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Elmer Rice:

An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Rice, Elmer, 1892-1967
Title: Elmer Rice Papers
Dates: 1909-1967
Extent: 100 document boxes, 1 half-document box (44.5 linear feet), 2 oversize folders (osf), 3 galley files (gf)
Abstract: The Elmer Rice papers consist of contracts, correspondence, manuscript drafts, notebooks, photographs, royalty statements, scripts, and theater programs belonging to the playwright, producer, director, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, theatre owner, and activist Elmer Rice.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-3513
Language: English, French, German, Japanese, Russian
Access:

Open for research




Acquisition:

Purchase and Gifts, 1968-1995 (2b, 114b, R4010, R8553, G377, G10385)

Processed by:

Amy E. Armstrong, 2012

Repository:

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center


Elmer Rice was born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein on September 28, 1892, in New York City. Rice left high school in order to work as a clerk to help contribute financially to his family. He later earned a high school certificate and graduated from the New York Law School in 1912. Rice didn't find law school interesting or challenging and often read plays during class. His reading selections tended to be political and he was heavily influenced by George Bernard Shaw's writings; particularly Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant. After being admitted to the New York Bar in December 1913, Rice left the legal profession only a few weeks later to concentrate on writing plays.

Rice's first attempts as a playwright were in collaboration with Frank Harris and included A Defection from Grace and The Seventh Commandment. His first solo effort, The Passing of Chow-Chow, was performed non-professionally at Columbia University. His breakout hit came just eight months later when On Trial opened at the Candler Theatre in New York City on August 19, 1914. This innovative play pioneered the use of the flashback on stage. Critics and audiences raved and it enjoyed more than 350 performances and toured the country with three companies. Though he declined, Rice was offered $30,000 for the rights to the play on opening night.

Rice married Hazel Levy on June 16, 1915, and they later had two children, Robert and Margaret. Rice spent the next few years studying drama at Columbia University and working with the university's Morningside Players. Rice was also active in political and social causes and volunteered at the University Settlement, marched to support women's suffrage, investigated child labor violations in the South, and protested America's involvement in World War I. These experiences influenced a string of mostly unproduced political plays, The Iron Cross (premiered in 1917, co written with Frank Harris), The House in Blind Alley (written 1916; published in 1932), Home of the Free (premiered in 1917) and one-act play A Diadem of Snow published in the Liberator (1918).

Rice wrote or adapted a series of moderately successful plays, including Wake Up, Jonathan coauthored with Columbia theater professor Hatcher Hughes. The play opened on January 19, 1921, and for the first time he listed his surname as Rice in the theater program. Around this time, Samuel Goldwyn met with Rice and asked him to join his Hollywood scenario department and Rice signed a five-year contract with Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. His silent film credits include Help Yourself (1920), Doubling for Romeo (1921), and Rent Free (1923). After two unhappy years in Hollywood, Rice negotiated out of his contract and returned to New York. The 1923 premiere of The Adding Machine, written in just seventeen days, resumed Rice's Broadway career. Though the original opening had a short run, over time, critics have come to consider it a major contribution to American theatre and it has been repeatedly revived, performed, and translated throughout the world.

The fortunes of his next few plays ranged from unsuccessful to moderately successful, with many unproduced. Rice co-wrote Close Harmony (alternately titled The Lady Next Door) with Dorothy Parker which premiered in 1924, and though the reviews were generally positive, the production closed after twenty-four performances. In hope of finding renewed inspiration and more affordable living, Rice and his family moved to Paris in 1925 and traveled throughout Europe over the next few years. While in Europe, Rice met playwright Philip Barry and the two co-wrote Cock Robin which later premiered on Broadway in 1928.

After returning to New York, Rice wrote the play The Sidewalks of New York, which formed the basis for his successful play, Street Scene. The play was produced by William Brady in 1929 after being rejected by almost every producer in New York. Street Scene also marked Rice's directorial debut. He went on to direct most of his own productions and those of several notable playwrights including Robert Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938), Maxwell Anderson's Journey to Jerusalem (1940), and S. N. Behrman's The Talley Method (1941) and Second Fiddle (1953). Considered his best artistic and commercial success, Street Scene won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Rice adapted the play into a film produced by United Artists in 1931, and a musical version, adapted by Rice with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes, opened in London in 1947.

