ELMER RICE 1929
Since its debut on January 10, 1929, at The Playhouse on Broadway in New York City, Street Scene has been considered one of Elmer Rice’s most successful works and has cemented his reputation as a serious playwright. Rice himself directed the original production, which ran for 602 performances. Street Scene won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Rice had written the play over several years and saw it rejected by numerous Broadway producers for what they perceived as a lack of content, too many characters, and too much plot. Nothing like Street Scene had been produced before, and many producers were not sure this kind of play would draw an audience. Yet when a producer was found, the success of Street Scene defied expectations.
Street Scene was one of the first plays to critique the negative effects of urban and industrial society on the average person. It was also praised for its innovative structure, including the same multiple plots and characters of which so many potential producers had been wary. Many believed Street Scene captured a mosaic of different kinds of lower-middle-class people living in New York City.
After its initial run, Street Scene was produced regularly throughout the world, though not always successfully. Surmounting the difficulties of translating the plethora of types was not always easy in other countries. In 1947, Rice contributed the book to an operatic version of the play scored by Kurt Weill. Street Scene is still produced today. While critics acknowledge its strong core and praise how it captured a moment in time, many regard its prejudices and situations as dated. When Street Scene won the Pulitzer Prize, J. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote, “It is saturated in the America that is New York. It is the finest wrought chiaroscuro of middle-class life that an American dramatist has drawn across the stage. It is complete. It is original by virtue of its simple integrity.”
Rice was born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein in New York City on September 28, 1892. He was the son of Jacob Reizenstein and his wife Fanny (nee Lion), German-Jewish immigrants. Jacob Reizenstein worked as a traveling salesman and bookkeeper but suffered from epilepsy and had problems finding employment. This situation contributed to Rice leaving high school while he was still a sophomore to seek employment. He worked in several office jobs, which left him unhappy. After spending a year at a law firm, Rice decided to pursue a legal career to support himself, though he was not particularly interested in the law.
To that end, Rice passed a state exam that gave him the equivalent of a high school diploma, then entered New York Law School in 1910. During the long legal classes, Rice would read plays to relieve his boredom. He had been a fan of the theater since his youth. After graduating from law school and passing the New York State bar in 1912, Rice spent a year working as a lawyer. Still wearied by office work, Rice took night classes at Columbia University. He also began writing plays, poetry, and short stories. By 1913, Rice decided that he would become a professional playwright and left his legal career behind.
In 1914, Rice had his first play produced, On Trial, a success from the first. This success established Rice’s reputation as a serious playwright whose plays were in demand. Rice used his position to promote his left-wing views and his concerns with social issues. He sympathized with socialists and often discussed issues from a socialist perspective in his plays. In addition to continuing to write plays, Rice also taught and worked with an acting troupe, Columbia University’s Morningside Players. In 1918, Rice began writing for the movies. He
wrote for Samuel Goldwyn for two years but was not happy at the studio.
One of Rice’s most important plays was The Adding Machine (1923). An expressionist drama about an oppressed office worker, it has become a classic of the American theater. Many of the plays that followed The Adding Machine in the 1920s were not as successful—until 1929, when he wrote Street Scene. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, realistic drama was one of Rice’s major plays. Rice directed the production and many of his subsequent plays. Two works that followed Street Scene—The Left Bank (1931) and Counsellor-at-Law (1931)—were successful, but many subsequent plays in the 1930s met with mixed or little success.
In the mid-1930s, Rice worked briefly as the head of the Federal Theatre Project, before becoming one of the founders of the Playwrights’ Company, which produced many of his plays. Rice continued to write plays throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Only a few were truly successful and well received, among them Two on an Island (1940) and the romantic comedy Dream Girl (1945). After retiring from play writing, Rice published his memoir, The Living Theatre, which revealed much about the inner workings of the theater world. By the time of his death, twenty-four of his plays had been produced on Broadway. Rice died of a heart attack on May 8, 1967, in Southampton, England, survived by five children from three different marriages.
Street Scene opens outside a brownstone tenement (apartment building) in New York City in the evening. Dwellers are seen in their windows and meeting outside on the stoop. They exchange small talk about the hot weather and their neighbors. Several women gossip about Mrs. Maurrant whom they believe is having an affair with the milk company bill collector, Steve Sankey, right under her husband’s nose. Their suspicions seem confirmed when Mr. Maurrant comes home and announces he will be working out of town the next day, which pleases his wife.
Sankey walks by, ostensibly on the way to the drug store to get a ginger ale for his wife. After he leaves, Mrs. Maurrant excuses herself to look for her young son Willie. As soon as she is gone, the gathered neighbors continue their gossip. One tenant enters, a Miss Cushing, who tells them that she has just seen Sankey and Mrs. Maurrant together outside a nearby warehouse. Mr. Maurrant comes out looking for his wife. They tell him that she is searching for their son.
Another tenant, Mr. Fiorentino, arrives with ice cream cones for everyone. A charity worker, Alice Simpson, looks for Mrs. Hildebrand and her children. Mrs. Hildebrand is about to be evicted because her husband abandoned their family, and she cannot pay her rent. Simpson is angry that Mrs. Hildebrand has spent money taking her children to the movies when they accept money from charity. Affected by Mrs. Hildebrand’s plight, Mr. Fiorentino gives her some money. Miss Simpson disapproves, and asks to talk to Mrs. Hildebrand inside.
Mrs. Maurrant returns and tells her husband that she could not find Willie. The tension between them is broken as Miss Simpson returns and reiterates to Mr. Fiorentino that he should not give Mrs. Hildebrand money. Old Mr. Kaplan gets in an argument with her about charities. He believes they are part of a capitalist economic system, which exploits people. This leads to an argument between Kaplan and his daughter Shirley and their other neighbors. Mr. Maurrant decries the influence of foreigners in the United States, much to the chagrin of his many immigrant neighbors. Mr. Maurrant wants law and order to rule. Maurrant and Kaplan nearly come to blows.
After the argument ends, Mrs. Maurrant declares that she would like to live in peace. Sam Kaplan, Mr. Kaplan’s younger son, returns from law school. He gets into a discussion about music with Fiorentino. Mrs. Fiorentino plays piano in their apartment, and Mr. Fiorentino and Mrs. Maurrant dance. Their steps are interrupted by the reappearance of Sankey, who is on his way home. Willie Maurrant finally comes home, but Mr. Maurrant continues to be angry that his elder daughter, Rose, has not come home from work yet. All the Maurrants, save the missing Rose, retire to their apartment. The neighbors catch each other up on the relevant gossip, including the fact that Sam Kaplan is in love with Rose. Everyone soon goes inside for the night.
Rose Maurrant appears with her boss, Harry Easter. Closing her window, Mrs. Fiorentino wishes them a good evening. Easter wants to spend more time with her, to come up to her apartment. He tells her he will put her up in her own apartment and try to get her started in an acting career. Easter’s wife does not have to know anything. Rose turns him down, but he only leaves when Mr. Maurrant comes down. There is a confrontation, which is interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Buchanan. His wife is in labor. Rose goes to make his calls for him so he can stay with his wife.
When Rose returns, another neighbor’s son, Vincent Jones, tries to get her to go out with him. She refuses, and Sam Kaplan steps in. Vincent hits Sam, but the confrontation is interrupted by the appearance of Vincent’s mother, Mrs. Jones, who makes him come upstairs. Sam still wants to kill Vincent, but Rose calms him down. Sam and Rose have a long conversation and share their ideas about life. It ends with the appearance of Mrs. Buchanan’s doctor, Dr. Wilson. Rose goes upstairs to help.
The next morning, the doctor is on his way out. Sam comes outside looking for Rose, but his sister makes him come in to eat breakfast. Mr. Buchanan tells Mrs. Fiorentino that his wife delivered a girl late last night, and that Mrs. Maurrant stayed with her nearly the whole time. Rose tells Mr. Fiorentino that she is not in love with Sam Kaplan. Mrs. Maurrant comes out for a bit and is chided by Mrs. Jones for considering letting her daughter marry a Jewish man (Kaplan).
Mr. Maurrant leaves for work, angry that his wife seems more concerned with Mrs. Buchanan than their family. After an upset Mrs. Maurrant leaves to buy a chicken, Mr. Maurrant starts in on Rose. She tries to convince him to move to the suburbs, but he will not consider it. Mr. Kaplan talks with Rose, but is much kinder to her. Mrs. Maurrant returns with the chicken and tells Rose that she has tried to be a good wife to her husband, but that never seemed to matter. Rose tries to persuade her mother that Sankey should not come around as much but to no avail.
After her mother goes upstairs, Rose stays on the stoop. Shirley tells her to stay away from her brother. Rose becomes angry at what Shirley is implying about her. Sam comes outside, and they have another conversation about the meaning of life. Rose tells him that she is considering Easter’s offer because it might mean a better life for her family. When Rose makes an offhand comment about wanting to run away, Sam eagerly chimes in that he would like to run away with her. Easter appears to take Rose to the funeral of an office mate. Easter continues to try and manipulate Rose, but she remains independent, even in the way she goes to the funeral.
Sankey comes by, on his collection rounds for the milk company. Mrs. Maurrant invites him upstairs. In the meantime, the marshals come to evict Mrs. Hildebrand and her children. Mr. Maurrant appears again, drunk. Sam tries to stop him from going inside, but Maurrant pushes him aside. Shots are fired: Mr. Maurrant shoots both Mrs. Maurrant and Sankey. Mr. Maurrant escapes through the gathered crowd. Sankey was killed instantly, but Mrs. Maurrant is still alive and taken out by ambulances. Rose Maurrant returns to the horrible scene of her mother being taken away.
Later that afternoon, the marshals continue to put Mrs. Hildebrand’s furniture on the sidewalk. Random people stop by to view the now famous crime scene. Mr. Maurrant is still at large. Easter appears looking for Rose. When she returns to the tenement, she tells him that she hopes her father gets away. Rose reports that her mother has died. She again turns down Easter’s offer of a place to live. She intends to take Willie and live somewhere better on her own.
