Monday, July 11, 2011
Douglas Messerli "More Than Zero?" (on Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine)
MORE THAN ZERO?
by Douglas Messerli
Elmer Rice The Adding Machine, Garrick Theatre, New York / 1923
Elmer Rice The Adding Machine (New York: Samuel French, 1929)
Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt (libretto), based on the play by Elmer Rice, Joshua Schmidt (music) The Adding Machine, Minetta Lane Theatre, New York, opened November 14, 2007 / the performance I attended was the matinee of May 11, 2008
My determination expressed in my 2002 essay on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment that I would revisit Elmer Rice’s play The Adding Machine has stayed with me over the five years since, and when I saw that a musical version of the 1923 expressionist play had opened in New York in 2007, I seized the opportunity to attend on my May visit to the city.
I was surprised, I must admit, by the dramatic and musical intensity of this chamber-like piece. Indeed, I found it a much more fascinating work than the blockbuster musical revivals, South Pacific and Gypsy, I revisited during the same trip. Certainly this work outshines the more predictable feel-good and block-party celebration that won the Tony for the best musical of 2008, In the Heights, but the legendary Minetta Lane Theatre is not on Broadway!
As I had remembered the play, it is certainly a devastating portrait of the workplace; but unlike Wilder’s film, Rice’s play is not centered in the office, but focuses on the entire life of its anti-hero, Mr. Zero, who is abused and dismissed not as much by his boss—who after all does nothing more than fire him on a day Mr. Zero thought he might get a raise—but by his wife and friends, by the community outside his workplace.
The play and musical begin in the bedroom, the musical version raising the bed to an upright position so that Mr. and Mrs. Zero are parallel to the audience itself. The uncomfortable positioning of the bed only reiterates the discomfort of its inhabitants, and particularly Mr. Zero as his wife complains loudly not only about his behavior and lack of drive (“I was a fool for marryin’ you. If I’d ‘a’ had any sense, I’d ‘a’ known what you were from the start”) but of the quality of the movies she has been attending in the afternoons. Joshua Schmidt’s music, influenced clearly by Kurt Weill and Marc Blitzstein, reiterates her sermons with sharp, staccato chords and jarring rhythms that perfectly point up the kind of assembly-line atmosphere of Zero’s entire existence.
Indeed, we discover in the next scene at the office that Zero himself is the adding machine, a man who adds figures in his head, demanding that his assistant, Daisy, speed up her call of the numbers of each and every sale. When, after 25 years at the job, his boss asks to speak with him, Zero cannot imagine anything but that his employer has had “his eye on him,” and intends to reward his dedication.
In fact, the boss intends to replace Zero with a mechanical adding machine. Unable to even fathom what he is being told, Zero is enveloped, in the original play, with loud noises, a swelling of music, the sound of wind, waves, the galloping of horses, a locomotive whistle, sleigh bells, an automobile siren, the crash of a glass, a peal of thunder.
The third scene of the play, wherein all the other “numbers,” friends of Zero and his wife, have gathered at his home for a party, is one of the best of the play. With the men on one side of the room and the woman on the other, Rice treats us to a delicious parody of the prejudicial attitudes of the working class, and underlines the near impossibility of any individual act. The scene ends with his arrest, as Zero admits the murder of his employer and meekly allows the police to take him away.
In a sense, this is the only possible way that Zero could escape his humdrum existence. In the original play, this fact is almost immediately revealed, directly after a powerful courtroom scene, in a frightening and comic graveyard. But under David Cromer's excellent direction, Zero encounters a fellow murderer—a young man who, in carving up a turkey on Sunday afternoon, applies the knife to the throat of his beloved mother instead—in his prison cell; as the two are literally forced to carry their cells with them as they move about, we recognize that even murder has allowed them little respite.
The gods of the universe Rice presents seem at first more forgiving than human folk. Instead of a scene of fire and brimstone that the young murderer Shrdlu has prepared for, both he and Zero find themselves in the pleasant landscape of the Elysian Fields, where they are permitted to experience all the pleasures previously disallowed. Daisy, the young woman with whom Zero had worked, is also there, having committed suicide upon her colleague’s arrest. Together they discover their unspoken love for each other. But like Shrdlu, Zero is unprepared for the pleasures now facing him. From his completely bourgeois perspective, he can only imagine that a world which awards crimes such as his own is not one in which he can partake; he will not live in a society of “drunkards, thieves, vagabonds, blasphemers, adulterers,” a world filled with “a lot of rummies an’ loafers an’ bums.”
Damned to mediocrity, Zero “lives out” the rest of his afterlife adding figures on a new adding machine given him by the gods.
These “gods,” moreover, are evidently no more forgiving than the earthbound society he has left, as it is ultimately revealed that all souls are used over and over again, and that he is to be sent back to the world which he has thought he escaped. For century after century he has been returned to the living, becoming worse and worse as a vital human being each time around.
The play closes accordingly, with the reincarnated hero, a “poor, spineless, brainless boob,” once again facing his brave new world. One can only pray that this time he may become more than a zero—even if he rises only to become a simple number in the human race.
Both Wilder’s film and Rice’s play, accordingly, end with the possibility of transcendence, but while we surely believe that Baxter and Kubelik have escaped the world that formerly imprisoned them, we are fearful that Zero will embrace the prison of his blind ignorance once again.
Los Angeles, June 27, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Review (October 2009).
Copyright (c) 2008 by Douglas Messerli.