Machinal was first produced in 1928. It premiered on Broadway with Clark Gable cast as the lover, Dick Roe. It was a critical success and ran for 91 performances. In 1931, the drama premiered in London to some mixed reviews, mostly because of the sexual and violent nature of the play. However, Machinal's greatest success came in Russia at Moscow's Kamerny Theatre, after which the play toured throughout the Russian provinces. Later, in 1954, the play was even produced for television.
The play's title means "automatic" or "mechanical" in French. Sophie Treadwell wrote the play based loosely on the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, who together murdered Snyder's husband. Convicted of murdering her husband, Snyder later received the electric chair. Out of this event came the powerful, demanding drama, Machinal.
A woman's role during this era in history is confined and regimented to wife, mother, housekeeper, and sexual partner. Love is considered unnecessary, and thus many women are trapped in their dependant status, living a hellish life in a loveless marriage. The relationship between Helen Jones and her husband, George H. Jones, is no different. However, when a man intercedes and Helen is given a momentary glimpse of passion, her life is forever changed. She sees how society confines her, how her husband unconsciously dominates her every decision, and she feels that there is no escape. With a feeling of hopelessness, Helen commits an egregious crime, murdering her husband to free herself from the constraints of society and, ironically, to save her husband from the pain of a divorce. This heavy play is a powerful expressionistic drama about women's forced financial dependency upon men during the 1920s and their trapped existence in a male-dominated, oppressive wasteland.
Sophie Treadwell, an early-twentieth century expressionistic playwright, is one of the United States's most under-recognized female writers of fiction, drama and journalism. Although a productive writer, Treadwell's greatest achievement may be attributed to what she did to advance women's exposure in an oppressive, male-dominated world.
Treadwell was born on October 3, 1885 in Stockton, California. She was born to her father, Alfred Treadwell, a lawyer, city prosecutor, justice of the peace, and judge, and her mother, Nettie Treadwell. Their marriage was troubled and the two separated in the early 1890s. Although separated, Nettie never completely freed herself from her husband with a divorce. The economic and emotional impact of Nettie's inability to divorce Alfred troubled Treadwell for all her life and greatly influenced both her writing and views of marriage and society.
Regardless of Treadwell's family life, she was an excellent student and she enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley in 1902. Four years later she received her Bachelor of Letters in French.
After graduating from UC-Berkeley, Treadwell moved about teaching and trying her hand at professional theater in Los Angeles. Nothing much took hold and, in 1908, Treadwell left Los Angeles for San Francisco in order to care for her ailing mother, who was in ill health. In 1914, she was given her big break when the San Francisco Bulletin's editor asked her to go undercover as a homeless prostitute to see what type of charitable help was available. The result was outstanding, creating an 18-part serial which was entitled "An Outcast at the Christian Door," and inspiring the play Sympathy. Aside from the impact the serial had on Treadwell's writing, it also rocketed her to the fore-front of female journalists. She was sent on assignment to Europe to cover World War I, making her the first female war correspondent.
Upon her return to the United States, Treadwell began work as a journalist at the New York Tribune. There, Treadwell established herself nationally as a journalist with her adept and eye-opening coverage of Mexico and Mexican-American relations. One of her greatest journalistic feats was an expansive, exclusive profile of the legendary bandit, Pancho Villa. Treadwell was the only interviewer from the United States who was granted access to Villa. The two-day interview helped her complete her journalistic coup and served as the inspiration for the play Gringo (which appeared in 1922) and the novel Lusita (published in 1931).
However, there may still be one piece of non-fiction that had even a greater effect on Treadwell. In 1927, she attended the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. Ruth Snyder and her lover, Gray, plotted and killed Snyder's husband. The two were convicted and sentence to die in the electric chair. From this event sprung forth Machinal, Treadwell's greatest dramatic success, which was produced for the first time in 1928. Beyond the success of the play, Treadwell's characters and her sympathy for the murderess caused a stir, quietly creating a rift between conservative, disciplinarian men and a new rank of feminists.
Although her works were progressive, enlightening and revealing, Treadwell was still under the heel of a male-dominated world. Nonetheless, she persevered, pushing forward, writing countless plays, continuing with her journalism and her struggle for her place, not only amongst the ranks of women, but all humans, until her death on February 20, 1970.
The first episode takes place within the George H. Jones Company office. A young woman (later revealed to be Helen Jones) is late for work, and her coworkers chide her, telling her she may lose her job. She is a frantic woman, crushed by society. She is often late because she cannot stand the stifling crowds of the subway. This serves as a metaphor for how she feels about society in general. In the office, it becomes apparent that George H. Jones, a kind, flabby-handed, slovenly man, has asked Helen to marry him. She does not know how to answer. Helen wants nothing more than to be free of her terrible job, but the answer is a loveless marriage to an unattractive, unappealing man.
Helen returns home to discuss the proposal with her mother. At first her mother does not understand why Helen feels that she must get married. Helen even says, "All women get married, don't they?" However, as soon as Helen's mother discovers that the man is wealthy, she changes her tune, telling her daughter to marry him straightaway. Helen tries to explain that she does not love George, and her mother responds, "Love!—What does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?" The two women argue, and a major theme of the play is expressed: the role of marriage and a woman's dependant status on her husband's wealth in the 1920s.
In episode three, it is clear that Helen and George have wed. They are on their honeymoon. George is not a bad person and, for the right woman, could even be an excellent husband, but he is very preoccupied with money. He does not mistreat his wife, but he also does not see her as an equal. In their hotel bedroom, George tries to seduce Helen. He is not rude or forceful, but he does express his desires, and Helen finds it impossible to resist. She has already succumbed to her role as a wife; the next logical step is to become her husband's sexual partner. Helen tearfully complies, laden with self-disgust.
At least nine months later, Helen is in a hospital having just given birth to a newborn girl. She is disgusted and depressed, feeling that the position she finds herself in (being a wife and mother) was pressed upon her by society. When the nurse asks if she wants her baby, Helen shakes her head. When George enters the room, Helen begins to gag, as if repulsed by her husband. It is only when the doctor insists that the nurse put the baby to Helen's breast that she screams, "No!" Only after everyone leaves does Helen begin to speak. In a long, rambling diatribe, Helen remembers her dog, Vixen, giving birth and how the puppies drowned in blood. Helen seems to be hoping for death and crying out that she will not submit any more.
In a bar, two men are waiting for two women to arrive. The two men are Harry Smith and Dick Roe. Harry Smith is waiting to meet a girl from the George H. Jones Company, referred to in the play as Telephone Girl. According to Smith, Telephone Girl is bringing a friend that she plans to introduce to Dick Roe. Eventually, the two women arrive. Telephone Girl's friend is Helen Jones. Introductions are made and small talk ensues. Quickly, Telephone Girl and Harry Smith reveal that they are leaving to consummate their ongoing affair. Helen and Roe are left to talk with one another. Roe reveals that he once killed two men while traveling in Mexico. According to Roe, he was taken captive and while he was being detained, he filled a glass bottle with small stones, creating a club. At the right moment, Roe clubbed his captors to death. Roe's stories and exciting life entrap Helen.
