The opening scene sets the tone of a nightmarish, dehumanized, and machine-dominated world. In a drab and barely furnished bedroom, a slovenly looking Mrs. Zero engages in a wearying monologue directed at her husband, who is lying on the bed. Her refrain is how Mr. Zero has been a failure, holding the same dead-end job as a department-store clerk for twenty-five years. A henpecked husband, Mr. Zero finds his sole pleasure in peeping at an undressed prostitute in a room across the way. His wife has forced him, however, to report the girl to the police.
Scene 2 takes place in the department-store office where Zero works. He sits on a high stool face-to-face with Daisy Diana Dorothea Devore. She is calling out figures, which he enters into a ledger. Their thoughts, expressed in asides amid the chanting of numbers, are a lament for their failure to grasp the love they secretly feel for each other. Then Zero imagines his confronting his boss and successfully demanding a raise. His courage ebbs away, however, when the boss does not even know his name. The final blow is when the boss informs Zero that they are planning to install adding machines and thus will no longer need him. Losing control, Zero kills the boss by stabbing him with a bill file.
Scene 3 opens with Mrs. Zero at home, impatiently waiting for her husband. She snatches away his unfinished dinner when guests arrive—six couples dressed alike and having numbers instead of names, Mr. and Mrs. One, Mr. and Mrs. Two, and the like. Speaking in robotic fashion, all express the same views and the same prejudices: “Politics is a man’s business”; “Woman’s place is in the home”; “America for the Americans.” The talk is interrupted by a policeman ringing the doorbell. Zero says that he has been expecting the officer: He has broken the rules and knows that he must pay the penalty.
Scene 4 is Zero’s trial. Except for the announcement of the jury’s verdict at the end, the scene consists of a stream-of-consciousness monologue by Zero to the jury. He jumps back and forth from one recollection to another as he relates the repeated frustration of his hopes and dreams. He admits his guilt but blames the boss for firing him and then continuing to talk until Zero lost control. His plea that he is “a regular guy like anybody else” makes no impression. The jurors—the same people who were the guests at his party—rise and shout in unison, “GUILTY!”
Scene 5 was omitted from the 1923 Theatre Guild production and the published version that came out...
(The entire section is 1046 words.)