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The Adding Machine, a 1923 play by experimental playwright (and former lawyer) Elmer Rice, is a foundational text for Expressionism—a genre focused on human emotional response (however irrational) to basic objective events. Expressionism is deeply focused on the experience of the individual, and uses dramatic events to explore human reactions.

The plot of The Adding Machine treats a man named Mr. Zero, whose 25-year tenure at a company does not prevent him from being replaced by an adding machine, which can do his work in half the time. Mr. Zero impulsively kills the boss who fired him, and is pronounced guilty by consensus of a jury. He is taken to the Elysian Fields (named for the notional resting place of the "blessed" in the classical religious tradition). There, he befriends a man who has killed his mother, but is remorseful. He also sees a former acquaintance from his time on earth (Daisy), and learns that she has committed suicide. The Elysian fields find Mr. Zero again at work in a similar office, but this time operating an adding machine. Despite his characteristic diligence (even obsessive conscientiousness) at work, he is let go by his boss, Charles, who spitefully tells Mr. Zero, "you're a failure, Zero, a failure. A waste product. A slave to a contraption of steel and iron."

The themes of the play are dark. The first and most obvious theme, is the replacement of humanity by a machine, and the resultant disenfranchisement of the average person in the new economy. This is illustrated in both successive instances of Mr. Zero being fired from his job. His personal dedication and competence at work don't mitigate his unfortunately circumstances.

The next theme is the character isolation that results from this de-valuation of the individual. We see Mr. Zero kill his boss in cold blood, and, though Mr. Zero is not an especially offensive individual, he exhibits no obvious remorse. Meanwhile, he has spent much of his lifetime in an unhappy marriage with a scathing wife (whom we meet in the opening scene).

These themes (i.e, disenfranchisement of the average person and emotional isolation of the individual) together prompt the audience to question to what extent they are related. It is suggested that Mr. Zero's merciless treatment in the workplace and his lack of appreciation at home have caused his rash and insensitive behavior and have shielded him from forming meaningful relationships with his fellow man.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

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 same year. It was first performed in the 1956 New York revival of the play; the text appears in a 1965 Hill and Wang edition, Three Plays. Zero is caged like an animal in a zoo while a guide describes him as “the North American murderer. Genus homo sapiens. Habitat North America . . . [with] the characteristics which are typical of his kind.” As a typical American, he is eating ham and eggs. When offered an eight-course dinner of his choice as his final meal, he lacks the imagination to break out of his routine and so orders eight courses of ham and eggs. Toward the end of the scene, a strange figure who identifies himself as the Fixer from the claims department is introduced. He rebuffs Zero’s desperate pleas for “another chance” with the reply that a man is more expensive to keep up than an adding machine. While a pair of assistants drag Zero off for execution, the Fixer sits reading the newspaper comics.

Scene 6 is set in a graveyard. Judy O’Grady, the prostitute whom Zero had reported to the police, enters with a young man and sees an opportunity to have her revenge by engaging in sexual intercourse on Zero’s grave. The young man balks, and the two leave. Then Zero arises from his grave to exercise and meets another corpse, Shrdlu. Shrdlu had killed his overprotective mother in a fit of rage and now expresses his longing to be punished for his crime. Suddenly a head pops up from a grave, tells Zero and Shrdlu to “shut up and let a guy sleep,” and calls down for the loan of a companion’s head. After he tosses the skull at Zero and Shrdlu but misses, the head exclaims “Ho-hum! Me for the worms!” and disappears as the curtain falls.

Scene 7 features the green meadows of the Elysian Fields (Heaven). Shrdlu continues to bewail his failure to be punished for his crime. Like Shrdlu, Zero cannot shake the Puritan morality that had shaped him on earth. When he meets Daisy, who has committed suicide because of her unhappiness over Zero, the two acknowledge their love for each other, kiss, and then dance wildly. Hearing someone approach, however, Zero tells Daisy to fix her hair and pull down her skirt. When Shrdlu tells them that they can stay together in the Elysian Fields without getting married, Zero is shocked at the thought of such a breach of propriety. Even more shocked when he learns that the place is filled largely with drunks, thieves, and vagabonds, he expresses his wish to return to earth and the world of “respectable” society. There is a final exchange between Daisy and Shrdlu. When he asks whether she will remain in the Elysian Fields, Daisy answers that, with Zero gone, it makes no difference and thus she “might as well be alive.”

In the final scene, Zero is operating a giant adding machine somewhere in Limbo, when Lieutenant Charles informs him that he must stop and return to earth to begin again as a baby. When Zero wonders whether he had been a king in a previous life, Charles informs him that in all of his past incarnations he had been a slave—and that he had in fact retrogressed with each successive return to earth. When Zero balks at going back, Charles finally overcomes his resistance by promising him that a beautiful young girl named Hope will accompany him and help him forget. The play closes with Zero’s place being readied for a newcomer while Charles muses, “Hell, I’ll tell the world this is a lousy job!”

Dramatic Devices

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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 rather than by name.

Particularly effective is Rice’s use of strangely distorted settings, sound effects, and mechanical devices to make his points. Perhaps the outstanding example is in scene 2, where Zero confronts his boss. When the boss informs Zero that he is to be replaced by adding machines, soft music is heard, and the floor upon which the desk and stools are standing begins to revolve slowly. The music grows louder and the revolutions become more rapid to symbolize Zero’s growing turmoil and anger. The noise becomes deafening and chaotic as other sound effects are added: wind, waves, galloping horses, a locomotive whistle, sleigh bells, an automobile siren. Finally there comes a loud peal of thunder, a momentary flash of red, and then darkness. This climax signals the moment that Zero plunges the bill file into the boss’s heart—an act that is not shown directly onstage.

Other symbol-laden touches run through the later scenes. The jurors in scene 4 appear as robots; they are described as sitting “with folded arms, staring stolidly before them” and giving no sign of having seen Zero. A photograph of the 1923 Theatre Guild production shows the judge as an immobile, expressionless dummy in a black robe. The Fixer in scene 6 personifies society’s indifference to the individual. Judy O’Grady and the young man in the graveyard in scene 7 exemplify the emptiness of sex without love. The closing exchange between Daisy and Shrdlu underlines that life for most persons is equivalent to a living death. In the final scene, Charles overcomes Zero’s reluctance to return to earth by promising that he will be accompanied by a beautiful young girl named Hope. When she speaks, it is Charles throwing his voice as a ventriloquist, but the deluded Zero, enthralled, runs off after her.

Thanks to the use of such expressionist techniques, Rice succeeded—except perhaps in the final scene—in avoiding the tendency toward didacticism that marked many of his other plays.


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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.


Critical Essays