[(essay date spring 1961) In the following essay, Christensen considers critical reaction to MacLeish's verse play J. B. and defends the work from its detractors.]
The publication a few years ago of J. B., a play in verse by Archibald MacLeish, was generally regarded as a literary event of exceptional importance. The critical reception of the play was warm, even laudatory. A critic of recognized stature called it "the play of the century." Another said, "It may well become one of the lasting achievements of the art and mind of our time." It drew a Tony citation and a Pulitzer award. Revised and adapted to production in the theater, it was successfully staged at home and abroad. Though pronounced too big for Broadway, it played there for many months to capacity houses. Posing as it does an age-old problem in religion, and drawing its inspiration from the Bible, it immediately challenged the attention of church, synagogue, and seminary. Eminent theologians, Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic, expressed with eloquence and vehemence varying degrees of pain and pleasure.
Much of the critical response was paradoxical. While agreeing quite generally on the excellence of J. B. as a poem and a play, the critics, literary and theological, disagreed quite sharply as to its meaning. Nearly all found in it unresolved problems, distressing ambiguities. They could not decide whether in its final or total effect it is a religious play at all. Raising anew in a modern setting the universal problem of innocent suffering, did it reaffirm the Biblical solutions? Or did it in effect repudiate them? Did it say to suffering man in the modern world that he must look beyond the Book of Job and the old theologies for the meaning of his troubles and for the strength to endure them?
Difference of opinion was most marked among the men of religion. There, as Chaucer loved to say, "Diverse folk diversely they demed." Reinhold Niebuhr missed a personal God in the MacLeish view of man's predicament. The play, he said, states its problem honestly and develops it with artistic ingenuity. But it emphasizes the meaninglessness of man's suffering and neglects the deeper problem, the meaning of man's life. In an age which has had the greatness to discover nuclear energy but lacks the wisdom to avoid nuclear annihilation, the most relevant problem is not the meaning of man's suffering but the meaning of his life. J. B. suggests, Niebuhr said, two solutions to the problem. One of them is negative. It is the solution of the Voice heard in the wind and the thunder: the meaning of human life lies beyond man's comprehension. The other is positive: man can build for himself "an island of love" in an ocean of meaninglessness, where life can be sustained and given a measure of purpose and direction.
Rabbi Louis Finkelstein saw symbolism in the play. In the character of J. B., MacLeish has created, he said, an image in which all of us see ourselves...