While Rose is in the apartment gathering some things, Mr. Buchanan informs everyone that the police have found Mr. Maurrant hiding nearby. Rose confronts her father as he is carried off, asking him why he did it. He says that he was insane at the time and tells her to take care of Willie. Sam offers to come away with her again, but Rose turns him down. Sam tells her that he loves her, but Rose points out the reality of the situation and declares that she does not want to belong to anyone. Still, he kisses her passionately before she leaves. As she goes, a couple sees a sign for rooms to rent. The gossip on the stoop continues.
Daniel Buchanan is a tenant in the apartment building. He is a nervous expectant father whose wife is in labor. Buchanan has Rose call the doctor and his wife’s sister for him. In the morning at the beginning of act 2, he is the semi-proud father of a new baby girl.
Harry Easter is the office manager who is Rose Maurrant’s boss. Despite the fact that he is married, Easter is enamoured with his employee. He wants to be involved with her. Easter offers to get Rose her own apartment and start her on a new career as a stage actress. Rose turns him down, but Easter is persistent. In the morning, at the beginning of act 2, Easter shows up again, offering Rose a ride to the funeral. Again, she refuses him. At the beginning of act 3, Easter shows up at the tenement and wants to take care of Rose and her brother. Rose finally dismisses him without taking a thing. Easter finally accepts that Rose does not want him in her life at the moment, either as a friend or lover.
Filippo Fiorentino (also known as Lippo) is the husband of Greta Fiorentino. He is an Italian immigrant. Mr. Fiorentino makes his living as an accordion player and musician. He belongs to the musician’s union. Mr. Fiorentino is generous with his money. On this hot day, he brings home several ice cream cones for his neighbors and gives money to Mrs. Hildebrand and her children when Alice
- Street Scene was adapted for film by Rice, who wrote the screenplay. The film was directed by King Vidor and starred Sylvia Sidney as Rose Maurrant. It was released by United Artists in 1931.
Simpson, the charity worker, is critical of their going to the movies. He also plays music for his neighbors and dances with Mrs. Maurrant. While Mr. Fiorentino is a lively, happy man, he also is a bit callous towards the feelings of others. He chides his wife for not yet having children, when the subject is touchy for her. He does the same thing to others who live in the tenement, but his happy-go-lucky demeanor makes up for it to some degree.
Greta Fiorentino is the rather large, loving wife of Filippo Fiorentino. She is a German immigrant and a musician. She makes her living giving children music lessons in her tenement apartment. Mrs. Fiorentino is frustrated by the fact that she has not been able to have children of her own. She gets slightly annoyed by her husband’s generosity and his callousness towards her over her barrenness. She is one of the women who spends much time gossiping on the stoop of the tenement but is generally kind.
Charlie is the child of Laura Hildebrand. He and his sister Mary are about to lose their apartment because of their destitute state. Still, they go to school in the morning at the beginning of act 2. They do not seem to be particularly affected by their imminent eviction.
Laura Hildebrand is the mother of Mary and Charlie Hildebrand. She has been abandoned by her husband and is destitute. Her family is about to be evicted from the building. Though Mrs. Hildebrand is about to lose her place to live, she tries to keep her children’s lives as normal as possible. She takes them to the movies as they did every Thursday night. When Miss Simpson admonishes her for such actions, Mrs. Hildebrand meekly agrees because she has no choice.
Mary is the child of Laura Hildebrand and the sister of Charlie. She and Charlie share an apartment, which they are going to be evicted from.
Emma Jones is the middle-aged wife of George and the mother of Mae and Vincent. She also has a dog, Queenie, whom she takes on walks regularly. She is one of the more gossipy tenants in the apartment building, fond of judging the others, especially those who are immigrants. Mrs. Jones is also critical of Willie and Rose but does not see the problems with her own children.
George is the husband of Emma Jones, and father of Mae and Vincent. Like his wife, George is a gossip and very judgmental of those who are not like himself. He is critical of foreigners, though not as much as his wife.
Mae Jones, about twenty-one years old, is the daughter of George and Emma Jones and the sister of Vincent. She is not a “nice girl” but stays out all night with her boyfriend, Dick McGann. She works in a shop.
Vincent Jones is the son of George and Emma Jones and brother of Mae. He is a young adult and works as a taxicab driver. He is a large man, and likes to throw his weight around. Vincent is attracted to Rose and tries to get her to go out with him. When she refuses him, Sam tries to step in to get Vincent to leave her alone. Vincent pushes Sam aside. Like his parents, Vincent is not very tolerant of those who are different than him.
Abraham Kaplan is the old Jewish man who lives in the tenement apartment building with his daughter Shirley and son Sam. Kaplan is unpopular with most of his neighbors for several reasons, including his religion. Kaplan also spouts off his radical political and economic beliefs on a regular basis. He is critical of the capitalist economic system, preferring instead socialism. Kaplan generally means well, but his demeanor rubs most the wrong way.
Sam Kaplan is the younger brother of Shirley Kaplan and son of Abraham Kaplan. He is a university student who is studying law and considered quite bright. Sam is fond of poetry, music, and, especially, Rose Maurrant. Sam is ready to abandon his father and sister and go anywhere with Rose. He tells her he loves her and intercedes when men like Vincent Jones try to take advantage of her. While Rose is fond of Sam, she ultimately rejects him, for both his own good and hers. Sam is essentially under his sister’s thumb but has a promising future.
Shirley Kaplan is Abraham Kaplan’s eldest child and primary caretaker. The unmarried woman works as a teacher to support her elderly father and to put her younger brother through law school. Like her father, Shirley is unpopular among the tenants of the tenement for her brusque ways and religion. Shirley is primarily concerned with her family, making sure her father and brother’s needs are met. To this end, she tells Rose Maurrant to stay away from her brother Sam because he is their future breadwinner. Shirley does have a sympathetic side. When Rose has to go back into her apartment after her father murdered her mother and her mother’s lover, Shirley accompanies her for support.
See Filippo Fiorentino
Anna Maurrant is the wife of Frank and mother of Rose and Willie. Mrs. Maurrant is unhappy in her marriage to Frank and is having an affair with the milk company’s collector, Steve Sankey. This liaison provides much of the fodder for the tenement gossips. It also distracts Anna from the care of her son Willie. Though Rose Maurrant tries to dissuade her mother from being so obvious about the affair, it does no good. At the end of act 2, Mr. Maurrant finds Sankey and his wife together, and he shoots both of them. Mrs. Maurrant later dies from the gunshot wounds.
Frank Maurrant is the husband of Anna, and father of Rose and Willie. He works as a stagehand and is in the stagehands’ union. Mr. Maurrant is a rather hard man to his wife and children. He does not approve of Rose’s life choices and suspects something might be going on with his wife. Because of this situation, he is also the subject of much of the tenement’s gossip. When Mr. Maurrant comes home unexpectedly at the end of act 2, he catches his wife together with Steve Sankey, the milk company collector. He shoots them, killing Sankey instantly while his wife dies later. After the shootings, he hides out in a nearby furnace room. The police catch him, and he is taken to prison. At the end of the play, it is implied that Mr. Maurrant will be put to death for his crime.
Rose Maurrant is the twenty-year-old daughter of Frank and Anna Maurrant and older sister of Willie. She is a young woman who works in a real estate office and has many male admirers. They include her office manager, Harry Easter, who wants to set her up in an apartment of her own and get her started on a career in show business. Rose rejects all of his insistent advances. Vincent Jones also tries to get Rose to stay out all night with him, but she refuses him as well. Rose’s most sincere suitor is Sam Kaplan. Kaplan pledges his love to her. While Rose connects with Sam in some ways, she also knows that he has a better future without her and that she has problems of her own. Rose tries to please her father, while influencing her mother’s choices with Sankey. Rose’s actions cannot change the outcome of the story, but at the end of the play, she is determined to make sure Willie has a better life in a better place. Rose is kind to many of her neighbors, including Mr. Buchanan.
Willie Maurrant is the ten-year-old son of Frank and Anna Maurrant and younger brother of Rose. His mother cannot particularly control him. He runs rather freely on the streets, much to the chagrin of his father and sister. Willie is more interested in ice cream and being with his friends than being neat and tidy and hanging around at home. Rose tries to protect Willie as much as possible and keeps him in mind when she makes decisions.
Dick McGann is Mae Jones’ boyfriend. They stay out all night together at the end of act 1.
Carl Olsen is the husband of Olga Olsen and father of an infant child. Like his wife, he is an immigrant from Scandinavia. He lives in the basement apartment and is the building’s janitor and maintenance man. Olsen is not above gossiping but is not particularly malicious. He helps the other tenants when he can. For example, at the end of the play when Rose wants to put up black crepe as a symbol of death, Olsen completes the task for her.
Olga Olsen is the wife of Carl Olsen and has an infant child. She is an immigrant from Scandinavia and lives in the basement apartment. She helps her husband with his janitorial duties in the building. Mrs. Olsen is one of the tenants who enjoys gossiping about her neighbors, though she is not as judgmental as some of the others. Mrs. Olsen helps others when needed.
Steve Sankey is the milk company collector who is having an affair with Mrs. Maurrant. Sankey is married and has two children. His rather open affair leads to his murder by Mrs. Maurrant’s jealous husband.
Alice Simpson works for the charities and comes to the tenement to help Laura Hildebrand and her children. She is a spinster and rather cold and dismissive of the tenement’s residents. Miss Simpson is especially hard towards Mrs. Hildebrand because she has taken her children to the movies, despite the fact that they are about to be evicted from their apartment. Still, she makes sure the Hildebrands have a place to go after their eviction.
Dr. John Wilson
Dr. John Wilson is the doctor who comes to the tenement to deliver Mrs. Buchanan’s baby.
Ethnic and Religious Intolerance
In Street Scene, many of the residents of the crowded tenement building express beliefs that are prejudiced and intolerant of their neighbors and others. Sitting on the brownstone’s front stoop, they deride the way those different from themselves conduct their lives. For example, in the first moments of the play, Mrs. Jones, one of the nonimmigrant residents of the building, says “What them foreigners don’t know about bringin’ up babies would fill a book” about Mrs. Olsen. Mrs. Olsen is an immigrant from Scandinavia. Mrs. Jones makes this statement to Mrs. Fiorentino, a German immigrant who is married to an Italian immigrant. Mrs. Fiorentino is slightly offended by the implication. Mrs. Jones also expresses intolerant beliefs about most everyone in the play.
