Places Discussed

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Manhattan apartment building

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Manhattan apartment building. Ordinary brownstone tenement, crowded with roughly a dozen families in New York City’s Manhattan borough. Although the stage directions indicate the geographic location only as “a mean quarter of New York,” Elmer Rice later revealed in his autobiography that he and designer Jo Mielziner had modeled this particular facade on an actual brownstone located on Sixty-fifth Street. The stage directions further indicate that this is an “ugly brownstone” built in the 1890’s, surrounded by a storage warehouse on stage left and a building being demolished on stage right. The most prominent features of this street scene are “a ‘stoop’ of four shallow stone steps flanked on either side by a curved stone balustrade,” the apartment’s vestibule just inside the front door (always open) at the top of the steps, the windows of the janitor’s basement apartment, and the six narrow windows of the first-floor apartments, through which some of the residents can be seen. The windows of the apartments located on the upper floors are not visible.

As an example of social realism, Street Scene relies on its detailed stage setting to evoke an atmosphere of everyday life in New York, not only visually but aurally. According to the stage directions, the sounds of the city should be heard as constant background noise, from the distant roar of elevated trains and rattling trucks, to the barking of dogs and murmurs of New Yorkers at work and play over the course of twenty-four hours on a sweltering June day.

Historical Context

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In 1929, the United States was on the verge of transition from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression. The 1920s were a complicated decade in American history. There was an illusion of economic prosperity. Big business got bigger in the economic boom as corporations grew. This boom made many rich and powerful and gave others the idea that they could become wealthy as well. The source for this wealth was perceived to be the stock market, which kept getting bigger throughout the 1920s. In 1929, stock market madness hit its peak, and those who ran the stock market could not keep up with the rapid changes. Warning signs were ignored about the artificially high bull market. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday and soon the Great Depression set in. Within a month, unemployment rates had quadrupled.

Before the crash, cities were seen as places of opportunity. Throughout the United States, there was an increase in urbanization. Office buildings, industrial complexes, hotels, and apartment buildings were constructed at a rapid rate. The Empire State Building was begun in 1929, and completed in 1931. New York City was regarded as the epitome of possibilities and drew many new immigrants and rural Americans to make their fortune. Yet in New York City there was widespread pollution and overcrowding. As people became successful, they moved to newly constructed suburbs. First the upper classes moved to the suburbs, then middle-class suburbs grew as well.

Not everyone benefited in the 1920s economic boom. Working- and lower-middle classes, which included teachers, did not, though they did have steady employment and relatively high wages. Unions were not really powerful or respected in the 1920s, though they did exist. Unskilled factory work was boring and their work situations were unstable. Many urban dwellers lived in crowded apartments. Only seventy-one percent had running water and eighty percent had electricity. Rural America was even worse off. Rural America and small towns were already on the decline, and farmers were already suffering under tremendous economic pressure. Only ten percent of farm families had electricity, and only thirty-three percent had running water.

Throughout the 1920s, there was a conflict between rural and urban America and between the native-born and immigrants. There was concern over what to do with all the new Americans and their needs: more than a quarter who came to this country were illiterate. While many groups sprang to indoctrinate immigrants into American society, a nativism movement feared what immigrants brought to this country. People were afraid of communism, socialism, and other radical ideas. Many did not like Germans (because of World War I), Jews, or Catholics. Anti-Semitism was rampant. The Ku Klux Klan grew in power, though the actual number of lynchings declined in 1929. Such pressure led to the National Origins Act in 1924, which placed restrictions on the numbers and kinds of European immigrants. Still, immigrants came, even after the stock market crash signaled the end of an optimistic decade and the beginning of a desperate decade.

Literary Style

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Setting
Street Scene is a drama that takes place in New York City in contemporary time (the late 1920s). The date is a hot day in June. The action of the play is confined to one location: the exterior of a brownstone tenement that is about thirty years old. The building is somewhat shabby but features a stoop where many of the residents gather to escape the heat and socialize. Also visible are the front windows of several of the apartments, in which residents can be seen or heard. The building is located on a street that features warehouses as well as other housing. By limiting the play to one familiar setting, Rice underscores Street Scene’s themes. It emphasizes the characters’ social circumstances and how dehumanizing life in New York City can be for those of the lower-middle classes.

