Elmer Rice is unquestionably a major American playwright. His durability—his first play was produced in 1914, his last in 1963—and the sheer scope of his output ensure his stature in the history of American drama. Like many writers who came to maturity in the 1920’s and the 1930’s, he combined a dedication to art and craftsmanship with a commitment to social reform. In his autobiography, Rice mentions his particular attraction to works of literature that unmask the evils of society. This predilection serves to explain his preference for such dramatists as Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and August Strindberg. Of this group, it was Shaw with whom Rice most felt an affinity. Like Shaw, Rice believed that it was the playwright’s duty to improve society by exposing its false values and hypocrisies. In this pursuit, virtually all of his attention was focused on America and Americans. Even when Rice’s plays are set abroad, it is principally the weaknesses of Americans and of American society that he lays bare. Though he employed a variety of dramatic forms and though his work covers a wide range of subject matter, his uvre is consistent in at least one respect: All of his dramas reveal his perennial engagement with improving the quality of American life by uncovering its many imperfections.
The Adding Machine
The Adding Machine, Rice’s first masterwork, represented a departure from the realism of his earlier plays. In it, he adapted to the American stage the devices of German expressionism. Indeed, The Adding Machine is quite possibly the best full-length expressionistic play by an American dramatist. The play had its genesis in Rice’s visit to the Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit, quickly followed by his tour of the Chicago stockyards. These firsthand observations of industrialization left Rice appalled. He watched in some horror the robotlike actions of workers who were obliged to perform their monotonous tasks while hovering over a relentless conveyer belt. Some time later, after a period of germination, Rice wrote, in the remarkable time of seventeen days, the play based on his observation of the effect of the machine age on humankind.
Expressionism, a technique for making inner experience concrete, is exemplified in the play in a number of ways: in the externalization of thought processes; in the treatment of the characters, who are numbered instead of named to indicate their dehumanization and loss of individuality; and in the rows of numbers that decorate the wallpaper, signifying the ascendance of a quantified society.
Although The Adding Machine represented a departure in both form and technique from Rice’s previous work, he remained the social critic he had always been. Among the targets of the play are hypocrisy, the depersonalization of the modern business world, bigotry, the impersonality of the law, and Puritanism.
The hypocrisy that permeates American life is demonstrated by Rice through his depiction of his protagonist, Zero, and Zero’s wife. Zero, who has taken delight in watching a prostitute who neglects to pull the shade across her window even when she is not dressed, finally reports her to the police. Although he deplores her lack of modesty and her extravagant use of makeup, he later regrets that he had not taken advantage of his wife’s absence to pay the prostitute a visit.
For her part, Mrs. Zero claims that she prefers movies that portray highly moral, wholesome love stories, but in the dialogue that follows, one discerns that Mrs. Zero’s real predilection is for love stories that incorporate risqué scenes—scenes that may be cut before the movies reach the neighborhood theaters where she can see them.
To Rice, the business world is a competitive one where human beings and human values get short shrift. In such a world, there is little room for personal considerations. This depersonalization of relationships is shown both in Zero’s boss’s failure to know Zero’s name—even though he has been his employee for twenty-five years—and his lack of concern for the consequences that await a man fired at an advanced age with no warning.
Racial bigotry, a frequent subject in Rice’s drama, and sexism also receive attention in The Adding...
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