Rice, Elmer 1892–1967
Rice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American dramatist, has been described as a restless innovator, a superb, although erratic, craftsman, and an outspoken defender of literary freedom. The first stage use of flashbacks occurred in his On Trial. A prolific playwright, Rice also wrote novels. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
If O'Neill is the artist's artist, Rice is the public's artist; if O'Neill's creative urge is primarily emotional, the character-under-stress-of-circumstances forcing the creation of the play, one feels with Elmer Rice that the creative urge is more often intellectual, and that it is the artist's desire to create a play that forces the discovery of the character-under-stress-of-circumstance.
In his preface to One-Act Plays for Stage and Study Elmer Rice says, "The difference between this (the one-act play) and drama at its best, is the difference between journalism and literature, between illustration and painting, between 'program music' and 'pure music'. It may be art, but it is art at a low level." He goes on to point out that the existence of such one-act masterpieces as Synge's Riders to the Sea contradicts but does not disprove the generalization as to the artistic worth of the one-act form.
This might be taken as a very apt criticism of Elmer Rice's own long plays; and his very comment that existent one-act masterpieces break the given general rule might also be applied to two or three of the existent plays of Elmer Rice. (p. 54)
Like O'Neill, Rice has always been an experimenter in method—perhaps an American characteristic—but whereas O'Neill, though changing the externals of technique in almost every play, remains a distinct creative personality in every line of his work, Rice was to effect something like three changes in creative personality in his progress from play-carpentry simple to the writing of Pulitzer Prize drama.
On Trial was effective and successful largely because it introduced the "flash-back" trick of the movies to the stage…. By the time he wrote Street Scene Rice was to learn how to select such convincing names as Fiorentino, Kaplan, Jones, Maurrant, and how to model his characters with a corresponding external skill, so that while they remained theatre types, while their relations, motivations, behavior patterns were no more subtly involved than the husband-shoots-traitor relationship in On Trial, they were part of an illustration rich with beautiful detail. (pp. 55-6)
[In The Adding Machine, we] find Rice suddenly possessed of the power to create people—however negative they may be—and of an attitude towards his people. The attitude is also negative. He has sardonic pity for the scribble-brained white collar slaves in his machine-play. But it is pity.
The Adding Machine remains a little removed from the road of all Elmer Rice plays. Perhaps it was stimulated by the expressionist movement, perhaps it was the gesture of the commercial artist who wants once and for all to prove that if he sets himself to it he can produce as artistic a piece as any of the art-for-art's-sake boys. And, having pretty nearly beat them at their own game, he returns to his commercial field. Let us not use "commercial" in the terms of dollars, so much as of popular appeal as evidenced by commercial return. The mass public votes its homage only in that way.
The Adding Machine bears direct comparison with the best products of the expressionist years. Like The Hairy Ape and From Morn to Midnight it is the fragmentary picturestory of a representational man set against the machine age…. The story is the same in all three plays. In The...
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Hairy Ape the symbol seems more deeply felt as a human being. Technically The Adding Machine is more adroit; in passages it is more human than the humorless O'Neill has ever been. Theatrically, it is less monotonous. (pp. 56-7)
Street Scene is a more American play than The Adding Machine, which is made by a continental method. There is something of symphonic mood about this effective illustration; its very cleverness of manufacture is American, and its devoted portrayal of humble American types is evidence of the author's sincere determination to put the "real people" on the stage. Its use of such recognizable types may be like Ernest Bloch's use of familiar American tunes in composing an "American" symphony. (p. 60)
It is Elmer Rice's prodigious professional dexterity with the stage that may be his very difficulty. In everything that he has written—melodrama, smart drama, expressionist drama, realist drama, he has shown himself a perfect technician. The theatre is so much at the mercy of his dexterity that one visualizes him as a yawning boxer in that perpetual conflict which we are told is the essence of drama. And Rice admits to being bored by the theatre. Two things can arouse him. A perfectly-clicking bit of practical technique, and a blow-off of genuine emotion. (p. 62)
Meyer Levin, "Elmer Rice," in Theatre Arts Monthly (copyright, 1931, by Theatre Arts, Inc.), January, 1932, pp. 54-62.
