J.B.

A play in two acts by Archibald MacLeish. Opened at the ANTA Theatre, New York City, December 11, 1958, and ran until October 24, 1959 (364 performances). Produced by Alfred de Liagre, Jr., and directed by Elia Kazan. The 1959 production won MacLeish the 1959 Pulitzer for drama.

Cast of characters

First Roustabout James Olson
Second Roustabout Clifton James
Nickles Christopher Plummer

(Rathbone took over the role of Nickles in September 1959)

Mr. Zuss Raymond Massey

(Rathbone took over the role of Zuss in June 1959)

(Frederic Worlock took over the role of Zuss in September 1959)

Prompter Ford Rainey
J.B. Pat Hingle / James Daly
Sarah Nan Martin
David Arnold Merritt / Ronnie Walken
Mary Ciri Jacobsen / Elaine Martin
Jonathan Jeffrey Rowland / Christopher Bergen
Ruth Candy Moore / Brooke Bundy
Rebecca Miriam Merry Martin
The Girl Janet Ward
Mrs. Botticelli Helen Waters / Ann Dere
Mrs. Lesure Fay Sappington
Mrs. Adams Judith Lowry
Mrs. Murphy Laura Pierpont
Jolly Lane Bradbury / Pamela King
Bildad Bert Conway
Zophar Ivor Francis
Eliphaz Andreas Voutsinas

Production designed by Boris Aronson, costumes by Lucinda Ballard, lighting by Tharon Muser, music by David Amram. Associate producer, Joseph I. Levine; production stage manager, Robert Downing; stage manager, Daniel S. Broun; press representative, Ben Washer.

The scene is a traveling circus which has been on the roads of the world for a long time.

Act I The same, towards sundown
Act II A Laboratory, one year later


Rathbone as "Zuss"

Rathbone with Christopher Plummer
photo by Friedman-Abeles
"The best play of this or many seasons!" N.Y. Journal-American "Sheer theatre ... enormously impressive!" N.Y. Herald-Tribune

The following is from The Best Plays of 1958-59:

J.B. was Archibald MacLeish's re-enactment, in a contemporary setting, of the Book of Job. It was also,  in a double sense, a theatre piece: the action took place inside a night-lit circus tent where a sideshow Job had been performing. Two out-of-work actors, Zuss and Nickels, toying with the Biblical masks of God and Satan they find lying around, are suddenly aware of a Voice from outside them and are caught up in a story near at hand. In the story, J.B. is a rich, admired American industrialist with a devoted wife and five children. Then disaster looms and mounts: his children are senselessly killed or brutally murdered; his possessions are lost, his house is destroyed, his wife goes away, his body festers. All this happens against a crossfire, Biblical and profane, between Zuss and Nickels; then J.B. wrestles with his soul, with his comforters, with his God, till at the end his health is restored and his wife returns.1


photo by Friedman-Abeles

photo by Friedman-Abeles
"A magnificent production of a truly splendid play!" N.Y. News "A brilliant production ... a fine drama!" N.Y. Post

Rathbone has quite a bit to say about J.B. in his autobiography In and Out of Character:

One day early in May 1959 I received a telephone call from my agent...indicating I was wanted by Mr. de Liagre to play the part of Mr. Zuss in J.B., owing to Mr. Raymond Massey's leaving the cast in June. I did not want Mr. Zuss, but almost anything seemed preferable to a long, tiring tryout in summer stock. So I determined to gamble, since I knew the play was scheduled to tour in the fall and Mr. Plummer was not going with it, owing to other commitments....Mr. Massey and Mr. Kazan had pictured him [Zuss] as a rather seedy old actor with delusions of grandeur. Mr. Kazan and I agreed to retain the old actor with delusions of grandeur, but we changed my outward appearance.... Zuss for me was to be a precise, disciplined fundamentalist.... It was very hard work...because Mr. Zuss and I had virtually nothing in common! I even came to dislike him. For me, he was a doctrinaire-puritan-Calvinist. He had made up his mind long ago not only about himself but about other people. Where there was disagreement as to his principles he was always right and the opposition was always wrong! Frankly, his self-satisfaction irritated me and it was always a fight to perform him convincingly.2

When Rathbone heard that Christopher Plummer's replacement to play the part of Nickles was under consideration, he told the management that he was interested in that part. At first there was some resistancethey thought Nickles should be played by a younger actorbut they allowed Rathbone to read for the part. "The reading was a success and I got the part. ... To me, an older man seemed entirely acceptable since I had always seen Nickles as a sort of devil's advocate, his maturity giving a weightier and more dangerous quality to his questionings and arguments."3


Rathbone as "Nickles"
photo by Friedman-Abeles

Rathbone with Frederic Worlock ("Zuss")
photo by Friedman-Abeles
"A rare theatrical event!" Associated Press "A sort of theatrical thunderbolt!" Newsweek