One of the more unpopular resident families in the tenement is the Kaplans. Elderly father Abraham, his daughter Shirley and son Sam are disliked by many of their neighbors for being Jewish as well as for holding radical political beliefs. Abraham Kaplan is a socialist who believes the capitalist economic system exploits workers. Many residents are intolerant of Mr. Kaplan and his beliefs, and blame Jewish people for various problems in their world. Similarly, most residents do not approve of the potential relationship between Sam Kaplan and Rose Maurrant. They tell Rose and her parents that they would never let their daughter become involved with someone who is Jewish. By depicting these kinds of prejudices and situations, Rice depicts the diversity of New York City’s populace and their beliefs. Not every aspect is positive.
Individual versus Machine
Throughout Street Scene, Rice underscores how oppressive the machine of modern urban life is. (The machines here are New York City, life in the tenement building, and the kind of jobs held by these lower middle class people.) The play is set on a hot day in June and many of the characters suffer from the heat. Because the characters reside in an unbearably close living situation, they are packed on top of one another, making the heat all the more oppressive. This situation also leaves them very little real privacy and, in many ways, limited opportunity. For example, everyone knows about Mrs. Maurrant’s affair with Steve Sankey, the milk company’s bill collection man. But she also might not be having the affair if the machine did not affect her husband, Mr. Maurrant, so deeply. Mr. Maurrant works as a stagehand and does not seem happy with his life. These tensions contribute to Street Scene’s tragic ending but do not end with the double murder. More tenants will move into the building, and those who live there will continue to be affected by these pressures.
Victim and Victimization; Choices and Consequences
The focal point—if there is one—of Street Scene’s diffuse plot is the affair Mrs. Maurrant is having with Steve Sankey, the milk company’s bill collector, and its effect on the tenement. In many ways, Mrs. Maurrant is a victim of the city as well as an unhappy marriage. Mr. Maurrant is depicted as a rather loutish man who tries to control his family by the threat of violence. His marriage is not particularly happy, and he does not seem very concerned about his wife’s emotional needs. To replace some of what her marriage lacks, Mrs. Maurrant has the affair. While her husband suspects that something is going on, her daughter, Rose, knows about the affair. To that end, Rose encourages her mother to be more discreet. Rose’s warnings are not heeded, and Mrs. Maurrant and Sankey are murdered by Mr. Maurrant. Mr. Maurrant believes he will be put to death for the crime.
Though Mr. and Mrs. Maurrant are victims whose choices lead to serious consequences, Rose and her brother might benefit from their mistakes. She will not be a victim of the city or a bad marriage. Rose decides not to live her life for others (except her younger brother) and rejects the amorous offers of her boss, Harry Easter, and her young admirer, Sam Kaplan. She will move her brother to the suburbs or some place outside of New York City. In her family, at least, the cycle of victimization will not be repeated.
Cycle of Life
In Street Scene, Rice includes the entire cycle of life from a birth to two (untimely) deaths. By the beginning of act 2, the unseen Mrs. Buchanan has given birth to a daughter. At the end of the same act, Mr. Maurrant has shot both his wife and Sankey. As the play ends, it appears that a new couple is about to replace the recently evicted Hildebrand family. Rice has characters of every age in the play, from infants to old Mr. Kaplan and contrasting types of similar ages (Mae Jones contrasts with Rose Maurrant; Sam Kaplan to Vincent Jones). By depicting such a breadth of characters, Rice shows the
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research paintings that are “street scenes,” perhaps landscapes of Claude Lorrain, a French artist who influenced Rice when he wrote Street Scene. Pick one and compare it to the play.
- Discuss Street Scene in terms of “realism,” the artistic and literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
- In what ways could the Maurrants avoid their sad situation by the end of the play? Would better communication have prevented the murder?
- Research trends in urbanization and suburbanization in this time period. Why does Rose believe that she and her family would have a better life outside of the city? Would their lives really be better in the suburbs?
diversity of New York City and how the city affects this cycle.
Street Scene is a drama that takes place in New York City in contemporary time (the late 1920s). The date is a hot day in June. The action of the play is confined to one location: the exterior of a brown-stone tenement that is about thirty years old. The building is somewhat shabby but features a stoop where many of the residents gather to escape the heat and socialize. Also visible are the front windows of several of the apartments, in which residents can be seen or heard. The building is located on a street that features warehouses as well as other housing. By limiting the play to one familiar setting. Rice underscores Street Scene’s themes. It emphasizes the characters’ social circumstances and how dehumanizing life in New York City can be for those of the lower-middle classes.
Street Scene is a written as a realistic play. Realism is the faithful depiction of real life. Rice tries to capture what life was really like in New York City in the late 1920s for a certain class of society. To that end, he sets his play in a realistic setting: the tenement. Many of his characters are immigrants who speak English with an accent. Some, like Mr. Kaplan, maintain distinct ties to their past. Mr. Kaplan reads a newspaper written in Hebrew. Rice also shows how these people interact with those who consider themselves American, like the Joneses and the Maurrants. Their concerns are simple, related to everyday life: the affair that Mrs. Maurrant is having, how to stay cool on warm summer day, the young love of Rose Maurrant and Sam Kaplan.
Many minor characters add the play’s realistic elements. Throughout the play, different kinds of people walk by the building, from children, to policeman, to those who want to gape at the murder scene in act 3. Many do not have lines, but those who do just talk about things like playing Red Rover or the like. To emphasize Rice’s social message, he includes some better-developed minor characters as well. Miss Simpson, the spinster charity worker, looks down upon many of the tenement’s residents. Though she is ostensibly helping Mrs. Hildebrand and her children (who have been left destitute after Mr. Hildebrand abandoned them), Miss Simpson cannot help but push her beliefs on others. Such characters add to the play’s realism by including the kinds of people who would be found in such a place in real life.
Rice goes to great lengths in the play’s directions to emphasize the importance of sound to the realism of Street Scene. Throughout the play, Rice calls for steam whistles, traffic, and other street noise to be heard by the audience. In the original production, which Rice directed, he had the stage constructed so that audiences would hear footsteps as they are heard when walking down the street. He also made records with the kinds of street noise he believed was vital to the play’s realism.
In Street Scene, Rice does not use a typical linear plot. Instead, he weaves many plots, both large and small, throughout the play. The primary plot focuses on the Maurrant family: Mrs. Maurrant’s affair, her husband’s knowledge of the affair or lack thereof, Rose’s love life, and Willie’s rambunc-tiousness. While many of Street Scene’s subplots are linked in one way or another to the Maurrants, there are a significant number that are not, including Mrs. Hildebrand’s eviction. By depicting this kind of variety of stories, Rice adds to the realism and power of the play. There is not one primary story in life, but many that are linked and some that are not.
In 1929, the United States was on the verge of transition from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression. The 1920s were a complicated decade in American history. There was an illusion of economic prosperity. Big business got bigger in the economic boom as corporations grew. This boom made many rich and powerful and gave others the idea that they could become wealthy as well. The source for this wealth was perceived to be the stock market, which kept getting bigger throughout the 1920s. In 1929, stock market madness hit its peak, and those who ran the stock market could not keep up with the rapid changes. Warning signs were ignored about the artificially high bull market. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday and soon the Great Depression set in. Within a month, unemployment rates had quadrupled.
Before the crash, cities were seen as places of opportunity. Throughout the United States, there was an increase in urbanization. Office buildings, industrial complexes, hotels, and apartment buildings were constructed at a rapid rate. The Empire State Building was begun in 1929, and completed in 1931. New York City was regarded as the epitome of possibilities and drew many new immigrants and rural Americans to make their fortune. Yet in New York City there was widespread pollution and overcrowding. As people became successful, they moved to newly constructed suburbs. First the upper classes moved to the suburbs, then middle-class suburbs grew as well.
Not everyone benefited in the 1920s economic boom. Working- and lower-middle classes, which included teachers, did not, though they did have steady employment and relatively high wages. Unions were not really powerful or respected in the 1920s, though they did exist. Unskilled factory work was boring and their work situations were unstable. Many urban dwellers lived in crowded apartments.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1929: The primary entertainment in the home is the radio. Over ten million households (about half of the country) have radios in 1929, where few had them in 1921.
Today: Television and computer-related technology have far surpassed radio as the primary forms of home entertainment.
- 1929: After a period of unheralded prosperity, the stock market crashes in October. The American economy is soon in turmoil. Warning signs about the economy had been ignored.
Today: There is unheralded prosperity in the United States, though there are some doubts about overvalued Internet-related stock. Procedures are in place to prevent a crash similar to that of 1929.
- 1929: In general, unions are not particularly powerful or respected, though they are growing a bit in manufacturing. Public opinion towards them is generally negative. A strike in a Tennessee textile mill ends in defeat for labor.
Today: After decades of power, unions are in decline. While some unions have power in certain industries, respect for them is generally declining.
- 1929: Because there is often no refrigeration in the home, milk and ice are delivered to homes on a daily basis.
Today: Refrigerators are commonly found in homes. Consumers buy dairy products in markets. The concept of daily delivery is alien.
Only seventy-one percent had running water and eighty percent had electricity. Rural America was even worse off. Rural America and small towns were already on the decline, and farmers were already suffering under tremendous economic pressure. Only ten percent of farm families had electricity, and only thirty-three percent had running water.
Throughout the 1920s, there was a conflict between rural and urban America and between the native-born and immigrants. There was concern over what to do with all the new Americans and their needs: more than a quarter who came to this country were illiterate. While many groups sprang to indoctrinate immigrants into American society, a nativism movement feared what immigrants brought to this country. People were afraid of communism, socialism, and other radical ideas. Many did not like Germans (because of World War I), Jews, or Catholics. Anti-Semitism was rampant. The Ku Klux Klan grew in power, though the actual number of lynchings declined in 1929. Such pressure led to the National Origins Act in 1924, which placed restrictions on the numbers and kinds of European immigrants. Still, immigrants came, even after the stock market crash signaled the end of an optimistic decade and the beginning of a desperate decade.