• A television adaptation of Machinal was produced and aired in the United States in 1954.
In the next scene, Roe and Helen have obviously shared intimate time together. She is smitten and, for the first time in the play, talkative and excited about life. She contemplates their lives together and even sings for Roe. Eventually, she realizes that she must hurry, dress, and return to her husband. Before she leaves, she asks Roe if she can have a lily blooming in a bowl of small stones and water that sits on his windowsill. Roe agrees and Helen departs with her memento.
Back with her husband, Helen is traumatized. Both read the newspaper, and George is unchanged, rambling about sales, money, interest, and business. Helen is making comments that foreshadow suicide, murder, and divorce. However, George notices nothing. The phone rings and from the way George is talking, he is doing business and things are going well. Intermittently, as George and Helen exchange small talk, the phone rings several more times, all of the calls are related to George's business. This scene is full of heavy foreshadowing, of Helen and of George's death, drowning, suicide, and murder. George finally notices that Helen seems upset and he suggests that they take a vacation to relax.
Episode 8 opens in a courtroom. Helen is on trial for the murder of her husband. Treadwell uses this scene to comment on the media, having one reporter obviously in favor of Helen and the other staunchly opposed. During the trial, it is revealed that Helen and George lived together for six years without a single quarrel and have had only one child, a five year-old girl. The lawyer for the prosecution asks if Helen murdered her husband, revealing that someone killed George H. Jones by smashing his head with a bottle full of small stones. Helen professes her innocence, claiming that she saw two men looming over her husband's side of the bed. The two men then smashed her husband's head and fled the room. The lawyer for the prosecution then reveals he has a signed affidavit from Richard (Dick) Roe, Helen's lover. The statement explains that Roe and Helen had intimate relations and that he had told Helen about how he killed two men with a bottle full of small stones. Before the lawyer for the prosecution can even finish reading the letter, Helen confesses to the murder. She claims that she murdered her husband because she wanted "to be free." The judge asks why she did not simply divorce her husband and, ironically, she responds, "Oh I couldn't do that!! I couldn't hurt him like that!"
In the final episode, Helen is with a priest, and she is being given her last rites. A condemned man is singing a Negro spiritual. Soon, barbers arrive to shave a portion of Helen's head in preparation for the electric chair. Helen fights them off, but the barbers prevail. In a last gasp, she screams, "Submit! Submit! Is nothing mine?" and asks the priest if she will ever find peace, if she will ever be free. Her mother arrives, and they embrace for the last time. At last, Helen is lead to the electric chair where the two reporters are awaiting her execution. In a final statement, Helen cries out her final words, "Somebody! Somebod—" but is cut short by the electric chair. In the end, Treadwell ties up her metaphor of society as a machine. Helen was caught within the machine but refused to work as part of it and, as a result, was brought to her destruction.
Adding Clerk is an unnamed male character who, in the first episode, helps emphasize and embellish the noises of the office with his audible number counting and the sound of his adding machine. Sound and noise is an important element in Treadwell's play, creating background and atmosphere.
In episode four Helen gives birth to her first-born. The doctor comes into the room and the nurse explains that Helen does not want her baby and appears weak because she gags when her husband enters. The doctor insists that Helen breastfeed; she refuses and asks to be left alone. The doctor is confused and perturbed by her behavior.
Filing Clerk is an unnamed, younger male character who, in the first episode, helps emphasize and embellish the noises of the office with his audible enunciation of letters as he files. Sound and noise is an important element in Treadwell's play, creating background and atmosphere.
In episode eight, Helen is in the courtroom on trial for the murder of her husband, George H. Jones. The First Reporter is one of the many members of the press in the crowded courtroom. As he takes notes, First Reporter reads them aloud. His comments are positive regarding Helen, her behavior, movements, character and emotions. First Reporter's comments are the polar opposite of Second Reporter's anti-Helen commentary, exemplifying the subjectivity of the media.
Helen's mother acts a guidebook for the society that Helen wishes to escape. Helen's mother constantly reminds her daughter that it is more important to get married before she is too old and that it is most important to marry a man that can provide financial stability. The old woman explains that love will never pay the bills, clothe you, or put food on the table. She tells Helen that love is not real. Life is real, things like clothes, food, a bed to sleep in, etc., and that the rest is in your head. She pressures Helen to forget about things like love, and marry George because he has money, is a decent man, and can care for both. Helen and her mother. Helen's mother is the voice that is the opposition to Helen's feelings. Helen's mother is convincing and powerful. It could be reasoned that Helen's mother's pressure is the catalyst that forces Helen into marriage, motherhood, and, eventually, murder.
George H. Jones
George H. Jones is the owner of George H. Jones Company. He employs the Adding Clerk, Filing Clerk, Stenographer, Telephone Girl and Helen Jones. He is a fat, slovenly man, but he is harmless. His hands are large and flabby; they disgust Helen. George is more dedicated to work than anything else and it shows because his business is successful. Although George's company is successful, he has never been married. He takes a special interest in Helen and decides to ask his office worker to take his hand in marriage. Reluctantly, Helen accepts, mostly because of the prodding of her mother. Helen becomes Mrs. Jones for the sake of monetary stability. She feels no love for George and, in fact, is repulsed by everything about the man. George is patient and, in a way, loving towards his new bride. He is not forceful with his sexual advances and he is eager to support both Helen and her mother. George plans to give both women a nice, comfortable life, he is willing to be faithful and compassionate, and he yearns to start a family. In many ways, George has the potential to be a good, loving husband. Soon after their marriage, Helen gives birth to their firstborn. George is excited to be a father and support his family. He is a good provider, but Helen constantly feels trapped by her husband, child, mother and life. Eventually, Helen murders George to free herself from her constraints. Ironically, she evens see murder as a better option than divorce for George because Helen does not want to hurt him by ending their marriage. This belief is both sad and insane. Helen believes divorce would do more damage to George than ending his life.
Helen Jones is frequently referred to as "Young Woman" throughout the play. In the beginning, Helen is an employee of the George H. Jones Company. Soon she finds herself married to George and the mother of a newborn child. Helen's mother exercises a decisive amount of control over her daughter's decision-making process, pressuring her daughter to accept George's marriage proposal. Helen is a disturbed woman. She is crushed by societal norms and can find no way to escape what she sees as extremely tethering social dogmas. Helen is quiet and introspective. She seems fearful of the world, but only in that it is full of stifling pressures. She does not want to feel forced into caring for her mother; she does not want to discard the possibility of love for the reassurance of stability; she does not want to stifle sexual desire in exchange for living in a faithful, loveless marriage. Helen desires a progressive, modern feminist sense of freedom that she cannot find in her world and her life. Throughout the course of the play she succumbs to each social pressure that she is so repulsed by—marriage, financial stability, motherhood, and passionless sex—only to give herself momentary relief through an affair with Dick Roe. Their relationship is brief, but does at least give Helen a taste of a life that she felt was unattainable. Unfortunately, with Roe's departure Helen spirals into a ridiculous, dead-end choice, murdering her husband to free herself and save George from the pain of divorce. Of course, Helen escapes nothing and winds up in prison, on trial and eventually is executed for murdering her husband.
