Among the important American dramatists of the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Elmer Rice was probably second only to Eugene O’Neill in the scope of his vision and the range of his theatrical experimentation. Although he achieved some early recognition with his courtroom drama On Trial (1914), it was The Adding Machine (1923), a wildly expressionistic episodic fantasy about a harried average man, Mr. Zero, who is trapped in an eternity of meaningless, machinelike activities, which earned Rice recognition as one of the most important dramatists in the United States. Then, having written one of the best nonrealistic plays of his time, Rice realized his greatest commercial and critical success with Street Scene, one of the most starkly realistic plays ever put on the American stage.
In spite of their radically differing theatrical styles, On Trial and Street Scene are about the same thing: the dehumanizing effect of modern, urban, industrial society on the human spirit. In Street Scene, however, Rice dramatizes his thesis by showing average people in situations of painful personal suffering, instead of abstract characters in symbolic settings, which makes Street Scene more powerful.
Street Scene is the forerunner of the social drama of the 1930’s. Before this time, what social drama the United States produced criticized only indirectly. In Street Scene, however, as soon as the curtain rises, before any plot is set in motion, the audience sees and feels the crowding, ugliness, noise, heat, and general agitation that constantly surrounds these urban dwellers. Such an environment is certain to bring out the worst in people; their necessary proximity guarantees conflict and violence. The situation is bad enough for the unimaginative, who are less aware of alternatives to the stifling quality of their condition, but for the more sensitive soul, who is conscious of being dehumanized, the life is doubly painful. Street Scene is a play about individuals who, rebelling in the most limited ways against their plight, unleash the fury that exists beneath the surface of the oppressive status quo.
The story begins with a scene of everyday life in front of the teeming tenement. This close mix of the various racial and social types quickly establishes the general atmosphere of tension, bitterness, and petty viciousness. From this agitated surface, Rice skillfully and naturally draws out one major story and a number of minor ones. The primary plot line concerns Frank Maurrant’s violent attack on his wife, Anna, and her lover, Sankey. Paralleled to this is the bittersweet love affair between Frank’s daughter, Rose, and Sam Kaplan, a sensitive, young Jewish neighbor. The Maurrant family story counterpoints several other action lines and character studies, such as the birth of the Buchanan baby, the eviction of the Hildebrands, Harry Easter’s attempt to seduce Rose, old man Kaplan’s Marxist rhetoric, and Mae Jones’s open promiscuity. It is all powerfully punctuated by the constant intrusions of the neighbors who, out of boredom and petty vindictiveness, meddle whenever they can.
Although the tenement inhabitants are confined by their economic circumstances, they are even more thoroughly imprisoned by their own distorted social, racial, and religious beliefs and assumptions. All the characters retain their ethnic prejudices and cling to notions of social superiority. The worst family in the building is the most “purely American,” the Joneses, with their bullying taxi-driver son, Vincent, their whorish daughter, Mae, and their most vicious of gossips, Mrs. Jones.
Frank is driven to murder his wife from a combination of half-understood frustration and residual Puritan moralism. It is clear that the Maurrants were once happy together, but time, circumstance, and Frank’s distorted concept of...
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the husband’s role combine to destroy their closeness. Anna takes Sankey as a lover because she feels lost and in need of a kind word. After the killings, Frank admits that he cannot understand what it was that drove him to murder.
Rose understands and, because she does, she is the pivotal figure in the play. The romance with Sam is never really serious, because he is a bright child and she is already a mature woman. Rose alone affirms life and sees the possibility of living it meaningfully as an autonomous human being. The only answer, Rice seems to say, is to insist on one’s humanity in the face of all the pressures that modern civilization can bring against it.