The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

One source of the strength of The Adding Machine is Elmer Rice’s skill at dialogue—his success in capturing the cliché-ridden and often disconnected speech of the ill-educated and inarticulate. The two most striking examples are Mr. Zero’s speech in scene 1 and his address to the jury in scene 4; these speeches have attained a reputation of being among the finest monologues of the modern drama. They reflect the extent to which Rice drew upon such concepts from psychology as free association and the stream of consciousness.

Another of the play’s strengths is Rice’s use of satire and irony in his portrayal of Zero. Zero’s worthlessness is shown by his own words, the statements of others, and the total plot. However, Rice manages to evoke in the members of the audience a sense of empathy with Zero, so that they see a reflection of part of themselves in him while still maintaining their intellectual distance.

The play’s dramatic impact owes most, however, to Rice’s exploitation of expressionist techniques. Expressionism represents a break with the representational mode of realism. The expressionist artist aspired not to present a literal depiction of the world as perceived by the senses, but to convey inner experiences and feelings through the use of outward symbols. Thus, for example, Rice underlines the emptiness of his central characters’ lives by calling them Mr. and Mrs. Zero and identifying their friends by number...

(The entire section is 571 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Collins, Ralph L. “The Playwright and the Press: Elmer Rice and His Critics.” Theatre Annual 7 (1948/1949): 35-58.

Durham, Frank. Elmer Rice. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Hoffmann, Frederick J. “Mr. Zero and Other Ciphers: Experiments on the Stage.” In Essays in the Modern Drama, edited by Morris Freedman. Boston: Heath, 1964.

Hogan, Robert. “Elmer Rice.” In Reference Guide to American Literature. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James, 1987.

Hogan, Robert. The Independence of Elmer Rice. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.

Levin, Meyer. “Elmer Rice.” Theatre Arts 16 (January, 1932): 54-62.

Lewisohn, Ludwig. “Creative Irony.” In The American Theatre as Seen by Its Critics, edited by Montrose J. Moses and John Mason Brown. 1934. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square, 1967.

Palmieri, Anthony F. R. Elmer Rice: A Playwright’s Vision of America. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980.

Rabkin, Gerald. Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964.

Rice, Elmer. The Living Theatre. New York: Harper, 1959.

Rice, Elmer. Minority Report: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

Simon, John. Review of The Adding Machine. New York 29 (November 11, 1996): 78.

Vanden Heuvel, Michael. Elmer Rice: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.