In episode eight, Helen is in the courtroom on trial for the murder of her husband, George H. Jones. The Judge is presiding over the courtroom and her trial.
Lawyer for the Defense
In episode eight, Helen is in the courtroom on trial for the murder of her husband, George H. Jones. The Lawyer for the Defense is defending her against the allegations.
Lawyer for the Prosecution
In episode eight, Helen is in the courtroom on trial for the murder of her husband, George H. Jones. The Lawyer for the Prosecution is prosecuting her on the charges of murder in the first degree.
In episode four Helen gives birth to her first-born. The nurse is in her room trying to help the new mother become accustomed to her child. Helen refuses her baby, gags when her husband enters the room, and is wholly repulsed by the world. The nurse is confused by Helen's actions and calls on the doctor for assistance.
In the final episode, moments before Helen is taken to the electric chair, Helen converses with the Priest. Mostly, she talks at the Priest as he reads her last rites. Helen divulges many of her feelings in the final episode of the play. She is extremely emotional about her forced submission into work, marriage, sex, and motherhood. The Priest is calm, collected and regimented. He gives Helen her last rites and then her head is shaved and she is led to her death in the electric chair.
Dick Roe is sitting with Harry Smith in the bar during episode five. The men are waiting for Telephone Girl and Helen Jones. Telephone Girl and Smith are in the midst of an extended affair. Roe and Helen have never met, but Telephone Girl and Smith have brought the two together with the intention of a relationship beyond friendship. Helen is reluctant, as she is married and has a child, but is lifeless and dying inside because of her existence. Roe is a handsome, exciting man. He is a traveler and has adventurous stories to tell. Once, he explains to Helen, while traveling in Mexico he was kidnapped and held hostage. He had to murder his two captors and did so by slowly filling a glass bottle with tiny pebbles, creating a heavy, blunt clubbing object. Roe smashed the two men about the head, crushing their skulls and killing them both. During their affair, Helen is completely smitten with Roe and his lifestyle. After one of their trysts, Helen takes a lily in a bowl full of tiny rocks from Roe's apartment. In a strange twist, Roe's story and the bowl are the impetus to Helen's plot to murder her husband. Roe returns to Mexico and gives a written deposition that is the most damning evidence against Helen. He explains how Helen took the lily and how he told her about his daring escape from his captors. Helen's husband met a fate similar to Roe's captors and the rocks from the lily bowl were used as part of the murder weapon. Ultimately, Roe's testimony leads to Helen's murder conviction.
In episode eight, Helen is in the courtroom on trial for the murder of her husband, George H. Jones. The Second Reporter is one of the many members of the press in the crowded courtroom. As he takes notes, Second Reporter reads them aloud. His comments are negative regarding Helen, her behavior, movements, character and emotions. Second Reporter's comments are the polar opposite of First Reporter's pro-Helen commentary, exemplifying the subjectivity of the media.
Harry Smith is sitting with Dick Roe in the bar during episode five. Smith is planning to introduce Roe to his mistress's friend, Helen Jones. When Helen and Telephone Girl—Smith's mistress—arrive at the bar, the four individuals introduce each other and exchange brief dialogue. Following this, Telephone Girl and Smith depart together, leaving Roe and Helen alone together.
Stenographer is an unnamed, faded, drying female character who, in the first episode, helps emphasize and embellish the noises of the office as she audibly recites portions of stale, business letters. Sound and noise is an important element in Treadwell's play, creating background and atmosphere.
Telephone Girl is an unnamed, cheap, amorous female character who, in the first episode, helps emphasize and embellish the noises of the office as she repeats dry, office telephone greetings. Telephone Girl reappears in episode five, where she introduces Helen Jones to Dick Roe. Helen and Telephone Girl arrive at the bar with plans to meet Roe and his friend, Harry Smith. It is clear that Telephone Girl is having an affair with Smith and, eventually, the two depart together, leaving Jones and Roe alone together in the bar. This is the catalyst for Helen and Roe's affair.
Expressionism is the leading theme in Machinal. Expressionism is a theory in art, drama, or writing that seeks to depict the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in the artist, dramatist or writer. Before exploring expressionism in Machinal, the term "subjective" must first be understood. To depict a subjective emotion or response, Treadwell would have to perfectly convey her personal feeling. Philosophically, it is impossible to convey a subjective emotion or response because it is inherent to each individual; it is a matter of personal taste. Hence, Treadwell cannot convey her subjective feeling to anyone because once someone else experiences her attempt to convey her emotion or response, it necessarily becomes the other person's subjective interpretation of her emotion or response. This is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is crucial to understanding expressionism.
Artistically, expressionism exists in a remarkable way. In attempts to convey their emotions, painters and dramatists did works that depicted raw and powerfully emotional states of mind. Treadwell was considered an expressionist because she abandoned the traditional structure of plays and delivered her plotlines through unique, fresh techniques. She used real events, like the Snyder-Gray murder trial and her interviews with Pancho Villa, to pour her own raw emotion into the creation of an unconventional drama. This movement is often considered decadent because it is, by its very nature, one individual's tunnel-vision interpretation of the world.
Returning to Machinal as the expressionistic example, Treadwell takes her subjective emotional response to the Sndyer-Gray murder trial and depicts it to the world through her play. The trial obviously stirs feelings of despair and hopelessness in Treadwell for all the women trapped in the societal norm of loveless, hellish marriages. Her emotive response to Snyder is not one of repulsion for committing a heinous act, but one of sadness for a woman left with no escape from the strangling grasp of a male-dominated society. To further accentuate her emotion, Treadwell turns away from traditionally structured theatre, constructing a nine-episode play that mimics the nine-month gestation that women must endure when they are pregnant. This is why Treadwell, and especially Machinal, are considered examples of American expressionistic drama.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Expressionism is most frequently used to describe a movement in art; however, it is also used to describe movements in drama and fiction. Examine another expressionistic work, whether it be in art or in fiction. Compare and contrast this work with Treadwell's Machinal. How does the use of expressionism change from one art form to another? Does the sex of the artist, author or playwright influence the use of expressionism in their work?
- Read the book A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord. Using what you know about expressionism, decide whether or not Giacometti is an expressionistic artist. Why or why not? Once you decide, apply your criteria to James Lord. Is Lord an expressionist? Why or why not?