Of all the numerous plays about poor New York, Rice's Street Scene (1929) is probably the most convincing. Rice has not confined his playwriting to Manhattan, although his best work was done when he was concerned with it. (p. 35)
Rice's study of law may explain his qualities as a playwright. Almost from his first play to the last he has exhibited a passionate hatred for injustice, which at times worked to the detriment of his dramaturgy. (p. 36)
Equally apparent throughout his plays, in addition to his love for justice and his accuracy of observation is his sensitivity to and dislike for the more material aspects of contemporary American civilization. (p. 37)
As long as Rice confined himself to demonstrating the tragic implications of industrialization and commercialization, critics were willing to accept him. They had the precedents of Galsworthy's Justice, of the plays of Shaw and his imitators, of the young dramatists of the Twenties and the O'Neill of Beyond the Horizon. When Rice, after his great success with Counsellor-at-Law, an assortment of portraits in a metropolitan law office, tried to present his vision of the disintegrating effect of the depression, critics abandoned him. (pp. 37-8)
One may admire a man's courage in facing his adversaries undaunted and yet admit that he is an inefficient dramatist. (p. 39)
Certain gifts of characterization have been revealed by Rice, which incline one to the belief that on the permanence of these characters will depend his reputation. In the theatre one easily comes under their spell and is quite willing to believe in their existence. Rice knows the souls of several people and can describe many more. Thus his portrait of Simon, counsellor-at-law, is probably his masterpiece. Having worked in law offices, knowing the personality of the Jewish professional whose parents were humble immigrants as well as any practising dramatist, Rice naturally excels in such portraits. (pp. 41-2)
With the dramatist's keen eye for the revealing detail, Rice can create a character by giving her a distinctive walk. Thus in Counsellor-at-Law one of the secretaries had a gait the like of which was not seen on the stage. She walked as if all the sense of weariness and unappreciated excellence were locked up in her heart. Whenever she appeared the audience was amused. It may have been merely a dramatic trick, but it was effective. (p. 42)
As a dramatist of social justice, however, Elmer Rice probably prefers to be judged. To be sure, he is in great company including Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, Gerhart Hauptmann, Sean O'Casey, to mention but a few of the greatest in the field. (p. 43)
His novel, Imperial City, is an enlarged play such as he might have written if he had a week of nights in which to present it. His talent in revealing character by significant details enables him to present such a vast array of characters, most of whom are convincing in their verisimilitude. It represents in some respects the climax of his achievement as the portrayer of New York. His social consciousness, his clear eye which enables him to see corruption in politics as well as in family life, his sympathy for a man of good taste, Professor Coleman, his awareness of the thousand and one sights and sounds of the city, they are all characteristic of … Elmer Rice…. (p. 45)
Joseph Mersand, "Elmer Rice: Realist of the Drama," in his The American Drama, 1930–1940: Essays on Playwrights and Plays (copyright, 1941, by Joseph Mersand), The Modern Chapbooks, 1941, pp. 35-46.
The apology that his admirers and his less forthright critics make for Mr. Rice is that he is at least trying to do something better for the drama, whatever his actual achievement, than the general run of our playwrights…. What people mean when they indulge in such rhetoric is that a playwright who talks about something like economic determinism, religious freedom, the Bill of Rights or the evils of Fascism is ipso facto, whether he knows what he is talking about or not, superior to one who writes instead about such things as sequestered loafers like Strindberg and Rostand have written. What they further mean, and honestly believe, is that a bad play treating of important matters is more highly to be venerated than a good one dealing with matters of relatively little importance.
