I’ve been enjoying Rod Dreher’s – and Alan Jacobs’s – posts on the Odyssey as well, and their most recent ones helped bring into focus for me what I found so disappointing about the show I saw last night – a production of Job, a new play by Thomas Bradshaw, at the Flea Theatre downtown.
My abiding affection – and awe – for the Book of Job is not news to regular readers of mine. So I went into the play with a mix of excitement and trepidation – eager to see this beloved book brought to life, anxious that the adaptor’s take would do violence to the work. Unfortunately, my anxieties were well-founded.
The play begins with the sound of bleating sheep. Job, played by the mellifluously deep-voiced Sean McIntyre, passing judgment on malefactors, as would be his right and duty as a patriarch of the ancient Near East. A poor thief is pardoned because of his need, and given ample food for his family – then warned not to sin again, lest his hands be cut off. A mourning woman who has rejected her dead husband’s brother’s suit of marriage because she is still grieving is welcomed into the house – she defies custom for a noble reason, and so is not punished. A rapist (Bradley Anderson) who attempts to pin the blame on Job’s own son, Joshua (Jaspal Binning), is sentenced to death by stoning, the wronged girl’s father granted the honor of casting the first stone. Through all this, Job is sober, serious, eager to be merciful but unflinching in his doom when mercy would add to injustice; his sons, wife, daughter, and the rest of his household are deeply respectful of his judgment.
From here, we move to heaven, for the famous bet. In this cosmology, God (the impish Ugo Chukwu) and Satan (Stephen Stout, a dead ringer in looks and affect for Bill Hader) are brothers – affectionate in their sibling rivalry – and God has two sons, Jesus (a charmingly vain Grant Harrison) and, of all beings, Dionysus (a dim-witted Eric Folks), whose rivalry is less affectionate, but that’s just because they need another couple of thousand more years to grow up. The contrast between the playfulness, and the lack of concern with justice, evident in heaven, and Job’s deeply serious attitude toward life, is striking and intentional.
The bet is made. Satan goes down to earth to take away God’s favor from Job. And here’s where the first big divergence from the text takes place. Because, in the biblical text, catastrophe comes on Job from outside – his flocks are wiped out by fire or marauders, his house knocked down by a great wind, crushing his family, and so forth. But in this play, the horror comes from within. Satan, staring mildly at Joshua, watches him turn from an obedient son to a man possessed by a drunken lust for his own sister, who he proceeds to murder, and then rape (both about as graphically as possible). He’s caught in the act by his brother, Matthew, who, in turn, takes his vengeance by shoving a broken staff up his brother’s anus – “how do you like it?” – and slitting his brother’s throat, then running off into the fields to take his own life. Thus does Job lose his family.
His wife, unable to accept that Job considers God just, concluding that Job must be a moral idiot to think his kids deserved to die this way, spits in his face and leaves him. Left alone, Job is prey for the men on whom he perpetrated his justice in his earlier life. A thief whom Job once punished by cutting off his hand returns, with his son, to gouge out Job’s eyes and castrate him (again, graphically), finally shoving him to the ground and taking his chair and staff.
This divergence is more than trivial. The author’s intention, I suspect, was to make the horror more visceral – infuse what he saw as an overly-decorous biblical text with the rawness of Greek tragedy, an unquenchable human thirst for incest and murder. Or perhaps he feared that a modern audience couldn’t imagine blaming God for a fire or an earthquake – we know that natural evil is, you know, natural. I also suspect Bradshaw wanted to complicate the idea of justice itself, to suggest – by means of the men who take revenge on Job – that what looks like justice to the powerful looks more like oppression to the powerless.
But the changes suggest, very strongly, that Job is, indeed, at fault for his terrible condition. His wealth, his sight, his manhood are taken not by strangers but by men who think he wronged them. His children are destroyed not by strangers but by each other – and where does Joshua’s terrible impulse come from? Satan? Well, that raises other rather large theological problems, doesn’t it? And if from himself, then what does that say about the health of Job’s house, if he was completely unaware of what terrible evil was growing inside his son?
It is precisely because the biblical Job’s afflictions so plainly come from God that he can plausibly ask, why me? But how could anyone, faced with such horrors sprung from himself, not blame himself first? Job’s laments – which are taken from the biblical text – are movingly cried by Mr. McIntyre, but the story by then has ceased to make psychological sense.
In the biblical text, Job’s comforters tell him to search himself for his sin, and he retorts that he can find none, which shocks them – and convinces them that this very arrogance is his sin. In the play, Job’s comforters are more bored with his whining than shocked at his “blasphemy” (of course, Job never does blaspheme – he never calls God unjust, merely demanding an explanation that he can understand of how such treatment is just).
And God feels much the same. Up in heaven, Satan (who has dropped out of the biblical text by this point) readily admits he lost the bet, and God, praising him for being big enough to admit it, demands no payment. The whole thing has very much the whiff of the bet between the Dukes. And then God puts on an intentionally silly black robe and white mask, and descends to speak to Job out of the whirlwind. The speech is also taken from the biblical text, with particular emphasis on the sheer preponderance of God’s power to humble anyone. (This God spends negligible time on the extensive passages rhapsodizing His creation.)
In any event, Job repents, and, God gives him everything back, including his sight and his manhood (no such miracles take place in the biblical text), and we see Job newly enthroned in wealth and righteousness. Except for the righteousness part. This post-theophany Job has an eye for comely ladies, and fairly delights in dealing out punishments to malefactors, shrugging, “it’s God’s will” before chopping off the hands of the very thief had earlier pardoned.
What are we to make of this?
The obvious message is that God is a tyrant interested only in the scent of sacrifices (Chukwu’s God does a little victory dance every time someone kills a sheep or goat for Him, just as Satan does a little victory dance every time someone kills or otherwise wrongs a man), who crushes Job for questioning him and rewards him when he toadies properly. And Job gets the message, becoming a cruel and capricious tyrant himself in turn.
This isn’t a crazy read of reality. We may, indeed, be governed by a capricious tyrant – who can say? And people – indeed, whole nations – convinced they have been wronged, have set out to emulate those who wronged them, whether it’s their fathers or their social superiors or their historic enemies.
But on the whole it’s a pretty shallow reading of the book. The danger is that what’s intended as a progressive attack on a biblical text Bradshaw sees as advocating a kind of spiritual fascism – by showing just how ugly such a vision is – winds up endorsing that very thing. God is God. If you say, “God is a tyrant only interested in approval and obedience,” then you’re saying that is the essential nature of the universe. And you can’t rebel against reality itself, except the way Job’s wife (in the biblical text, not the play) suggests: curse God and die (that is to say: commit suicide, and leave this evil world behind entirely). If you’re not going to do that, then you might as well internalize the logic of the system, to your own profit.
Which is precisely what Bradshaw’s Job does.