Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157
Elmer Rice was born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein, in an apartment on Ninetieth Street in New York City, in 1892. It was a name he kept until the first production of his play, written in collaboration with Hatcher Hughes, Wake Up, Jonathan, in 1921. On opening night, the program listed the playwright for the first time under his newly assumed pen name, Elmer L. Rice.
Rice attended public schools in New York but had to drop out after his sophomore year in high school because his parents could no longer afford to support him. Jobs were hard to get, but Rice finally secured employment as a filing clerk in a law office. Though he did not really wish to become a lawyer, he decided that it was the only career open to him and enrolled in the New York Law School. There he found that classes bored him, and he began bringing reading materials to class to relieve the tedium. The classes were two hours long, and Rice discovered that he could read a play in that length of time. Thus, plays became his preferred reading material. In this way, he developed and nurtured his interest in the drama.
In 1913, Rice took and passed the bar examination, but he soon became appalled by legal ethics and decided that the practice of law was not for him. At this point, he had already written three plays: “A Defection from Grace,” “The Seventh Commandment,” and The Passing of Chow-Chow. The first two, written in collaboration with Frank Harris, a fellow law clerk, have never been published or produced; the third, a solo effort, was entered in a one-act-play contest sponsored by Columbia University in 1915 and won the aspiring playwright a silver cup. With his apprenticeship over, Rice was ready for Broadway.
Rice’s first professionally produced play, On Trial, opened in New York on August 19, 1914. It was a blockbuster. The play ran for 365 performances, then went on the road to play in numerous cities throughout the United States. Later, it was performed in Europe, in South Africa, in South America, in Central America, and in the Far East. Eventually, it was made into a film.
During the remainder of the 1920’s, Rice demonstrated his versatility and revealed his penchant for using drama to expose the major social and economic diseases of his day. For example, in The Iron Cross, written in 1915 but not performed until 1917, Rice, a pacifist, excoriated the glorification of war. He also attacked in this work the puritanical element in American society and the distorted view of sex that it has produced.
In The House in Blind Alley, Rice considered some of the evils of the American economic system; in particular, he inveighed against the inclusion of children in the workforce. The play was written in 1916 but has never been produced.
In the 1920’s, Rice was at his best; it was during this period that his two greatest plays were produced. The Adding Machine and Street Scene are at least minor classics of the American theater. Although Rice continued to produce work at a prolific rate during this period, most of the plays he completed were collaborations, one-acts, or adaptations; the lone exceptions were See Naples and Die and The Subway, both produced in 1929.
During the 1930’s, Rice was unable to maintain the high standard that he had set with his two masterpieces, The Adding Machine and Street Scene. His best drama of this period is undoubtedly Counsellor-at-Law, but that play, good as it is, hardly approaches the artistic merit of the two earlier ones. It was during the Depression years, however, that Rice was most effective as a social critic. In such plays as The Black Sheep and The Left Bank, Rice deplored the status of the creative artist in American society. In We, the People and in American Landscape, he lamented the plight of the American worker during this economically chaotic period. In Judgment Day and in Between Two Worlds, he attacked totalitarianism.
In the war years, Rice continued to write prolifically: Between 1940 and 1945, he had four plays produced. Two on an Island, a comedy, depicts the struggles of an aspiring young playwright and an embryonic actress to achieve success on Broadway. Flight to the West is another attack on fascism. Rice’s next play, A New Life, also expressed his desire that freedom and liberty flourish. Instead of the Nazis, however, it is dictatorial grandparents who are the recipients of the playwright’s wrath. Rice concluded the period as he began it, with a comedy. Dream Girl, Rice’s greatest commercial success since Counsellor-at-Law, is reminiscent of James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
Rice’s first dramatic production of the postwar years, unless one counts his writing of the libretto for the musical version of his 1929 hit Street Scene and a revised version of his 1935 drama Not for Children, was The Grand Tour. One must not assume, however, that his energies were diminished. In addition to the libretto, he had written a novel, The Show Must Go On, and had taken two trips abroad, one of which provided him with the setting for a later play. Moreover, he hurled himself into several controversies involving censorship, or attempted censorship, of a number of movies. Finally, in the early 1950’s, he was to be found defending the civil liberties threatened by the excesses of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and by McCarthyism.
The Grand Tour, principally a love story, also treats extensively materialism as a negative factor in American life. It is not one of Rice’s better dramas. The Grand Tour was followed three years later by The Winner. Like its predecessor, it is not one of the playwright’s serious plays, though it does point out the hypocrisy that is to be found everywhere in American society. The fragility of American marital relationships, another Rice staple, also receives its share of attention. One might add that the play revealed that Rice’s low opinion of lawyers, first indicated when he gave up the practice of law, had not changed for the better. Cue for Passion reached the stage in 1958. It is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), converted to modern times and reeking with twentieth century psychology.
The playwright’s last play to reach the stage, though only in a college production with Rice employed in an advisory capacity, was Love Among the Ruins, written twelve years earlier. In it, Rice deals with the death of love in the postwar world.
Among Rice’s accomplishments between 1945 and his death in 1967 is The Living Theatre, a book of essays that reveals Rice’s views on world theater, and much about his principles and practices as a dramatist. Also, his autobiography, Minority Report, not only offers many insights into Rice the man and Rice the playwright but also serves as a history of the American theater between 1914 and 1963.