Elmer Rice (1892-1967) was an American playwright and novelist. Often innovative in style, his plays reveal a concern with individual freedom confronted by the tyranny of impersonal institutions and destructive passions.
Elmer Rice was born Elmer Reizenstein on Sept. 28, 1892, in New York City. After 2 years of high school, he began working at the age of 14. He passed the regents' examinations and entered the New York Law School, from which he graduated cum laude in 1912. He passed the bar examinations but decided to try writing instead. His play On Trial (1914) was a resounding success. In 1915 he married Hazel Levy. Although not a member of any political party, Rice inclined toward socialism. After World War I he spent 2 years in Hollywood before moving to East Hampton, Conn.
Following On Trial, he had several plays produced in New York, but it was not until The Adding Machine (1923), an expressionistic tragic-comic portrait of dehydrated man, that he showed his true power. Two more plays, written in collaboration, were produced before he directed his powerful Street Scene (1929), a realistic presentation of environmental influences on character relationships. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The Subway (1929), a rather underrated play much on the order of The Adding Machine, had a short run. In 1930 he published a novel, A Voyage to Purilia, and had an unsuccessful production of See Naples and Die. But in 1931 his The Left Bank, dealing with American expatriates, and Counsellor-at-law enlarged his reputation.
The impact of the Great Depression and Rice's trip to Russia and Europe in 1932 was manifested in the controversial We, the People (1933). After the production of Judgment Day and Between Two Worlds (1934), Rice excoriated New York critics and announced his retirement from the commercial theater. Nonetheless, between 1935 and 1938 he served with the Federal Theater Project, published a novel, helped organize The Playwrights' Company, and had his American Landscape produced.
After his divorce in 1942 Rice married Betty Field. During the war he worked for the U.S. Office of War Information, was active in the American Civil Liberties Union, and was president of the Dramatists' Guild. Dream Girl (1945), a psychoanalytical fantasy, was his final popular success. His novel The Show Must Go On appeared in 1949.
Rice's final work included essays, The Living Theatre (1959); an autobiography, Minority Report (1963); and additional plays. He received an honorary doctor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1961. Divorced again, in 1966 he married Barbara Marshall. He died of a heart attack on May 8, 1967.
Rice's Minority Report (1963) gives autobiographical details and personal accounts of his plays. The major critical work is Robert G. Hogan, The Independence of Elmer Rice (1965). Joseph Mersand, The American Drama since 1930 (1949), and Allan Lewis, American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre (1965), provide additional criticism.
Vanden Heuvel, Michael, Elmer Rice: a research and production sourcebook, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. □
Elmer Rice, 1892–1967, American dramatist, b. New York City, LL.B. New York Law School, 1912. After the success of his first play, On Trial (1914), he turned his interests to the theater. Rice's first major contribution to the American stage was The Adding Machine (1923), an expressionistic play satirizing man in the machine age. Street Scene (1929; operatic version by Kurt Weill, 1947), one of his most compassionate works, is a realistic drama of tenement life in New York. His plays of the 1930s—including Counsellor-at-Law (1931), We, the People (1933), and Between Two Worlds (1934)—continued to express his social and political views. Although Dream Girl (1945), a romantic comedy, was a huge success, his later plays for the most part lack the power of his early works. He was also the author of novels and of essays, some of which were published as The Living Theatre (1959). During the 1930s Rice was regional director of the N.Y. Federal Theater project.
See his autobiography Minority Report (1963); A. F. Palmieri, Elmer Rice: A Playwright's Vision of America (1980).