When Street Scene was first produced, most critics praised the play for its realism and its characterizations. R. Dana Skinner of Commonweal called it “a play of extraordinary sweep, power and intensity, which catches up with amazing simplicity and sincere feeling the ragged, glowing, humor and tragic life that pours in and out of one of those brown stone apartment houses hovering on the upper edge of the slum district of New York.” New York Times critic J. Brooks Atkinson was also nearly unqualified in his praise. He wrote, “He has transferred intact to the stage a segment of representative New York life, preserving not only its appearance but its character, relating it not only to the city but to humanity.”
Atkinson also approved of Rice’s characterizations. In another review, he wrote, “Mr. Rice has succeeded in relating it to life and enlisting your sympathies for the tatterdemalions who troop along his average street, hang out of the windows on a hot summer evening, gossip, quarrel, romance, and make the best of their stuffy lot. Mr. Rice does not sentimentalize about them. He does not blame them for their prejudices and blunders and short tempers.” Later in the same review, Atkinson argued, “Never did the phantasmagoria of street episodes seem so lacking in sketchy types and so packed with fully delineated character.”
Many critics of the original production commented on these ideas, though they were more mixed in their praise. The unnamed critic in Catholic World believed that Rice’s characters alone redeemed the play. The critic wrote, “[B]ecause all these insignificant bits of characterization are a legitimate and helpful part of the larger design, Street Scene is rescued from being merely photographic.” Similarly, Joseph Wood Krutch of the Nation wrote, “One may distrust the ‘slice’ or the ‘cross-section’ of life. One may doubt, as I certainly do, the ultimate importance of this particular kind of naturalism as a dramatic method. But one cannot doubt Mr. Rice’s remarkable mastery of it.”
Stark Young of the New Republic was one of the few critics who had many problems with the play. Street Scene, he noted, “on one plane of consideration is pleasantly entertaining. On another plane, where you take the play seriously and where you ask yourself whether for an instant you have believed in any single bit of it, either as art, with its sting of surprise and creation, or as life, with its reality. For me, who was not bored with it as an evening’s theater, it is something less than rubbish, theatrical rubbish, in that curious baffling way that the stage provides.”
In writing about the original London production in 1930, Charles Morgan of the New York Times had some problems with Maurrant’s love/murder plot and how it affected the story but found much to praise structurally. He wrote, “Mr. Rice’s method is an extremely interesting one which has its symbol in the fact that we see the apartment house always from the outside, never entering into it and being permitted only now and then to glance through its windows. The truth of its inhabitants must appear, Mr. Rice would seem to say, without admission of the audience into the position of all-seeing God with keys to individual hearts.”
Street Scene’s power remained intact for at least one critic through the 1940s. Though writing about the musical version of the play written by Rice with a score by Kurt Weill in 1947, Atkinson of the New York Times commented on the stage play. He believed its power as a drama made it a good choice for musical adaptation. Atkinson wrote, “To him the characters are not specimens but human beings, grinding out what pleasure they can from the squalor, heat and grime of an ugly neighborhood. . . . Toward the characters his attitude is kindly without sentimentality, amused without condescension; it is realistic without bitterness or judgment. In the midst of a swirling and raucous city, he is observing life in tranquility.”
By 1996, when the play was revived by the Willow Cabin Theater Company at the Theater Row Theater in New York City, what had been seen as innovative and rich in 1929 was regarded as outdated. Calling the play “a sprawling mess,” D. J. R. Bruckner of the New York Times wrote, “Its stock characters are poor immigrants from everywhere; its dialogue and ideas are cliched, and its climax is a murder that seems pure camp by now.” Donald Lyons of the Wall Street Journal thought better of the play, though he had similar problems. He argued that “There is on parade a batter of working-class ethnic types . . . fresh maybe in 1929, but now merely stale. But Rice’s focal stories still have power.”
In this essay, Petrusso shows how much Rice’s play has in common with today’s daytime television soap operas.
When Elmer Rice’s Street Scene was first produced in 1929, it was unlike most other plays of the day. The play featured numerous, realistic characters, and many, sometimes intersecting, story lines, and neither of these aspects was developed in depth. Rice was discouraged from even producing Street Scene at all by his colleagues. Yet the drama was produced and was somewhat successful. To emphasize its realism, Rice insisted that the original production feature prerecorded street noise and other natural sounds to underscore that this tenement was really in the heart of New York City. Furthermore, Rice also added an element of contemporary social criticism to Street Scene. In one subplot, Mrs. Hildebrand and her two children are about to be removed from their home because they are without
funds after Mr. Hildebrand abandoned them. They are “aided” by a social worker, Miss Alice Simpson, who seems only interested in controlling the poor family.
This kind of realism and social criticism is no longer so unusual in mainstream theater. Street Scene uses other techniques that are also common, not with socially oriented drama but with the daytime soap operas that have been found on television since the 1950s. The kind of events that occur in Street Scene are stock-in-trade of this kind of episodic television. More importantly, Rice’s way of writing the play makes it seem like an episode in a longer drama. None of the stories in the tenement has a beginning that starts only after the curtain rises, and only a few story lines have a clear ending, though there is more to explore in these subplots. In other words, the interrelated stories of Street Scene could have had plays/episodes before them and continue after this point, not unlike a soap opera. This essay looks at two primary elements of Street Scene—themes and structure—and how they resemble a modern day soap opera.
In his essay “A Social Scientist’s View of Daytime Serial Drama,” George Comstock defines a soap opera as “the continuing saga of a group of people involved with each other through lineage, passion, ambition, hostility, and chance.” This definition could well be applied to Street Scene. The characters in the play are grouped into small families who live in different apartments in the tenement. Their decision to live in this building is, at least in part, by chance. They may not have much money, but there are many other tenements in the city of New York. There is also hostility among them. Abraham Kaplan’s constant stream of Marxist rhetoric, for example, is not appreciated by most of his neighbors. The Joneses are depicted as vicious bullies. The son, Vincent Jones, takes pleasure in harassing Sam Kaplan, who in turn is in love with Rose Maurrant. Sam is willing to give up his future to be with Rose, though his sister, Shirley, does everything in her power to discourage the romance. Ambition is hard to come by in the tenement: mostly characters hope to survive. Only the Kaplans seem to have much of a chance to escape, through education.
Admittedly, most modern day soaps do not focus on lower-middle to lower-class characters living in one tenement house. A majority of characters in soap operas are middle- to upper-class, with many professionals, both men and women. But
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Adding Machine is a play by Rice that was first produced in 1923. The story focuses on how a wage slave, Zero, is affected by oppressive modern day society.
- Romeo and Juliet, a play by William Shakespeare written in approximately 1597, concerns the effects of forbidden love.
- Winterset, a play Maxwell Anderson (1935), comments on how socioeconomic forces effect common people.
- The Subway, a play written by Rice in 1929, concerns how a woman reacts to an oppressive environment.
- Bartholomew Fair, a play by Ben Jonson written in approximately 1614, is a sprawling story with a large cast of characters.
almost every soap focuses on one community, and a number of families that live in it. James Thurber, in his essay ’ Tvorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg and Crisco Corners,” provides another definition. He writes, “A soap opera deals with the plights and problems brought about in the lives of its permanent principal characters by the advent and interference of one group of individuals after another.” This statement can be applied to Street Scene. If the families who live in the tenement are taken as the principal characters, then people like Miss Simpson, Steve Sankey (the milk company collector who has the affair with Mrs. Maurrant), or Happy Easter (Rose Maurrant’s married boss, whose desire to have an affair with Rose and complicates Rose’s life) can be seen as those who interfere.
No matter what class the principal characters are in, however, both soaps and Street Scene share thematic concerns. Mary Cassata and Thomas Skill in their essay “Television Soap Operas: What’s Been Going on Anyway?—Revisited” define four kinds of stories in soap operas. They are “(1) Criminal and Undesirable Activity; (2) Social Problems; (3) Medical Developments; and (4) Romantic and Marital Affairs.” All four of these elements can be found in Street Scene. The murder of Mrs. Maurrant and her lover falls under the category of criminal and undesirable activity. One medical development is the birth of Mrs. Buchanan’s baby. There are at least two affairs in Street Scene: the illicit one between Mrs. Maurrant and Steve Sankey, and the more innocent, if one-sided, one between Sam Kaplan and Rose Maurrant. (Social problems are discussed below.)
Other scholars add more specific situations to the list of soap opera themes. In the Comstock essay quoted earlier, the author argues that in soaps, “the kinds of tribulations are real enough for everyone—money, sex, health, mates, social competition, mental disorder, drugs, alcohol.” Nearly all characteristics are also found in Street Scene, some of which already have been discussed. Money problems force the Hildebrands out of the tenement. Characters like Lippo try to be generous despite the general lack of funds, as when he buys a number of ice cream cones for his neighbor or when he gives the Hildebrand children a nickel each. His wife notes that this kind of behavior accounts for their economic problems. Marital problems have driven Mrs. Maurrant to have an affair. Indeed, many couples argue in Street Scene. There is much social competition, especially between the Jones and others. Alcohol plays a role in the murder of Mrs. Maurrant by her husband. These are but a few of the relevant situations in Street Scene.
Critical social elements are one of the most important themes of Street Scene. In the essay “The More Things Change, The More They Are the Same: An Analysis of Soap Operas from Radio to Television,” Mary Cassata argues that “soap operas have dealt with issues and themes that have constituted the social concerns of their times.” Among other things, Street Scene shows the diversity of people in New York City and how that creates some social squabbling. The different ethnicities get along but do not always live in harmony. Rice also touches on the problems of the working woman, as Rose tries to fend off Happy Easter.
The best example of a social theme, one that was extremely controversial in Rice’s time, is the charity subplot involving the Hildebrands. In the way the story is depicted, Rice seems to question how helpful such charities really are. Miss Alice Simpson fails the Hildebrands in some ways because she tries to control them. She berates Mrs. Hildebrand for taking her children to the movies when they are about to lose their apartment. Simpson also becomes disgusted when Lippo gives the children money. While there may not be an outspoken Marxist like Abraham Kaplan on most soap operas, such shows, like this play, use the audience’s sympathies, guiding them towards an emotional connection with what the creator considers wrong and right about societal attitudes.
