Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Divine dowser

One of the TAs for "Performing the Problem of Suffering" gave a terrific lecture on Archibald Macleish's drama in verse "J. B." today. It really is a brilliant work of art, a profound articulation of mid-century existentialism.

And, as I like telling people, "J. B." was probably my first exposure to the Book of Job, in a production at Torrey Pines High School in 1981 or 1982. I was none of the characters whose names you know, but "First Messenger," the one who (in several scenes) leads Second Messenger, the one who actually witnessed the calamity, to tell JB and his wife Sarah the awful news as their children, one by one, are felled by modern accidents. (Second Messenger gets the italicized line I only am escaped alone to tell thee...)

In the context of this course I've thought more about staging it than I have in a long time. Having Zuss and Nickles, failed old actors now selling balloons and popcorn in a big tent circus, donning and doffing God and Satan masks allows for remarkably subtle ambivalences - not to mention the unexplained and unnamed prompter who nudges them on. Preparing it for class today I was struck by the conceit that the hapless man who walks into the play of Job doesn't know it's a play: he's not acting. (Sarah seems more aware that she might be.) The player has to seem entirely unfeigned - his character happy but also good, maintaining a faith that's not the smug American Calvinist faith that success shows your merit with the divine. Here's how he describes his good fortune:

It isn't luck when God is good to you.
It's something more. It's like those dizzy
Daft old lads who dowse for water.
They feel the alder twig twist down
And know they've got it and they have:
They've got it. Blast the ledge and water
Gushes at you. And you knew.
It wasn't luck, They knew. They felt the
Gush go shuddering through their shoulders, huge
As some mysterious certainty of opulence.
They couldn't hold it. I can't hold it.
I've always known that God was with me.
I've tried to show I knew it ... (37-38)

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