Elmer Rice Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Elmer Rice was born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein, in an apartment on Ninetieth Street in New York City, in 1892. It was a name he kept until the first production of his play, written in collaboration with Hatcher Hughes, Wake Up, Jonathan, in 1921. On opening night, the program listed the playwright for the first time under his newly assumed pen name, Elmer L. Rice.

Rice attended public schools in New York but had to drop out after his sophomore year in high school because his parents could no longer afford to support him. Jobs were hard to get, but Rice finally secured employment as a filing clerk in a law office. Though he did not really wish to become a lawyer, he decided that it was the only career open to him and enrolled in the New York Law School. There he found that classes bored him, and he began bringing reading materials to class to relieve the tedium. The classes were two hours long, and Rice discovered that he could read a play in that length of time. Thus, plays became his preferred reading material. In this way, he developed and nurtured his interest in the drama.

In 1913, Rice took and passed the bar examination, but he soon became appalled by legal ethics and decided that the practice of law was not for him. At this point, he had already written three plays: “A Defection from Grace,” “The Seventh Commandment,” and The Passing of Chow-Chow. The first two, written in collaboration with Frank Harris, a fellow law clerk, have never been published or produced; the third, a solo effort, was entered in a one-act-play contest sponsored by Columbia University in 1915 and won the aspiring playwright a silver cup. With his apprenticeship over, Rice was ready for Broadway.

Rice’s first professionally produced play, On Trial, opened in New York on August 19, 1914. It was a blockbuster. The play ran for 365 performances, then went on the road to play in numerous cities throughout the United States. Later, it was performed in Europe, in South Africa, in South America, in Central America, and in the Far East. Eventually, it was made into a film.

During the remainder of the 1920’s, Rice demonstrated his versatility and revealed his penchant for using drama to expose the major social and economic diseases of his day. For example, in The Iron Cross, written in 1915 but not performed until 1917, Rice, a pacifist, excoriated the glorification of war. He also attacked in this work the puritanical element in American society and the distorted view of sex that it has produced.

In The House in Blind Alley, Rice considered some of the evils of the American economic system; in particular, he inveighed against the inclusion of children in the workforce. The play was written in 1916 but has never been produced.

In the...

(The entire section is 1157 words.)

Elmer Rice Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Elmer Rice, one of the major dramatists of the first half of the twentieth century, was instrumental in the emergence of American drama as an influential force in world theater. Born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein, he grew up in Manhattan, living with his parents Jacob and Fanny Lion Reizenstein. The family was poor, and Rice completed only two years of high school before quitting at age fourteen in order to work and contribute to the family’s budget, being employed first as a claims clerk and then as a law clerk in his cousin’s office. While working, he received a high school equivalency diploma, and in 1908 he entered New York Law School. His concern with social issues, which would be evident throughout his career, developed early. His parents instilled in him the value of goodness and fairness, but his experience with law taught him that the world was otherwise. He observed that the law, rather than being used to uphold justice, often was manipulated to evade justice. In addition, his early reading of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen imparted to him a respect for socialism and a guarded attitude toward capitalism. At the age of twenty-two, shortly after being admitted to the New York bar, he left his position at the law office determined to write plays. Eight months later, On Trial was playing in New York and receiving the praise of critics. The play eventually earned more than $100,000 for Rice, enabling him to continue in the theater.{$S[A]Reizenstein, Elmer Leopold;Rice, Elmer}

With On Trial, Rice began a professional life that would include the writing of more than thirty plays. In addition, Rice, starting with Street Scene and with the exception of The Subway, directed all his plays, and after 1930 he also produced them. As a playwright, he is recognized for his experimentation and for his technical expertise. Even his first play demonstrates his interest in innovation. On Trial contains a rather conventional plot: An ill-treated woman goes on to a happy marriage only to be blackmailed by her early seducer into another sexual liaison. Incensed, her husband murders the man and is placed on trial. The play was a success not primarily because of the plot but because of the structure. Opening with the trial scene, the play proceeds through a series of flashbacks, a technique previously unknown in theater that Rice had borrowed from film.

During this period Rice married Hazel Levy, had two children, and actively involved himself with social issues such as women’s suffrage and child labor. Drama became his means to effect changes in the social system. He wrote about women’s views of World War I in The Iron Cross and about child labor in The House in Blind Alley. When the difficulty of finding an outlet for these plays became apparent, he wrote more commercially acceptable plays, such as two moderately successful mystery melodramas, For the Defense and It Is the Law, and the drama Wake up, Jonathan, written with Hatcher Hughes. Throughout his career, his plays can be divided into those that have a social message and those that fit the conventional Broadway mold.

After a two-year stint in Hollywood writing for film, Rice returned to New York and penned one of his most...

(The entire section is 1347 words.)

Elmer Rice Biography

(Drama for Students)

Rice was born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein in New York City on September 28, 1892. He was the son of Jacob Reizenstein and his wife Fanny (neé...

(The entire section is 524 words.)