Elmer Leopold Reizenstein (later changed to Rice) was born at 127 East Ninetieth Street in New York City on 28th September 1892. His grandfather had taken part in the failed 1848 Revolution in Germany. He emigrated to the United States and became a successful businessman although he continued to hold radical political opinions.
In 1893 the family moved to a large new flat on Madison Avenue. His grandfather, who was a staunch atheist, greatly influenced Rice who refused to attend Hebrew school or to have a Bar Mitzvah. He was also an avid reader. He later recalled: "Nothing in my life has been more helpful than the simple act of joining the library." During this period he a became a pacifist.
Rice graduated from New York Law School in 1912 and became a lawyer. He soon became disillusioned with his profession, and hoped to have a career as a playwright. His first play, On Trial (1914) was a tremendous success and ran for 365 performances in its first run in New York City. It also became a movie in 1917. It has been estimated that the play earned Rice over $100,000.
His next major play, The Adding Machine, was first performed on 19th March 1923 at the Garrick Theatre and starred Dudley Digges, Edward G. Robinson, Elise Bartlett, Louis Calvert, Margaret Wycherly and Louise Sydmeth. The story concerns an accountant who is replaced by an adding machine. As the author later explained: "In eight scenes it told the story of Mr. Zero, a white-collar worker tied to a monotonous job and a shrewish wife. Replaced by a machine, he murders his boss in an access of resentment and panic, and he is condemned to die by a jury of his peers." It was well-received by the critics. Alexander Woollcott said it was "a play worth seeing" whereas Franklin Pierce Adams found it "deeply interesting". Heywood Broun added: "For the first time in our theatrical experience, expressionism has come over the footlights to us an effective theatrical device." It was liked less by the public and it only ran for 72 performances.
The following year Rice was approached by Philip Goodman who told him that Dorothy Parker had submitted a play called Close Harmony. Goodman asked Rice if he was willing to work with Parker on the play. He recalled in an autobiography, Minority Report (1964): "Dorothy Parker had written a first act which Goodman felt had great promise but lacked theatrical craftsmanship... The characters, suburbanites all, just went on talking and talking. But they were sharply realized, and the dialogue was uncannily authentic and very funny. Since I have always enjoyed the technical side of playwriting, I agreed to Goodman's proposal; not without some misgiving, however, for, though I had never met Dorothy, I had heard tales about her temperament and undependability." Parker was thrilled when she heard that Rice had accepted the job: "I felt so proud.... I was just trembling all the time because Elmer Rice had done so many good things."
Rice was surprised by Parker's professionalism: "To my relief, everything went smoothly. She was punctual, diligent and amiable; no collaboration could have been less painful.... we had a good work routine. Every few days we went over what she had written, line by line, pruning out irrelevancies and reorganizing. Then we discussed the next scene in minute detail, and she went off to write it. She was unfailingly courteous, considerate and, of course, amusing and stimulating. It was hard to believe that this tiny creature with the big, appealing eyes and the diffident, self-effacing manner was capable of corrosive cynicism and devastating retorts. I discovered that in the granite of her misanthropy there was a vein of softish sentimentally. Our relationship was cordial and easygoing, but entirely impersonal."
According to Marion Meade, the author of Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? (1989) Parker actually began an affair with Rice while writing the play: "Dorothy was not particularly attracted to Rice physically because he was not her type. She preferred tall, slim, cinematically beautiful blonds. Rice was a dour sex-foot, red-haired, bespectacled Jew... Against her inclination and better judgment, she finally went to bed with him, but it was one of those cases in which she realized her mistake at once. They were far less compatible sexually than artistically. Dorothy got little pleasure from their several encounters... Once having begun the affair, the problem became delicate: how to end it without wounding his feelings or, far more important, without jeopardizing her play."
Close Harmony opened at the Gaiety Theatre on 1st December, 1924 and ran for only 24 performances. During its three-week run the total receipts were less than $10,000. The rental charge on the theatre was over $4,000 a week and the producers lost a significant sum on the play. Ring Lardner wrote to Scott Fitzgerald saying that it received great reviews but still failed to attract audiences. Rice wrote that its failure was "inexplicable". It did much better on tour and played fifteen weeks in Chicago and another ten in smaller Midwestern cities.
Rice also wrote Street Scene (1929), a play about life in the slums, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was a great success and ran for a total of 601 performances. It was later turned into a film that starred Estelle Taylor, David Landau and Sylvia Sidney. Other plays by Rice included The Subway (1929), See Naples and Die (1930) and Counsellor-at-Law (1931), a play about the legal profession.
In April 1932, Rice visited Germany where he heard both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels address public meetings. Horrified by the anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party, Rice wrote the anti-fascist, We, the People (1933). Judgement Day dealt with the controversial subject of the Reichstag Fire. Rice was also highly critical of the failings of capitalism and this was reflected in his play, Between Two Worlds (1934).
Rice's political plays were not popular with the American public and he was unable the recapture the success of his early plays. Robert Vaughn has pointed out: "According to Rice, the theater was in the hands of businessmen, real-estate operators, and capitalists, where primary artistic interest dealt with the dollar sign. In his purview, the drama and commerce were as one and the artist and his audience were estranged by crass commercialism." Rice argued in the New York Times on 11th November, 1934 that the capitalist system "stifles the creative impulse and dams the free flow of vitality."
The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal attempt to combat the Depression. This included the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), an attempt to offer work to theatrical professionals. Harry Hopkins, hoped it would also provide "free, adult, uncensored theatre" and suggested that Roosevelt should appoint Hallie Flanagan as its national director.
