Born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward

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;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water.”

— Archibald MacLeish, in J.B.

When the girls were younger I was really good at helping with their homework. My helpfulness has diminished as they’ve gotten further along in school — with me only able to answer chemistry questions for about the first two weeks of the year, and being no use at all in helping with German.

But this week the older daughter had an assignment that was right in my wheelhouse: A paper on J.B. by Archibald MacLeish. I know that play. I love that play. And I’m intimately familiar with the source material.

It is, however, kind of a bleak play for a high school literature class. And they’re following it up next with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and then Camus’ The Stranger. So not a very cheerful spring semester in Honors English. It seems my daughter’s teacher may agree with this bit from J.B.:

Best thing you can teach your children
Next to never drawing breath
Is choking on it.

And now I’m trying to think of some cheery, optimistic work brimming with hope that the students might read after all this gloom. Not sure what that would be.

The J.B. paper was a great chance to kick around the big questions, the perennial questions, the impossible questions. I was worried when she first described the assignment that it was a two-page paper in which she had to resolve the problem of evil, but her teacher actually did a good job of urging students to engage those questions without feeling like they had to settle them. The teacher — and MacLeish — made it clear that those questions were only settled for people like Bildad, Zophar and Eliphaz, and that we shouldn’t think of them as role models.

I’d love to see J.B. performed, but I’ve never gotten a chance to do that. Re-reading it this week though I was struck by how much MacLeish seems to share my belief that the biblical book of Job was, itself, written as a play. He even has the God and Accuser characters don the masks that I believe the original performers of the original play would have worn.

On that point, here’s a question for biblical scholar types: Our English translations of Job include references to Orion and the Pleiades. Those are the Greek names we use for those constellations, but my linguistic skills aren’t up to answering the question of whether or not the author of Job also used those Greek names. So I guess my question is really two questions: 1) Do these names, Orion and Pleiades, suggest that the author of Job was familiar with Greek culture and influence? and 2) If so, is it fair to suggest that this might support the idea that Job is structured much like an early Greek play (complete with a narrative chorus and a deus ex machina)?

One way MacLeish departs from the original play is to dispense with the proto-Calvinist character Elihu. He keeps the young man’s argument, though, putting it into the mouths of the other three un-comforting comforters. And instead of Job and God responding to it, MacLeish has Job’s wife, Sarah, handle that rebuttal:

J.B.: God is just.

SARAH: God is just!
If God is just our slaughtered children
Stank with sin, were rotten with it!

Oh, my dear! my dear! my dear!
Does God demand deception of us? —
Purchase His innocence by ours?
Must we be guilty for Him? — bear
The burden of the world’s malevolence
For Him who made the world?

… They are
Dead and they were innocent: I will not
Let you sacrifice their deaths
To make injustice justice and God good!

Anyway, if you’ve not read J.B., I heartily recommend it. It’s a ferocious, but faithful, adaptation of the original.

And if you’ve ever seen it staged — or been part of a production — I’d love to hear what that was like.

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  • Evan

    Judging from a quick look at an online concordance, the Hebrew text of Job doesn’t use the Greek names for the constellations.  In fact, if I remember correctly, one commentary mentioned offhand that we aren’t even completely sure the translators guessed correctly which constellations those Hebrew names are referring to.

  • phranckeaufile

    The NET Bible notes seem to indicate that the original employed Hebrew names for these constellations. The note for the first appearance of Orion in 9:9, for example, states: “There is more certainty for the understanding of this word as Orion [in contrast to the translation of the Hebrew ‘ash’ to ‘Bear’ just before it], even though there is some overlap of the usage of the words in the Bible.” By “this word,” I believe the note is referring to whatever Hebrew word is being translated into Orion, although that word, unlike “ash,’ is never identified.

  • I acted in a production at Emory University when I was very young–I played one of J.B.’s children and I had a second role as one of the onlookers after J.B. had fallen.  I think I may have been about thirteen or so.  (My sister was working on the production in some capacity, which is how my younger brother and I were recruited.)  I recall they had to do a hasty rewrite because they didn’t have enough child actors to cover all the roles of the children (someone had to drop out, maybe?) so “Ruth” became “Luke” and some of the lines were reassigned.

    Lines that still stay with me (memory is imperfect, so excuse me if I misquote)–

    “Horrible.  Horrible as a star above a burning, murdered, broken city.”

    “Never again will you look at those magazines!  NEVER!”

    “I abhor myself . . . and repent!”