Not only does Rice present himself increasingly as trying to fly to the dramatic heights with one wing, and that a left one, but his take-off is more and more from long-plowed ground. His social thinking amounts to little more than old carbon copies of stuff from Mike Gold's New Masses; his characters in the present play are such stock figures as the Plutocrat, the Plutocrat's Haughty Wife, the Rebellious Son of the Plutocrat, the Young Radical In Sweater, the Wisecracking Comedy Relief Chorus Girl, the Golden Hearted If Humorous Old Jewish Woman, et al.; his "sensational" stage business of the delivery of a child (with appropriate verbal sound effects) is familiar from Gustav Eckstein's Christmas Eve, to say nothing of from the Continental drama of twenty and more years ago; his hospital setting, tone of newborn life, and struggle of mother for child are reminiscent of Mary Macdougal Axelson's Life Begins; and his mental processes which bring him thematically to view a rich and comfortable home for a baby as being certain to pollute its mind, whereas a cheap three-room flat is certain to guarantee the unimpeachable integrity of its future political, economic and sociological philosophy, are those of a Theodore Burt Sayre with a Ph.D. from the College of the City of New York. (pp. 65-6)
George Jean Nathan, "A New Life," in his The Theatre Book of the Year 1943–1944 (copyright 1944 by George Jean Nathan; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1944, pp. 63-6.
[As a playwright, Rice is neither] exceptionally bad [nor] exceptionally good, but his plays [are] varied in kind, and written and produced over a considerable period of time.
Elmer Rice [is] a man in and out of the theatre more than thirty years; a man who has written expressionistic, realistic, satirical, and sentimental plays, more than twenty of which have been produced; a man who has frequently fought not only the reviewers but also what he considered other vested interests in the theatre; a man who more than once has asked publicly for an "analyst" who could "discern any non-accidental relationship between the merits of the plays … and the place which has been accorded them in the Broadway theatre."
A summary of Rice's career shows him identified closely with the significant developments in the American theatre of the last thirty-five years…. [It] was not until 1923 with The Adding Machine that he achieved any critical stature in the theatre. During the late 'twenties and early 'thirties he wrote steadily, and in the period from 1929 to 1934 he reached at once both the height of his productiveness and the depths of his despair with the commercial stage and with the reviewers. A self-imposed exile from the theatre and a short-lived but stormy association with the Federal Theatre Project followed. With the formation of the Playwrights' Company, he returned to Broadway, where, since 1938, he has been less of a storm center and, save for Flight to the West, perhaps also a less significant dramatist. (p. 36)
I would suggest that a small number of Rice's plays be eliminated from an evaluation of their merit. They might be called the potboilers, either confessedly so by the author or so in the general opinion. For example, the plays produced commercially from 1914 to 1922 were all very close to being written for profit alone. (p. 37)
The good plays are those that are clearly superior in their idea, their construction, their harmony, force, or eloquence, or by their combination of some of these qualities. Realizing that even with this group, as with later ones, certain plays are superior to others, I would still name five as good: Street Scene, The Adding Machine, Counsellor-at-Law, The Left Bank, and Flight to the West.
The second category I term fair plays, and I mean that these plays were fully as well intentioned as the good ones but that through some fault of structure, of overstatement or oversimplification, of the failure of the writing in some way to measure up to the theme, they can be considered significant only in part and not as a whole. We the People, Judgment Day, Close Harmony, American Landscape, Between Two Worlds, and A New Life can, I think, be put in this category.
Finally, there are the poor plays, plays about which opinion would differ from the opinion of those in the fair category to this extent: one would wish that the fair plays had been wholly equal to their conception; one would wish that the poor plays, for all their serious intention, had never been written. Even when some excuse may be made for them, as collaborations, adaptations, as plays written after the form had outlived its usefulness, they are yet so halting, so inadequate that I am sure almost everyone would agree that Wake Up, Jonathan, The Mongrel, The Subway, See Naples and Die, and Black Sheep are decidedly poor plays. (pp. 38-9)
Ralph L. Collins, "The Playwright and the Press: Elmer Rice and His Critics," in The Theatre Annual 1948–1949, Volume VII, edited by William Van Lennep (copyright, 1949 by the Theatre Annual), The Theatre Library Association, 1949, pp. 35-58.