Elmer Rice was placed in charge of the Federal Theatre Project in New York City. In 1936 alone, the FTP employed 5,385 people in the city. Over a three year period over 12 million people attended performances in the city. One of Rice's innovations was the Living Newspaper (plays which were essentially theatrical documentaries). The first of these plays, Ethiopia , which dealt with Mussolini's invasion of the country, was banned by Harry Hopkins. As a result Rice resigned from the FTP.
Martin Dies, the chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), accused Rice of being a communist. In his book, The Trojan Horse in America, he argued: "Works Projects Administration was the greatest financial boon which ever came to the Communists in the United States. Stalin could not have done better by his American friends and agents.... In one Federal Writers' Project in New York, one third of the writers were members of the Communist Party. This was proven by their own signatures. Many witnesses have testified that it was necessary for W.P.A. workers to join the Workers Alliance - high-pressure lobby run by the Communist Party - in order to get or retain their jobs.... Several hundred Communists held advisory or administrative positions in the W.P.A. projects."
Other plays by Rice included Flight to the West (1941), The Talley Method (1941), A New Life (1944), Dream Girl (1946), The Grand Tour (1952), The Winner (1954) and Cue for Passion (1959). He was also the author of a controversial book on American drama, The Living Theatre (1960) and an autobiography, Minority Report (1964). His last produced play was Court of Last Resort (1965).
Rice was married to Hazel Levy (1915-42) and Betty Field (1942-56). He married his third wife, Barbara and moved to a large estate on Long Ridge Road in Stamford, Connecticut. Rive was the father of ten children.
Elmer died while on holiday in Southampton on 8th May, 1967.
(1) Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting (1972)
Another playwright, Elmer Rice, made his most serious commitment to the drama of protest in the early thirties, at the height of the Depression, when he, "like many liberals, allied himself with the radicals as a gesture of protest against the social chaos" and condemned the Broadway theater in a manner that Martin Dies would have probably considered a Marxian dialectic.
(2) Elmer Rice, Minority Report (1964)
Dorothy Parker had written a first act which Goodman felt had great promise but lacked theatrical craftsmanship... The characters, suburbanites all, just went on talking and talking. But they were sharply realized, and the dialogue was uncannily authentic and very funny. Since I have always enjoyed the technical side of playwriting, I agreed to Goodman's proposal; not without some misgiving, however, for, though I had never met Dorothy, I had heard tales about her temperament and undependability.
(3) Marion Meade, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? (1989)
Dorothy was not particularly attracted to Rice physically because he was not her type. She preferred tall, slim, cinematically beautiful blonds. Rice was a dour sex-foot, red-haired, bespectacled Jew... Against her inclination and better judgment, she finally went to bed with him, but it was one of those cases in which she realized her mistake at once. They were far less compatible sexually than artistically. Dorothy got little pleasure from their several encounters... Once having begun the affair, the problem became delicate: how to end it without wounding his feelings or, far more important, without jeopardizing her play.
(4) Martin Dies, The Trojan Horse in America (1940)
Works Projects Administration (WPA) was the greatest financial boon which ever came to the Communists in the United States. Stalin could not have done better by his American friends and agents. Relief projects swarmed with Communists - Communists who were not only recipients of needed relief but who were entrusted by New Deal officials with high administrative positions in the projects. In one Federal Writers' Project in New York, one third of the writers were members of the Communist Party. This was proven by their own signatures. Many witnesses have testified that it was necessary for W.P.A. workers to join the Workers Alliance - high-pressure lobby run by the Communist Party - in order to get or retain their jobs.... Several hundred Communists held advisory or administrative positions in the W.P.A. projects.
(5) Harriet Hyman Alonso, Robert E. Sherwood The Playwright in Peace and War (2007)
The idea of the Playwrights' Company had germinated in Bob's mind for some time, but it became urgent to him in December 1937, directly afrer a particularly trying Dramatisrs Guild meeting. Elmer Rice remembered that rhe discussion during this "griping session" led Bob and Maxwell Anderson to speak out "vehemendy of their disenchantment with Broadway producers, parricularly the Theatre Guild, which had presented many of their plays. They were harassed by disagreements about casting, revisions, and the disposition of subsidiary rights." They were also tired of the constant interference. After the meeting, Bob invited Rice and Anderson to have a drink at rhe nearby Whaler's Bar on Madison Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street. There the conversation turned to the idea of producing their own plays. The three knew that efforts had been made in the earlier part of the decade to establish just such an enterprise; in fact, Bob and Anderson had participated in one advisory group organized by producer Arthur Hopkins. The Dramatists' Theater and the New Playwrights had also been established, but none of the attempts had succeeded. This time, however, they were sure that things would be different.
Bob, Anderson, and Rice decided to invite two other playwrights into their scheme. The firsr was Bob's good friend Sidney Howard, who in turn approached S. N. Behrman, who at first was "bowled" over by it "I was flabbergasred," he later wrote, by the thought of leaving the Theatre Guild, its securiry, and all the friends he had there. "I just didn't know what to say." Still, Behrman made an appointment to meet with Bob. "I was overwhclmed by rhe intensiry of his feeling about it. "It was as if it mattered to him more than anything else in the world," he wrote. Bob was "voluble and bitter" in describing his relationship with the Theatre Guild, grievances that seemed minor to Behrman, "trivialities that tear people apart for a few hours during rehearsals and are forgorren the next day." He realized that there was something else operating in Bob's desire to form the Playwrights Producing Company, some "fundamental impulse for self-assertion." With much encouragement, Behrman signed on, later recalling, "Who was l to resist a man so eminent and lovable as Bob S.herwood?"