Structural qualities are also common to both soap operas and Street Scene. In the play, the plot jumps between stories rather quickly and in short spurts. Though there is an overall flow, Rice weaves in bits about different story lines constantly. The plot is not linear but pieces of stories that develop over time. Soap operas use a similar technique in their use of multiple story lines. And as Laura Arliss, Mary Cassata, and Thomas Skill argue in their essay “Dyadic Interaction on the Daytime Serials: How Men and Women Vie for Power,” “the action on daytime serial drama consists, for the most part, of talk.” The same is basically true of Street Scene: a lot of talk and little actual action.
Though Street Scene has an ending, only a few of the stories are resolved with any finality: Mrs. Maurrant and her lover are murdered, Mrs. Buchanan has her baby, and the Hildebrands are removed. The rest of the story lines are left open-ended. Even those with endings are not particularly final. There is a baby to raise and different homes for both the Hildebrands and the Maurrant children. New families will be moving into the tenement, living different lives. As Horace Newcomb says in his essay “A Humanist’s View of Serial Drama,” “the triumph of the soap opera form is that it engages us in the sense of progressive unfolding, emergence, growth and change.” None of the characters are static at the end of Street Scene. There is potential for yet more plays and episodes and more multiple crossing
“NEW FAMILIES WILL BE MOVING INTO THE TENEMENT, LIVING DIFFERENT LIVES. AS HORACE NEWCOMB SAYS IN HIS ESSAY A HUMANIST’S VIEW OF SERIAL DRAMA’, ‘THE TRIUMPH OF THE SOAP OPERA FORM IS THAT IT ENGAGES US IN THE SENSE OF PROGRESSIVE UNFOLDING, EMERGENCE, GROWTH AND CHANGE.’”
story lines. Rice was ahead of his time when he wrote Street Scene, anticipating the power of these innovations.
Source: Annette Petrusso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Tara L. Mantel
Mantel is a freelance writer and editor based near Boston. In the following essay, Mantel contends that Rice’s realistic play contains not-so-obvious expressionistic elements.
Elmer Rice’s success and most-remembered works peaked during the second decade of the twentieth century. John Gassner claims in Twenty-Five Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, “So far as the theatre is concerned, the American century was born in 1919.” American theater addressed the social conditions of the times via two main influences in dramatic style.
One influence arose out of the break from the idyllic and romantic plays of the late nineteenth century, with their moralizing and their admonitions of the less than morally pure audiences, to the desire to present the world in an authentic way. This style was known as realism. The second influence was the introduction, primarily through German plays, of the then-European technique called expressionism. Expressionism went beyond mere representation to exploring symbolically the inner life—the
“THE EXPRESSIONISTIC PLAY USES SHORT DISCONNECTED SCENES, SOMETIMES OUT OF SEQUENCE, TO REFLECT THE DISORDER OF THE HUMAN MIND THAT IT SEEKS TO EXPOSE.”
psyche—of characters. It was a technique that, as Louis Broussard says in American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O ‘Neill to Tennessee Williams, “abandoned the photography of realism, the dramatic sequence of events, for a stream of consciousness in terms of stage symbols whereby the surface of life becomes disjointed, scattered, as in a dream . . .”
On the surface, Rice’s Street Scene (1929) seems like a play straight in the realism mode, but on further examination, it is filled with expression-istic elements. “It was not to be simply a realistic play,” states C. W. E. Bigsby in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. It would be a stretch to say that the play is a type of expressionist realism, but one can still discern the experimental feel of the play and the themes that echo those found in expressionistic plays of the time.
The expressionistic play uses short disconnected scenes, sometimes out of sequence, to reflect the disorder of the human mind that it seeks to expose. It focuses on internal action. Because one cannot replicate these internal workings on the stage, symbols are used to represent emotional struggles and conflicts. Often characters exist as both individuals and types, which allows the playwright to tell a story involving individuals but also to allude to social or political trends via a type of dramatic shorthand. Expressionistic plays tend to address the theme of alienation. In stark contrast to the turn-of-the-century plays, which incorporated ills that fate or God willed on mankind, the experimental plays, as Jordan Miller and Winifred Frazer indicate in American Drama Between the Wars: A Critical History, addressed instead “what man has done to himself.” The outsiders of the 1920s experienced rampant discrimination, and they as well as natives toiled away at repetitive, strenuous, and low-paying factory jobs—conditions that could be considered man-made. As a result, they began to experience a profound disconnection from each other.
In Street Scene, as in an expressionistic play, the characters are both individuals and types. Rice throws together a host of ethnic groups. These groups certainly represent the probable mix of a 1920s New York tenement building, but the divisions—an Italian man, a Russian-Jewish family, a Swedish couple, a German woman, and an Irish-American stagehand, among others—are almost forced. The mix is too accurate. The dialects and accents are so precisely reproduced that the individuals are types that border on being caricatures. Each character in Street Scene must embody the voice, culture, value systems, and expectations of his or her respective ethnic group, country, and religion. Of course, America, as a social experiment, is the great homogenizer, and being American is the common denominator of all these early twentieth-century ethnic groups. So we have a boisterous, happy-go-lucky Italian music instructor; a pondering Jewish student; and native New Yorkers who resent outsiders taking what rightly belongs to them and who believe that instilling “the fear of God” will somehow make the world and their lives better. Although each character is unique because of his or her ethnicity, this uniqueness ironically becomes the element that makes each character a representative type.
If being American is the common denominator of New York’s inhabitants, then the tenement building is the common denominator of Rice’s characters. Street Scene, like an expressionistic play, uses the gloomy brownstone as a symbol. The tenement building, the play’s only backdrop, is an expressionistic symbol of urban life as a prison from which to escape. The oppressive heat, the characters lingering on the front steps, the cramped quarters—all reek of immobility and inertia. “Rice resisted the idea of simply copying an existing tenement building in order to create the set. It was a conscious effort to raise that setting to the level of symbol,” Bigsby says. The characters’ incessant climbing of the stairs can be viewed as another symbol—this time as the long economic climb of the middle class and its desire for material goods and a way of life that most of them agree is better.
Brief scenes and fragmented storylines characterize expressionism. Despite having a couple of traceable story lines, Street Scene mostly uses fragments and snippets of people’s lives; these snippets, which all exist in real time rather than in an expres-sionistic heaven or hell or individual mind, are cleverly spliced together to form a cohesive whole. As Rice explains in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, “instead of unity of action, there was a multitude of varied and seemingly irrelevant incidents.”
There are only two main storylines in Street Scene: the story of a woman and her jealous husband who shoots her and her lover in a jealous drunken rage; and the story of that woman’s daughter, who now is the primary caretaker of the young son and who itches to escape the tenement and live on her own terms—even if that means rejecting several men. These storylines are not overly detailed or complicated but provide a hook on which to hang the rest if the action. For example, Mrs. Buchanan, whom we never see, endures a painful and complicated birth while Rose and Sam discuss their futures; Sam and Vincent Jones get into a couple of scuffles; and the Hildebrands get evicted. Bums shuffle by. Two schoolgirls discuss concavity. The Old-Clothes Man appears and disappears. Vendors hawk their wares. Crippled people hobble past. The central characters spend a good portion of stage time talking about the heat and gossiping.
But gossip is local color, and what Rice succeeds in doing is using expressionistic fragmentation as a tool for revelation. The seemingly insignificant drunken encounter between Mrs. Jones’ daughter and her boyfriend reveal further the nature of Mrs. Jones’ hypocrisy: her children’s behavior is nowhere near the level she would have us believe. Her daughter is sexually easy, and her son is an obnoxious brute. Kaplan’s rantings, particularly his hostility for Alice Simpson, reveals the contemporary collective fear of Socialism. Shirley’s “Everybody has a right to his own opinion,” spoken softly reveals the fragile democracy America espouses. How the characters react to seemingly unrelated and random occurrences—Mrs. Buchanan’s labor cries, the Hildebrand eviction, and the affair everyone knows is going on between Mrs. Maurraut and Sankey, for example—allows Rice to address, through the expressionistic technique of story line fragmentation, the social mores of the times.
In addition, Street Scene’s themes are similar to those found in a typical expressionistic play. Mardi Valgemae, in Accelerated Grimace, writes that August Strindberg, the “father of German expressionism,” addressed the “stifling effect of social conformity on personal happiness” in Ghost Sonata. In that play, Strindberg’s student asks, “What do we find that truly lives up to what it promises?” In Street Scene, Mrs. Maurraut, Rose, and Sam invoke similar questions. Sam says, “Everywhere you look, oppression and cruelty! . . . It’s too high a price to pay for life—life isn’t worth it!”
These seemingly innocuous complaints in Street Scene actually belie a Strindbergian/expressionistic concern with alienation. Bigsby discusses the importance of experimental theater in America, claiming that “it [took] as its primary subject the loss of an organic relationship with the natural world, with one’s fellow man, and with oneself.” In Street Scene the two most prominent forms of alienation are alienation from one’s fellow man and alienation from oneself.
Mrs. Maurrant, always wondering why people can’t be nicer to each other, is the spokeswoman for how people have lost touch with their fellow man. None of the characters in Street Scene really communicate with each other. It seems that they are either gossiping amongst themselves or arguing with each other. What passes for neighborly relations continues, but everyone seems to be watching and waiting, poised to criticize and pass judgement. Even an innocent round of ice cream leads to an argument about who discovered America—an argument that arouses nothing less than nationalist sentiments and quickly brings out the worst in everyone. Some of the characters lament the Hildebrands eviction, for example, but no one does anything about it. No one lends a hand or gives a kind word. The last few moments at the end of act 2 are telling: the shooting has just occurred, and a man, who is removing the personal items of the Hildebrands, pauses on the steps to look. How can the Hildebrands sympathize with the Maurrants and vice-versa? How can any of the characters, living in fear and distrust of each other, depending as they do on gossipy second-hand information and rumors, even begin to understand the real circumstances surrounding an event? Mrs. Maurrant is arguably the hero of this play: she is the only one who cares enough to actually lift a finger for another character—in this case making soup for a very ill Mrs. Buchanan—only to find herself bitterly rejected and criticized by her neighbors and severely wounded by a shot fired from her own husband’s gun.
