Contemporary reviews of The Adding Machine were mostly negative or lukewarm; the major exception was Ludwig Lewisohn’s enthusiastic appraisal in The Nation. The play was not an outstanding commercial success; it ran for only seventy-two performances. Nevertheless the work became a staple of university and community theater groups. In 1956 there was even a major New York revival that incorporated the scene omitted from the original 1923 production. Most students of the drama rank The Adding Machine among the classics of the American stage.
At least part of the reason for the play’s continuing appeal is the fact that its themes of the stultifying influence of conventional morality and the dehumanizing impact of the machine reflects attitudes that have been strong among American intellectuals since the 1920’s. Though Rice’s surface target in The Adding Machine is technology, there is also at least an implicit indictment of capitalism (seen, for example, in the boss’s failure even to know Zero’s name). At the time that the play was written, Rice regarded himself as a utopian socialist. Under the impact of the Great Depression, this latent radicalism became a much more explicit aspect of such Rice plays as We, the People (pr., pb. 1933) and American Landscape (pr. 1938).
Rice’s use of expressionist techniques attracted the most attention in the 1920’s and is, to a large extent,...
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