
Who are the two characters that start the play?J.B. and SarahMr. Zuss and NicklesJ.B.’s childrenThe comforters
What symbolizes the chaotic and performative aspects of life in the play?The masksThe ashesThe circusThe collapsing tower
What literary style is “J.B.” written in?ProseFree verseRhymed verseA play in verse
Who does J.B. represent in the modern retelling?MosesThe biblical JobSolomonAbraham
What does J.B. struggle with throughout the play?Financial bankruptcyDoubts about his sanityLoss and sufferingPolitical power
Who returns to J.B. at the end of the play, symbolizing hope and renewal?His childrenSarahMr. ZussNickles
What is the main theme of “J.B.: A Play in Verse”?The pursuit of wealthSuffering and faithPolitical corruptionTechnological advancements
Which character represents God-like qualities?SarahNicklesMr. ZussOne of the comforters
What ultimately provides J.B. with the means to rebuild his life?Divine interventionA lottery winLove and human connectionFinding a hidden treasure


  1. B – A circus
  2. B – Mr. Zuss and Nickles
  3. C – The circus
  4. D – A play in verse
  5. B – The biblical Job
  6. C – Loss and suffering
  7. B – Sarah
  8. B – Suffering and faith
  9. C – Mr. Zuss
  10. C – Love and human connection

This quiz is designed to test your comprehension of “J.B.: A Play in Verse” by Archibald MacLeish, challenging your understanding of its settings, characters, themes, and literary style.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “J.B.: A Play in Verse” by Archibald MacLeish. Note any examples of symbolism, metaphor, allusion, personification, or irony. After identifying, provide explanations for each literary device noted.

“In the dim light of dawn, J.B. sits amidst the ruins of his once magnificent estate, the ashes of his former life dusting his skin like a shroud. The silent sky, a vast and indifferent witness, stretches above him, its expanse mocking the smallness of human endeavors. Here, where laughter once filled the air, only echoes of loss whisper through the barren landscape. J.B. reaches into the void, his voice a blend of defiance and despair, questioning the justice of a silent universe.”


Symbolism β€” The “ashes of his former life” symbolize J.B.’s loss and mourning, representing the complete destruction of his world. Ashes are a powerful symbol of mortality and the impermanence of human achievements.

Metaphor β€” J.B. sitting “amidst the ruins of his once magnificent estate” serves as a metaphor for his shattered life and the collapse of everything he valued. It illustrates the extent of his loss and suffering.

Allusion β€” The scene alludes to the biblical Job’s trials, drawing a parallel between J.B.’s suffering and the story of Job, who was also tested by the loss of his possessions, family, and health.

Personification β€” The “silent sky” is personified as an “indifferent witness,” suggesting that nature, or perhaps the divine, is unmoved by human suffering. This personification adds to the theme of isolation and the sense of abandonment by God.

Irony β€” The irony lies in the contrast between the past and the present; the estate, once a symbol of J.B.’s prosperity and joy, now serves as the backdrop to his utter desolation. The “mocking” expanse of the sky emphasizes the irony of his situation, where divine justice seems absent.

This exercise demonstrates how MacLeish uses literary devices to deepen the thematic complexity of “J.B.: A Play in Verse,” enhancing the emotional and philosophical impact of the narrative.