If Mrs. Maurrant embodies alienation with one’s fellow man, then her daughter, Rose, is the voice for how people have lost touch with themselves. Rose says, “I don’t think people ought to belong to anybody but themselves,” and rightly supposes that the terrible shooting that serves as the dramatic underpinning of the play would never have happened if, say, her parents had been truer to themselves. The moment she learns this lesson she applies it to her own life: at the end of act 3 she shuns Sam’s offer to take her away from the tenement, wisely doubting that his optimism and hope, his promise of living happily ever after, and his insistence that love can conquer all can be their salvation.
In Street Scene, we don’t really enter the minds of the characters in a true expressionistic way, nor are the characters totally reduced to mechanical automatons as they typically are in a true expressionistic play. Nevertheless, the use of caricature and symbolism, as well as the theme of alienation due to social conformity, give this realistic play a distinct expressionistic feel.
Source: Tara L. Mantel, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Perkins, an Associate Professor of English at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, has published several articles on several twentieth-century authors. In this essay, she explores how the structure of Rice’s play emphasizes its focus on survival.
The positive public response to Rice’s play was due to its authentic depiction of lower-class men and women struggling to survive the crushing reality of urban life. As Fred Behringer notes in his article on Rice for The Dictionary of Literary Biography,“the power of the play lies not in the surface reality, but rather in the intense struggles beneath.” Rice illuminates these struggles through the play’s creative structure. As he juxtaposes brief glimpses of his characters, he explores the various ways human beings find to cope with the harsh reality of everyday life.
In his stage directions, Rice sets the tone and establishes the fragmented structure characteristic of the entire play. He writes, “Throughout the act and, indeed, throughout the play, there is constant noise. . . . The noises are subdued and in the background, but they never wholly cease.”
These noises represent a myriad of separate personal stories being played out simultaneously, creating a mosaic of lower middle class urban life. Behringer explains that in an interview, Rice claimed,“the intended total effect [of the play] was a panoramic impression of New York,” one that included “shopkeepers, clerks, artisans, students, a schoolteacher, a taxi driver, a musician, janitors, policemen.”
What all these characters have in common is their desire to overcome the hardships of their daily life. Rice’s fragmented structure illustrates the various mechanisms humans employ during this difficult process.
In the first act, Rice introduces all the major characters and suggests some of the frustrations they face. As several of them sit on the front stoop of their “walk-up” apartment house “in a mean quarter of New York,” their immediate concern is the oppressive and inescapable heat, which results in sweat-soaked clothes and crying babies. The audience soon discovers other problems caused by the urban environment. The play’s cacophony of voices illustrates how life on these “mean” streets exacerbates family relationships. Parents fret about the negative influences on their children who stay out too late. Glimpses into their lives reveal how their marriages strain under the pressure of economic hardships coupled with concerns for the children. Some suffer as a result of prejudice while others must face the biological realities of childbirth and death.
Mrs. Jones never specifically identifies the problems her family experiences, but Rice suggests their source when he presents vignettes that focus on her daughter’s and husband’s alcoholism. Mrs. Jones illustrates the consequences of the tense relationship she has with her family when she insists, “Men are all alike. They’re all easy to get along with so long as everythin’s goin’ the way they want it to. But once it don’t—good night!” Mrs. Maurrant’s more egalitarian response nevertheless confirms Mrs. Jones’ point of view: “I guess it’s just the same with the women. . . . People ought to be able to live together in peace and quiet, without making each other miserable.”
Most of the characters cope with the stresses in their lives through affiliation. Sharing their problems helps alleviate them to a degree, especially when others offer sympathy. As each neighbor laments the consequences of the overwhelming heat and delineates their family problems, the others
respond with understanding nods and their own similar stories.
This camaraderie inevitably leads to another form of release for the characters—gossip, and in the opening scene, they feel that they have much to gossip about. As soon as Mrs. Maurrant comes into view, those on the stoop begin to chatter about her affair with Steve Sankey as they try to forget the heat and their own personal problems. All condemn the two for their actions, but some are more sympathetic than others to what they see as the couple’s inevitable fate when Mr. Maurrant finds out.
Mrs. Jones shifts the focus of the conversation to the affair after Mrs. Fiorentino sympathizes with Willie Maurrant’s treatment of his mother. Mrs. Jones notes, “I guess it don’t bother her much. She’s got her mind on other things.” Her critical tone reveals another coping mechanism she employs—devaluation. Throughout the play, Mrs. Jones deals with stress by attributing exaggerated negative qualities to others. This becomes most evident in her racist remarks about her neighbors. For example, when Mrs. Olsen fails to comfort her baby, Mrs. Jones insists, “What them foreigners don’t know about bringin’ up babies would fill a book.” After Mrs. Fiorentino takes offense at her words, Mrs. Jones makes a feeble attempt at tact: “Well, I’m not sayin’ anythin’ about the Joimans. The Joimans is different—more like the Irish. What I’m talkin’ about is all them squareheads an’ Polacks—an’ Jews.”
Others take their minds off of their problems through altruism. As the neighbors gossip about the Maurrants, Filippo Fiorentino buys them ice cream cones to help ease the heat. He also shows his generosity when he gives money to a woman about to be dispossessed. When the worker from the charity office chastises him, insisting, “you’d be doing her a much more neighborly act, if you helped her to realize the value of money instead of encouraging her to throw it away, Filippo replies, “Ah, lady, no! I give ‘er coupla dollar, make ‘er feel good, maka me feel good—dat don’ ’urt nobody.”
Some of the other neighbors also reveal generous spirits. Filippo’s wife Greta offers soup for Mrs. Buchanan who will soon deliver her baby. Mrs. Maurrant prepares food for Mrs. Buchanan and stays with her throughout her difficult labor. Mr. Buchanan tells the others that Mrs. Maurrant was up with his wife nearly all night and admits, “I don’t know what we’d have done without her.” Mrs. Maurrant, though, has found an additional way to ease her troubles, but this coping mechanism will result in her murder.
“GLIMPSES INTO THEIR LIVES REVEAL HOW THEIR MARRIAGES STRAIN UNDER THE PRESSURE OF ECONOMIC HARDSHIPS COUPLED WITH CONCERNS FOR THE CHILDREN. SOME SUFFER AS A RESULT OF PREJUDICE WHILE OTHERS MUST FACE THE BIOLOGICAL REALITIES OF CHILDBIRTH AND DEATH.”
Pieces of dialogue from several of the characters reveal that Mr. Maurrant treats his wife harshly and continually complains about their children. Mrs. Maurrant expresses her need for comfort and suggests the reason why she enters into an affair with another man when she explains, “I think the trouble is people don’t make allowances. They don’t realize that everybody wants a kind word, now and then.” In a moment of desperation, she tries to justify her actions when she insists to Rose, “What’s the good of being alive, if you can’t get a little something out of life? You might just as well be dead.”
Kaplan deals with the stresses of his environment through intellectualization, the excessive use of generalizations to complain about a situation. He blames all the neighbors’ problems on the country’s economic system, insisting, “As long as de institution of private property exeests, de verkers will be at de moicy of de property owning klesses. . . .” Kaplan believes that if the country adopts a socialist system, poverty, along with their troubles, will be eliminated.
Mr. Maurrant also employs this tactic, which allows him to vent his frustrations over his suspicions about his wife. He decides, “what we need in this country is a little more respect for law an’ order” and cites examples of what he sees to be the decline of the American family. Homes, he claims are being broken up by divorce and the relaxation of sexual taboos. As a result, he determines,“it’s time somethin’ was done to put the fear o’ God into people!”
His intellectualism quickly turns threatening, however, as his humiliation over his wife’s affair surfaces. When Kaplan suggests that if private property is abolished, “the femily will no longer hev eny reason to excest,” Maurrant explodes. He insists the family will survive, with “children respectin’ their parents an’ doin’ what they’re told . . . An’ husbands an’ wives, lovin’ and’ honorin’ each other, like they said they would, when they was spliced.” He ends his tirade with a devaluation of Kaplan, warning him, “any dirty sheeny that says different is li’able to get his head busted open.” Soon, his inability to cope with his wife’s infidelity will push him over the edge, causing him to take her life and that of her lover when he finds them together.
Sam, Kaplan’s extremely sensitive son, is another character who has not developed effective ways to cope with the reality of his life. He tries to escape into books, but they do not help him block out the cruelty and despair he finds everywhere. When he comes across the neighbors gossiping about Mrs. Maurrant, he tries to defend her, yelling “stop it! Stop it! Can’t you let her alone? Have you no hearts? Why do you tear her to pieces, like a pack of wolves?” But he cannot face them and so escapes, dashing abruptly into the house, choking back a sob.
When he tries to defend Rose against Vincent Jones’ advances, Vincent knocks him to the ground, where he remains, cowering in fear. After Vincent leaves, Sam crumbles. Rice notes, “he throws himself on the stoop and, burying his head in his arms, sobs hysterically.” Rose tries to comfort him, but he resists, exclaiming
That’s all there is in life—nothing but pain. From before we’re born, until we die! . . . The whole world is nothing but a blood stained arena, filled with misery and suffering. It’s too high a price to pay for life. . . . life isn’t worth it!
Rice’s focus on short exchanges between Sam and Rose highlights diametrically opposed responses to the harsh reality of life. Sam suggests that he and Rose kill themselves and so end their suffering. Rose refuses, exclaiming that there is a lot to appreciate in life, “just being alive—breathing and walking around. Just looking at the faces of people you like and hearing them laugh. And . . . listening to a good band, and dancing.” Out of all the characters in the play, Rose finds the most effective ways of coping with her life.
