Are you a zero? Do you live with one? Do you work for one? (It's always easier to see the 'zero factor' in others.)
Of course, in truth no one is really a zero. Each human being is a person of inherent and infinite worth and dignity -- a person among persons -- and a vital part of the interdependent web of all existence. However, many people think and act as if they were zeros, and in so doing they tend to become zeros over time. That's a very sad state of affairs.
Now, one of my favourite playwrights is Elmer Rice (1892-1967) [pictured right]. He was also a screenwriter, novelist, essayist, theatre owner, producer, director and activist. Previously, he had studied law and was admitted to the Bar in 1913. In the late 1930s he organized the New York office of the Federal Theatre Project, the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal program to employ out-of-work theatre people. He was also a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, cofounded the Playwrights' Company, a theatrical production company, and served as president of the Dramatists Guild of America. Known for his use of experimental technique, Rice is often credited with having been the first to employ on stage the motion-picture technique of flashbacks in the court-room drama On Trial. He also wrote an autobiography entitled Minority Report (1963) as well as The Living Theatre (1959), being a collection of essays on the theatre.
Rice, who was greatly influenced by expressionism, wrote over 50 full-length plays, as well as a number of screenplays, teleplays, one-act plays, novels, short stories and articles. His major plays include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Street Scene, a gritty, realistic portrait of life in a New York tenement block in the late 1920s, the equally gritty Counsellor-at-Law, being a powerful drama about a Jewish lawyer whose past comes back to haunt him, The Subway, in which a woman is driven to suicide as a result of the corrosive effects of puritanical morality and guilt after having been victimized by an artist, and We, the People, being a powerful indictment of Depression-era social injustice as well as racial prejudice. I’ve already discussed another of his well-known plays, the romantic comedy-modernist psychoanalytic fantasy Dream Girl, in a couple of previous posts [see here and here]. In this post I will discuss the tragicomic The Adding Machine, which is a modern classic. (Yes, I know that’s an oxymoron.) John Russell Taylor, in The Penguin Dictionary of the Theatre (London: Penguin Books, 1966), writes that The Adding Machine was ‘one of the first plays to adapt expressionist techniques to the English-speaking stage’ (p 228).
By way of background, in 1915 Rice, a realistic leftist but not a member of any political party, had made a visit to the Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit. The visit apparently left a lasting impression on him -- mainly a negative one, it seems -- and is said to have been the direct inspiration for The Adding Machine. One thing is clear. The Adding Machine, a ‘dark’ play written by Rice in 1922, ‘presents the universe as a heartless corporate enterprise in which human beings are raw material’ (Trevor R Giffiths and Carole Woddis, The Back Stage Theater Guide, New York: Back Stage Books, 1991, p 307). In his writings the always politically progressive Rice exposed the shallowness and selfishness of the American dream while rejecting as unrealistic the notion of a socialist utopia. He saw the theatre as a platform that could be used to exhort much-needed social reform. Disliking commercial Broadway, Rice once wrote that the Broadway stage need not 'be devoted exclusively to gags, wisecraks, tap-dancing, knockabout farce, fustian romance and polite adulteries', and railed against church-dicated morality, censorship, theatre critics, militarism and resistance to political change.
The Adding Machine sums up the human condition pretty well, at least the condition sadly ‘lived’ by all too many people. The play’s protagonist Zero, a white-collar slave, is quite literally a … zero. A cipher. A nonentity. A nobody. He says, 'I'm just a regular guy like anybody else.' A sex-starved accountant, he lives a dull, dreary, dehumanized, mindless and conditioned life, adding numbers at a desk in an office at a faceless company, performing the same operation over and over, day in and day out, for 51 weeks of the year. Hardworking and dedicated, Zero is exploited by his heartless, unappreciative capitalist boss, and his life at home with a constantly nagging wife, who seems to get a perverse pleasure out of telling Zero that he’s a failure, is pretty awful as well. ‘Sittin’ for twenty-five years on the same chair, addin’ up figures. What about bein’ store-manager? I guess you forgot about that, didn’t you? … You ain’t much to be proud of’, says the wife.
Zero is tried, found guilty -- he admits his guilt but blames the boss as well as ‘them lawyers’ and ‘the figgers in my head’ -- and is duly executed. He is sent to the Elysian Fields which turns out to be such a ‘pleasant place’ that, as an after-life, it is almost as insufferable as life on earth. Zero is put to work on a celestial adding machine. Worse is yet to follow, for Zero is told that he is a waste of space, so his soul will be sent back to earth to be reused. Put bluntly, the greatly embittered Zero will have to ‘do it all again’ (shades of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return’). The play ends with Zero following a very attractive girl appropriately named Hope (who may not actually exist) off stage. ‘Oh, Hope! Wait for me! I’ll be right with you! I’m on my way!’ says Zero. The stage direction says, 'He stumbles out eagerly.' Ha! Like so many of us, Zero stumbles his way through life, forever clutching at a vain hope -- actually, an illusion -- of a lasting and satisfying pleasure.
ZERO. [Eagerly] What'll my job be? Another adding machine?
CHARLES. Yes. But not one of these antiquated adding machines. It will be a superb, super-hyper-adding machine, as far from this old piece of junk as you are from God. It will be something to make you sit up and take notice, that adding machine. It will be an adding machine which will be installed in a coal mine and which will record the individual output of each miner. As each miner down in the lower galleries takes up a shovelful of coal, the impact of his shovel will automatically set in motion a graphite pencil in your gallery. The pencil will make a mark in white upon a blackened, sensitized drum. Then your work comes in. With the great toe of your right foot you release a lever which focuses a violet ray on the drum. The ray playing upon and through the white mark, falls upon a selenium cell which in turn sets the keys of the adding apparatus in motion. In this way the individual output of each miner is recorded without any human effort except the slight pressure of the great toe of your right foot.
CHARLES. You're a failure, Zero, a failure. A waste product. A slave to a contraption of steel and iron. The animal's instincts, but not his strength and skill. The animal's appetites, but not his unashamed indulgence of them. True, you move and eat and digest and excrete and reproduce. But any microscopic organism can do as much. Well—time's up! Back you go—back to your sunless groove—the raw material of slums and wars—the ready prey of the first jingo or demagogue or political adventurer who takes the trouble to play upon your ignorance and credulity and provincialism. You poor, spineless, brainless boob—I’m sorry for you!
Once again, we see expressionism in action.