The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice

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BBC Radio 3, 2 March 2008

Elmer Rice’s 1923 play Missing Dates (Radio 3) is one of the best examples of expressionist drama to appear on the American stage. Its central character Mr. Zero (Nathan Osgood) has been with the same company for twenty-five years, adding up numbers for a living. One day he is called into his boss’s (Peter Marinker’s) office and told that he is being replaced by an adding machine, which can do his job in half the time. Zero responds by murdering the boss; and thence descends into hell, where he learns about the essential worthlessness of human beings like himself, doomed to spend their lives doing menial tasks.


Rice’s play belongs to an era where many artists were preoccupied with the destructive effects of technology on human beings. It depicts a world where feelings do not matter: productivity is all. It employs a morality-play technique familiar from other early twentieth century plays such as Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (particularly the Don Juan in Hell sequence), in which the central character encounters the devil – or one of his associates – and learns about life’s realities. The conclusion is predictably bleak: Zero returns to earth accompanied by a woman representing Hope. However she is nothing more than an illusion.


This revival made ingenious use of radio’s resources to suggest the monotony of Zero’s life. As he spoke to his wife (Rebecca Front), we could hear the sound of his fellow-worker Daisy (Gina Bellman) endlessly totting up figures. Much of the dialogue had a repetitive, incantatory quality reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s poetry, in which sound assumes more importance than sense. The characters spoke in dull, flat voices; they were well aware that no one wanted to listen to them.


While the dénouement seemed predictable, it was redeemed by Osgood’s performance as Zero. He seemed so optimistic, as he returned to earth in another incarnation, accompanied by Hope. It really seemed as if he was about to embark on a new, productive existence. This might have been another false dawn; but Zero’s persistence deserved our admiration.