Steet Scene in a Contemporary Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1517

When Elmer Rice’s Street Scene was first produced in 1929, it was unlike most other plays of the day. The play featured numerous, realistic characters, and many, sometimes intersecting, story lines, and neither of these aspects was developed in depth. Rice was discouraged from even producing Street Scene at all by his colleagues. Yet the drama was produced and was somewhat successful. To emphasize its realism, Rice insisted that the original production feature prerecorded street noise and other natural sounds to underscore that this tenement was really in the heart of New York City. Furthermore, Rice also added an element of contemporary social criticism to Street Scene. In one subplot, Mrs. Hildebrand and her two children are about to be removed from their home because they are without funds after Mr. Hildebrand abandoned them. They are ‘‘aided’’ by a social worker, Miss Alice Simpson, who seems only interested in controlling the poor family.

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This kind of realism and social criticism is no longer so unusual in mainstream theater. Street Scene uses other techniques that are also common, not with socially oriented drama but with the daytime soap operas that have been found on television since the 1950s. The kind of events that occur in Street Scene are stock-in-trade of this kind of episodic television. More importantly, Rice’s way of writing the play makes it seem like an episode in a longer drama. None of the stories in the tenement has a beginning that starts only after the curtain rises, and only a few story lines have a clear ending, though there is more to explore in these subplots. In other words, the interrelated stories of Street Scene could have had plays/episodes before them and continue after this point, not unlike a soap opera. This essay looks at two primary elements of Street Scene—themes and structure—and how they resemble a modern day soap opera.

In his essay ‘‘A Social Scientist’s View of Daytime Serial Drama,’’ George Comstock defines a soap opera as ‘‘the continuing saga of a group of people involved with each other through lineage, passion, ambition, hostility, and chance.’’ This defi- nition could well be applied to Street Scene. The characters in the play are grouped into small families who live in different apartments in the tenement. Their decision to live in this building is, at least in part, by chance. They may not have much money, but there are many other tenements in the city of New York. There is also hostility among them. Abraham Kaplan’s constant stream of Marxist rhetoric, for example, is not appreciated by most of his neighbors. The Joneses are depicted as vicious bullies. The son, Vincent Jones, takes pleasure in harassing Sam Kaplan, who in turn is in love with Rose Maurrant. Sam is willing to give up his future to be with Rose, though his sister, Shirley, does everything in her power to discourage the romance. Ambition is hard to come by in the tenement: mostly characters hope to survive. Only the Kaplans seem to have much of a chance to escape, through education.

Admittedly, most modern day soaps do not focus on lower-middle to lower-class characters living in one tenement house. A majority of characters in soap operas are middle- to upper-class, with many professionals, both men and women. But almost every soap focuses on one community, and a number of families that live in it. James Thurber, in his essay ‘‘Ivorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg and Crisco Corners,’’ provides another definition. He writes, ‘‘A soap opera deals with the plights and problems brought about in the lives of its permanent principal characters by the advent and interference of one group of individuals after another.’’ This statement can be applied to Street Scene . If the families who live in the...

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Critical Overview