Who is Elmer Rice?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Elmer Rice was an American playwright, best known for his play Street Scene. He lived from 1892 to 1967, and over the course of his 74 years won a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1929. He was a prolific playwright, creating more than 50 pieces for the stage over a 50 year period, and he was a famous man in his time.

Although all but the most well-read theatre buffs have likely only heard of Elmer Rice in passing, if at all, in his day he was considered one of the most famous and influential playwrights. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Elmer Rice would have been considered on a par with luminaries like Eugene O’Neill, with his plays being produced by professional theatres virtually unread.

Rice was born in Manhattan, with the last name Reizenstein, which he later changed to minimize the awkwardness of it always being misspelled. From an early age he was interested in theatre, performing Shakespeare during his primary education, and attending shows in New York with his family who, in spite of their meager means, encouraged his interest in theatre as much as they could. His teen years were spent outside of school, helping the family to scrape by, and he went on to pass the New York bar to become a lawyer and better help support the family.

Elmer Rice was from the beginning steeped in an uncompromising idealism, inherited from his paternal grandfather, who fought in the revolutions of the mid-19th century. This idealism led him to drop out of the legal profession, which he viewed as inherently hypocritical, and later would guide both the content of his plays and the foundation from which he interacted with the world of theatre at large. He immediately turned from practicing law to writing plays, and his early plays were largely concerned with legal themes.

Unlike many playwrights, who struggle for years with unsuccessful plays before finding any measure of success, Elmer Rice had an immediate hit with his first piece, On Trial. At the age of twenty-one, and just a year into his career of a playwright, Elmer Rice found himself sitting on an incredible successful play, earning him instant renown, and making him enough money to sustain him as a professional writer from then on.

His career spanned an enormous range, with an incredible amount of firsts, largely because of his commitment to experimenting with the form and his lack of fear of being rejected. He is often credited with using the first flashback on stage to tell the story, and he took fairly great risks in his work, including depicting a childbirth scene in front of the audience, including an African-American character whose race was no issue, and bringing up the specter of Nazism in America.

In the modern world, Elmer Rice is rarely seen performed, or even read. His Street Scene and The Adding Machine are both occasionally staged, and he is included in a number of modern anthologies. In the past few years his work is attracting more attention for its social commentary, and a number of doctoral works have examined his oeuvre in more detail.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books