The Adding Machine

National Pastime Theater

When Elmer Rice’s expressionistic play opened on Broadway in 1923, the adding machine was on the cutting edge of technology, a great leap forward that revolutionized bookkeeping. “They do the work in half the time,” the boss in The Adding Machine chirps. He adds with undisguised glee, “And a high school girl can operate them.” He doesn’t have to complete the thought: the high school girl will work at a fraction of an adult’s salary.

The invention of the adding machine put lots of lower-middle-class white-collar grinds out of work–just as the typewriter had made scriveners like Bartleby and his quill-sharpening, ink-dipping colleagues unnecessary a few generations earlier. The Adding Machine follows the swift fall and lingering decline of one of these unfortunate pencil pushers, Mr. Zero, who finds himself automated out of a job and, in a fit of impotent rage, kills his boss and is put on trial and executed.

If that were all there was to Rice’s play, it would be an interesting but trivial relic–about as interesting and trivial as the stacks of insectlike adding machines covered with hard, dark plastic shells I used to see piled up at the Salvation Army in the early days of calculators. But Rice is after something more in the play than just another story about an obsolete employee who kills his boss. He wants to critique the social system that created and destroyed Mr. Zero. An avowed socialist, Rice called for “the development of a society in which the implements of production are employed primarily for the satisfaction of human needs.” Perhaps he believed that this “case history of one of the slave souls who are both the raw material and the product of mechanized society” would help bring about a better world.

The play is also revolutionary in its formal structure (long monologues followed by clipped, almost musical bits of dialogue) and in its refusal to bow to moral convention: Mr. Zero never repents and never regrets the loss of his life. Even when he’s entered the afterlife, the eternal summer of the Elysian Fields, and is finally given a chance at true love, Mr. Zero rejects it for the deadening certainties of a hell where he’ll be given enough mind-numbing work on a giant adding machine to keep his brain quiet. Besides, the Elysian Fields are crawling with Greenwich Village types–artists, slackers, nonconformists–who offend his lower-middle-class sensibility.

Rice peppers his play with devices cribbed from German dramatists–Georg Kaiser, Frank Wedekind, Karl Kraus–mostly those designed to alienate the audience, discourage them from personal involvement in the story. He also reveals a Weimar-like insistence on portraying as blankly and unsentimentally as possible the stark, cruel side of life. These German expressionist effects also made Hystopolis’s puppet version of the play in Chicago in the late 80s a revelation. Trained as we were to think of puppets as the sidekicks of kids’ show hosts, it was shocking to see them kill and lust after each other. These were Brechtian effects Brecht himself could only dream of.

Dale Goulding, who directs this National Pastime production, also has a few Brechtian tricks up his sleeve–as he does in his still-running version of Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon. Everyone in Goulding’s version of The Adding Machine wears face paint of some kind, and no one walks or talks or acts like anybody you might meet on the street. Goulding also freely borrows bits of German cinema of the 20s–itself strongly influenced by expressionist theater. In one scene Goulding has all the members of a party at Zero’s house made up to look like the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while in another Zero’s adding machine looks like the clocklike machines on which workers are crucified in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

But one of the greatest strengths of The Adding Machine is that, for all his high-minded goals, Rice avoids the flat-footed sentimentalities that hobble otherwise great works of left-wing theater: Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, even Rice’s own Pulitzer-winning, soporific Street Scene. Mr. Zero is in no way a noble worker. Passive-aggressive to the extreme, he’s too stupid to see that his work is a trap, too unimaginative to find a way out of his empty life and loveless marriage that doesn’t involve suicide, murder, or accidental death. Especially the way David Hadinger plays him, with heavily made-up eyes and a sorrowful look that speaks volumes about his unsatisfying life. At times he looks like a tall Charlie Chaplin, at other times like a graceful Herman Munster. “I noticed she was coughing this morning,” Habinger’s Zero reveals at work, then pauses to savor the idea that the flu might rid him of his harridan of a wife.

Rice’s message is actually more anarchist than socialist, and more Buddhist than political. Zero’s lesson in heaven, which he absolutely does not understand, is that life is for living, work is deadening, and until one breaks free of one’s dependence on mindless work, one will be trapped on the wheel of rebirth. The playwright openly mocks moralists of all stripes and political persuasions. Mrs. Zero is the most judgmental character in the play–she keeps her husband on such a short leash that the day he kills his boss he gets a tongue-lashing for coming home late for dinner. Even more than Mr. Zero she’s trapped in denial, as her long monologue at the top of the play so aptly illustrates: she burbles on and on about her favorite movie stars but hardly notices her husband. Likewise, before the play starts, Zero turns in a “hello girl” to the police for soliciting, then spends the rest of the play lusting after her, wishing he’d purchased her services instead of having her arrested.

But Rice never allows his mockery to become humorless, another quality of the play Goulding gracefully brings out. No matter how stylized or dancelike his staging becomes–and he uses it all, greasepaint, black costumes, odd bits of film, random sound effects–like Rice he never loses his dark sense of humor.

Nor does he lose sight of Rice’s gifts as a wordsmith. Goulding’s training as a Shakespearean actor has clearly equipped him better than most directors to tackle Rice’s monologues. In particular, Kirsten Fitzgerald’s performance of Mrs. Zero’s lengthy hectoring of Mr. Zero is a wonderful, hilarious, touching thing. It speaks volumes about Goulding’s abilities as a director: he’s taken a non-Equity cast–made up of actors who have for the most part delivered pretty good but not great performances in other shows–and trained them to perform at a level that puts some of Chicago’s Equity companies to shame.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Warren Winter.