She refuses to adopt Sam’s pessimistic attitude. While he sees nothing but cruelty and misery, she suppresses her problems during a walk through the park. There, she admits, “everything looked so green and fresh, that I got a kind of feeling of, well, maybe it’s not so bad, after all.” Her optimism later emerges in a discussion of religion with Sam. She asks him, “don’t you think it’s better to believe in something that makes you a little happy, than not to believe in anything and be miserable all the time?
At a moment of weakness, she accepts the attentions of Harry Easter, her married supervisor. Influenced by his offer to help her launch a career on the stage, she considers becoming his mistress. Eventually, though, after coming to terms with her family’s tragedy, she finds the strength to survive through her determination to move out of the city and to live an independent life. Admitting that she does not love either Harry or Sam, and refusing to become dependent on either of them, she tells Sam, “I don’t think people ought to belong to anybody but themselves.”
Behringer concludes, “In spite of the violence, oppressiveness, and loss in the play, the central idea is one of affirmation. . . . Rice emphasizes the notion that not only is happiness possible, but that it is, in large part, a matter of personal choice.” R. Dana Skinner, writing in Commonweal, suggests, “it is perhaps hard to believe that from incidents as varied and scattered as these, Mr. Rice could create an enthrallingly vivid sense of reality, poignancy, cowardice, despair and courage. But he has succeeded in an overflowing measure.” He succeeds in large part because his arrangement of the short glimpses into the lives of his characters underscores the play’s theme. As Street Scene catalogues the various ways we cope with the often harsh reality of existence, it ultimately affirms the resilience of the human spirit.
Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Hogan examines the themes present in Street Scene through the series of events that happen to the characters.
Street Scene was produced in 1929, ran for 602 performances, won the Pulitzer Prize, and is one of the great plays of the American theatre. It had the longest Broadway run of any of Rice’s plays, and, with the exception of the London production of Judgment Day, it gave him probably the greatest satisfaction. The tragicomic history of the play is fascinatingly told in Chapter XIX of The Living Theatre and Chapter XIII of Minority Report. Of special interest is the difficulty that Rice had in marketing the script.
The responses of the producers were emphatically and unanimously negative. I remember some of them. The Theatre Guild, which had produced my play The Adding Machine, said that Street Scene had “no content.” Winthrop Ames, a man for whose judgment I had great respect, said that it was not a play. Arthur Hopkins, who had scored a great success with my first play, On Trial, told me that he found Street Scene unreadable. Others found it dull, depressing, sordid, confusing, undramatic. One producer opened the script, looked at the list of characters and read no further.
It seems astonishing that so many astute authorities could have been so wrong; still, a book could be filled with similar cases. If any generalization is to be drawn from such facts, it might be that the commercial theatre imposes its own standards upon those who work in it. When money is the first consideration, safety is the second and quality is the last. Of the play itself, Rice once wrote:
The background and subject matter had been in my mind for many years: a multiple dwelling, housing numerous families of varying origins; and a melodramatic story arising partly from the interrelationships of the characters and partly from their environmental conditioning. The setting was the facade of a “brown-stone front”—a type of dwelling of which there are still thousands of examples in New York—and the sidewalk before it. . . . The house was conceived as the central fact of the play: a dominant structural element that unified the sprawling and diversified lives of the inhabitants. This concept was derived partly from the Greek drama, which is almost always set against the face of a palace or a temple. But mainly I was influenced, I think, by the paintings of Claude Lorrain, a French artist of the seventeenth century. In his landscapes, which I had gazed at admiringly in the Louvre and other galleries, there is nearly always a group of figures in the foreground, which is composed and made significant by an impressive architectural pile of some sort in the background. In fact, the original title of my play was Landscape with Figures; but I felt that this was a little too special, so I borrowed again from the terminology of painting and called the play Street Scene . . .
There is a central love story: a sort of Romeo and Juliet romance between the stagehand’s daughter and the radical’s son; and a main dramatic thread of murder, committed by the girl’s father when he comes home unexpectedly and finds his wife with her lover. But there are numerous subplots and an intricate pattern of crisscrossing and interweaving relationships. The house is ever present and ever dominant, and the entire action of the play takes place on the sidewalk, on the stoop or in the windows. I give these details in order to make it clear that, whatever the play’s merits or defects, it is an unconventional drama, in setting, in technique and in size of cast.
“THE EFFECT IS AS IF A SLAB OF REALITY HAD BEEN HURLED AT THE AUDIENCE, AS IF REALISM ITSELF WERE ABRUPTLY REVITALIZED AND ITS TRUE POSSIBILITIES BEGINNING AT LAST TO BE EXPLORED.”
The problem of discussing this large and unconventional play is that, in one sense, it is too large to discuss. So much happens and there are so many characters, that one scarcely knows where or how to begin. On the other hand, if one stands further back for a broader view, there seems curiously little to discuss. From the welter of incidents, ultimately emerges one simple story, and the rest is scene painting. So viewed, the whole conception seems simplicity itself.
Although the play is realistic, its realism has seldom been seen on the stage since the days of such sprawling Elizabethan plays as Bartholomew Fair. It is a realism that suddenly makes one understand with a sort of shock that experiments in realism are still possible. The realism bequeathed by Ibsen was the portrayal of a middle-class drawing room, a front parlor inhabited by half a dozen people. A play like Rice’s takes the theatre out of that parlor and sets it down in the middle of a busy metropolitan street. The effect is as if a slab of reality had been hurled at the audience, as if realism itself were abruptly revitalized and its true possibilities beginning at last to be explored.
Compared with Street Scene, the front parlor drama seems unreal, contrived, and artificial. It is as if the front parlor dramatists had been using the delicately honed scalpel of realism to extract the meat from nuts rather than the pith from life. Perhaps it is wrong to forget a lesson from Ibsen’s own front parlor drama, A Doll’s House. At the end of that play, its heroine stormed from the house and into the street. And, indeed, most of Ibsen’s later plays—Rosmersholm, John Gabriel Borkman, The Master Builder, The Lady From the Sea and When We Dead Awaken—all finally escape from the parlor, into the sea, the mountains, and the air. The man who wrote Brand and Peer Gynt did not regard realism as a confinement, but as the quickest way to freedom. The free realism of Street Scene seems to prove the vitality of that realistic form from which so many lesser playwrights have found “No Exit.”
I am not suggesting a return to the mere spectacle for spectacle’s sake so dear to the heart of Boucicault, but merely suggesting that the modern stage rarely uses its full resources, and that the large cast and the small spectacle performed by real people may be one realization of the theatre at its most vital. Street Scene is as pertinent a reminder as Endgame or The Chairs of what the theatre can do if it will but extend itself. Really, Street Scene, with its cast of eighty, may even beat the movies at their own game of spectacle. The eighty-odd characters of Street Scene are there, immediate, palpable, tangible; and the elect of real people over colored shadows (no matter how clearly one can see the cleavages in their Brobdingnagian bosoms) is so much more vivid, that eighty real people may dwarf thousands of celluloid shadows.
In the nineteenth-century theatre, actors were accustomed to play types, character types and national types. In our post-Stanislavskian stress upon individual characterization, we may have forgotten a value of the older practice which was, after all, effective, economical, and based upon legitimate observation. Street Scene has many national types in its cast—Jews, Italians, Scandinavians, Irish, and so on, and much of the play’s effect comes from the delineation and juxtaposition of these types. The jangling cacophony of their dialects, fusing with the diverse street noises, creates a convincing harmony of reality. Such roles not only provide valuable exercises for actors caught in a morass of subtlety, but also allow individual characters to be built up with an economy of effort. Consider, for instance, the effect that Rice gets from a mere stage movement in this exchange between the extroverted Italian Lippo and his German wife.
MRS. FIORENTINO: Lippo, what do you think? Mr. Buchanan has a little girl.
LIPPO: Ah, dotsa fine! Margherita, why you don’ have da baby, ha?
MRS. FIORENTINO: [abruptly] I must go and make the coffee.
With similar economy, Rice builds up the characterizations of his large cast, so that his play requires both considerable excellence from each actor and an ensemble playing difficult to achieve.
One character who benefits greatly from this economy and rings particularly true is the Irish father, Maurrant. His black savagery is clearly caught by the simple repetitions which Rice allows him.
Who’s been sayin’ things to you?
Shut up your swearin’, do you hear?—or I’ll give you
somethin’ to bawl for. What did he say to you, huh?
What did he say to you?
Nobody’s askin’ you? . . . What did he say? . . .
G’wan up to bed now, an’ don’t let me hear no more
out o’ you. [Raising his hand] G’wan now. Beat it.
The theme is expressed with similar economy in several dialogues between Rose Maurrant and Sam Kaplan, the young Jewish student. It is probably, however, the part of the play that suffers most by blunt and economical statement. Most bluntly, it is stated in this interchange from Act I.
SAM: That’s all there is in life—nothing but pain. From before we’re born, until we die! Everywhere you look, oppression and cruelty! If it doesn’t come from Nature, it comes from humanity—humanity trampling on itself and tearing at its own throat. The whole world is nothing but a blood-stained arena, filled with misery and suffering. It’s too high a price to pay for life—life isn’t worth it!
ROSE: Oh, I don’t know, Sam. I feel blue and discouraged sometimes, too. And I get a sort of feeling of, oh, what’s the use. Like last night. I hardly slept all night, on account of the heat and on account of thinking about—well, all sorts of things. And this morning, when I got up, I felt so miserable. Well, all of a sudden, I decided I’d walk to the office. And when I got to the Park, everything looked so green and fresh, that I got a feeling of, well, maybe it’s not so bad, after all.
The events of the whole play can be seen in these terms, as examples of unfeeling brutality or of sympathy and compassion. Or, to put it another way, as examples of worthlessness and worth, or even of comedy and tragedy. The inhabitants of the tenement help each other, but they also tear at each other. For example, here are the last two speeches of the play, the first compassionate and the second callous.
MISS CUSHING: The poor little thing!
MRS. JONES: Well, you never can tell with them quiet ones. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she turned out the same way as her mother. She’s got a gentleman friend that I guess ain’t hangin’ around for nothin’. I seen him, late last night, and this afternoon, when I come home from the police.