Like the meditations in James Joyce's Ulysses [The Adding Machine] is ostensibly the stenographic report of a "stream of consciousness" but actually so intensified and formalized that it becomes a fitting introduction to the Walpurgis night which follows. The very monotonous insistence of its vulgarity hypnotizes the imagination and one passes easily into the world of half-insane fantasy where the main action takes place. Moreover, the formal unity and hence the artistic success of the piece depends upon the fact that the spell of the nightmare is never broken and no attempt is made to interpret it in fully rational terms. Ten years later Mr. Rice, like many of his fellows, would have been unable to write the play because he would by then have been too sure that he knew precisely what it meant, and the nightmare which has here all of a nightmare's not quite definable logic would have become a mere allegory with all of an allegory's childishly mechanical symbolism. In The Adding Machine the author was describing a vision in which he saw a typical human cipher rendered contemptible by his own spiritual nullity and then destroyed by a machine capable of performing his absurd little function better than he could perform it himself. Ten years later Mr. Rice would have been capable only of explaining a theory which made spiritual nullity the product of a society which misused its mechanical tools. And the fact remains—however lamentable it may be—that visions still make better plays than theories ever have. (pp. 231-32)
Mr. Rice never wrote again so good a play [as Street Scene] because he never again showed himself capable of being equally serious without sacrificing his interest in character to his interest in a theory and a lesson. Street Scene is a "proletarian" play in the simple sense that it is a play whose dramatis personae are all members of the proletariat. It is also a "proletarian play" in the sense that the form taken by the conflict and by the catastrophe is determined in part by the physical environment amidst which the characters live and the economic conditions against which they struggle. But the attention is centered upon the interplay of passions, and the personages are interesting chiefly, not because they are oppressed, but because, despite oppression, they have remained human beings. (p. 235)
No contemporary dramatist has (or rather had) a keener ear or a shrewder eye. No matter what milieu he chose to present in a play, one might be sure that its salient features would be recorded with an exactitude which both the camera and the phonograph might envy. What most of us have only seen or heard he has noticed; and the result is a spectacle at once novel and familiar—familiar because we have met every one of its elements before, amusingly novel because we have never previously realized just how characteristic these familiar things were. The titter of recognition is the response which he is surest to win, and realism of a kind could hardly be carried further. (p. 236)
Never orthodox in his radicalism, Mr. Rice seems to have veered more and more definitely toward the position of those who have renounced the revolutionary attitude of Marx and Lenin in favor of one which they hold to be more moderate as well as more in accord with our native tradition, but his new play [American Landscape], though far less intemperate and confused than his other most recent work, seems prosy and dull because its personages so obviously have little life of their own. It is hard to believe that a writer who, even in such minor plays as Counsellor-at-Law and The Left Bank, revealed an almost uncanny gift for catching the rhythm of everyday speech and imitating the gestures of men and women, could write dialogue as lifeless as most of that in the play. The fact that he can do so may stand as an awful warning to the artist who confuses artistic seriousness with seriousness of any other kind. (pp. 262-63)
Joseph Wood Krutch, in his The American Drama Since 1918: An Informal History (reprinted by permission of George Braziller, Inc., Publishers; copyright © 1939 by Joseph Wood Krutch), revised edition, Braziller, 1957.
Has Broadway been a place where [Rice] could exercise his intellect? With the same alert and courageous mind, could he have had a better career in the law? The theater is the most cruel of professions because it turns savagely on its own people and destroys many of them—yet, with all its faults, the theater has been a good home for Mr. Rice. Although he entered it as a clever technician, it gave him the opportunity to develop into a writer who can dramatize ideas. "The Adding Machine" made a mordant social statement in creative terms. "Street Scene" expressed the elusive, centrifugal mood of New York City—the brutality as well as the patience and pity.
The theater has supplied a conspicuous forum for his political plays—"We, the People," "Judgment Day" and "Flight to the West." There has also been some excitement, as in the case of "Counsellor-at-Law," and some fun, as in "The Left Bank," "Two On an Island" and "Dream Girl." Although Broadway is a bazaar and not an educational institution, it has provided a career for one of its most enlightened citizens. It took in a technician and turned out a writer. Not such a vicious bazaar, after all. (p. 33)
Brooks Atkinson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1963.
