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.
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