This dramatization of compassion and brutality is more effective than the overt statement in the interchange between Sam and Rose. Further, just as Mrs. Jones’s speech is much longer than Miss Cushing’s, so do the brutal events come to outweigh the compassionate ones. There is more of geniality and humor in the first act than in the second, and the last act is relieved only sporadically from grimness. In this increasing darkness of tone, the play resembles the tragicomedies of Gorky and O’Casey and perhaps of Chekhov.
The compassion in the play establishes the worth and humanity of the characters. The brutality does not erase that worth, but makes the plight of these people even more poignant. Rice is not laying the blame on a narrow social basis. He is not condemning a particular society or a certain system of economics for the lives of his people. One of his characters, Abraham Kaplan, does make such a condemnation, but Rice makes it clear that Kaplan is not his raisonneur. Rice is not expounding socialism, but human nature; and his play seems to prove that people inevitably destroy themselves, that they carry in themselves the seeds of their own brutality. Without wishing to, they cannot avoid hurting each other. Even Maurrant, who is driven to kill his wife, cries out in agony that he had not meant to. There is no character, except perhaps one outsider, the social worker, who is basically unsympathetic—not even the bullying Irishman Vincent Jones, not even Rose’s boss Harry Easter, who is trying to seduce her. Even the savage Maurrant is a basically sympathetic man driven by his own human nature. He is a mixture of brutality and compassion, and the brutality overwhelms the good. This triumph of brutality over compassion is probably the basic theme of the play—a generalization about the human condition, about the nature of man.
Many critics called the play, or at least the story of Maurrant, a melodrama. In the usual sense of the term, melodrama seems inappropriate. One way in which tragedy is usually distinguished from melodrama is by the thickness of characterization. While Maurrant is not a memorable character, as are Hamlet and Othello, he is certainly more valid than the Scarlet Pimpernel or even Sydney Carton. Further, one may plausibly argue that the thinness of his character is filled out by the other characterizations in the play. None is fully drawn, but none is false, and the group to which Maurrant belongs is memorable in the same way that the hero of a tragedy is memorable. Also, the theme of Maurrant’s story is acted out in other forms by most of the other characters. Ultimately we get a group as hero, rather as we do in Hauptmann’s The Weavers or Toller’s Man and the Masses. The greatest difference is that Rice’s group hero is considerably more individualized than Toller’s and even more than Hauptmann’s.
The importance of the theme, however, is the strongest reason why one may not dismiss Street Scene as melodrama. The essence of melodrama is that the theme be unimportant, or at least stated in such heroic or sentimental or platitudinous terms that we do not have to take it seriously, and may therefore concentrate upon an exciting series of events. The theme of Street Scene is emphasized by its plot, and is in itself valid and moving. Really, the theme is the same as that of great tragedy and tragicomedy, and this fact seems established by the extent to which the play deeply moved its audiences.
If this notion is true, then the play is one further refutation of Krutch’s theory that tragedy is impossible in the modern world. All that is necessary for tragedy is the affirmation of human value. By the compassion of its statement, Street Scene establishes that value. Actually, one might take this argument further without unduly stretching it: if one were to judge the play by the classic values of tragedy, it would stand up well. If we take the story of the Maurrant family to be the main story of the play, then the other characters provide an enormous chorus. If we apply the scale of beauty of language, we could even make a case, although some of the dialogue may at first seem flat and bald. The quotations above from Sam and Rose seem naive and awkward, if compared to any purple passage from Sophocles or Shakespeare. Rice is admittedly not a poet, but the flatness of the Sam-Rose dialogue arises not so much from a limitation of Rice’s talent, as from a limitation of realistic dialogue. Of this fact, he himself is quite conscious, as we shall see in Not for Children, where he satirizes the attempt of the realistic writer to rise above flat statement to beauty or poetry.
We must consider also that speech in a play is more than words and their meanings and overtones; it is also the sound of words. One of Shaw’s most valid criticisms of the Shakespearean productions of the 1890’s was that they extracted the meaning from Shakespeare while butchering the “word music.” Even the Sam-Rose dialogue, when spoken with the right tone, expression, and dialects, provides beauty as well as realism. There is no way to prove this on paper. It can only be proved by speech, by actual production, but that fact is no reason for the assertion not to be made.
I have been emphasizing the tragic value of the play, but it has much comic value also. I do not merely refer to the many laughs which Rice’s accurate observation will evoke, but also to the audience’s satisfying realization that this observation truly reveals man’s state with its faults, foibles, and poignance. Street Scene may not have the deft ironies of Chekhov’s tragicomedies or the lyrical language of O’Casey’s, but Rice’s combination of tragedy and comedy, of brutality and compassion, does provide an effect of ineffable poignance at the tragicomic waste of humanity. It is a large play and a great play. The technical brilliance of putting so much together—so much action, so many characters—in a coherent and moving manner, I have scarcely touched upon, but the theme could never have emerged so lucidly and movingly had the play not been so superlatively wrought. Street Scene is one of those plays which affirm that the value of drama is that it asserts the value of man. Indeed, the way in which Street Scene pushes back the boundaries of the drama may almost itself negate the triumphant brutality of the play’s theme. There can be no higher praise, I think, than that.
Source: Robert Hogan,“The Realist,” in The Independence of Elmer Rice, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 46-54.
Alan S. Downer
Street Scene is described as “selective realism at its best.” In the following excerpt, Downer outlines the problems he notices with the play.
Rice presented his audience, not with a single family living under carefully controlled conditions, but with a cross section of city life as experienced by a large group of people who live in or are somehow connected with a huge brownstone tenement. They are varied in racial background, in philosophy, in occupation, in social status and intellectual stature: Italians, Jews, Swedes, Irish, musicians, electricians, milkmen, teachers, radicals, conservatives, poets and peasants. Yet the audience is not conscious that a cross section has been selected and presented to it; what is more natural in the melting pot of New York than that such a mixture occupy one tenement and animate one plot?
The plot, what there is of it, is hackneyed. Street Scene is really a conversation piece centering on a love triangle. But adultery and murder are not the exclusive interests of the play. More important is the play’s attempt to present a generalized picture of middle-class urban living, an attempt so successful on the whole that the playwright was called a “mere journalist,” and other terms suggesting critical disapproval.
Street Scene is anything but journalism. It is actually a kind of domestic symphony, taking the details of life, each as accurately rendered as possible, and arranging them within a frame (or perhaps better, against a background) that is itself a familiar commonplace, to yield an interpretation of what this crowded communal life means in terms of the individual and the group. Unlike Awake and Sing! the play seems to have no propagandistic purpose, unless it is expressed by Mrs. Maurant:
I often think it’s a shame that people don’t get along better, together. People ought to be able to live together in peace and quiet; without making each other miserable.
Feeble as the sentiment is, it is characteristic of the speaker and pertains to every situation in the play. Street Scene is selective realism at its best.
Source: Alan S. Downer, “From Romance to Reality,” in Fifty Years of American Drama, Henry Regnery Company, 1951, pp.63-65.
Arliss, Laurie, Mary Cassata, and Thomas Skill, “Dyadic Interaction on the Daytime Serials: “How Men and Women Vie for Power,” in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1983, p. 147.
Atkinson, J. Brooks, Review in New York Times, January 19, 1947, Sect. 2, p. 1.
———, “Affairs on the West Side,” New York Times, January 20, 1929, Sect. 8, p. 1.
———“Honor Where Honor Is Due,” New York Times, May 19, 1929, Sect. 9, p. 1.
———, Review in New York Times, January 11, 1929, p. 20.
Behringer, Fred, “Elmer Rice,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gate, 1981, pp. 179-92.
Bigsby, C. W. E., A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, Vol. 1, 1900-1940, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. vi, vii, 126, 130.
Broussard, Louis, American Drama: Contemporary Allegory from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962, pp. 3, 7.
Bruckner, D. J. R., Review in New York Times, November 6, 1996, p. CI4.
Cassata, Mary, “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: An Analysis of Soap Operas Radio to Television” in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. 85.
———, and Thomas Skill, “Television Soap Operas: What’s Been Going On Anyway:’—Revisited” in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. 157.
Review in Catholic World, March 1929, pp. 720-22.
Comstock, George, “A Social Scientist’s View of Daytime Serial Drama,” in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. xxiii.
Gassner, John, Twenty-Five Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, Crown Publishers, 1949, pp. xvi, xxviii.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, “Cross Section,” in Nation, January 30, 1929, p. 142.
Lyons, Donald, Review in Wall Street Journal, November 4, 1996, p. A20.
Miller, Jordan Y., and Winifred L. Frazer, American Drama between the Wars: A Critical History, in Twayne’s Critical History of American Drama, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. vii, xii, 158, 168.
Morgan, Charles, Review in New York Times, September 28, 1930, Sect. 8, p. 2.
Newcomb, Horace, “A Humanist’s View of Daytime Serial Drama,” in Life on Daytime Television: Tuning-In American Serial Drama, Ablex Publishing Corp., 1983, p. xxix.
Rice, Elmer L., Street Scene, Samuel French, 1928, 1956.
———, Street Scene, in Seven Plays by Elmer Rice, Viking Press, 1950, pp. 111-90.
Skinner, R. Dana, Review in Commonweal, Vol. IX, No. 12, January 23, 1929, pp. 48-49.
Thurber, James, “Ivorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg, and Crisco Corners,” in Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Operas, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997, p. 51.
Valgemae, Mardi, Accelerated Grimace: Expressionism in American Drama of the 1920s, in Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques series, edited by Harry Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. xi, xiv, 14.
Young, Stark, Review in New Republic, January 30, 1929, p. 296-98.
Dunham, Frank, Elmer Rice, Twayne, 1970.
This critical study of Rice’s life and work includes commentary on Street Scene.
Hogan, Robert, The Independence of Elmer Rice, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.
This book discusses Rice’s plays, including Street Scene, in social and cultural context.
Palmieri, Anthony F. R., Elmer Rice: A Playwright’s Vision of America, Farleigh Dickinson, 1980.
This book considers Street Scene and other Rice plays in terms of his development as a playwright and his reaction to the world around him.
Rice, Elmer, Minority Report: An Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1963.
This autobiography considers the whole of Rice’s life and theatrical career, including Street Scene.
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