Friday, January 15, 2016

DON’T BE A MINDLESS ZERO!

Zeros -- that is, persons who are nonentities -- are not born. They are made. Many are almost entirely self-made. Of course, society plays a significant role in the creation of a zero. 

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’s existential angst and self-blame are palpable, but he has little understanding of the hopelessness of his condition and is unable to learn from his mistakes. His only pleasure in life, at least for a time, was in peeping at an undressed prostitute in a room across the tenement airshaft, but even that pleasure goes after Zero’s wife forces him to report the woman to the police. Sic transit gloria mundi. However, lest we start feeling too sorry for Zero, he is very much an anti-hero. He is a racist, a misogynist and an anti-Semite. He may be trapped in a small machine-dominated world, but he is very much trapped by his own limited, negative thinking, lack of vision and general state of mindlessness. How many of us are like Zero? Ponder on that thought for a moment.

After 25 years of faithful service to the company -- he never missed a single day of work -- Zero ends up stabbing his boss to death with a bill spike after being told that he was being fired and replaced by, yes, a machine (‘efficiency must be the first consideration … no other alternative .. efficiency—economy—business—business—BUSINESS’, said the boss immediately before his despatch). 

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.

A photo of the original stage production of The Adding Machine.
The influence of expressionism is obvious.

There are some wonderful lines in the play. Take, for example, this exchange between Zero and Lieutenant Charles, who is the boss of the Elysian Fields, that occurs near the end of the play:

CHARLES. You'll be a baby again—a bald, red-faced little animal, and then you'll go through it all again. There'll be millions of others like you—all with their mouths open, squalling for food. And then when you get a little older you'll begin to learn things—and you'll learn all the wrong things and learn them all in the wrong way. You'll eat the wrong food and wear the wrong clothes and you'll live in swarming dens where there's no light and no air! You'll learn to be a liar and a bully and a braggart and a coward and a sneak. You'll learn to fear the sunlight and to hate beauty. By that time you'll be ready for school. There they'll tell you the truth about a great many things that you don't give a damn about and they'll tell you lies about all the things you ought to know—and about all the things you want to know they'll tell you nothing at all. When you get through you'll be equipped for your life-work. You'll be ready to take a job.

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.

ZERO. [In breathless, round-eyed wonder] Say, that'll be some machine, won't it?

CHARLES. Some machine is right. It will be the culmination of human effort—the final triumph of the evolutionary process. For millions of years the nebulous gases swirled in space. For more millions of years the gases cooled and then through inconceivable ages they hard­ened into rocks. And then came life. Floating green things on the waters that covered the earth. More millions of years and a step upward—an animate or­ganism in the ancient slime. And so on—step by step, down through the ages—a gain here, a gain there—the mollusc, the fish, the reptile, them mammal, man! And all so that you might sit in the gallery of a coal mine and operate the super-hyper-adding machine with the great toe of your right foot!

ZERO. Well, then—I ain't so bad, after all.

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!

Another photo of the original stage production of The Adding Machine.
Once again, we see expressionism in action.

‘You’re a failure, Zero, a failure … [a] waste product … [a] poor, spineless, brainless boob.’ As I said, Zero is very much an anti-hero. After he’s told by Lieutenant Charles what is going to happen to him, Zero cries out, ‘What did you tell me so much for? Couldn’t you just let me go, thinkin’ everythin’ was goin’ to be all right?’ Zero is like so many people who prefer the supposed bliss of ignorance, delusion and conditioning to the light of truth and wisdom. Very sad. Elmer Rice would have us—wake up … and get real! However, for the Zeros of this world it’s a case of … plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The Indian spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti railed against conditioning and its effects. Conditioning, in Rice’s words, means that we ‘begin to learn things’, ‘learn all the wrong things’, and ‘learn them all in the wrong way’. It means, again quoting Rice, being told ‘the truth about a great many things that you don't give a damn about’ while being told ‘lies about all the things you ought to know’. It means becoming ‘equipped for your life-work’ and being ready to ‘take a job’. In the process, we lose so much of ourselves and become slaves to others, to machines, and to technology. We cease thinking for ourselves. We become normopaths, but the truth is we are hardly normal at all.

However, in order to live mindfully we must let go of our conditioning, that is, our many beliefs, dogmas, opinions, speculations, prejudices and predilections about how life supposedly is or ought to be. Conditioning is the past, and locks us into the past. When we are trapped in the past, we are no longer present to life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. That’s not the end of it. Conditioning represents other persons’ understanding of reality or truth, it is not truth itself. We need to see things-as-they-really-are in all their directness and immediacy, and that requires a deconditioned and free but responsible mind. The good news is that the mind can indeed free itself from its own conditioning, but first you must be prepared to let go of the conditioning spoken of by the character Charles in The Adding Machine.

Some of Zero’s last words before his execution are these --- ‘Suppose you was me, now … Suppose you was me---.’ Don’t be a Zero, a failure, a spineless, brainless boob, a normopath. Live mindfully--and freely. Refuse to be trapped in someone else’s world or one of your own making.



Note. A generally disappointing film version of The Adding Machine appeared in 1969, with Milo O’Shea as Zero and Phyllis Diller as Zero’s wife.



Acknowledgments. The Adding Machine: A Play in Seven Acts (New York: Samuel French, Inc) by Elmer L Rice, with a foreword by Philip Moeller. Copyright © 1922, 1929 by Elmer L Rice. Copyright © 1923 by Doubleday, Page & Company. Copyright © 1949, 1950, 1956 (all in renewal) by Elmer L Rice. All rights reserved.



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