The central conception of Rice's theatre is that the drama is one of the more naïve forms of art, and such a conclusion is inescapable for any dramatist who intends to write more than closet drama. In the Introduction to his volume Two Plays, Rice discusses this matter in probing detail. (p. 13)
Theatrical effect is broad and simple, and the theatre demands a basic naïveté from its writers and a suspension of the intellect from its audiences. This is not an unfair demand, for we are repaid ten times over by our strongly evoked emotions. And, indeed, the theatre at its best manages to convince us of its sophistication and profundity. If it is not really sophisticated or profound, neither, it may be argued, is man. At any rate, perhaps enough has been said to suggest that the plays of Rice must not be judged by the rules applied to Dostoevsky's insights into character or James's intricacies of style. If from this discussion, the judicious reader decides that the drama is not for him, he might be reminded that within its narrow limits Sophocles and Shakespeare produced enduring examples of the highest capabilities and aspirations of man. One reason for their monumental excellence is that they were at war with their form. Greatness, it may be argued, in art and in life emerges from such a conflict, such a grinding tension between desire and limitation. Without arguing that Rice is a great playwright, I think it is this same conflict between his aspiration and his form that makes him an interesting one. (pp. 13-14)
He has essayed with considerable success potboilers, dramas, thesis plays, comedies, fantasies, melodramas, parables, expressionistic fables, and what we might, for lack of a better term, call panoramas. He has written one-acts, mime plays, murder mysteries, and a modern version of Hamlet. From this intriguing welter of styles, he once [in the New York Times, December 25, 1938] attempted to extract a quality common to all of his work, and it seems appropriate to quote it here.
What I have been trying to say is simply that there is nothing as important in life as freedom and that the dominant concern not only of every human being, but of all of us as we function as members of society should be with the attainment of freedom of the body and of the mind through liberation from political autocracy, economic slavery, religious superstition, hereditary prejudice and herd psychology and the attainment of freedom of the soul through liberation from fear, jealousy, hatred, possessiveness and self-delusion. Now that I have stated it, I see that I was right in saying that everything I have ever written seriously has had in it no other idea than that. (pp. 15-16)
Rice has grown increasingly fluent as a writer of certain kinds of dialogue. His hand, however, is not consistent, and some of his plays seem written with an excellence curiously lacking in others. Similarly, in later plays, Rice's characterization is sometimes splendidly evocative and sometimes blatantly stereotypical. He seems unsteadier in dialogue and in characterization than in certain other qualities which he has been less often admired for. I have particularly in mind his consistently deft handling of play structure and his continuing experiments in form and in content. These are his consistent excellences, and they appear in his first produced play. (p. 21)
A main reason, certainly, for the … continued popularity [of The Adding Machine] is that it is comic, and its indictment of Zero is presented partly through the indirection of irony and satire. An intellectual distance is maintained between the audience and Zero. Without totally identifying ourselves with him, we see portions of ourselves in him. We indict the Zero mentality and presumably by some mental osmosis become less like Zero. This method, at least, is the classic explanation of comedy, and this discussion will stress a point that has been insufficiently made about the play: in form, content, intention, and effect, it is a satiric comedy, and its hero a comic character. (p. 31)
The play is saved by its technical dexterity. Its devices allow for surprise and pleasure that make its ferocity palatable. One device, the monologue, is especially instructive for modern dramatists. In Scenes One and Four, Rice has written two of the longest and best monologues of the modern drama. Realism has nearly driven the monologue and the soliloquy from the boards, yet some dramatic devices we scrap to our detriment. In unrealistic plays, the soliloquy furthered the plot, probed the mind, and allowed an exhibition of the art of acting. In most modern realistic plays, there is a crying need for what the soliloquy used to do. Most modern plays which attempt the soliloquy do it awkwardly or apologetically, as in the "Attention must be paid" speech of Death of a Salesman. (p. 32)
[Mrs. Zero's long speech in Scene One] jolts an audience with a gasp of recognition, for it contains that pervasive, impotent, and inarticulate rage against life that rises from our culture. Many expressionistic plays hit the audience immediately with strangeness and unreality; Rice's play catches its audience immediately with what Edmund Wilson called the shock of recognition. (p. 33)
Besides his adaptation of the traditional devices of soliloquy, aside, and chorus, Rice surprises his audience with the effective fantasy of the graveyard and Elysian Fields scenes, before ending with the supreme example of Zero's unimportance—the example of how his soul is used and reused as a kind of spiritual carbon paper….
