Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650
Elmer Rice's 1923 Expressionist play The Adding Machine is about an office functionary symbolically named Mr. Zero, who has not missed a day of work in 25 years, and who is fired by his boss in order to be replaced by a doubly efficient adding machine. The boss describes the machine as follows:
"They do the work in half the time, and a high-school girl can operate them. Now, of course, I'm sorry to lose an old and faithful employee," (Scene 2).
This quote is demonstrative of the minimal feeling exhibited by Mr. Zero's corporate boss, which in turn represents the dehumanization that is inherent in the workplace. The company attributes no loyalty to its employee, and the remainder of the play explores the ramifications of that disloyalty.
After being found guilty of murdering his boss, Mr. Zero enters the Elysian fields, alongside one Shrdlu (the awkwardness of whose name is perhaps explained by its use as an early computer programming language). As Mr. Zero comes to learn from Shrdlu, the Elysian fields are home of the "most favored" of the deceased. Curiously, we witness the torture of Shrdlu (who has murdered his mother) in the following quote:
"Nothing is turning out as I expected. I saw everything so clearly—the flames, the tortures, an eternity of suffering as the just punishment for my unspeakable crime. And it has all turned out so differently . . . It's right and just that I should be punished. I could have endured it stoically. All through those endless ages of indescribable torment I should have exulted in the magnificence of divine justice. But this—this is maddening! What becomes of justice? What becomes of morality? What becomes of right and wrong? It's maddening—simply maddening!" (Scene 6).
This quote demonstrates man's innate need for justice, even at the expense of his own best interest. The de-humanizing effect of industry does not immediately divest individuals of their need for personal attention and a sense of justice.
One final illustrative quote appears in the monologue of Mr. Zero's new boss, Charles. Mr. Zero now works in the Elysian Fields, operating an adding machine. Charles nonetheless tells him that he will be sent back to earth, as his "time is up."
This boss, who has apparently witnessed the evolution of humans in their capacity as slaves, pontificates on the development, too, of machines. He and Mr. Zero pause for a moment during Mr. Zero's dismissal in order to imagine the effects of a hypothetical future machine. Charles (the boss), speaks as follows:
"It will be the culmination of human effort—the final triumph of the evolutionary process. For millions of years the nebulous gases swirled in space. For more millions of years the gases cooled and then through inconceivable ages they hardened into rocks. And then came life. Floating green things on the waters that covered the earth. More millions of years and a step upward—an animate organism in the ancient slime. And so on—step by step, down through the ages—a gain here, a gain there—the mollusk, the fish, the reptile, the mammal, man! And all so that you might sit in the gallery of a coal mine and operate the super-hyper-adding machine with the great toe of your right foot! . . . You're a failure, Zero, a failure. A waste product. A slave to a contraption of steel and iron. The animal's instincts, but not his strength and skill. The animal's appetites, but not his unashamed indulgence of them."
Charles' merciless diatribe juxtaposes the miraculous scientific phenomenon of life with Mr. Zero's slavish nature. His speech departs from a discussion of the machine and instead caustically addresses Mr. Zero and his helplessly servile character. The reader is left to wonder whether Charles has a valid point, and if so, whether that character is a product of the industrial, progress-driven, and insensitive society which created him.
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