The political and social landscape of the late 1920s and 1930s inspired his next plays including The Subway (premiered in 1929), See Naples and Die (premiered in 1929), The Left Bank (premiered in 1931), Counsellor-at-Law (premiered in 1931 and also adapted by Rice into a 1933 film), We, the People (premiered in 1933), Judgment Day (premiered in 1934), and Between Two Worlds (premiered in 1934). Left Bank and Counsellor-at-Law enjoyed great success, but most of his plays during this period closed after short runs.

The success of Street Scene brought Rice increased prominence and he used his influence in the political sphere. For over thirty years, Rice served on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was chairman of the ACLU's National Council on Freedom from Censorship Committee, and was active in the Authors League of America, the Dramatists Guild, and the International P. E. N.

Rice fought against censorship in the arts and broadcasting, and frequently was himself the target of censorship campaigns, such as when he received protests over the manner in which he depicted a social worker in Street Scene. In 1948, columnist Albert Deutsch called the British film Oliver Twist anti-Semitic causing a delay in the U.S. opening and Rice actively campaigned for the film's release. Not only did he fight against censorship, he publicly opposed and engaged in battles against fascism, racism, blacklisting, and often criticized U.S. military interventions and capitalism. Various advocacy and political groups frequently approached Rice for his endorsement and such activities often placed Rice on subversive and Red lists.

Rice also challenged the New York theater establishment and vocalized his beliefs about the place of art in society, the commercialization of the theater, and the role of the critic via frequent essays and editorials for the New York Times and other publications. In a 1934 speech given at Columbia University, Rice publicly announced that he was retiring from Broadway and from writing plays, to great public outcry.

Though he didn't produce another play until American Landscape in 1938, he continued working in the theatre during those intervening years. Between 1934 and 1937, Rice owned and operated the David Belasco Theatre and created the Theatre Alliance in 1935. Later that year, Rice advocated for the creation of the Federal Theatre Project and assumed the position of the New York City Regional Director; however, one year later he resigned in protest over censorship of the Living Newspaper 's production about Ethiopia. In 1938, Rice, Maxwell Anderson, S. N. Behrman, Sidney Howard, Robert E. Sherwood, and John F. Wharton founded the Playwrights' Producing Company as a means to combine resources to fund the production of their plays. Rice also served as director of the production company; a post he held until his resignation in 1959.

World and domestic events influenced the plays Rice wrote and produced during the 1940s and 1950s. Rice divorced Hazel and married actress Betty Field in 1942 and they later had three children: John, Judith, and Paul. After a series of adaptations and unproduced plays, the moderately successful Two on an Island (1940) and Flight to the West (1940) were followed up with Rice's most successful play of the period, Dream Girl (1945) starring his new bride. Rice's produced plays of the 1950s, such as the 1951 revival of Not for Children, The Grand Tour (1951), Love Among the Ruins (1951), The Winner (1954), and Cue for Passion (1958) often failed to impress critics or audiences. In 1955, Field and Rice divorced.

Though best known for his plays of social and political significance, as well as his mysteries, romantic and satirical comedies, and fantasies, Rice also wrote numerous essays and articles and published three novels, A Voyage to Purilia (1930), Imperial City (1937), and The Show Must Go On (1949); a book of theater essays entitled The Living Theatre (1959); and his autobiography, Minority Report (1963).

Rice married Barbara A. Marshall in 1966.

Elmer Rice died of pneumonia on May 8, 1967, after suffering a heart attack en route to Southampton, England.


Behringer, Fred. "Elmer Rice."   Dictionary of Literary Biography, http://galenet.galegroup.com (accessed 21 August 2012).

Bristow, Donald Gene. "A Descriptive Catalogue of the Elmer Rice Collection at the University of Texas." PhD diss., Texas Tech University, August 1984.

"Elmer Rice."   Contemporary Authors Online, http://galenet.galegroup.com (accessed 21 August 2012).

Heuvel, Michael Vanden. Elmer Rice: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Palmieri, Anthony F. R. Elmer Rice: A Playwright's Vision of America. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1980.


The Elmer Rice papers consist of contracts, correspondence, manuscript drafts, notebooks, photographs, royalty statements, scripts, and theater programs belonging to the playwright, producer, director, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, theatre owner, and activist Elmer Rice. The papers are organized into six series: I. Manuscripts, 1913-1964, undated; II. Business and Personal Correspondence, 1909-1967; III. Photographs and Theater Programs, 1928-1965; IV. Royalty Statements and Contracts, 1914-1967; V. American Civil Liberties Union and Related Subjects, 1921-1967; and VI. Personal and Career-Related, 1923-1966, undated. The papers provide a comprehensive study of the fifty-year career of one of America's most eminent dramatists.

