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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.

(This entire section contains 1763 words.)

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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 Machine. Early in the play, the Zeros host a party. Those who attend all dress alike, have the same tastes, share the same views and prejudices. If business conditions are bad, it is because of foreign agitators; women’s suffrage is ridiculous; a woman’s place is in the home; women have no business meddling in politics.

Rice’s disenchantment with the legal profession, expressed when he refused to practice law shortly after receiving his degree and passing the bar examination, is revealed again here. Rice believed that the spirit of the law, not the letter, should be paramount. He believed that in practice, however, the reverse is true. Therefore, Rice finds the courts to be impersonal, even indifferent to those whose fates they determine—an attitude embodied by the judge in the courtroom scene, who is nothing but an impassive automaton. Similarly, Rice’s belief that justice does not always prevail and that court cases are frequently won by trickery, theatrics, and obscuration is exemplified by Zero’s lawyer’s insistence that the blood on the murder weapon is red ink, even though Zero fully admits to his guilt and wishes to be punished. Later, Zero complains about court procedure that requires yes or no answers. Some questions necessitate more complex answers if justice is to be served.

The deleterious effects of Puritanism on the American psyche are revealed by Zero and Shrdlu, whom Zero (who has been executed for murder) meets in the afterlife. Shrdlu is also a murderer: He has killed his mother, and his conscience demands that he suffer the torture of the damned in hell for his unspeakable crime. What has happened to justice, to morality, that he should be permitted to spend eternity in the Elysian Fields? Schooled in a puritanical tradition, he cannot accept forgiveness and a happier fate, and he insists on eternal punishment.

Zero, imbued, like Shrdlu, with the Puritan morality of his earthly existence, cannot understand a heaven that admits murderers. Moreover, he is shaken by his discovery that he is living in the midst of drunkards, thieves, vagabonds, and adulterers. Unable to reconcile this knowledge with his own ingrained ideas about what is respectable, Zero is consigned to return to Earth to begin life anew in another identity.

Though The Adding Machine was neither a critical nor a commercial success when it first appeared in 1923, it is now highly esteemed and often performed; Rice himself compiled a list showing that between 1958 and 1963, The Adding Machine had a total of ninety-two productions. Today, more than a half century after its first performance, with machines encroaching at an ever-increasing rate on territory previously held by human beings, the play remains relevant.

Street Scene

In Street Scene, Rice’s second major work, the playwright returned to realism with a vengeance. To convey the sounds associated with the New York City setting of his play—automobile horns, squealing brakes, steamboat whistles—Rice recorded them, then put the records on two record players started a minute apart during the performance so as to duplicate the overlapping effect of heavy traffic and other assorted noises of the busy metropolis. Not satisfied with the unrealistic sound of footsteps moving across a wooden stage that purported to be a city street, Rice had a thin layer of cement placed on the boards. Finally, and on a different level, Rice increased the play’s authentity by drawing his characters from a rich diversity of national and ethnic backgrounds.

In this play, Rice seeks to reveal the lives and problems of various families living in an apartment house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in New York. His realistic depiction of character and circumstance, however, does not prevent him from mounting the soapbox to decry the inadequacies of America’s social and economic system.

To begin with the latter, Rice focuses on organized charity, which is a concomitant of the capitalistic system, since under capitalism there will always be those who are unable to support themselves and who have no other source of aid. In the 1920’s, accepting charity was considered demeaning, and those who had to depend on it—often through no fault of their own—were considered inferior. Rice, with his strong socialistic bent, sought to point out the unfairness of such an attitude and to invoke sympathy for its victims.

Therefore, in Street Scene, the playwright’s depiction of charity’s representative, Miss Simpson, is highly critical. He begins by describing her as an unattractive spinster and then heightens the unfavorable impression by having her upbraid the small, timid, bewildered Mrs. Hildebrand for spending charity money to take her two children to the movies. That these two children cling to their mother in fear of the austere Miss Simpson only increases the audience’s sympathy for the Hildebrands and one’s dislike for Miss Simpson and the charity she represents.

There are other flaws in the American economic system, Rice would have us know. His spokesman here is Abraham Kaplan, who is appalled by the eviction of the Hildebrands by their landlord. The institution of private property, which places those without property at the mercy of the property-owning classes, is the real culprit, Kaplan contends.

Then, broadening the scope of his diatribe, he laments the status of the worker, whom he calls a wage slave, at the mercy of the all-powerful leaders of industry. Although these sentiments sound Marxist, one must not assume that Rice was a communist. He was merely pointing out the need for social reform.

Racial bigotry, a ubiquitous element in American society, and one that Rice abhorred, is also treated in Street Scene; the play’s mixture of Italian, Swedish, Irish, and Jewish characters provides Rice with an excellent opportunity for comment. At the same time, Rice, ever cognizant of the plight of women in American society, provides a sympathetic portrait of Mrs. Maurrant, one of the casualties of the virulent gossip of the bigoted Joneses. Though she is engaged in an adulterous relationship with Steve Sankey, the neighborhood collector for the milk company, Mrs. Maurrant is portrayed as a victim rather than a victimizer. Rice shows her to be a compassionate, loving woman joined in an unhappy marriage to a man who cannot satisfy her emotional needs and who treats her as though she were his personal property rather than as a human being.


Rice, Elmer