The publication of a selection of Elmer Rice’s plays (Seven Plays, Viking Press,” $5.00, 524 pp.), concurrent with the brief run on Broadway of his Not for Children, here provides HENRY POPKIN with a vantage point from which to analyze the course of Mr. Rice’s thought and dramatic work.
Elmer Rice’s work, as represented in a new volume of selected plays, repeats the familiar pattern of most successful American dramatists of our day: the painstaking mastery of conventional technique, a brief period of originality, and then a slow hardening into run-of-the-mill attitudes expressed in run-of-the-mill forms—varied at the proper times with a social-conscious period and a patriotic period. What lends special interest to this pattern as it has appeared in Elmer Rice’s career is the exceptional brightness of the hope he inspired but never fulfilled.
With his early play, The Adding Machine, Rice established himself as the interpreter of the “average man”; with each succeeding play he became more surely identified as the one American playwright who had most deliberately committed himself to presenting what is typical in American life. (Not even George Kelly has been as explicit as Rice in calling attention to the representativeness of his subjects.) By contrasting his humdrum bourgeois types with a few “different” individuals—foreigners, artists, radicals, and Jews—Rice guaranteed that his emphasis upon the average would not be lost. But even as he furnished more and more details about these alternatives to the dull average, he grew increasingly fond of the average itself, and, finally, in his latest plays, he has ardently glorified the typical, which has now become the normal, to be defended against the abnormality of imagination and intellect.
In The Adding Machine Rice reduced the average to its purest form, Mr. Zero. Taking full advantage of both the freedom and the restriction of expressionism, he exhibited Mr. Zero in all the nakedness of his simple mind, his fear of freedom, his resentment of those unlike himself. Mr. Zero never manages to be anything but an efficient machine, whether he is at the office adding columns of figures or at home parroting the small talk of his social class. The dramatist’s job was peculiar here, in that he did not attempt to make this automaton into a fully realized individual; on the contrary, the perfection of Mr. Zero’s characterization rests in his never being more than a type. But surrounding the central portrait of Mr. Zero are the dim shadows of gayer attitudes toward life, never clearly shown but only suggested: the buoyant dreams of his co-worker, Daisy Devore; the free ways of the girl whom he has had arrested for indecent exposure; the satiric tradition of the two clergymen whom the play makes residents of the Elysian fields, Swift and Rabelais; and—dimmest of all, but most significant for Rice’s later work—the vague figures of the exotic strangers whom Mr. Zero resents and whom he recognizes only when he gives expression to his bitter hatred of Jews and Negroes. In two other early plays which Rice wrote with collaborators (Hatcher Hughes and Dorothy Parker), these forces of revolt and criticism are personified by a poet and a former actress; and in Black Sheep, a play Rice copyrighted the year The Adding Machine was produced, a novelist of bohemian inclinations speaks for them.
The design should be clear from these examples alone: the artist, the skeptic, the rebel, and the foreigner are here being favorably contrasted with the mindless American bourgeois. During the early 20’s, when these plays were written, this conflict was becoming a major concern with many of our novelists; in particular, Ludwig Lewisohn, Ben Hecht, and Robert Nathan were using Jewish characters to dramatize colorful alternatives Co “Babbittry.” For Rice, the dichotomy between Babbittry and Bohemia provided his most fruitful subject—and his favorite character type, for in most of his subsequent plays he has been trying to improve on his portrait of Mr. Zero. And yet, all his later studies of the typical American nonentity reveal only that he was right the first time in The Adding Machine, that this type is best seen in isolation, and that trying to portray him in the plural rather than the singular only multiplies Zero; in art, as in arithmetic, multiplying Zero produces only zero.
We find many Zeros in Street Scene, since this is the first play in which Rice created a cross section of American life. Mr. and Mrs. Zero may here be disguised by Italian, German, Swedish, and Irish accents, but these characters are obviously not intended to be exotically different foreigners; they have been Americanized, in the worst sense of the term. Consequently, although Lippo Fiorentino may praise the beauties of his native Sorrento, he must also justify his coming to America, where “ees plenty money.” These Zeros, like their prototypes in The Adding Machine, are anti-Semites, but they are more fortunate in having the victims of their prejudice close at hand. On the other hand, the Kaplans are the exotic foreigners far excellence, the perfect foils for the assorted Babbitts of the cast; they are the very incarnation of radicalism, culture, irreligion, and everything else the Zeros find abhorrent and dangerous. It is in the case of these “good” people in particular that Rice often seems to be offering labels (Whitman, Beethoven, Karl Marx) instead of characterization, but the rest of Street Scene is quite successful both as melodrama and as critique of Zeroism.