Realism
Street Scene is a written as a realistic play. Realism is the faithful depiction of real life. Rice tries to capture what life was really like in New York City in the late 1920s for a certain class of society. To that end, he sets his play in a realistic setting: the tenement. Many of his characters are immigrants who speak English with an accent. Some, like Mr. Kaplan, maintain distinct ties to their past. Mr. Kaplan reads a newspaper written in Hebrew. Rice also shows how these people interact with those who consider themselves American, like the Joneses and the Maurrants. Their concerns are simple, related to everyday life: the affair that Mrs. Maurrant is having, how to stay cool on warm summer day, the young love of Rose Maurrant and Sam Kaplan.

Many minor characters add the play’s realistic elements. Throughout the play, different kinds of people walk by the building, from children, to policeman, to those who want to gape at the murder scene in act 3. Many do not have lines, but those who do just talk about things like playing Red Rover or the like. To emphasize Rice’s social message, he includes some better-developed minor characters as well. Miss Simpson, the spinster charity worker, looks down upon many of the tenement’s residents. Though she is ostensibly helping Mrs. Hildebrand and her children (who have been left destitute after Mr. Hildebrand abandoned them), Miss Simpson cannot help but push her beliefs on others. Such characters add to the play’s realism by including the kinds of people who would be found in such a place in real life.

Sound Effects
Rice goes to great lengths in the play’s directions to emphasize the importance of sound to the realism of Street Scene. Throughout the play, Rice calls for steam whistles, traffic, and other street noise to be heard by the audience. In the original production, which Rice directed, he had the stage constructed so that audiences would hear footsteps as they are heard when walking down the street. He also made records with the kinds of street noise he believed was vital to the play’s realism.

Multiple Plots
In Street Scene, Rice does not use a typical linear plot. Instead, he weaves many plots, both large and small, throughout the play. The primary plot focuses on the Maurrant family: Mrs. Maurrant’s affair, her husband’s knowledge of the affair or lack thereof, Rose’s love life, and Willie’s rambunctiousness. While many of Street Scene’s subplots are linked in one way or another to the Maurrants, there are a significant number that are not, including Mrs. Hildebrand’s eviction. By depicting this kind of variety of stories, Rice adds to the realism and power of the play. There is not one primary story in life, but many that are linked and some that are not.

Compare and Contrast

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1929: The primary entertainment in the home is the radio. Over ten million households (about half of the country) have radios in 1929, where few had them in 1921.

Today: Television and computer-related technology have far surpassed radio as the primary forms of home entertainment.

1929: After a period of unheralded prosperity, the stock market crashes in October. The American economy is soon in turmoil. Warning signs about the economy had been ignored.

Today: There is unheralded prosperity in the United States, though there are some doubts about overvalued Internet-related stock. Procedures are in place to prevent a crash similar to that of 1929.

1929: In general, unions are not particularly powerful or respected, though they are growing a bit in manufacturing. Public opinion towards them is generally negative. A strike in a Tennessee textile mill ends in defeat for labor.

Today: After decades of power, unions are in decline. While some unions have power in certain industries, respect for them is generally declining.

1929: Because there is often no refrigeration in the home, milk and ice are delivered to homes on a daily basis.

Today: Refrigerators are commonly found in homes. Consumers buy dairy products in markets. The concept of daily delivery is alien.

Media Adaptations

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Street Scene was adapted for film by Rice, who wrote the screenplay. The film was directed by King Vidor and starred Sylvia Sidney as Rose Maurrant. It was released by United Artists in 1931.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Arliss, Laurie, Mary Cassata, and Thomas Skill, ‘‘Dyadic Interaction on the Daytime Serials: ‘‘How Men and Women Vie for Power,’’ in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1983, p. 147.

Atkinson, J. Brooks, Review in New York Times, January 19, 1947, Sect. 2, p. 1.

———, ‘‘Affairs on the West Side,’’ New York Times, January 20, 1929, Sect. 8, p. 1.

———, ‘‘Honor Where Honor Is Due,’’ New York Times, May 19, 1929, Sect. 9, p. 1.

———, Review in New York Times, January 11, 1929, p. 20.

