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WHAT WITH THE societal discontinuities of artificial intelligence, AI, for short, a drama of almost a century ago comes to mind. Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine was first staged in 1923, and, according to The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, 2007, the play is “a landmark of American Expressionism.” Yet it’s also a parable for our time.
The Playwright. Elmer Rice is best known today for Street Scene, 1929, his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about New York City tenement life. Rice adapted the play for Samuel Goldwyn’s 1931 move of the same name. There was also an operatic Street Scene, 1947, composed by Kurt Weill with book by Rice and lyrics by poet Langston Hughes. For his contribution, Weill received the first Tony Award for Best Original Score.
Rice’s paternal grandfather was a political activist who fled the German states after the Revolution of 1848. Rice inherited his grandfather’s liberal and pacifist views. He grew up in a New York City tenement and recalled later, “Nothing in my life has been more helpful than the simple act of joining the library.”
Rice’s first play, On Trial, 1914, was a melodramatic murder mystery. It used the innovative technique of reverse-chronology, of telling the story from conclusion to starting point. On Trial was very successful, having international tours, being adapted for films in 1917, 1928, and 1939, and earning Rice $100,000, more than anything else he wrote.
The Adding Machine, 1923. Succinctly, The Adding Machine is a satire wrapped around a murder involving Mr. Zero, a dull bookkeeping clerk. Being in the Expressionistic genre, the play is told in a highly subjective and nonrealistic manner: a tale of Mr. Zero’s life, death, and bizarre afterlife.
Indeed, Mr. Zero is the murderer, not the victim. In a larger sense, though, he is a victim of the machine age.
In theatrical terms, The Adding Machine has had “good legs.” It was adapted into a 1969 movie of the same name. A puppet production in 1989 went on to be aclaimed at the 1992 First International Festival of Puppet Theater. In 2007, a musical adaptation made its debut in Illinois at the Next Theatre Company; it had an off-Broadway run in 2008. And the original continues to be popular with college and university drama groups.
The Plot. Mr. and Mrs. Zero have a tiresome relationship. He has been a bookkeeping clerk at a huge department story for 25 years. Day after day, Mr. Zero sits opposite Miss Daisy Diana Dorothea Devore who calls out figures that he enters into the ledger. Amid this numbing routine, they secretly develop feelings for each other.
Mr. Zero confronts his boss for a raise, but finds the boss doesn’t even know his name. Worse, the boss says they’re installing adding machines and thus Mr. Zero is being let go. Losing control, Mr. Zero kills the boss by stabbing him with an office memo spindle.
That evening, Mr. Zero joins the Mrs. and neighbors who get together with boring interactions. The police arrive, Mr. Zero confesses to his boss’s murder, and soon the neighbors reappear as jurors finding him guilty. He’s hanged.
Mr. Zero finds himself in Elysian Fields. Miss Devore is there too, having killed herself in remorse for his fate. They share a kiss, but little else as he wants to improve his afterlife and she’s happy relaxing in Elysian Fields.
Mr. Zero establishes himself as the Elysian Fields’ adding machine operator, only to be told that he’s a waste of space. The play ends with Mr. Zero recycled back to Earth and following an attractive young woman named Hope.
Replace the adding machine with artificial intelligence, and Elmer Rice’s play moves forward a century. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020