The Adding Machine deserves the appreciation it has received. The combination of traditional devices and modern expressionism remains still fresh and theatrical. The satire has lost none of its edge. If the theme is as black as Gulliver's final view of the Yahoos, the whole play is yet well enough wrought to triumph over its theme. The only play that Rice wrote better in this vein was the equally deft but more affirmative satire, The Subway. (p. 36)
Street Scene was produced in 1929, ran for 602 performances, won the Pulitzer Prize, and is one of the great plays of the American theatre. (p. 46)
Although the play is realistic, its realism has seldom been seen on the stage since the days of such sprawling Elizabethan plays as Bartholomew Fair. It is a realism that suddenly makes one understand with a sort of shock that experiments in realism are still possible. The realism bequeathed by Ibsen was the portrayal of a middleclass drawing room, a front parlor inhabited by half a dozen people. A play like Rice's takes the theatre out of that parlor and sets it down in the middle of a busy metropolitan street. The effect is as if a slab of reality had been hurled at the audience, as if realism itself were abruptly revitalized and its true possibilities beginning at last to be explored.
Compared with Street Scene, the front parlor drama seems unreal, contrived, and artificial. It is as if the front parlor dramatists has been using the delicately honed scalpel of realism to extract the meat from nuts rather than the pith from life. Perhaps it is wrong to forget a lesson from [Ibsen]…. The man who wrote Brand and Peer Gynt did not regard realism as a confinement, but as the quickest way to freedom. The free realism of Street Scene seems to prove the vitality of that realistic form from which so many lesser playwrights have found "No Exit." (p. 48)
Street Scene is as pertinent a reminder as Endgame or The Chairs of what the theatre can do if it will but extend itself. (p. 49)
The compassion in the play establishes the worth and humanity of the characters. The brutality does not erase that worth, but makes the plight of these people even more poignant. Rice is not laying the blame on a narrow social basis. He is not condemning a particular society or a certain system of economics for the lives of his people. One of his characters, Abraham Kaplan, does make such a condemnation, but Rice makes it clear that Kaplan is not his raisonneur. Rice is not expounding socialism, but human nature, and his play seems to prove that people inevitably destroy themselves, that they carry in themselves the seeds of their own brutality. Without wishing to, they cannot avoid hurting each other. (p. 51)
Street Scene is one of those plays which affirm that the value of drama is that it asserts the value of man. Indeed, the way in which Street Scene pushes back the boundaries of the drama may almost itself negate the triumphant brutality of the play's theme. There can be no higher praise, I think, than that. (p. 54)
In [Counsellor at Law], Rice found a splendidly effective way of portraying a particular story and of suggesting a whole society…. Plays can succeed if they present one facet of an individual convincingly, but the great plays show or suggest more than one facet. In this play Rice has hit upon a device for using his background more dramatically, a device to characterize his hero, and to suggest a full and many-faceted individual. In life, a man is not consistent, but behaves in different ways depending upon whom he is dealing with. Some of these ways are superficial, but all compose the totality of a man. It is a rare play which manages to suggest so many of these ways, and Counsellor-at-Law is such a play. (pp. 61-2)
[We, the People] is notable for embodying two of Rice's main preoccupations—the now definitely formed commitment to a drama of social criticism, and what he describes above as "a panoramic presentation." In We, the People, he attempted to show many levels of society in America. He attempted to create the illusion of totality that Dos Passos strove for in Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. It was the same attempt that novelists like Balzac, Zola, Proust, and Faulkner made in a whole series of detailed novels. Indeed, in two of his own novels, Imperial City and The Show Must Go On, Rice himself used fiction in this broad manner. (p. 67)
Having fallen elsewhere into the enthusiastic error of puffing my subject at the expense of other writers, I hesitate to place Rice among his contemporaries. He has some merits that O'Neill or Anderson or Williams lacks, and they have some excellences largely absent from his work. Unlike O'Neill, Rice seems often to try more for scope than for depth, but his most ambitious plays tend to be his best. His high comedy seems less deft than Sherwood's. His recreation of everyday language is sometimes less vivid than Odets' or Williams'. His whimsy does not take flight as airily as Saroyan's or Wilder's. His language makes no attempt to be beautiful as does Anderson's—thank Heavens. His work falls short of the rich verve found in the two best plays of Mayer.