  • I can’t really answer your question about the dramatic structure, but does the Hebrew text use the Greek constellation names? That’s easy: 

    עֹֽשֶׂה־עָשׁ כְּסִיל וְכִימָה וְחַדְרֵי תֵמָֽן׃


    It would, frankly, be shocking to have Greek words show up in Job, which … well I’m no expert on the chronology of biblical composition, but surely that book is pre-Hellenistic? I would be surprised to find even Persian words in it.

    And it should be no surprise either from an astronomical point of view, since the Greek s were hardly the first to name stars and constellations.

  • Magic_Cracker

    And they’re following it up next with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and then Camus’ The Stranger.

    Add Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and you’ll have a near-perfect quartet of bleak existential desolation.

  • Leum

    I’ve always thought it unfortunate that The Stranger is generally read in lit classes but not the work that I am convinced is Camus’ own answer to it: The Plague.

  • walden

    something that has bleakness, but with real hope, that might fit the curriculum??
    How about The Bridge of San Luis Rey?

  • AnonymousSam

    That second quote hurts. Have been low lately, very low. After getting an absolutely abysmal view of how finite my living situation is yesterday, there’s a part of me that sympathizes with “if it’s too late not to start, it’s never too late to stop.” Just have to keep trudging on, hoping things lift out of this pit…

  • Mi

    Just advise her not to read  Metamorphosis all in one go. That’s what I did in high school (thanks, procrastination). One long Sunday morning with Kafka just temporarily destroyed 17-year-old me. I was in a fog of misery and tears the rest of the day.

    On the other hand, it was one of the most vivid, powerful reading experiences of my life.

    Always love to read class booklists… that Honors English spring sounds like a pretty bleak one, admittedly, but I’d guess she’ll remember it for years.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I could never make it through The Plague. I think it was the translation. Is there a particular English edition you’d recommend?

  • Jenora Feuer

    And they’re following it up next with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and then Camus’ The Stranger.

    Reminds me of a friend of mine, back in University, who suggested having a dystopian movie night with 1984, A Clockwork Orange, and Brazil all in one night.

    Of course, this was the same guy who pointed out that even Gilliam’s original ending of Brazil was, in a sense, a happy ending.  Sam Lowry did manage (after a fashion) to find a way out, unlike Winston Smith…

  • When I read that verse, my first thought was of Linus quoting it to Charlie Brown as they’re playing baseball, which sparks reactions from the other players. As Charlie Brown himself put it. “We may not win any games, but we do have some worthwhile theological discussion.”

  • LoneWolf343

    The original novel of Clockwork Orange had a happy ending too, in a sense.

  • Leum

    I could never make it through The
    Plague. I think it was the translation. Is there a particular
    English edition you’d recommend?

    I haven’t read it in years, but looking at my library’s website, it looks like the one I read was translated by Stuart Gilbert.

    I could never make it through The Plague.
    I think it was the translation. Is there a particular English edition
    you’d recommend? – See more at:
    I could never make it through The Plague.
    I think it was the translation. Is there a particular English edition
    you’d recommend? – See more at:
    I could never make it through The Plague.
    I think it was the translation. Is there a particular English edition
    you’d recommend? – See more at:
    I could never make it through The Plague.
    I think it was the translation. Is there a particular English edition
    you’d recommend? – See more at:
    I could never make it through The Plague.
    I think it was the translation. Is there a particular English edition
    you’d recommend? – See more at:

  • Leum

    The Hell, Patheos?

  • MaryKaye

    This reminds me of seeing _King Lear_ and _Death of a Salesman_ back to back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; that was the year that convinced me Libby Appel (that year’s executive director) and I did not have compatible tastes.  I’m not fond of either play, but together they are more depressing than the sum of their parts!

    You could put _Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_ with the ones you listed; it might have a less downer ending, though it goes through Hell en route….

  • Debbie Notkin


    I am now 61 years old, and I was stage manager for a production of J.B. in high school, so that was … forty-five years ago. And yet when I read the bits you quote, I can absolutely hear them in the intonations and voices of the actors I was working with. The whole set, costumes, everything come rushing back.

    We had a quirky and iconoclastic drama teacher, and we put on a kick-ass production (though I’m sure we wouldn’t have been allowed to say “kick-ass”).  I learned an enormous amount and I loved every second of it.

    The local paper’s review ended “But did they understand it?” I’m here to tell you that we did.

    Thanks for calling this all back to me.

  • I’ve occasionally mentioned my college production of J.B.  It was pretty good, but the two things I remember most were metatextual.

