The Adding Machine

by Elmer Rice

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Critical Context

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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, responsible for the play’s historical importance. However, his expressionist influence remains a puzzle. Rice denied having read any of the great German pioneers of the expressionist mode in drama before writing The Adding Machine. Nevertheless, many critics think the work one of the best of the American expressionist plays—comparable to Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920) and The Hairy Ape (pr. 1922).

Rice continued in the expressionist mode in a follow-up play to The Adding Machine, The Subway, written in 1923 but not produced or published until 1929. However, he was not an expressionist because of any deeply held aesthetic philosophy; rather, he was a talented craftsman with a sensitive antenna for whatever new ideas were in the air. Rice’s eclecticism is apparent when one compares The Adding Machine with his other major work, Street Scene (pr., pb. 1929). In the first, Rice distorts surface reality; in the latter, the technique is naturalistic, aimed at presenting reality with photographic intensity. In Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties (1964), Gerald Rabkin observes that Rice “has scarcely employed the same dramatic form twice. Such versatility is not only admirable; it is almost unique.”

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