The arrangement reflects the original organization of the materials as listed by Don Bristow in his 1984 dissertation "A Descriptive Catalog of the Elmer Rice Collection at the University of Texas." Bristow based the arrangement on Rice's meticulous organization of his personal papers. Bristow described much of the material at the item level, particularly manuscript material and selected correspondence, and assigned numbers to items based on their original location in the original folders. In order to cross-reference the finding aid with the Bristow catalog, these Bristow numbers are included in brackets in the finding aid (e.g., [A43-4]). Most of Rice's original file folder titles were retained and are listed in single quotation marks in the finding aid. The Rice Papers were acquired by the Ransom Center over multiple accessions in 1968 and 1979 and Bristow kept these separate in his catalog; however, in the current finding aid, similar formats such as correspondence, are unified and listed together.

Series I. Manuscripts comprises nearly half of the collection and is contained in 46 boxes. It is subdivided into three subseries: A. Plays and Film, 1913-1963, undated; B. Books, circa 1924-1963, undated; and C. Other Works, circa 1928-1964, undated. Within each series, the works are arranged alphabetically by title and within each title, the drafts are arranged in order of production, with adaptations and translations following. Additional notes for some plays and Rice's shorter writings are also located in Series VI. Personal and Career-Related.

Almost all of Rice's play scripts are represented in one form or another in Subseries A. Plays and Films. The date following the title is the first known performance date or if applicable, the first publication date for unproduced plays. Multiple script versions exist for most of the plays, beginning with the first handwritten draft through subsequent typescript revisions. In some instances, acting copies and/or the director's prompt book are included, as Rice directed most of his own plays beginning with Street Scene in 1929.

Many play titles include additional material such as notes; adaptations for radio, television, and film; translations; and galley proofs for published plays. The play Street Scene in particular contains a large amount of additional material, as it was adapted for film and television and into a successful 1947 musical by Rice, Kurt Weill, and Langston Hughes.

Produced or published plays not represented with scripts in the collection include: The Home of the Free (1917), The Mongrel (1924), The Passing of Chow-Chow (1929), and The Gay White Way (1934).

Rice's time as a screenwriter in 1920s Hollywood is not well-documented in the collection. One of the few items dating from the 1920s is a short story, "Doubling for Romeo," contained in Subseries C. Other Writings. This story formed the basis for the 1921 film of the same title starring Will Rogers. While accompanying his actress-wife Betty Field to Hollywood in the early 1940s, Rice was asked by Irving Berlin to write the screenplay for his upcoming film Holiday Inn. After submitting an initial draft, Rice and the producers and directors agreed he wasn't suited for the task, but this film is documented in Subseries A. with notes and a preliminary screenplay.

Subseries B. Books consists of drafts in various stages for Rice's three novels Voyage to Purilia (1930), Imperial City (1937), and The Show Must Go On (1949); autobiography Minority Report (1963), and book about the theater The Living Theatre (1959). Included are handwritten and typescript drafts, as well as galley proofs. Also included are drafts for Rice's two earlier unpublished attempts at a novel, Papa Looks for Something and A Good Woman .

Subseries C. Other Works further demonstrates Rice's ability to write diverse material for various purposes and audiences. Such writings were frequently printed in the New York Times and also appeared in such publications as Collier's, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, New Yorker, Saturday Review, and Theatre Arts Monthly. The arrangement is alphabetical and based on Rice's organization and original folder titles. He divided shorter works into published and unpublished categories and these files contain drafts for editorials, essays, radio plays, reviews, short stories, and speeches. Some of these works are untitled.

Series II. Business and Personal Correspondence forms the next largest segment of material and is contained in 32 boxes. Rice was a prolific correspondent and this series reflects Rice's methodical original arrangement. Rice filed his correspondence by subject, title of work, or by the name of individual, thus making it easy to locate letters on a specific matter. In the case of play productions, Rice often subdivided letters into additional categories, such as date span, business, personal, or by geographic region. Within folders, the letters are for the most part arranged in reverse chronological order and Rice often filed his carbon response with the original letter.

Though there is some personal correspondence, mostly in the form of good luck or congratulatory notes or telegrams from friends and associates, most of the letters relate to the business and creative aspects of Rice's works or relate to his numerous social causes and political interests. Due to Rice's celebrity, he mingled in many creative and political circles, and he corresponded with many of the day's leading actors, artists, journalists, political activists, politicians, writers, and other influential members of New York society such as Brooks Atkinson, Roger Baldwin, Lucille Ball, Marc Connelly, Morris Ernst, Oscar Hammerstein, John Haynes Holmes, Langston Hughes, Helen Hayes, Corliss Lamont, Marvin Lowenthal, George Middleton, Erin O'Brien-Moore, Theodore Schroeder, Joseph T. Shipley, and Dorothy and Mark Van Doren. Topics discussed in letters include requests for permission to perform or publish Rice's plays, creative exchanges and edits among members of the Playwrights' Producing Company, royalty information, casting decisions, and other similar topics. These files also contain budgets, cast lists, clippings, contracts, manuscript drafts, meeting minutes, memoranda, newsletters, photographs, programs, report cards, reports, and royalty statements. A name index of all incoming correspondence is provided at the end of this finding aid.

Perhaps the most personal correspondence contained in this series is with boyhood friend, Bertram Bloch, and Rice's closest friend for over forty years, Frank W. Harris. The segment of letters with Bloch is original outgoing letters from Rice to Bloch between 1922 and 1930. The segment of letters with Frank W. Harris is original outgoing letters from Rice to Harris written between 1909 and 1951. Both segments of letters provide insight into Rice's inner thoughts as well as great detail about Rice's work and daily life. Letters from Bloch and Harris to Rice may be found throughout the series and locations can be identified using the Index of Correspondents.

Bristow cataloged the file 'Income tax data' [B51-378 to 460], now located in box 60.9, as containing 83 items; however, there is only one document in that folder. It is unclear if at some point, this material was added to another folder or if this is an error.

Series III. Photographs and Theater Programs contains photographs from Rice's frequent trips abroad, family photos, as well as theatre production photos and programs. The arrangement reflects Rice's original categories and organization.

Series IV. Royalty Statements and Contracts is arranged alphabetically by production title. Rice personally managed most of his business affairs and this material reflects his careful attention to detail, and as a result, provides an extraordinary overview of the business aspect of his theater productions. Contents include royalty statements, box office statements, check memoranda, and contracts.

Series V. American Civil Liberties Union and Related Subjects contains articles, correspondence, meeting minutes, memoranda, newsletters, and printed material related to Rice's association with the ACLU and advocacy of censorship issues in the theater, film, and broadcasting. The material is organized alphabetically by Rice's original folder titles.

Series VI. Personal and Career-Related contains material related to Rice's writing and personal life. Contents include appointment books and notebooks, course notes, printed material, writing notes for several of Rice's plays and essays, and writings by other authors.


The following Ransom Center collections also contain Rice-related materials:

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Records

Appel, Benjamin

Aronson, Boris: Scenic Design Papers

Covici, Pascal: Correspondence Collection

Ernst, Morris Leopold

Literary Files Collection

Playscripts and Promptbooks Collection

Kaufman, Enit: American Portraits Papers

Scott, Evelyn

Wood, Audrey

William A. Bradley Literary Agency Records


Books received with Rice's papers have been transferred to the Ransom Center Library. The Ransom Center Vertical File contains enclosures removed from books, seventy-three scrapbooks created by Rice, and more contemporary programs and clippings about Rice and his plays. The scrapbooks range in size and focus on particular productions or subjects, such as "Censorship" or "Personal." They contain clippings, programs, and similar printed material related to the play or subject.


People

Anderson, Maxwell, 1888-1959.

Behrman, S. N. (Samuel Nathaniel), 1893-1973.

Field, Betty, 1918-1973.

Howard, Sidney Coe, 1891-1939.

Sherwood, Robert E. (Robert Emmet), 1896-1955.

Wharton, John F.

Organizations

American Civil Liberties Union.

National Council on Freedom from "Censorship".

PEN (Organization).

Playwrights' Producing Company.

Subjects

"Censorship"--United States.

Civil rights--United States.

Communism--United States.

Dramatists, American.

Federal Theatre Project (U.S.)

Jewish authors.

Theater.

Theater--Production and direction.

Document Types

Clippings.

Correspondence.

Financial records.

Legal documents.

Manuscripts.

Photographs.

Prompt books.

Scripts (documents).

Theater programs.