by: Dave Barber
Poet, dramatist, academic, essayist, public servant—Archibald MacLeish wore all of those hats over a sixty year time frame. After an Antioch Area Theatre performance of his play J.B. in July of 1966, Archibald MacLeish took center stage in Antioch’s open air amphitheater to discuss his work with the audience. In coverage captured in the Antioch Record, MacLeish commended the production. Inspired by the Book of Job, the three act Broadway edition of J.B. won a Best Drama Pulitzer and Tony Awards for Best Play and Direction (by Elia Kazan) in 1959. The Yellow Springs production was directed by Antioch College Professor of Drama Meredith Dallas.
In an interview the next day with the Record, MacLeish said,
“I was happier about the end of the play in the production last night than I had ever been before. It is in its conclusion, that J.B. differs most markedly from the biblical story of Job on which it is based. Like the Book of Job the play depicts man’s attempt to justify to himself what seems to be the gratuitious and indiscriminate cruelty of events. In both, Job seeks reasons for his suffering, but is silenced by the greatness, majesty, and power of God.”
In the play, MacLeish explained, “Job cannot accept his blindness and goes on to a revulsion from the great scene of the Book of Job, and out of that comes the realization of where he is..face to face with his death, and alone in his situation. One must get rid of the idea of a supernatural power that is going to solve all of your problems. Only in that situation are you able to find the resources within yourself to face that.”
MacLeish told the Record the play was inspired by the Nazi bombing of London during World War Two and “how you justify indiscriminate, fortuitous, chance destruction” like that of London and Hiroshima. He concluded the interview by discussing the play’s applicability to the war in Vietnam which he described to the Record as “almost a ritualistic war that takes very little account of the human beings involved. The thing that horrifies people about Vietnam is the impersonality of the thing.” He added that Washington is coming to realize that “this isn’t a war that can be won in military terms.”
After being picked to be Librarian of Congress by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, MacLeish spent a decade between 1939 and 1948 as a Washington insider—a period of his career that culminated in shaping the U.S. role in Unesco. An arm of the United Nations, at its core is the belief “ that political and economic agreements are not enough to build a lasting peace. Peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.” By 1966 he had been out of government for seventeen years (he taught poetry at Harvard University between 1949 and 1962). If Archibald MacLeish believed Washington was coming around soon on Vietnam in 1966 he was mistaken. The U.S. would remain mired in Southeast Asia for another decade.