Traumatic License

What becomes a tragedy most? Expression, according to director Marshall W. Mason, whose upcoming production of J.B. at ASU's Herberger College of Fine Arts considers ages-old questions of loss and suffering.

"I'm looking at the story in the context of September 11," Mason says. "The question that came boldly out to me from those events was, Why do the innocent suffer?' Because it was a question of all those innocent people dying for no reason. That's the question at the heart of J.B., and it's one that I'm not sure has an answer."

Archibald McLeish's drama is timely, Mason says, because these days we're a nation looking for answers about whether we're going to war, about why there are terrorist attacks, about why bad things happen to good people. McLeish was awarded the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for the piece, a contemporized, impressionistic retelling of the Book of Job written in verse and set in an arena where a circus is being broken down. A pair of roustabouts take on the roles of God and Satan, and enact modern scenes about suffering and martyrdom.

Mason, who founded New York's famed Circle Repertory Company and has been lauded as one of the most influential directors of the past century, has made few textual changes to J.B.; all references to September 11 are implied or iconic. "We have some visual imagery that will resonate with people because of 9/11, but there's nothing overt about that message in our production."

The director's take on J.B. is less about the attacks on the World Trade Center than it is about the American experience. "There are a lot of parallels between contemporary times and this play," he says. "We're on the brink of war, and one of the kids in the play is away at war but killed by friendly fire which happened recently when our pilots dropped a 500-pound bomb on five Canadian soldiers. Two of the kids are killed from drunk driving, an ongoing problem among young people, and an issue our own president encountered with one of his daughters. This is America today, and yet we see ourselves as a perfect and upright nation, which is what the Bible says about Job. We've come to see ourselves as invincible, as God's chosen people. Or we did, anyway, until September 11."

Mason has exorcised some personal anger regarding the World Trade Center tragedy with his work on J.B. "It's allowed me to express my fears and frustrations about the times we live in, because it's a play that says that we have to realize that bad things happen all the time, but we don't have to accept them. What we have to do is learn to look within for comfort, because there's none to come from God or politics or patriotism."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela