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Artist in Spotlight : Elmer Rice (1892-1967)
By Jane Mendenhall

Today most people have never heard of Elmer Rice. But in the 1920s and 1930s, he was a playwright who was as popular as Eugene O'Neill. His career is an example of the great American success story because as an amateur, his very first professionally produced play was a great success. Spanning fifty years and almost fifty plays, his career is a remarkable testament of a man's dedication to his art and his personal vision. Able to withstand biting criticism, he is a playwright that fervently fought for the integrity of the American dramatic artistic establishment. Though almost unheard of today, "Rice should not be denied his rightful place among those few who in the first half of the [twentieth] century brought the American drama to worldwide recognition" 

Born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein on September 28, 1892, to Jacob and Fanny Lion Reizenstein, in the heart of Manhattan, Elmer Rice spent his grew up in an inner city, urban setting. Later he adopts the pen name Elmer Rice because he feels Reizenstein is awkward for a writer and a nuisance because it is always misspelled (Rice 164). Though his family was poor, the second-generation of German-Jewish immigrants, they encouraged his interests, and let him enjoy quiet time in the local library and took him to plays. He is an only child after his younger brother Lester dies of diphtheria and scarlet fever when Rice is three . Becoming interested in drama as a young adolescent, Rice performs in Julius Caesar and Merchant of Venice in the seventh grade 

Categorized by many as a crusader and reformer, Rice's work reflects the influence of his youth, when he was spent a great deal of time with his paternal grandfather who boarded with the family. Grandfather Reizenstein forsook his apprenticeship to a tailor and joined rebel forces to fight against political revolutions sweeping across Europe in the mid 1800s, and then came to America in 1850 to avoid political imprisonment  .Palmieri supposes Rice's years of exposure to the idealism of his grandfather is largely why Rice becomes so principled himself:

The rebelliousness and philosophical questioning of dogma inherited from his grandfather had made the playwright, in his own words, "particularly responsive to books that exposed the social structure's weaknesses and evils, or the hypocrisy, slavishness and sterility of human behavior." 

Rice's youth was fraught with economic turmoil. At age 14, as a Sophomore in high school, Rice is asked by his parents to quit school and work to help support the family, and so he turns away from his education, regretfully (Palmieri 5). He finds work at a manufactured goods distribution firm, but after the panic of 1907, he is laid off from this job works with his attorney-cousin as a file clerk. He doesn't really want to work in law, and takes the job out of necessity (5). Shortly after accomplishing his certification for the equivalency of a High School diploma, at age eighteen, he is admitted to New York Law School. After two years (1912) of study and work as a clerk to help support his family, he graduates with distinction. And through it all, Rice kept reading. From Horatio Alger, Dickens and Twain, he literary tastes matured 

Rice found law classes boring, and during them, to satiate his desires, he read plays because he liked their manner of expression and form (Palmieri 6). During these years, he becomes greatly influenced by George Bernard Shaw, his moral didacticism, and his use of the stage as a platform to promote ideas and condemn social ills. Rice personally felt it a duty of the dramatist to correct obvious moral flaws, and dedicated himself to improvement of society "through the depiction and excoriation of existing economic and social ills" 

In 1913, Rice is admitted to the New York state bar, but only weeks later resigns never to return to the field. The break came as a shock to his family, but was a relief to Rice who had been writing plays in his spare time, and now gave him a reason to pursue this much more seriously  .In characteristic fashion, and what will be a pattern throughout his life, Rice quits his law career, suddenly, out of principle, because he feels that the practice of law is based in hypocrisy, and by nature compels lawyers to make ideological compromises that are ultimately unethical and immoral. But his years in the law field are not completely forgotten, for his plays On Trial, It Is the Law, and Counsellor-at-Law are law-related dramas. And, Rice's resignation, in the face of certain economic disaster demonstrates his strong will and dedication to his personal vision.

As luck would have it, within months of his resignation from the law firm, Rice realizes a windfall that few playwrights, writers, or actors ever experience. In August of 1914, his first professionally produced play, On Trial, skyrockets to immediate success and earns him critical acclaim for its innovative form and dramatic production technique, not to mention $100,000 from its 350 performances .

| Top | Rice's greatest contribution to the American theatrical community is his experimentation. His career as a dramatist is full of firsts. On Trial is heralded as the very first play that effectively introduced the "flashback" technique as Rice early on demonstrates his strong ability to manipulate form (Durham 20). His Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene was the first urban drama, "a groundbreaking depiction of New York tenement life".. Another first is Rice's inclusion of "a childbirth scene in full view of the audience" in A New Life (Palmieri 195). In The Winner, Rice casts a "Negro in a role in which the racial problem was not a factor" (195). Rice was the first American playwright to address Nazism, in Judgment Day, and he is the first to decry Nazism's presence in America in American Landscape (196). He was accused of being communist, due to his alignment with the beliefs in Between Two Worlds .

Often called a reformer, Rice's body of work offers a consistent theme: he liked to "dramatize the various threats that exist to the idea of personal freedom" (Vanden Heuven, 8). Due to his long career and his versatility any effort to label the playwright is generally problematic. A list of his styles includes: melodrama, Expressionism, Naturalism, relatively violent propaganda plays, and one urban drama, Street Scene .Overall, his oeuvre demonstrates his mastery of form in all modes. Though critics often scathingly criticized his works, "few deny his well-nigh perfect technique, his deftness in construction" (Durham 17). This versatility beyond theme and style allowed him to stay current and innovative, granting him staying power.

But Rice was not often well received by critics. His personal life was tumultuous, being married three times and having five children in all. He openly admits to having many extramarital affairs (Rice 181-4), yet somehow his personal life never received the negative criticism that his work did. His idealism made him a target and often he was simply too avant garde: "Paradoxically, when his plays were better, the critics misunderstood Rice's ideas an attacked him; when his ideas were understood and approved, they deplored his dramaturgy" .After a series of poorly received plays, We, the People, (1933), Judgment Day, (1934), and Between Two Worlds, (1934) Rice resigns from the American stage for a time, after an impassioned speech at Columbia University that condemned the American theater for its crass commercialism and corruption of American theatrical arts. Another reason for Rice's notoriety was his hotheadedness and staunch idealism. In 1936 Rice immediately resigns as regional director from the Federal Theatre Project, a public program in which he was instrumental in organizing, when an article he wrote condemning Mussolini is politically censored  .Rice felt infringement on artistic freedom to be unacceptable, and he was a tireless crusader freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression his entire career. In his form of protest, he was not above sacrificing all to make his ideals publicly known.

Though most of his plays have faded into obscurity, The Adding Machine continues to be performed, and both it and Street Scene are widely anthologized. Though thought of as primarily a playwright, Rice also wrote novels, an autobiography, many editorials, as well as a mass of unpublished plays and other writings. A thorough biographical study of the playwright definitely lacking, with only three books devoted solely to Rice that barely address his private life at all. Recently Rice's works have experienced an upsurge in interest in scholarly circles, as his works have been referenced in several doctoral dissertations within the past decade.

When he died of pneumonia, a complication of a heart attack on May 8, 1967, he demonstrated a career of diehard staying power, being able to "navigate the commercialism of Broadway and yet maintain his artistic integrity"  .Always a crusader, his work found negative criticism, but more than for his political and social didacticism, he should be remembered for his tireless efforts toward innovation and experimentation and his striving for true, uncensored expression in the American Theater in the twentieth century.

Primary Works

On Trial, 1914; The Iron Cross, 1917; The Home of the Free, 1918; For The Defense, 1919; Wake Up, Jonathan, 1921; It Is the Law, 1922; The Adding Machine, 1923; Close Harmony; The Mongrel, 1924; Is He Guilty?, 1927; Cock Robin, 1928; The Subway; See Naples and Die; Street scene, a play in three acts, 1929; The Left Bank; Counselor at Law, 1931; Black Sheep, 1932; ...We, the people, a play in twenty scenes, 1933; Judgment Day; Between Two Worlds, 1934; Two plays: Not for children and Between two worlds, 1935; American Landscape, 1938; Two on an Island; Journey to Jerusalem, Flight to the West, 1940; A New Life, 1943; Dream Girl, 1945; Seven plays. (On trial. The adding machine. Street scene. Counsellor at law. Judgment day. Two on an island. Dream girl.), 1950; The Grand Tour, 1951; The Winner, 1954; Cue for Passion, 1958; The living theatre, 1959; Love Among the Ruins; Minority report an autobiography, 1963; Court of Last Resort, 1965.

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Adler, Thomas P. Mirror On the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. volume 7. Detroit, Michigan: Bruccoli Clark Book, 1981.

Greenfield, Thomas A. Work and the Work Ethic in American Drama 1920-1970. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1982.

Heuvel, Michael V. Elmer Rice: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Levine, Ira. Left-Wing Dramatic Theory in the American Theatre. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Miller, Jordan Y., and Winifred L. Frazer. American Drama Between the Wars: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne P, 1991.

Palmieri, Anthony F. R. Elmer Rice: A Playwright's Vision of America. Cranbury, Associated University Presses, 1980.

Works Cited

Durham, Frank. Elmer Rice. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970.

Palmieri, Anthony F. R. Elmer Rice: A Playwright's Vision of America. Cranbury, Associated University Presses, 1980.

Rice, Elmer. Minority Report: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

Vanden Heuvel, Michael. Elmer Rice: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.

(2689 )

Source: PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide
An Ongoing Project by Paul P. Reuben
Website: http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/alpha.HTML

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  • Three Plays: The Adding Machine, Street Scene, and Dream Girl

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    1.An important spotlight on Elmer Rice and his contributions
      Barry Downes, New York City    (5/1/2011)

  • Elmer Rice (1892-1967)

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