On the other hand, the endings of Street Scene and The Subway are as grippingly tragic as almost anything in O'Neill. George Simon, his counsellor-at-law, is as memorable a victim of the rat race as is Willy Loman, and he has probably placed upon the stage a greater number of fresh dramatic types than any of his contemporaries. Much of the dialogue in Two on an Island is excellently racy, and most of the dialogue in Street Scene, Counsellor-at-Law, and The Left Bank hit his contemporaries as vividly as did anything later in Odets' Bronx or Williams' New Orleans. Some of the whimsy, the parody, and the satire in Not for Children and even in Dream Girl can hardly be bettered. As a consistently experimental playwright, he is rivalled in our theatre only by O'Neill; as a master of every kind of plot structure he probably stands alone. He has had his failures, but he has done, at one time or another, almost everything consummately. (pp. 150-51)
Robert Hogan, in his The Independence of Elmer Rice (copyright © 1965, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.
The first of the "moderns" to enter the limelight by bringing revolutionary ideas to American drama was Elmer Rice. In 1910, he was a pale, thin, red-haired young man who worked in his Cousin Moe's law office. By 1914, in a meteoric rise, he would become the leading playwright of the year. (p. 8)
[The Adding Machine] made use of many different kinds of dramaturgy, especially in the heaven scenes and finale, when Mr. Zero's soul is sent back to earth because he fails at the seraphic machine; it has been called both "impressionistic" and "expressionistic," the first of its kind on the American stage. But Elmer Rice was not aware, when he recorded that late-night nocturnal revelation, that he was imitating (or borrowing from) any European school of dramatists. The influence may have been unconscious, a result of the vast range of his reading, but whether this was so or not, The Adding Machine was remarkable for its sardonic humor, the universal note of its theme, and for its vision. The play, which has been performed throughout the years, on many stages in many countries, was far ahead of its day. Its indictment of overmechanization is perhaps more timely in the era of automation than in the 1920s. (p. 15)
With the phenomenal success of Street Scene, Elmer was spurred on to write and direct a new play nearly every year. More than once he had two plays running on Broadway at the same time. (p. 17)
He began writing his autobiography, Minority Report (a legal term once more), which was completed and published in time for his seventieth birthday in 1962, and which might well be considered a rich, personal history of the theater in America. Most important of all, most essential to his well-being, he continued to write and direct plays. Cue for Passion, based on the theme of Hamlet, and Love Among the Ruins (produced in 1963) are among his latest. Elmer Rice's capacity for living, for the enjoyment of life, has been large, no matter what his trials; and he remains today the devoted friend of his first love—the theater. (p. 21)
Jean Gould, in her Modern American Playwrights (copyright © 1966 by Jean Gould), Dodd, Mead & Company, 1966.
Today, a reading of On Trial [the first of Rice's plays to be produced] arouses perplexity as to what all the shouting was about. But on August 19, 1914, On Trial made theatrical history and introduced a playwright who was for over fifty years one of the most prolific; the most praised and damned; and, in many ways, the most experimental and vital dramatists of the twentieth century, both here and abroad.
