Authors: Elmer Rice

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Identity: Jewish


Elmer Rice, one of the major dramatists of the first half of the twentieth century, was instrumental in the emergence of American drama as an influential force in world theater. Born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein, he grew up in Manhattan, living with his parents Jacob and Fanny Lion Reizenstein. The family was poor, and Rice completed only two years of high school before quitting at age fourteen in order to work and contribute to the family’s budget, being employed first as a claims clerk and then as a law clerk in his cousin’s office. While working, he received a high school equivalency diploma, and in 1908 he entered New York Law School. His concern with social issues, which would be evident throughout his career, developed early. His parents instilled in him the value of goodness and fairness, but his experience with law taught him that the world was otherwise. He observed that the law, rather than being used to uphold justice, often was manipulated to evade justice. In addition, his early reading of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen imparted to him a respect for socialism and a guarded attitude toward capitalism. At the age of twenty-two, shortly after being admitted to the New York bar, he left his position at the law office determined to write plays. Eight months later, On Trial was playing in New York and receiving the praise of critics. The play eventually earned more than $100,000 for Rice, enabling him to continue in the theater.{$I[AN]9810000859}{$I[A]Rice, Elmer}{$S[A]Reizenstein, Elmer Leopold;Rice, Elmer}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Rice, Elmer}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Rice, Elmer}{$I[tim]1892;Rice, Elmer}

With On Trial, Rice began a professional life that would include the writing of more than thirty plays. In addition, Rice, starting with Street Scene and with the exception of The Subway, directed all his plays, and after 1930 he also produced them. As a playwright, he is recognized for his experimentation and for his technical expertise. Even his first play demonstrates his interest in innovation. On Trial contains a rather conventional plot: An ill-treated woman goes on to a happy marriage only to be blackmailed by her early seducer into another sexual liaison. Incensed, her husband murders the man and is placed on trial. The play was a success not primarily because of the plot but because of the structure. Opening with the trial scene, the play proceeds through a series of flashbacks, a technique previously unknown in theater that Rice had borrowed from film.

During this period Rice married Hazel Levy, had two children, and actively involved himself with social issues such as women’s suffrage and child labor. Drama became his means to effect changes in the social system. He wrote about women’s views of World War I in The Iron Cross and about child labor in The House in Blind Alley. When the difficulty of finding an outlet for these plays became apparent, he wrote more commercially acceptable plays, such as two moderately successful mystery melodramas, For the Defense and It Is the Law, and the drama Wake up, Jonathan, written with Hatcher Hughes. Throughout his career, his plays can be divided into those that have a social message and those that fit the conventional Broadway mold.

After a two-year stint in Hollywood writing for film, Rice returned to New York and penned one of his most acclaimed plays, The Adding Machine. The play, innovative for its use of expressionism, illustrates the anti-individualistic effects of industrialization. Mr. Zero, a bookkeeper for twenty-five years, has worked methodically six days a week without a raise or any other acknowledgment from his boss. On the anniversary of his twenty-fifth year, he is fired; his replacement will be an adding machine. After receiving the news, he stabs his boss and then spends the evening with his wife and several other nondescript couples. As he expects, he is arrested, tried, and executed. To his amazement, he is transported to heaven, where he encounters his fellow bookkeeper Daisy Devore. Secretly in love with him, she had committed suicide. For the first time in his life, Zero has the opportunity to be happy, but he rejects it as immoral. Choosing to leave heaven, he is assigned to computing figures on a gigantic adding machine. Since souls are recycled, however, he is sent back to earth to another slavelike existence. The play received generally favorable reviews and has been revived and produced in New York, London, and Paris, and on innumerable college campuses throughout the United States.

After a few years in Paris, an experience later reflected in The Left Bank, Rice was again in New York City writing and then directing and producing what would become his most successful play, Street Scene. This play, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, presents a slice of lower-middle-class life in New York. The many characters and numerous incidents are connected by the single stage setting, a tenement, and by the unfolding drama of the Maurrant family. Stifled by both life in the tenement and a cold, domineering husband, Anna Maurrant seeks happiness in a not-so-secret affair with a bill collector for a milk company. The climax of the play is reached when Maurrant kills his wife and her lover and is soon captured. After a tearful meeting with her father, Rose Maurrant realizes that contentment can only lie within and that life in the tenement is not necessarily one of humiliation and brutality. While the play is a realistic depiction of the dehumanizing effect of tenement life and is a criticism of the capitalistic system that produces tenements, it affirms the idea that fulfillment is within the reach of all.

During the 1930’s, Rice continued his political activities, joining the American Civil Liberties Union, lecturing against censorship in the theater, and protesting the United States’ involvement in World War II. Although his politics were socialistic, he never considered joining the Communist Party. His plays of the 1930’s reflect his views. We, the People is a series of scenes illustrating the oppression of capitalism, while Judgment Day is against fascism. Between Two Worlds is a presentation of the theories of capitalism and communism; both systems are found lacking. In 1938 he wrote, produced, and directed American Landscape, a play about the growing menace of fascism on American soil. In Flight to the West, Rice, reversing his pacifist stance, argues the necessity of involvement in World War II. For years he believed that war was a tool of capitalistic expansion, but with World War II he concluded that war was the only way to stop fascism and to protect democracy.

Reacting against hostile critics, for a period of four years in the 1930’s Rice did not write any plays, but he nevertheless retained an involvement in the theater. He was director of the Federal Theater Project and in 1938 organized, along with other playwrights such as Maxwell Anderson and Robert Sherwood, the Playwrights’ Producing Company, whose aim was to encourage an uncensored environment for drama.

In the 1940’s, he wrote what is considered his last success, Dream Girl, starring his second wife, Betty Field, whom he later divorced in 1955 in order to marry Barbara P. Marshall. This romantic comedy concerns a young woman’s fantasies as she attempts to deal with a dull reality. His later plays, The Grand Tour, The Winner, Cue for Passion, and Love Among the Ruins, while containing memorable passages, are generally considered to be inferior to his earlier work from the early 1920’s to the mid-1940’s.

Rice was an accomplished playwright, writing more than thirty plays in a career that lasted fifty years. Partly because of his efforts, American drama gained in stature. He argued that theater should present serious ideas that challenge the political status quo. To that end, many of his plays had messages about the oppression of capitalism, the dehumanizing force of the machine age, the dangers of fascism, and the importance of protecting democracy. He also fought the conventionality of typical Broadway plays, arguing for freedom of expression in form and content. Rice is a major American dramatist who did much to promote and advance the quality of American theater.

BibliographyChametzky, 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.
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