Arts & DesignEssays

The Book of Job as Community Theater

Readings after Superstorm Sandy and other disasters

The only American member of the original General Seminar after which this website is named was the philosopher Horace Kallen. Kallen is mainly remembered now for his theory of “cultural pluralism,” but among scholars of the Book of Job he is known for the quixotic idea that the biblical book was a work of Euripidean emulation. Kallen made a historical case and offered a speculative reconstruction in The Book of Job as a Greek Tragedy (1918). The historical claim is far-fetched, but Kallen’s sense that the Book of Job may work as drama is right on the mark. Robert Lowth, the founder of modern literary studies of the Bible, argued that Job’s genre was drama. Archibald MacLeish’s existentialist updating of Job’s story, “J. B.” (1958), confirms it. More recently, Carol Newsom’s brilliant Bakhtinian reading of the Book of Job concludes with an imagined production in which different traditions of theater, elocution and dress uneasily share a stage.

The Book of Job works as drama even in the humblest of settings. Its power is apparent in any effort to give it voice. This has recently been demonstrated by readings of Job in communities affected by Superstorm Sandy. Outside the Wire, a Brooklyn-based arts organization that uses readings of Greek tragedy to help communities working through trauma, first mounted Job for Joplin, Missouri, on the first anniversary of the tornadoes that killed 171 of its citizens in 2011. [See this video called The Book of Job in Joplin: A Resilience Story]  I was fortunate to be able to attend two of their Sandy events, “Job in Red Hook” and “Job in Long Beach.” Outside the Wire’s events afforded not only an inspiring example of artistic civic engagement but a compelling contemporary version of catharsis.

“Job in Red Hook” was hosted by Friends of Firefighters in a room that had been under four feet of water during Sandy, its walls now adorned with jerseys of the firefighters who had come from around the world to assist. “Job in Long Beach” (NY) took place in the banquet hall of a Jewish Association for Support of the Aged. The Book of Job was more familiar to the group gathered at JASA, where “survivor” might refer to Sandy or to the Shoah, but in profound and sometimes unexpected ways the story spoke to everyone.

The format on each occasion was the same. Well-known actors from screen and television sat at a table and read a half-hour abridgment of Stephen Mitchell’s poetic translation of Job. Once they finished, their places were taken by four community members who shared their reactions to the story of Job in the context of Sandy. Producer/director Bryan Doerries then moderated a community discussion about the indiscriminateness of disaster, the power and limits of human helping, survivor guilt, and the challenges of rebuilding without forgetting. The questions were anchored in particular elements of the story of Job, which had played out in the reading. Particularly significant, it turned out, were the actions of Job’s friends, who sat with him for seven days in grieving silence before the hypocritical speechifying for which they are better known.

When Outside the Wire’s “Theatre of War” project presents scenes from “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” to veterans and military families (the format is the same), people from all walks of life are empowered to speak. And when they speak, it can sound like Attic theater, speeches of a passion and eloquence rarely heard in our day. Doerries has facilitated enough of these events to have come to the conclusion that a stratum of poetic soliloquy lies just beneath the surface of life for all of us, unknown perhaps even to the soliloquists until the right occasion — the right audience — frees them to speak. (Job’s plaint, too, rose in the circle of his friends.)

The Sandy discussions I attended confirmed that a performance of the Book of Job, too, can unleash soliloquies of staggering force. A year is long enough for an afflicted community to have come together, to have been inundated by volunteers and maddened by bureaucrats, for some to have rebuilt while others remain stranded, for some to have lost and rebuilt and lost again. People found themselves in different — and often shifting — relationships with others affected by the calamity, and saw these reflected by different moments and even characters in the story of Job.

I cannot do justice to the soliloquies. Some took comfort from Job’s refusal to accept what came to him without protest, while another was “ashamed” to have sounded like Job. All were grateful for neighbors and indignant at outsiders who had come to judge. For some the theodicy questions arose right away, for others only with time; sometimes it was their own case, sometimes that of particular others. When he heard that people had been stealing gasoline from cars, one man in Long Beach “wondered for the first time if we were being punished.” For yet others, faith or the demands of survival had kept the big questions at bay. Job is relevant to the existential struggles of every day. The answer, said an octogenarian in Long Beach, was to “put one foot in front of the other,” and added: “Where there’s life there’s hope.”

For all their differences, both discussions helped communities name and reframe experiences of individual and collective loss, solidarity and continued helplessness. Outside the Wire will take Job to other communities affected by Sandy, where the interpretations and discussions will doubtless be different. Director Doerries and actor David Strathairn have just taken the project to Japan to help develop something similar for earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima ravaged Tohoku working with the Noh tradition, but their model was Job.

What the performances and ensuing discussions establish is something often forgotten in the history of interpreting the Book of Job. When the text is read or studied, it can seem that Job is alone, indeed paradigmatically alone, and it is in moments of greatest aloneness and even abandonment that many have found comfort in it. Not for nothing is one of the great modern commentaries called The Book of God and Man. Stage it however (or illustrate it, as William Blake most famously did) and it becomes clear that the story is also an eminently social thing. Any enactment reveals the Book of Job to be a work of social research.

This is the first of a series of posts on contemporary engagements with the Book of Job.

Mark Larrimore

  • camo

    Is it relevant that the Book of Job is often thought to have been authored by a woman?

Previous post

Solidarity with Ukraine against Putin’s Reality

Next post

When the Pope "Drops the F-Bomb"