Behringer, Fred, ‘‘Elmer Rice,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981, pp. 179–92.

Bigsby, C. W. E., A Critical Introduction to Twentieth- Century American Drama, Vol. 1, 1900–1940, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. vi, vii, 126,130.

Broussard, Louis, American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962, pp. 3, 7.

Bruckner, D. J. R., Review in New York Times, November 6, 1996, p. C14.

Cassata, Mary, ‘‘The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: An Analysis of Soap Operas Radio to Television’’ in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. 85.

———, and Thomas Skill, ‘‘‘Television Soap Operas: What’s Been Going On Anyway:’—Revisited’’ in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. 157.

Review in Catholic World, March 1929, pp. 720–22.

Comstock, George, ‘‘A Social Scientist’s View of Daytime Serial Drama,’’ in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. xxiii.

Gassner, John, Twenty-Five Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, Crown Publishers, 1949, pp. xvi, xxviii.

Krutch, Joseph Wood, ‘‘Cross Section,’’ in Nation, January 30, 1929, p. 142.

Lyons, Donald, Review in Wall Street Journal, November 4, 1996, p. A20.

Miller, Jordan Y., and Winifred L. Frazer, American Drama between the Wars: A Critical History, in Twayne’s Critical History of American Drama, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. vii, xii, 158, 168.

Morgan, Charles, Review in New York Times, September 28, 1930, Sect. 8, p. 2.

Newcomb, Horace, ‘‘A Humanist’s View of Daytime Serial Drama,’’ in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. xxix.

Rice, Elmer L., Street Scene, Samuel French, 1928, 1956.

———, Street Scene, in Seven Plays by Elmer Rice, Viking Press, 1950, pp. 111–90.

Skinner, R. Dana, Review in Commonweal, Vol. IX, No. 12, January 23, 1929, pp. 48–49.

Thurber, James, ‘‘Ivorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg, and Crisco Corners,’’ in Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Operas, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997, p. 51.

Valgemae, Mardi, Accelerated Grimace: Expressionism in American Drama of the 1920s, in Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques series, edited by Harry Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. xi, xiv, 14.

Young, Stark, Review in New Republic, January 30, 1929, p. 296–98.

Further Reading
Dunham, Frank, Elmer Rice, Twayne, 1970. This critical study of Rice’s life and work includes commentary on Street Scene.

Hogan, Robert, The Independence of Elmer Rice, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965. This book discusses Rice’s plays, including Street Scene, in social and cultural context.

Palmieri, Anthony F. R., Elmer Rice: A Playwright’s Vision of America, Farleigh Dickinson, 1980. This book considers Street Scene and other Rice plays in terms of his development as a playwright and his reaction to the world around him.

Rice, Elmer, Minority Report: An Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1963. This autobiography considers the whole of Rice’s life and theatrical career, including Street Scene.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249

Durham, Frank. Elmer Rice. New York: Twayne, 1970. Discusses the long career of Elmer Rice as a microcosm of the history of dramatic writing in the United States. Centers on Rice’s employment of types and techniques as an accommodation of the changing tastes and artistic demands of the theater.

Gould, Jean. “Elmer Rice.” In Modern American Playwrights. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966. Focuses on Rice’s background in law and its incorporation in his plots. Considers his experiments with form as efforts to find a new method of dramaturgy. Asserts that both The Adding Machine and Street Scene are indictments of overmechanization.

Hogan, Robert. The Independence of Elmer Rice. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965. Laments the “unhealthy” effects of the theater as a commercial vehicle on all playwrights, especially Rice. Assesses Rice’s achievements in relation to other playwrights and within the limitations of the theater itself.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. The American Drama Since 1918. New York: George Braziller, 1957. Classic survey of trends in U.S. drama from 1918 to 1956. Believes the dignifying of human beings in Street Scene is the antithesis of The Adding Machine, which posits people as ciphers victimized by the machine age.

Rabkin, Gerald. “Elmer Rice and the Seriousness of Drama.” In Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964. Evaluates Street Scene, The Adding Machine, and The Subway as indications of the prevailing fear that mechanistic civilization dehumanizes people. Argues that Street Scene, although despairing of modern life, is optimistic.

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