Elmer Rice Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Elmer Rice was a versatile and prolific writer. He was not only a serious dramatist, with more than thirty published plays to his credit at the time of his death, but also a novelist of some skill. In 1930, he published A Voyage to Purilia, a satire on Hollywood based on his experiences there during his stint as a writer for Samuel Goldwyn shortly after World War I. In the novel, Rice satirizes the shortcomings and triteness of the movie industry. That the book was accepted for serialization in The New Yorker attests Rice’s skill as a stylist and craftsperson. Rice’s second novel, Imperial City (1937), was written during his four-year retirement from the theater. The work examines the variegated pattern of New York City life and offers a panoramic view of that fascinating metropolis. Rice was praised for the completeness of his depiction. In his third and final novel, The Show Must Go On (1949), Rice drew on his experiences in the theater world. The book received some acclaim, both in the United States and in England, and has been translated into several foreign languages.

Rice is not remembered for his success as a screenwriter. He did, however, work in Hollywood after World War I and again in the 1930’s, and still later in the 1940’s. In the 1930’s, Rice was hired by Universal to serve as scenarist for the film version of his own play Counsellor-at-Law. In the late 1940’s, Rice agreed to do a screenplay based on Earth and High Heaven (1944), a novel by a Canadian writer, Gwethalyn Graham. The screenplay was completed, but the film was never made.

Rice also published a wide-ranging book on the theater, entitled The Living Theatre (1959). In it, he distinguishes the theater from the drama and covers other areas such as the status of the theater in Japan, England, and the Soviet Union, the beginnings of the theater in the United States and its growth, the Federal Theatre Project, commercialism in the arts, and censorship. In 1963, Rice published his autobiography, Minority Report, which is fascinating reading for any student of modern American drama.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ever an innovator, ever seeking to improve the quality of the American theater, Elmer Rice began his Broadway career with a play, On Trial, that used the flashback technique for the first time on an American stage. The use of the technique created a production problem, the solution to which required yet another innovation. In order to shift scenes rapidly from various interior settings to a permanent courtroom setting, as required by the play, a two-platform stage had to be developed. In due course this was accomplished, and the device, called a jackknife stage, was introduced for the first time to the American theatergoing public. This development was a boon to playwrights, to whom it offered greater freedom and flexibility in choosing settings.

Rice was responsible for a number of other innovations. In A New Life, he was the first American playwright to present a birth scene in full view of the audience, shattering a long-observed taboo and leading the way for other American dramatists. In The Winner, Rice again broke with tradition: For the role of the judge who presides over a hearing involving a contested will, Rice chose an African American actor, Frederick O’Neal. This was a departure from the accepted practice of casting black people only in subordinate, menial, or other stereotypical parts. For casting a black person in an unconventional role, and thus opening up the American theater to racial equality, Rice was presented with the Canada Lee Foundation Award.

The most prestigious award Rice received as a playwright was the Pulitzer Prize . This was accorded him for his precedent-shattering play Street Scene. It was such a departure from the standard stage fare of the time that some thought it was not a play at all. There were simply too many characters,...

(The entire section is 746 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Chametzky, Jules. “Elmer Rice, Liberation, and the Great Ethnic Question.” In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen, edited by Sarah Blacker Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. Places Rice in the context of Jewish involvement in theater and film in the early twentieth century.

Durham, Frank. Elmer Rice. New York: Twayne, 1970. Progresses chronologically with detailed analyses of Rice’s work. Durham writes of Rice’s ethical qualities and his ability to turn types into real characters with his “vivid, life-giving touch.” Offers detailed analyses of all Rice’s work, as well as nineteen pages of notes, bibliography, and index.

Hogan, Robert. The Independence of Elmer Rice. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965. Hogan offers a comparative analysis, discussing Rice’s connection to many writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Provides extensive analysis of major and lesser known works, as well as fourteen pages of notes, bibliography, and index.

Palmieri, Anthony F. R. Elmer Rice: A Playwright’s Vision of America. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. Focuses on Rice’s reformer’s impulse, which led at times to didactic or propagandistic writing. Palmieri details how Rice struggled against censorship and strove to make the theater an agent of social change, being one of the first to attack such evils as child labor and Nazism. Contains bibliography and index.

Vanden Heuvel, Michael. Elmer Rice: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Newport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. This study looks at the plays of Rice, paying particular attention to how they were staged and produced. Bibliography and indexes.