- Treadwell uses the Snyder-Gray murder trial as the catalyst for her expressionistic drama. Select a moment from the past, historical or personal, and create your own short expressionistic piece. Remember, your focus should not be on realism, but on the creation of a story and landscape that best conveys your subjective emotional response to the moment.
- Beneath the shroud of expressionism, Treadwell clearly reveals her emotions about feminism and early twentieth-century male-dominated society. Machinal is a story about a woman trapped in a male-driven, social machine. Compare and contrast Helen's entrapment with that of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's main character in her story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Can you think of any other works of drama or fiction where men or women are trapped, in a symbolic or realistic way, by the dictates of society?
Society as a Machine
In the play, society as a machine creates a metaphoric theme. Throughout Machinal, Helen struggles against society. Through Treadwell's use of sound and repeated dialogue, each phase of Helen's life is punctuated by repetition, noise, and an unseen, daunting force that pushes her along. Whether it is the opening scene in the office with the human voices creating an "office machine" or the noises of the world invading her hospital visit, Helen cannot escape society. Even though she does not want to submit, she is pushed forward, forced to carry out each of her roles in the machine—first as a secretary, then as a wife, then as a sexual partner, then as a mother—even though she hates each of her positions along the way and she continually feels pressured into submission. With this, Helen never finds a way to escape the clutches of the machine. In the end, when she tries to free herself by murdering her husband, she makes her first stand and she steps outside of her role as assigned by the machine. Almost immediately, she is devoured by society. The machine grinds her up and disposes of her once she refuses to fulfill her role. At the end of the play as Helen sits in the electric chair awaiting her death, the first reporter asks, "Suppose the machine shouldn't work!" and the second reporter responds, "It'll work!—It always works!" These statements in the final moments complete the play's metaphor. Anyone who steps outside the bounds of society will meet their end at the hands of its ever-grinding gears.
Hopelessness and Despair
Hopelessness and despair are the primary emotional themes that run through Machinal. Helen rarely experiences anything but these two feelings. Before George H. Jones asks her to marry him, she is trapped working in an office. When George proposes to her, she sees a relief from her horrible life in the office, only to replace it with another living hell: a loveless marriage. Succumbing to the pressures of society and her mother, Helen finds herself married, living a hopeless, desperate life. Her next role sends her spiraling into despair, as she must fulfill the prophecy of wife to become sexual partner and subsequently, mother. Given only a momentary glimmer of happiness through her affair with Dick Roe, Helen is cast down even deeper when her short-term lover leaves. Her final effort to escape her hopelessness and despair is the murder of her husband. To add insult to injury, her lover essentially convicts her with his written affidavit, leaving Helen completely hopeless and desperate. These emotions permeate all of Helen's life and serve as the driving theme that taunts her to escape her role in society.
The Tragic Heroine
Although the plot of Machinal would seem to make Helen Jones a villain, her role is quite the contrary. She is clearly intended to be a tragic heroine. The play is written with heated anger. Helen Jones and all other women are doomed to wander the dead wasteland of a male-dominated society. Remember, this is an expressionistic play and its intent is to convey emotion and feeling, not realism. Hence, to read this play from the point of view of realism is to, of course, damn Helen to death by the electric chair and label her a villain. However, through the eyes of expressionism, Helen becomes a heroine, struggling against male oppression for all of womankind. Helen does not murder her husband because she is evil; she is left with no other choice. At the point of the murder it appears that it may be necessary for certain wives in certain circumstances to murder their husbands. With her last, failed attempt to free herself from the clutches of a male-dominated society, Helen becomes a tragic heroine.
Structure is a crucial element in all forms of expressionism; Treadwell's Machinal is no different. In the play, Treadwell abandons the traditional dramatic structure of acts and scenes for nine episodes. Each episode is aptly titled to fit the setting or mood and the number is intended to reflect each month of the nine months of pregnancy.
With each passing episode, the title is the framework around which Treadwell constructs her commentary of a woman's role in a male-dominated society. In "Episode I To Business," Machinal opens in the office of the George H. Jones Company. The scene is bustling with office workers and a cacophony of office noises. Although it is an office, the dialogue is focused on Helen and her prospective marriage to George H. Jones. Treadwell calls the episode "To Business," but the conversation is nothing of the sort. This title is more indicative of Treadwell telling the audience what she plans to reveal than what actually happens in the episode. Through the title of her first episode and the nine-episode construction of Machinal, Treadwell is announcing her intention to comment on the male-dominated society of the 1920s. The episodes that follow are all aptly named—At Home, Honeymoon, Maternal, Prohibited, Intimate, Domestic, The Law, and, lastly, A Machine. The ninth and final episode not only echoes the nine months of gestation and a woman's place as a mother, it also comments on the finality of woman's place in society. The title—A Machine—directly refers to Helen's date with the electric chair.
However, Treadwell is commenting on something much deeper. With the nine episodes ending with "A Machine," Treadwell is highlighting a woman's role as nothing more than a cog in the male-dominated social machine. The play is nine episodes, just as a gestation is nine months; the ninth episode is "A Machine," just as a woman's role in society is to produce children—to be a machine within the male-dominated patriarchal social construct. Treadwell is surprisingly effective with her dramatic structure. Machinal is powerful and thought-provoking, even when viewed from afar with a unique breakdown of the general dramatic structure.
The Snyder-Gray Murder Trial
During the spring of 1927, Treadwell attended the notorious trial of Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray. Although she did not officially cover the trial as a reporter, her time spent in the courtroom served as the catalyst for Machinal. Snyder was a seemingly harmless housewife from Long Island, and her lover was portrayed as a dimwitted accomplice. Most notably, the trial attracted an amazing public interest and was fueled by hundreds of reporters that where assigned to cover the trial. Every day there was something new about the Snyder-Gray trial in the newspapers. The media frenzy did not cease until the defendants were finally executed by the electric chair in January, 1928. With her execution, Snyder became the first woman executed in New York State in the twentieth century.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s: Amelia Earhardt is the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Today: Women of all ethnicities train as commercial, military, and private pilots, flying all over the world for companies, governments, and individuals.
- 1920s: The first scheduled television broadcast airs in New York City.
Today: Countless television programs air constantly through cable and satellite connections. Programs air in numerous languages from a vast number of networks, stretching far and wide across the entire globe.
- 1920s: Black Friday occurs, spiraling the world into an economic crisis.
Today: The world economy exists on a precarious balance that could easily be disrupted with war, shortages, or unemployment.
- 1920s: Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini all begin their rise to power in their respective countries, a precursor to World War II.
Today: With heavy political unrest around the world, the United States is in the middle of a controversial war taking place in Iraq.