    First, Job’s kids were played by the two young children of my Marxism professor. The first class after the play closed, she mentioned in class, “I’m still waiting on those ‘better children’ I was promised.”

    Also, the guy who played Satan was the same guy who played Nicely Nicely in Guys and Dolls that spring. (Also, I seriously think this was the only lead role while I was there that didn’t go to the guy who played Nathan Detroit/Richard III/Valmont/John Merrick)

  • It is, however, kind of a bleak play for a high school literature class


    If I didn’t already know our high school educations were very, very different, this would tell me. Nearly everything high schoolers have to read for class is bleak at least, because someone decided that cheerful things cannot be Great Literature. Jane Eyre was a great respite my junior year, and Pride and Prejudice my senior year, but everything else was depressing. And Jane Eyre isn’t exactly cheery. 

    I think if the curriculum included more L.M. Montgomery and P.G. Wodehouse and Shakespearian comedy (rather than the tragedies and histories kids are stuck with) and so-called “genre” works, and less misery and death and hopelessness and blandness, more people would grow up loving to read. If school were my introduction to literature, I would have the prejudice against reading that so many people do.

  • I’m in a similar position.

    I’ve got a great husband and cats, but trying to keep going and emphasize the positive all the time when I’m always in pain* and broke and can’t do anything about being broke because of said pain… yeah. It’s really tough. Sometimes all you can do is just keep going. And finding ways to escape that aren’t unhealthy; I don’t know what I’d do without video games.

    *I have recently been told I always will be in pain and nothing will help and I need to just keep taking drugs that fuck with my ability to use language, not to mention my kidneys —  I’m getting a second opinion because that contradicts every other doctor I’ve seen, but until then, keeping going is harder than it’s been. And it was hard enough before. 

  • Random_Lurker

    Too many adaptations of Job have been done as plays, and it fits far too neatly, for it to have been anything but.  Neil Simon’s “God’s Favorite” (1974) is pretty much an exact rewrite in a modern setting.

    For something uplifting, but still a serious work, I can’t really think of anything better then “Taming of the Shrew.” The mixture of wordplay, slapstick, feminism and misogynism can be played as totally depressing or totally liberating, depending on the reader and/or production- and it’s fun to see both of those come out of the same work. I lean towards the latter, since everyone gets married in the end, which means Shakey intended it to be a feelgood play.

  • AnonymousSam

    I thought of you recently, funny enough… woke up and my back was sorer than I’ve ever had it. Could barely pull myself up and walk around. Stayed like that for two days before the muscles relaxed. Pain makes everything suck that much more, doesn’t it?

    I hate the position I’m stuck in. I’m a drain on my significant other because I can’t find employment that pays anything significant enough to get people to stop whispering in her ear how terrible I am. I have a degree, but it hasn’t helped me one bit; I just went from “underqualified” to “overqualified.” We’ve been in a fragile bubble of just having each other and struggling to make do with it, and yesterday that bubble popped.

    Crying helped, but, gods or fates or whatever, I feel absolutely horrible. I’ve spent my entire life feeling completely and utterly alienated and now I’m going on middle crisis age and I’m still being told what a worthless person I must be for not being liked by anyone but one person — and that person is clearly just under my poisonous influence. Clearly I’ve lied and now I’m just using them so I don’t have to work and I can just kick my feet up and enjoy the luxury of being broke all the time.

    So yeah… low. And not seeing a way out because the solution relies on somehow convincing people to give me a chance when they have no reason to do so. No one needs employees, let alone ones like me who came out of Slumsville with a degree unrelated to the job and asking for hours that indicate I’m too fucking arrogant and entitled because I’d rather not jeopardize my health by not sleeping at night. I’m just about at the end of my rope, hoping if I can finish writing this story, maybe I can publish it and get a revenue stream to at least show that I can contribute symbolically.

    Barring that, all I can think of is to go to my SO’s employer and ask him to take me on under the table (my SO is his only employee and works under a 1099-MISC, so she’s not even technically an employee). Give my SO a dollar raise and I’ll do anything and everything around the shop. At least then I can show people that I’m willing to put in an eight hour day, even if it’s also symbolic.

  • Not

    My understanding is that the Accuser appears only in the prose prologue and epilogue (written later with the goal of actually explaining why God afflicts Job, thus undermining a crucial point of the central section which is that we don’t get to know that); and so the original dramatic poem in the central section would not have included the Accuser at all.

  • Magic_Cracker

    So, thanks to the title of the post, I have the “Wasn’t Born To Follow” running through my head with the lyric changed.

