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The Adding Machine
Courtyard Theatre, London


Patrick Hayes

If there has ever been a 'play of two halves' it is The Adding Machine. The first half is a claustrophobic, gritty realist tale of the life of white-collar worker Mr Zero who, being exploited at work nagged at home, finally snaps and murders his boss. The second, in contrast, is a surreal venture into his afterlife, where Zero is presented with myriad choices and boundless opportunity. The one constant is the alienated character of Zero himself who chooses flight from all that he has dreamed of in favour of safe, familiar routine.

This is by no means a subtle play. People are given numbers according to their social standing. Zero quite literally is a zero. He has no future. His life consists solely of adding numbers at a desk, day in day out, 51 weeks of the year - he is the adding machine of the play's title. On his days off he has church and has to suffer endless moaning from his unsympathetic and bored wife. Stabbing his boss after 25 years of unappreciation is the only unpredictable thing he'd ever done, the only time he'd been ruled by his repressed passions.

Despite flashes of uninspired surrealism (skeletons dancing with umbrellas in the rain etc.) the first half allows us to observe how empty, irritating and meaningless his life is. We can't empathise with Zero; he is whiney and uninteresting... and a racist, a misogynist and an anti-Semite for good measure. We can't hate him either. He's trapped in a small world, burdened by worthless responsibilities and completely incapable of escape. He is full of self-blame and loathing, but far too dependent on the narrow avenues he walks down for a sense of identity to be able to make a choice that could in anyway liberate him. We cannot hate him and, yes, his final words before his execution do strike chords: 'Imagine if you were me.' Mr Zero is like an animal reared in captivity, feeling distant primal instincts but completely incapable of realising them.

Which is exactly writer Elmer Rice's point. The second half of the play serves to demonstrate how even when given the absolute freedom of the Elysian fields (or socialist Utopia), where Zero could be in true love and be unrestricted forever, he finds himself drowning in the freedom and chooses to become an adding machine again (not that you could blame him; the Elysian fields are basically hippy hell, people playing guitars and walking around naked). The final scene reworks Nietzsche's eternal return, to sledgehammer the point home about how Zero is stuck in a rut and has and will be repeating it ad infinitum. This scene raises the completely irrelevant issue of freewill versus determinism, but makes the interesting suggestion that attempting to lose oneself in love is the opium for the alienated masses.

The Adding Machine is interesting as a point of reference for those of us seeking to understand the human condition in the 21st century. Rice's portrayal of man being exploited and living an estranged existence operating mainly as a machine and only truly living in the briefest margins of his life appears quite clichéd. What is quite remarkable is the sheer lack of empathy one feels with the alienated characters. Very few of us in the Western world are materially trapped in such a way any more. The restraints of marriage, religion, money and lack of ability to travel are far less strict today.

The alienation depicted in The Adding Machine stands in stark contrast to the detachment from the world that is presented so effectively by Murray and Johansson in Lost in Translation. For all of his frustration, Mr Zero knows who he is and what he wants to be. He lives in a very narrow world and is happy with that. Murray and Johansson, on the contrary, live in a world entirely open to them. They have unlimited resources and time and both have taken on responsibilities (such as marriage) with little conviction or passionate devotion to them. Unlike Zero, who has a linear view regarding the structure of his life, Murray and Johansson seem permanently lost in transition, assuming identities, disgarding them, continually searching for meaning and consoling themselves with humour and companionship.

In the final scene of The Adding Machine, Zero is told he's to be sent back to Earth to 'do it all again' and has some stark truths about his situation pointed out to him. He is petrified and clings to the table screaming 'Why did you have to tell me?' His memory is erased and he goes back to being a baby so he can be innocently alienated all over again. Rice's assumption is that once we gain an awareness of our alienated situation we will act to change it. The sad truth is that many today who are aware, having abandoned the project to change things, would envy Zero's memory loss and strive towards his innocence as an ideal.


Till 7 March 2004

 
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