Albert Snyder, Ruth's husband, was found beaten, drugged with chloroform, and strangled in his bed on March 20, 1927. When the police arrived, Ruth was bound and gagged outside their daughter's room. She told police that a tall man grabbed her, and she had fainted. Ruth told police that she remained unconscious for at least five hours. Police were suspicious when they found Ruth's jewelry under a mattress. The house appeared to be ransacked, but it seemed strange that the thief would have left the jewelry. Secondly, when Ruth came to, she did not inquire about her husband. This also caused the police to wonder about Ruth's role in the murder and the supposed burglary. The police questioned Ruth for nearly twenty hours, and she finally confessed that she and her lover, Gray, had beaten her husband to death. Later, Ruth would change her story, stating that although she participated, Gray masterminded the entire murder.
The two were placed on trial for the murder of Albert Snyder, and the crime captured the minds of the American people. In addition to the 180 reporters assigned to the case, some 1,500 people attended the trial every day. Although Treadwell was not assigned to the cover the trial, she was a spectator as often as possible. For the first time in history, microphones and speakers were set up so everyone in the courtroom could hear the testimonies. Sadly for Ruth, her jury of peers was composed of all men, and many female reporters and thinkers of the day believed she never stood a chance. Not surprisingly, they were right. The prosecution and even Gray's defense attorney, tried to use the all-male jury to their advantage. The prosecution told the jury that Snyder killed her husband to escape an unhappy marriage, not an abusive one. With this statement, the prosecutor sealed Snyder's fate by instilling fear in each male juror, who had to begin to wonder if other wives were capable of the same crime. The jury was quick to convict and condemn Ruth Snyder to death in the electric chair.
Although Treadwell was a prolific playwright and an outstanding journalist, there is still little information written about her life or plays. It is remarkable that a woman who has had successful runs of her plays on Broadway and internationally, plus had wide success as a journalist, has not received greater attention. As a journalist, Treadwell infiltrated prostitution in San Francisco, posing as a homeless prostitute to expose the lack of charitable help available to homeless women. During World War I, Treadwell was on assignment in Europe, making her one of the first female foreign war correspondents in American history. Her greatest journalistic success may have come from her two-day interview with the Mexican revolutionary bandit, Pancho Villa. Treadwell was the only American journalist granted access to Villa at his Mexican hideout.
Critically, Machinal was a smash success, having long runs on Broadway, in London and throughout Russia. It also catapulted Treadwell to the forefront of expressionism, making her one of the first female, American dramatists to write in the genre. Barbara L. Bywaters solidifies Treadwell's place in expressionism by comparing her to the genre's most renowned visual artist, Edvard Munch. Bywaters states her essay, "Marriage, Madness, and Murder in Sophie Treadwell's Machinal," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon:
Combining expressionistic techniques, such as repetitive dialogue, audio effects, numerous short scenes, and the distortion of inner and outer reality, Treadwell creates, with the evocative disorientation of an Edvard Munch, the picture of an ordinary young woman driven by desperation to murder.
Although Treadwell is most often seen as an expressionist, her plays unearth prejudices and inequalities. It is fair to say that Machinal is a statement against a male-dominated, oppressive society; the play is trying to expose a regimented social machine that confines and defines women not by their natures, but by their husbands. However, as most critics agree, Treadwell delivers her interpretations of society through an expressionist's palate, creating suggestive, raw, emotional dramatic landscapes for her characters and plotlines.
Martinelli is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Martinelli examineshow the patriarchal machine of the 1920s stifled Helen Jones, and the women's movement writ large, by forcing Helen into roles created by a male-dominated, oppressive social structure.
The Women's Suffrage movement finally delivered to women the right to vote on August 26, 1920, when Henry Burns cast the deciding vote that made Tennessee the thirty-sixth, and final, state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although this was a landmark movement in the Women's Movement, the struggle for equality certainly did not end then. Women continued to be subjected to sexual discrimination, both professionally and personally. Sophie Treadwell wrote Machinal in the wake of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, understanding and foreshadowing the uphill struggle women still faced in the United States.
Machinal in particular spoke to the countless women forced to enter loveless marriages in order to survive in a world in which jobs were scarce for men and non-existent for women. During the years prior to and immediately following the Great Depression, women were forced into roles created by a male-dominated, oppressive social structure. Some women were lucky enough to find mutually loving relationships. Other women were willing to submit to their roles in exchange for financial stability. However, as is the case with Helen Jones, the tragic heroine of Treadwell's Machinal, some women could not tolerate the lives that the patriarchal machine demanded of them. The patriarchal machine is the social construction of the first half of the twentieth century. During these decades, men dominated and operated this machine with their vast, pervasive control of economics, politics, and expression. Only rare, extraordinary women were able to shake free of this machine, making advances in the Women's Movement.
Interestingly, though, Treadwell's protagonist is not an example of the extraordinary woman of the Suffrage Movement or the later Women's Liberation Movement. Instead, Treadwell challenges the patriarchal machine with not a unique, outspoken activist, but "an ordinary young woman, any woman." Although Helen progresses within the system, changing roles from secretary-to-wife, wife-to-sexual partner, and sexual partner-to-mother, Treadwell does not let her "any woman" silently age into obscurity. Helen challenges the patriarchal machine with her madness and, ultimately, the murder of her husband. This deliberate decision to challenge a male-dominated society with an any woman dramatically empowers Treadwell's message, instilling fear into men and their formidable machine, that all women—not a select few—can dramatically impact, change and destroy their husband's lives.
In the beginning of Machinal, Treadwell depicts the first role of the patriarchal machine that Helen must fill. Helen works as a secretary in the office of George H. Jones. During this first episode, Helen and George have not wed and Helen feels that her work is stifling. Treadwell effectively creates a living, office-like machine in the first episode through her use of repetitious sounds, noises and voices. The office, although inhabited by humans, moves and sounds like a machine. At the helm is, of course, a man: George H. Jones. In the first episode, Treadwell makes it clear that George has asked for Helen's hand in marriage. However, the young woman is confused by the proposition because she does not love her boss. Her mother, on the other hand, cannot understand Helen's problem with marrying for financial stability. When Helen states that she wants to marry for love, her mother responds, "Love!—what does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?" With this statement, Helen's mother reveals the conundrum presented before Helen in the first episodes: her only escape from the hell that is her stifling job, is to step directly into the claustrophobia of a loveless, passionless marriage. Although Helen may change roles, she does not escape the patriarchal machine. She would still be controlled by the male-dominated society. As Barbara L. Bywaters writes in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon,
Helen would be free of economic pressures if she marries her employer; on the other hand, she would be subordinate in every sense, legally, physically, emotionally, and economically, to a man she does not love or respect.
Sadly, Helen is propelled forward, under the prodding of her mother and the pressure of the machine, and marries George, submitting to her second role in society: wife.