  • Ouch! :( I really hope you can get that surgery you were told would help. *sends loads of good karma*

  • Amaryllis

    I don’t know, I can think of plenty of books that are light and funny, or cheerfully cynical, but genuinely hopeful? I’m coming up blank.

    Maybe it’s me.

    Maybe Jane Eyre, maybe Pride and Prejudice, for certain varieties of “hopeful”… and I hope the daughters have read them anyway.

  • arcseconds

    Well, when I was a youff, I thought turning into a giant cockroach was a great lark!

    The ending admittedly is a bit of a downer.

    However, it’s not so easy to kill off cockroaches.  It seems that he survived his fall and went on to emigrate to America, meet Einstein, work for the Federal Government and date Marilyn Monroe!

  • badJim

    Some of the most prominent constellations, like the Hunter and the Bear, were probably named back in the last ice age. Orion is perhaps the most striking of all, but his myth is negligible: he was a mighty hunter killed by a scorpion. You’d think the Greeks would have renamed it Hercules if they could have.

  • arcseconds

     We like you, Sam :]

  • Had I been of a theistic bent, I’d say you are in my prayers. Since I don’t, I will have to make do with saying that I think I speak for us all when I say that we’re here for you, whenever you need it.

  • For what it’s worth, we’re here for you :/

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, but that’s still the name in GREECE. Was there any contact between the people living in/on that peninsula and archipelago and the people who wrote Job? Because as you see from stars have historically had a great many different names and some of them don’t involve the entire configuration that we associate with the word ‘Orion’.

  • Jenora Feuer

     Gee, when I think of Einstein and Marilyn Monroe at the same time, the first thing that comes to mind is Insignificance.  Oh, sorry, I mean ‘The Professor’ and ‘The Actress’.

  • Cat

    I second L.M. Montgomery.  Also, I recall Ursula LeGuin’s The Telling and Angela Carter’s Wise Children being more uplifting than not.  And if a school was brave enough to teach Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, there would be much delight.  

    I’d never read or heard of the play in question, but it’s a little disturbing, now that I think of it, how many of the “great books” are unmitigatedly bleak.  I hope someone at some point makes it clear to students that you can be smart without being miserable.  


    I can think of plenty of books that are light and funny, or chewerfully cynical, but genuinely hopeful? I’m coming up blank.

    Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch is, by turns, all three. It’s arguably his magnum opus. But one really needs to be familiar with Les Miserables first.

    Which reminds me: My high school English classes had us read one Charles Dickens book: Great Expectations. We all hated it. I later determined that this was because you pretty much need a strong familiarity with Dickens’ other work to  understand how Dickens deconstructs his own work in GE.

  • What a coincidence. Sunday’s Gospel is Luke 13:1-9; a text that raises the question of theodicy. And I’m directing a collegiate production of J.B. for Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS. Fred – if you can hop on over I promise there’s a comp at the table for you!

    I play Zuss as well as direct – I’m greedy for attention and a bit of a ham. It’s a part I’ve been dying to play.

    You’re right that J.B. rejects the certitude of Eliphaz, Zophar and Bildad – but he also rejects Nickles/Satan and Zuss/God’s certainty as well. Neither bow nor break off, J.B. chooses to live and to accept back his wife, Sarah.

    “All the candles in the churches have gone out,” she says – religion has failed us.

    “Blow on the coal of the heart,” he replies. 

    “And then we’ll know?” she asks

    “No, we can never know,” he finally realizes. The peripety is very, very late in this play – almost the last line of the show. And the denoument of the play is very very different from Job (I’m curious why Job’s restoration in the Hebrew book includes a scene of his family each coming to bring him money – a scene that fascinated Wm. Blake). The denoument comes with the rejection of all answers, and the peripety comes when he finds he doesn’t need answers.

    But instead he affirms that he is a human being and he must go on, and being human means that he will suffer – but if he can suffer he can also love – the heart of being human.

    There was a lovely preview piece in 1958 Time Magazine that quoted MacLeish (then 66, only slightly older than I am now) about the play. I recommend it. It makes much of the play much clearer.

    We play March 22 and March 23 as the first act of our annual Messiah Festival of the Arts – a festival that includes performances of the Messiah and St. Matthew Passion.

  • Lori

    Llirra and Sam, I’m so, so very sorry about how things are going for you. I certainly know the feeling of running out of rope. I hope that things take a turn for the better for both of you soon. 

  • P J Evans

     Hated Great Expectations. And The Mill on the Floss. They’d have been better with more explanation of the background.

    I like Bleak House, though.