Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420
The Adding Machine is a play written by Elmer Rice in 1923. The same playwright had success with his later play Street Scene, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Rice's father was German revolutionary, and Rice himself was an avowed atheist—a disposition that most likely affected the tone of his works. A final biographical detail of note concerning Elmer Rice is his brief tenure as a lawyer; the plot of The Adding Machine exhibits close attention to the legal procedure.
The plot is centered around one Mr. Zero. Scene 1 reveals his sallow and balding figure in the bedroom with his wife, who reproaches him for not making enough money. Mr. Zero "ain't missed a day, not an hour, not a minute" of work. Nevertheless (in Scene 2) his boss one day tells him that he will be replaced by an adding machine on the grounds that, "they do the work in half the time and a high-school girl can operate them." Though the boss claims that he is "sorry to lose an old and faithful employee," Mr. Zero kills his boss offstage in a fit of rage.
In Scene 4, the police arrive at Mr. Zero's house, at which point Mr. Zero, resigned to his fate, produces the blood-stained collar. Scene 4 reveals the trial scene in which a flustered Mr. Zero vehemently explains his predicament to an insensitive jury, which pronounces him guilty.
Scene 5 shows acquaintances of Mr. Zero visiting his grave, at which point one by the name of Shrdlu enters from behind a gravestone, and serves as his escort to "a scene of pastoral loveliness" known as the Elysian fields. In Scene 6, Shrdlu (who has murdered his mother) explains the nature of the Elysian fields to Mr. Zero, and they also encounter Daisy, a former acquaintance of Mr. Zero, who has committed suicide.
Scene 7 finds Mr. Zero in an office which resembles his former workplace, but this time working at the very adding machine that replaced him. Nevertheless, the boss of the Elysian Fields, Charles, tells Mr. Zero that he is fired. At the close of the play, Charles consoles him with an offer: "I'll send a girl with you to keep you company." The girl, aptly named "Hope," is followed offstage by Mr. Zero to conclude the play.
The play belongs to a genre known as "Expressionism." This art and literary movement was concerned with the exploration and exhibition of human emotions, represented creatively and subjectively. As such, the play concerns itself primarily with the experiences of Mr. Zero.
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