The natural procession from marriage is, of course, into sex. However, in the case of Helen entering into a loveless marriage, the prospect of sexual intercourse with George is not only unpleasant, it is terrifying. In episode four, Helen and George are on their honeymoon. George, although not physically forceful, does pressure Helen into sexual intercourse telling her, "you got to relax little girl," offering to help her take off her clothes, and remarking, "Say, what you got under there?" as he pinches her thigh. The end of this episode, with George successfully pressuring Helen into sex, paints a vile, unpleasant picture of what Helen becomes the moment she submits to her role as George's sexual partner. The patriarchal machine first pressures Helen out of her financial instability to become a married, financially stable wife. Then, as it is considered natural for a husband and wife to engage in sexual intercourse, Helen is again pressured into sexual intercourse. This forced coitus is terrifying on two despicable levels. First of all, if the progression is traced, Helen ends up sleeping with George not out of love or for pleasure, but simply because it means her continued financial stability. Essentially, her sexual intercourse with George is a drawn-out form of prostitution. As if this were not enough, the forcible pressures of the patriarchal machine that propel a wife forward into her role as sexual partner clearly results in a form of rape. A rape occurs when sexual intercourse is carried out against a person's will. Helen has no desire to engage in sexual intercourse with George and, although he does not physically force her into sex, the will and power of the patriarchal machine symbolically holds Helen in her place as her husband's sexual partner.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first published in 1899, is a classic, haunting story about a trapped woman's mental disintegration, due largely to the oppressiveness of the society she lived in.
- Plays (1987), by Susan Glaspell, is a collection of plays by the early twentieth-century female playwright and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931. Her plays are unique, and she is known for her refusal to create stereotypical female characters.
- Gringo (1922), by Sophie Treadwell, is a play that depicts and highlights the stereotypical prejudices that Mexicans and Americans have felt about each other.
- Elmer Rice: Three Plays (1965) is a collection from a man often held in high regard as an influential playwright. He is often noted for bringing German expressionism into American theatre.
Following the honeymoon, Treadwell jumps directly into Helen's next role as mother. In what the patriarchal machine would generally consider a woman's final role, Treadwell uses this end as a means to see into Helen's madness. In the hospital, after giving birth to her daughter, Helen is at the apex of her own claustrophobia. She can barely speak, only shaking her head "no" when the doctor and nurse ask if she would like to breast-feed her baby. Helen is so repulsed by the finality of her life as a mother that she gags at the sight of her husband and finally screams to be left alone. At the end of this scene, Helen gives one of her long, disjointed diatribes in which she begs for death, questions God, and foreshadows the murder of her husband. These reoccurring monologues give a glimpse into Helen's mind as she struggles against the machine and, ultimately, fails, repeatedly submitting to the pressures and roles that she is forced to fulfill. As Jerry Dickey states of Treadwell in his essay, "The 'Real Lives' of Sophie Treadwell," in Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, "While creating works that depict women as subjects of drama, Treadwell cannot yet envision them completely empowered or victorious, but she refuses to allow her audiences to feel comfortable with their defeat." Helen is quite blatantly the subject of Machinal and she is not empowered because she still submits to the forces of the machine. Yet, Treadwell does not stop with Helen's simple defeat at the hands of the machine; instead she forges further ahead, exposing Helen's insanity and making the audience cringe with shame and repulsion at the social construct they willingly live within.
With the fate of her life seemingly confined to her final role as mother, Helen begins a restless, manic pursuit for an escape. In episodes five and six, Helen is introduced to a man, Dick Roe, who quickly becomes her lover. Roe represents Helen's lost freedom and deceased hopes. He is good looking, well traveled and adventurous. However, Helen mistakes their brief, passionate tryst for true love and when Roe leaves, ending the affair, Helen is devastated. With his departure, Helen sees that she has once again submitted to the powers of the patriarchal machine. Where she thought she had found release, she had simply committed another submissive act: becoming Roe's lover. She believed Roe would save her from her role in the loveless hell that was her life as wife, sexual partner and mother, only to be used for sexual pleasure and tossed back into the machine without a second glance.
In the final episodes of Machinal, Helen the any woman challenges the patriarchal system with one, last attempt to subvert the patriarchal machine. She decides that her only escape from the machine that has sentenced her to motherhood is to murder her husband. With George's death, the ties that bind her to the patriarchal machine would be undone, leaving her free for the first time in her life. She would still have financial stability, but she would no longer be bound to the roles she forcibly accepted to originally secure her financial footing. Her final decision to murder George also secures her own insanity. Yet, it is as if Treadwell is asking, who would not go insane? Helen has withstood incredible physical and psychological restrictions; she was forced to remain in perpetually claustrophobic environments and endure countless rapes. Helen was never allowed the opportunity to explore her dreams, fulfill her hopes, or understand her own identity. She lived a perpetually stifled, restricted, confined and tortured life. However, as the play demands to expose, this is the life that every woman, any woman is expected to live. Thus, if any woman could be driven to the point of murder to challenge the patriarchal machine and free herself from its oppressive, male-dominated structure, then every ordinary man, any man, should fear, if not expect, a similar response. Treadwell finishes her play hoping to instill fear in the machine that "any ordinary young woman, any woman" could be willing, able and dedicated enough to struggle, fight, and possibly murder to escape oppression. With Machinal, Treadwell seems to be trying to telegraph this message to a younger generation, hoping that anything, even fear, will help stop the machine and free women from its roles, confines, and inequalities.
Anthony Martinelli, Critical Essay on Machinal, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay, Tancheva explores the reasons behind the initial mainstream success of Machinal.
Writing about Sophie Treadwell, one of the early feminist playwrights in the American theatre, is not an easy task. For all her prolific work over a span of sixty years, the critical attention she has received is not overwhelming. Despite Treadwell's relative unpopularity with scholars today, however, those few (feminist) critics who actually know her work and consider it worthy of critical attention never fail to praise it lavishly, especially as far as her expressionistic play Machinal is concerned.
Machinal premiered at the Plymouth Theatre in New York on 7 September 1928 and ran for ninety-one performances. It tells the fragmented life story of Helen Jones, a young woman who is first seen working in an inhumanely stifling office dominated by the presence of machines; she is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to escape an environment that reduces everyone else to a mere extension of a machine. For the lack of a better alternative, she almost forces herself into believing that marriage to her leering, repulsive boss would constitute the easiest escape route out of misery and drudgery into some financial security for herself and her mother. After all, this is the way of the world ("All women get married, don't they?"). A kaleidoscopic texture presents a string of scenes designed to illustrate the stages of her life: the honeymoon, with her husband's smug complacency and her animal-like terror; the unwanted motherhood, with the doctor's spiteful indifference and her piercing pain; the prohibited quest for pleasure in the speakeasy with little scenes of seduction, desertion, punishment, resignation, and some (imaginary) hope for human understanding between the Young Woman and the Man; the intimacy of the Lover's bedroom, suggesting a faint possibility for happiness, yet overwhelmingly haunted by the Lover's "Quien sabe?"; the insufferably suffocating domestic scene, with the failure to communicate on any level whatsoever; the courtroom, with the law machine effectively at work, objective and inhuman, administering justice to all, that is, a death sentence for Helen Jones who murdered her husband; and finally, the machine that never fails, the nothingness of the electric chair, cutting off the Young Woman's final plea for somebody out there.