Counsellor-at-L·aw, the next major play, again employs the Jew as a symbol of individuality and intelligence. The banality of Zeroism is here represented not by the flotsam of the lower middle class but by the would-be aristocrats of the Social Register. We observe the offensive behavior of a Jewish lawyer’s Gentile wife, her incredibly nasty little children, and her effete boy friend, who are put side by side with the warm-hearted, warm-blooded friends of the lawyer’s youth. This latter group contains a cross section resembling that of Street Scene, but in Counsellor-at-Law the Irish and Italians are “good” and interesting, not “bad” and dull as in Street Scene. By this time the distinctiveness of the foreigner has evidently come to be regarded as a good thing almost for its own sake; the only profound difference between the two social classes here depicted seems to be between foreign stock and native stock. No one on either side has any pronounced cultural or political leanings; the lawyer avoids the extremes of conservative and radical politics by doing business with Tammany Hall. Perhaps the real distinction is that George Simon’s dishonesty is generally better justified than his wife’s—but if Simon is intended to embody the good attributes that Mr. Zero resents and the Kaplans cherish, it is a little disappointing to report that the only commendable qualities left to him seem to be his loyalty to old friends and his enthusiasm for his work.
Judgment Day stands apart from the rest of the Seven Plays, since it is the only one with a European locale. It fits the pattern of the dramatic representation of Zeroism, for, in fascism, it shows the attitudes and loyalties of Zeroism made law. This is a development for which we were prepared by Lippo’s admiration for Mussolini in Street Scene. What seems particularly significant in this connection is the way the little men, the Zeros of this far-off Slavic land, fall into line. But in Judgment Day the issues are made too clear and perhaps a little too easy to judge by the device of creating (partially) imaginary circumstances in a (partially) imaginary country, argued out in a very disorderly courtroom. This technique recalls the similarly melodramatic disorderliness of Rice’s first produced play, On Trial.
While Judgment Day revealed Rice’s opposition to legalized conformity abroad, some other plays of the years preceding suggested a more genial attitude toward the homegrown American variety. In several of these plays the commonplace American is idealized at the expense of the unattached dissident The Americans of See Naples and Die are victimized by a scheming Russian nobleman. In The Subway an innocent girl of a conventional family is ruined by an artist. In The Left Bank the wife of an expatriate decides that America is better than Paris. An American girl, in Between Two Worlds, is seduced by a Russian film director. The villains of two later plays, American Landscape and Flight to the West, are again foreigners; in both instances they are Nazis. The Americans of these last two plays display more unity than variety; a special point seems to be made of the ingrained Americanism of the young Jewish husband of Flight to the West, who claims descent from Haym Salomon. In all six of these plays immediately preceding and following Judgment Day, our sympathy is sought for the plain American, who no longer exhibits the uglier signs of Zeroism, and sympathy must be withheld from the foreigner, the artist, and the expatriate.
Two artists—a playwright and an actress-are the chief characters of Two on an Island, but they are as commonplace and wholesome, as unconcerned about their art, as if they had just stepped out of the Hardy family; they are as typical as their names John Thompson and Mary Ward. In this cross-section play, the only “representative” individuals whom we are encouraged to dislike are the flighty rich girl (repeating a theme of Counsellor-at-Law), the radical (reversing a theme of Street Scenes, and the cynical Jewish theatrical producer. Two on an Island seems intended as a happy vindication of “normality”: it’s fun to be just folks. Dream Girl is a firmer step in the same direction. The “dream girl” first thinks herself in love with a man described as having “a face and manner that are almost too sensitive,” a publisher’s reader who has had the good taste and the bad judgment to reject a bestselling novel strongly resembling Forever Amber; she discovers in the end that the man she has loved all the time is the rough, tough, “normal” reporter who hates reviewing books and wants to become a sports writer. With Dream Girl the development of Rice’s values has come full circle. More explicitly than in any other play, Rice here enthrones the standards of Mr. Zero and at the same time rejects the “sensitive” artists who would prevent Mrs. Zero from reading Forever Amber.
I suppose it all proves that if one lives with Mr. Zero long enough, one gets used to him and even comes to the conclusion that he is not such a bad fellow after all. In explaining this change, we must observe that the obvious formulas do not apply to Rice. This man’s head has not been turned by success. We need only recall that, following Counsellor-at-Law, his hit plays became very infrequent. Furthermore, Rice’s disdain for his audience and his critics is well known; this season’s production of Not for Children served to remind us that he is not an idle flatterer. Here, Rice’s spokesman seems to be a psychology professor who complains of the childishness of the modern theater, but who knows that critics, audiences, and producers are perfectly happy with Broadway’s general mediocrity.
The most convincing explanation of Rice’s friendlier attitude toward Mr. Zero is very different. Surely the Depression, the New Deal, and the rise of dictatorship abroad furnish sufficient reason for this change, sufficient to make any interested, liberal author sympathize with the average man’s distress (in We the People”), compliment his political acumen (by implication at least, in A New Life), contrast him with his less wise or less fortunate brothers abroad (in Flight to the West and American Landscape), and finally, in an excess of love and fellow feeling, credit him with every virtue, including many which he does not possess. Whether or not Rice intends it to be so, this attitude belongs to the new religion of the common man. The Supreme Being of this new faith, the common man himself, is almost Mr. Zero, for he is man stripped of all his distinctive, distinguishing qualities. He is a vacuum which sentiment must fill with evanescent virtues. What he is never is the concrete individual whose self-assertiveness once caused tyrants to tremble and despotisms to fall—the concrete human being who is at once the beginning and the end of democracy and art.