Elmer Rice was an American playwright, novelist, and director of the early-19th century. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929 for his play, Street Scene, and is also known for his plays The Adding Machine and Dream Girl. Rice is mostly remembered for breaking theatrical conventions and deviating from theatrical realism in writing and directorial work.
Rice was born on September 28, 1892, in New York City, where he grew up in tenement housing. As a teenager, Rice dropped out of high school in order to support his father, who had epilepsy. After passing state examinations, Rice applied for and attended New York Law School. After graduating in 1912, he practiced law for two years before quitting the profession. Rice chose to pursue writing full-time instead.
On Trial, was Rice’s first massive success. It was the first documented play to employ a reverse-chronological structure, and notably ran for 365 performance in New York. After its New York run, the play toured the United States and received three film adaptations. Rice’s next big success was The Adding Machine, which he wrote in 17 days in 1923.
Rice wrote many unsuccessful and unproduced plays thereafter, many of which commented on political and social issues that resulted from World War 1. Though he didn’t enjoy his previous legal work, he was inspired to integrate courtroom drama into many of these plays. As he grew more interested in producing and directing his own plays, Rice decided to purchase the Belasco Theatre in New York in the 1930’s.
Street Scene was Rice’s second success. It is lauded for painting a realistic picture of slum life by using hyper-naturalism. The script, which was written in 1929, was later adapted into a successful opera by Kurt Weill. After writing a few more flops during the Depression, Rice co-founded Playwrights’ Company in New York, where he wrote and directed his own work. His 1945 work and one of his last successes, Dream Girl, was first produced through Playwrights’ Company.
Actively addressing social issues and injustices was very important to Rice. He aligned with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Authors’ League, and the Dramatists Guild of America. Rice was also the first director of the Federal Theatre Project, but resigned because he believed the Roosevelt administration attempted to restrict artistic freedoms.
Rice was married and divorced twice in his lifetime, and produced 5 children across the two marriages. He lived in Stamford, Connecticut, for many years, but ultimately passed away in Southampton, England, on May 8, 1967, of pneumonia and a heart attack.
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