In the light of Machinal's later appreciation and appropriation within a feminist discourse of women's resistance, it is intriguing to note that the original production was successful both with mainstream (Broadway) audiences and mainstream (New York) critics. To explain this curious development, a number of possibilities present themselves. First, one can assume that mainstream audiences' and critics' sensibilities of the 1920s and modern feminist interpretations curiously converge at some point. Second, Machinal's popular success in the 1920s and its feminist interpretations today may be taken as an illustration of diachronic cultural relativism and the impossibility of fixed meaning; that is, the mainstream endorsement in the past and the antimainstream appropriation in the present are purely coincidental and have no bearing on any "textual evidence." Since the latter possibility can serve only to preclude discussion, this chapter examines the former at greater length.
As arbitrary as historical parallels might be, it is not inconceivable that distinct historical periods share common if not identical concerns and consequently that intellectual climates overlap at various points. Such parallels between the 1920s' socially acceptable and condoned semiotization of gender and our present-day feminist debates on the construction of gender, however, seem somewhat unwarranted. For one, there is the difference of positioning within the larger cultural context, that is, a difference of "mainstream" versus "marginal." What is more, there is also a profound conceptual clash. An exhaustive consideration of the 1920s in terms of pro- and antifeminist issues and discourses will greatly overstep the limited boundaries of this essay, so this chapter will only point to a few characteristic trends that are clearly at variance with a post-1960s feminist cultural milieu.
After the decades of the women's suffrage movement culminated in the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, there was a swing back of the pendulum: the battle had been won and a respite was due. Whether or not the backlash was anything more than representational is certainly open to debate, yet as far as culturally produced images went, a clear metamorphosis of the challenging figure of the New Woman into the neurotic housewife had been effectively accomplished. A reconfiguration of women's place in society was begun that had to somehow reconcile traditional ideas of the private sphere with the very public political stand of the earlier decades, advocated by a radical feminist movement. One of the channels through which this was accomplished was the popular discourse on marriage, which sought to present it as the venue of true equality and independence. On the one hand, the idea of the companionate marriage was reinforced. On the other, the discourse on marriage was successfully intertwined with the one on technological progress and mechanization of household labor which allowed for an increase of women's leisure time and thus represented marriage as a desirable goal for young women. If that was the mainstream cultural attitude—largely antiwoman by feminist standards—then Machinal's mainstream success cannot be considered tangential to its modern feminist stature.
Now, since mainstream success in the 1920s can hardly be reconciled with a strong subversive feminist message, it might be argued that Machinal has no bearing on contemporary feminist concerns and was only later reinterpreted along such lines. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the complacency of this claim is instantly exposed when Treadwell's own involvement in the earlier stages of the women's movement (she not only espoused feminist ideas, but took an active part in the women's suffrage marches as well), or her introductory notes to the play, insisting that it is an Everywoman's story are taken into account. Granted this is external evidence, granted authorial intentions no longer count, there still remains the uneasiness of reconciling such a conflict. The claim collapses entirely, however, when the play itself is explored as much as possible on its own terms. It is so strongly immersed in the discussion of gender roles and gender interaction as to render such a claim virtually void.
If none of these possibilities will sufficiently stand on its own, then a third explanation must be sought. On the basis of the critical reviews that appeared after the original production of Machinal (unfortunately no audience surveys are available), we can reasonably assume that its success was due to the choice of the interpretative framework within which it was inserted. The interpretative choices made by the critics attempting to come to terms with what might be seen as a potentially very unsettling and upsetting text that appeared to subvert the very foundations of the culture that produced it reveal the mechanisms of reconfiguration Machinal was subjected to. The ultimate result was its unproblematic inclusion in a more traditional (i.e., already conventionalized) horizon of expectations.
The first line of critical interpretation that contributed most to toning down whatever subversion could be perceived in Machinal was the critics' preoccupation with the theatrical realization of the production and its importance within the work of Arthur Hopkins, the director, and Robert E. Jones, the set designer. Much of the praise was lavished on Hopkins, Jones, and the leading actors, Zita Johann (the Young Woman), George Stillwell (the Husband), and Clark Gable (the Lover). Even some of the headlines suggested the focus of attention: "Zita Johann Gets Ovation in 'Machinal'," "Machinal, a Tragedy in Fine Stage Clothing, with Sudden Glory for Zita Johann," "Elaborate Drama and New Lighting Seen at Plymouth." Hopkins's production was alternatively immensely skillful, unfailingly effective, superintelligent; Jones's suggestive backgrounds were vividly alive and splendidly lighted, illuminated by his fine imagination and his superb taste; Zita Johann's performance was superb, thrilling, warm, honest, heartbreaking, true, vivid, the most sensational aspect of the evening, conveying simplicity, power, delicacy, and understanding that "charms, thrills, and impresses"; her voice was singularly beautiful; the other members of the cast were admirable, excellent, splendidly competent. This list can go on forever.
Second, and closely related to the first, there was a unanimous concentration on the style of the piece as one of its greatest achievements, which allowed for its comparative positioning within the already established expressionism on the American stage. Treadwell's style inspired such great approval for its unsurpassed beauty and splendor that superlatives were typical: "There is a fine fluency in the writing of the scenes. Miss Treadwell has stripped them down to bare bones of drama, and flung them across the play in a swift staccato movement, which gives it unique power and terrific momentum" (emphasis added). Even those critics who were not particularly happy with the drama itself made sure to comment positively on the production: "The evening is primarily Mr. Jones's, secondarily Miss Johann's, Mr. Hopkins's, then Miss Treadwell's," insisted David Carb in Vogue; or found a single redeeming quality in the rhythm or the setting, as did Gilbert Seldes in the Dial.
Third, there emerged an exclusive concern with the antimechanization message of the play facilitating its unproblematic incorporation within the register of another universal discourse, that on technological progress and its effect on human interaction. The play's interpretation as a powerful representation of antimechanization and dehumanization obscures all other interpretative possibilities: "probably it is the story of Ruth Snyder; which doesn't matter, since beyond that 'Machinal' is the piteous, terror-laden tale of human revolt against the engine"; "'Machinal' is less murder play than… study of character," the character of the Young Woman, who only asks for "rest and peace, clean air, quiet, freedom from the endless pressure of bodies, pity and understanding," but can never find them in this "shrill and clattering metropolis to which the French title refers"; it displays a "treacherous chorus of machinery," the "breathless pace of a woman fleeing from one treadmill to another, the din of machines always in her ears, the iron rain of noise beating her down until she dies at last in the embrace of a grim machine of wires and wailing agony." The Young Woman is a "human fly caught in the web of the spider, Life, thwarted and frustrated at every turn, squelched by the insuperable Will of the Great Machine," a "child and victim of the Machine Age… fed into the greedy maw of the machine."
