February 20th, 2013
Review: “Job” by Thomas Bradshaw, at the Flea Theater, Tribeca
By Lynn Kaye, PhD
Assistant Professor of Rabbinics
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Just finishing its run at the Flea Theater in Tribeca (http://www.theflea.org/) is Thomas Bradshaw’s new play, “Job.” I saw it on its final night, though I hope it will be extended or revived since this play demonstrates innovative writing, multi-layered, fast-paced direction by Benjamin Kamine and compelling acting by members of The Bats. I mention it to the readers of the CJL’s blog because of its concern with divine and human justice, and the concept of free will.
Bradshaw illustrates Job’s torment in vivid terms. Many reviews of this superb play have commented on its explicit nudity and violence. It is also in the portrayal of Job’s ruin by Satan that the play differs from the Bible. In the biblical story, Job’s children and property are all destroyed in guerilla battles and by natural disasters (Job 1:13-19). Bradshaw substitutes personal malice on an intimate scale for faceless destruction. Satan, God’s brother, silently looks on while characters inflict horrifying brutality on one another. In a particularly disturbing scene, Job’s beloved and righteous children attack and kill one another. After the violence is over, Satan coolly performs a choreographed dance and walks away. (The use of dance as a way for the divine beings to express themselves is a particular strength of the staging of this play: God also performs his own idiosyncratic dance when an animal was sacrificed to him.) By making the evil befalling Job into Satan-supervised manmade mischief, Satan becomes the yester hara, the evil inclination people have within themselves. This portrayal of Satan’s instigation of violence among otherwise righteous people diminishes the free will of human beings in the play. I saw this play with my spouse, Alex Kaye, who observed that humans’ free will is not the only one that is questioned. The involuntary dancing of the divine beings in response to human actions suggests that their behavior is also in some way pre-determined. While the manner in which Satan brings destruction limits humans’ free will, the play is occupied with the unknown capacity of an individual to respond to catastrophe. Not even God could predict definitively what Job might do under unimaginable pressure. While Job’s struggle and resilience form the dramatic arc of the play, the god characters (including Satan, Jesus and Dionysus) remain static.
Free will is a prerequisite for Job’s notion of Divine justice, which is also questioned and complicated in the play. Job’s implementation of justice brackets the play. He is portrayed as a magistrate whose judicial responsibilities come with his status of the wealthiest, most powerful man in the land (“the greatest man in the east”). In the opening scene, Job judges three cases: giving a stern warning to a thief while also showing compassion for his poverty, bending the rules of levirate marriage for a righteous woman, and meting out harsh punishment for a rapist. Job declares that each of his judgments is according to divine will. Job returns to his role as judge in the final scene of the play, sentencing a recidivist thief to lose both hands. Job repeatedly returns to his notion of justice, namely that evil-doers are dealt immediate punishment such as mutilation or death, while the righteous are shown compassion and generosity. During his struggle with God, he asks how his circumstances fit the Divine justice he has always implemented.
The play answers this question through its portrayal of the divine realm. God’s notion of justice, as portrayed in the scenes of God and his family (Satan, Jesus and Dionysus) is a-normative. God is not emotionally connected to what happens to Job. The character of God is played coolly; he is intelligent and discerning, but also detached. (Even the time-scale of heaven is disjointed, with the director leaving arrhythmic gaps between sentences in the scenes with the gods.) God likes that Job honors him with sacrifices, and therefore he rewards him, but he is open to seeing if Satan is right about Job being a fair-weather believer. Thus, while Job is trying to emulate what he understands to be Divine justice in his community, the portrayal of God’s justice is arbitrary, without emotion or compassion; it is not replicable or transferrable to earth. The Gods are Other to humans. They drink wine, make jokes, have rivalries, but they are also strange, detached, and different. Their notion of justice seems familiar, but just under the surface, God’s detachment suggests that his justice is part of a reality which cannot be translated into law on earth.
In sum, the Flea’s excellent production of Bradshaw’s play offers the audience a chance to engage with the ever-pressing problem of human suffering and people’s persistent search for a way to understand the world which gives meaning to pain. Unfortunately, Job’s world is one of contradictions, and disappointingly opaque divine rules.