Basic to Rice's outlook as a writer is his awareness of his being the hero of the Great American Success Story, a hero whose bright moment of triumph was preceded by dark chapters of fear, unhappiness, and alienation. Archetypically American, his story could be attributed to Horatio Alger and entitled "From Rags to Riches." The important thing is that Rice lived this story, and the fact that he did inculcated in him a firm devotion to America as the land of freedom and opportunity and a conviction that the individual is basically good and, in such an environment, capable of infinite self-development. With this belief, Rice struck out angrily at any forces and attitudes which he saw betraying and corrupting both America and the individual human being. His intensity and stridency often led to his being misunderstood, to his being accused of trying to destroy the very things he was defending. (pp. 15-16)
Elmer Rice … was forever intrigued by the limitless possibilities of the stage, the unexplored reaches of dramatic technique. From the standpoint of craft, he rarely repeated himself. In almost every play he set himself a new problem. His fascination with form as form was to lead him from Realism through Expressionism and Naturalism to a modified symbolic fantasy; it was to move him to write drama, melodrama, comedy, smart comedy, and Naturalistic tragedy. (p. 23)
Early, Rice found a philosophy and a sense of mission. He was to be a champion of human liberties, of the rights of the individual; he would speak out against tyranny and injustice wherever and whenever he saw them. He would be a knight-errant brandishing his avenging spear at anything that debased the human spirit. An avowed foe of the corrupting of democratic ideals by capitalism and materialism, he was to be frequently the champion of what he called "socialism," but he was misunderstood because his shrillness led the imperceptive to label him Communist.
In only two of these early plays did he attempt the expression of his serious ideas, The Iron Cross and The House in Blind Alley. The first, rejected by Broadway, was played for only two performances by a motley company of amateurs and professionals. The second—written in the white heat of anger, without thought of production—was a kind of catharsis, for the good of his own soul. A mordantly savage shriek from the housetops, it released pent-up tensions, but his cry went unheeded.
Young Elmer Rice learned his craft and found his cause. It now remained for him to effect a meaningful union of the two. And even before the production of It Is the Law he had done so: he had written The Adding Machine. (pp. 37-8)
Along with The Adding Machine, Street Scene marks the apex of Rice's achievement as a serious playwright. Neither play sinks into mere mechanical dexterity; neither rises to the stridency of his later propaganda pieces. Each shows him as a man with depth of feeling and as an artist profoundly skilled, in nearly perfect control of his medium. He makes the theater a pulpit, but a nonsectarian one; he utilizes the theater's facilities for compassionate and dramatic representations of the human comedy and the human tragedy. Never again would he achieve such balanced and impressive writing. (p. 67)
[Though Rice] is now dead, his name remains a major one in American drama. First, most obviously Rice is significant as a kind of one-man history of American playwriting from 1914 until the 1960's. Sometimes surpassed in quality by less fecund dramatists, Elmer Rice is the full-fledged, full-time professional. No other playwright worked so continuously nor with such versatility and at the same time maintained so respected a position. His versatility and his need to keep on writing betrayed him sometimes into reliance upon mere technical facility; and his ardor for "good causes" occasionally led him into polemics and even lapses of taste.
But these very failures combined with his successes make the career of Elmer Rice—to use one of his own terms—microcosmic, the history of America playwriting in miniature. He wrote a variety of types, reflecting the changing tastes and artistic and popular demands of the theater. Loudly proclaiming the need for intellectual and esthetic integrity, he shamelessly mixed serious efforts and potboilers, thus typifying the dual nature of the American theater—its being both an art and a business. To list the types and techniques he employed is to list the types and techniques of a half-century of American playwriting: Realistic melodrama, Expressionism, Naturalism, smart comedy, domestic comedy and drama, relatively violent propaganda plays, psychological comedies and dramas, and hit comedies blending Realism and Expressionism. With all this variety, Rice was no chameleon. He maintained throughout this infinite parade his own unique voice, his own distinctive individuality. (pp. 138-39)
Frank Durham, in his Elmer Rice (copyright 1970 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1970.