From Christopher Plummer's autobiography, In Spite of Myself:

Basil Rathbone gave, in his own way, a wonderful rendering of Ray's old role. Even though he was in his seventies,* Basil was in fabulous condition, thin, tall, athleticafter all he'd been a world-class fencer all his life. He also had tremendous energythat old-school energy that is largely missing from the theatre todayand, of course, a glorious speaking voice. He valiantly carried on the Massey tradition--his dressing room as always open to the company and he loved telling storiesbut it wasn't quite the same, it wasn't as warm. I think it tickled him pink to learn that Nigel "Willie" Bruce (his Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films) was my "coz," so for a while we got on like a house on fire.

But Ouida didn't take to meshe hadn't like me from the start. She was outraged that my name appeared before her husband's on the theatre marquee, and she was probably right to feel that. I don't think he gave a damnin fact I know he didn'tbut she resented it bitterly and gradually saw to it that Basil and I could never be friends.4 

* Basil was not quite seventy; he was in fact just sixty-seven in June of 1959.


Feb 1960, Baz plays Satan
"A great play! A great hit! A Broadway triumph! Life magazine

"Introduction to J.B." by Archibald MacLeish (from the ANTA Theatre playbill):

Two unemployed actors, one old, the other youngMr. Zuss and Nickleshave been reduced to selling balloons and popcorn in an ancient circus which has traveled through the towns and cities of the earth, year after year, time out of mind, playing the Old Testament story of the suffering of Job.

Dissatisfied, as actors often are, with the interpretation of the story, they make up their minds, late one evening when the show is over and the tent empty, to play it themselves as they think it should be played. Mr. Zuss casts himself as God. Nickles is cast as Satan. And the two take on themselves the wager of the Book of Job: Satan's wager that if God will strip Job of everything he has, Job, the perfect and upright man, will curse God to His face.

And so they begin. But hardly has the action started when the old circus and the ancient tale prove to have a life and movement of their own. The Godmask and the Satanmask found in a battered wardrobe speak the lines of the Bible for themselves when an unseen prompter gives them their cues. And when the time arrives for Job to appear with his wife and children, he is not called: he comes.

But it is not out of the Old Testament the Job appears to Mr. Zuss and Nickles but out of the American presentJ.B. not Job. And the Messengers Nickles send to him to report the terrible disasters which are to try his soul are present messengera pair of circus roustabouts dressed first as soldiers then as newspaper reporters, then as traffic policemen, then as air-raid wardens. Also, the disasters they report, one after the other, are present disastersdisasters which have occurred. And the Comforters, when at last they come, are modern Comforters.

As for the end of the play, it belongs neither to Nickles nor to Mr. Zuss, but, as in the Book of Job itself, to the courage of a woman and a man.

   

Rosemary Daley, Eulalie Noble, Michael Higgins, Richard Kuss, James Ray, Basil Rathbone (photo by Friedman-Abeles)

Frederic Worlock, Basil Rathbone, Michael Higgins (photo by Friedman-Abeles)

In the fall of 1959, J.B. left Broadway and went on tour. According to Rathbone, the tour was a great success. It was during this tour that Rathbone became ill and was hospitalized for a week. He wrote, "In January of 1960 in Columbus, Ohio, I awakened one Saturday morning feeling dizzy, and upon rising found I was insecure on my feet. . . . My condition bothered me, particularly since we had a matinee and evening show at the Hartman Theatre, both of which were sold out with standing room only. . . . As I made up and put on my costume in my dressing room the dizziness recurred at intervals, and I did something I had never done before. I asked for and drank a triple Scotch whisky, straight! It had absolutely no effect."5 Rathbone described feeling so unsteady on his legs during the matinee performance that he was afraid of falling. He had asked to see a doctor after the show, but the company manager (George Osherin) called for an ambulance and had Rathbone taken to Mount Carmel Hospital. The press initially reported that Rathbone had suffered a stroke or a heart attack, but it doesn't appear that these reports were correct. On January 18, The New York Times reported that Rathbone was suffering from extreme fatigue. In any case, Rathbone was feeling much better after a good night's sleep and he was feeling fine by the end of a restful week in the hospital. Rathbone joined the cast of J.B. in St. Paul, Minnesota, and finished the tour with them.

Notes
1 Louis Kronenberger, editor, The Best Plays of 1958-59 (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1959), pages 12-13
2 Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character: An Autobiography (Doubleday, hardcover, 1962. Paperback edition, 2004.)  pages 221-222
3 Rathbone, page 223
4 Christopher Plummer, In Spite of Myself (Knopf, 2008), pages 288-289
5 Rathbone, pages 224-225

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2013