A typical interpretation in which the discourse on mechanization was privileged at the expense of that on gender interrelations is to be found in the New York Sun review: "It is no one man who hacks out the destiny of… Mrs. Jones. It is the Machine Age, and the Machine Age's wanton son, the City."
Finally, the Young Woman and her actions were particularized by stressing the "real-life" basis of the play, that is, the Snyder-Gray murder case trial. The link between the play and the Snyder-Gray case was explicit in the reviews in Women's Wear Daily ("definite memories of a recent infamous New York murder case"), the New York Sun ("seized upon the Snyder-Gray case," "founded on an all too recent and painful actuality"), the New York Evening Journal ("Snyder Case Suggested in a Magnificent Tragedy"), and the New York American ("Drama Founded on Ruth Snyder's Life Is Not for Morose"), among others. One reviewer referred to Helen Jones as "Mrs. Snyder's dramatic alias," another saw the play as "obviously founded on the life story of Ruth Snyder" and its end paralleling "the end of Ruth Snyder's mean, pitiful life," while yet another even recounted some rumors that Zita Johann's costume was identical to the one worn by Mrs. Snyder at her trial.
To summarize the reviews of the original 1928 production of Machinal, one finds that most of them were exclusively concerned with matters of style, complimenting Treadwell for the unemotional yet convincing rendering of the story of a sensational murder that did not drown it in the maudlin idiom of melodrama as well as with the superb staging of the piece. Those of the reviews that went beyond these concerns dearly conceptualized it as partaking of a serious public debate, that on the disadvantages and advantages of a mechanized civilization. Yet its relevance to "feminist" anxieties was totally silenced, and in no way did the interpretation envision a construction of a female subjectivity either in the characters or in the audience. Despite some individual differences, the overall trend among critics was to avoid interpreting Machinal as referring to a broader social context determined and defined by patriarchal structures; rather, they construed it as a representation of an individual woman's predicament in a society in which the agents and venues of oppression did not discriminate on the basis of gender. The parallel with the Snyder-Gray case was used to obscure a potentially dangerous possibility, that is, that Helen Jones was indeed Every-woman in the contemporary context. Instead, by alluding to an all too familiar murder trial, sensationalized by the press, the critical interpretations particularized and disciplined the play. (On another level, of course this also allowed for the inclusion of Machinal within the host of murder plays popular at the time.) At least one significant difference was glossed over, namely, that in the actual case, both the woman and her lover were convicted and executed for the murder of the husband, while in the play Treadwell chose to have the Lover instrumental in convicting the Young Woman. (He sends an affidavit supplying the murder motive from Mexico, where he is at the time.)
In other words, the argument in this chapter is that Machinal was successfully interpreted within a mainstream cultural discourse precisely because it was universalized along the first three lines, and particularized along the fourth.
The concern hereafter will be a possible explanation for such a development beside the obvious ideological assumptions of the critics and the overall cultural and intellectual climate in which the play appeared where certain discourses were both available and popularly familiar. This chapter attempts to show that Machinal's relatively unimpeded inclusion within the discourse of technological progress at the expense of a "feminist" one was facilitated, among other things, by its ambiguity as far as an indictment of the "patriarchal" institution of marriage was concerned. In other words, an analysis of the structure of the play, the speech patterns, and the resolution of the conflict can destabilize its appropriation by a consistent feminist critique, for it clearly leaves open the possibility for a companionate marriage, that is, a marriage of mutual love and understanding which Helen Jones did not obtain but could possibly have succeeded in obtaining—a view that a middle-class mainstream audience could easily endorse and identify with. The argument could be made that her ending up on the electric chair was as much her fault and bad luck as it might have been the fault of a socially construed practice.
In the first place, she started with the "wrong" premises, she married exclusively for financial security and provision, knowingly entering into a physically and romantically repulsive union. Since other characters are also aware of the choices available to the Young Woman or their possible repercussions, her decision can also be interpreted as being of her own making and not entirely the result of social pressure. The choice of interpreting Helen as bringing disaster onto herself is left open for an audience immersed in the discourse of the companionate marriage and the openly admitted significance of sexual compatibility for a privately and publicly successful marriage.
The scenes that further enhance a perception of the "false" premises on which Helen Jones married and, hence, could never succeed in convincing herself that she could learn to reconcile the conflicting longings for financial security and romantic love are the ones with the Lover. The explanation that he has of what is wrong with Helen is: "1ST MAN. You just haven't met the right guy—that's all—a girl like you—you got to meet the right guy," suggesting that, if it had been somebody else, it might have been different—"Quien sabe?"
In other words, given the proper conditions, would it not be possible to transpose the Young Woman's inadaptability from a representative to an idiosyncratic level? Is she any woman, as Treadwell maintains in her notes, or is her character an isolated case study, that is, is there something wrong with the synchronic conceptualization of the institution of marriage, as many of the scenes will seem to argue, or is it a particular marriage arrangement that did not work out? Should one wonder at the critics' insistence on the Snyder-Gray connection, then, instead of recognizing a pattern of particularization launched by the ambiguous stand within the text itself?
The Lover is certainly not "the right guy" for the Young Woman, as the conflict resolution demonstrates. Let us go one step further, however, and see what interpretative possibilities are delineated in their brief encounter through a comparative analysis of the Young Woman's speech patterns. In the office scene, she is as caught in the mechanical pattern of linguistic and behavioral repetition as her co-workers, but in contrast to them she is not able to make the logical connections between the stretches of words that they seem to blurt out almost involuntarily. They repeat and shorten their phrases for reasons of clarity and efficiency, but never fail to hold on to a link of contiguity, while the Young Woman's speech pattern is broken to the point where it does not exhibit any trace of logical consistency. Instead, it hinges on similarity and allusion.
The similarity/contiguity distinction becomes all the more relevant when considered in terms of artistic versus scientific/technological conceptualization. Contiguity is usually associated with progress logically pursued and attained by metonymically coping with reality, attempting to describe a part, or an effect, and infer the whole, or the cause. Similarity, on the other hand, metaphorically transcends the human ability to master reality logically for it strives at a totality of explanation and retreats into itself when baffled by its own frailty.
Probably the first and only time when the Young Woman is able to contiguously describe a situation, instead of metaphorically allude to it, is in episode 6, "Intimate." When she is with her Lover, her sentences are complete and even the actual metaphors are explicated. Similarly, the only instance of a possible logical planning of her life comes, curiously enough, again in the scenes with the Lover. Curiously, since, in a way, she conforms to contiguity and machine-like precision when she is supposed to be escaping the mundane logic of everyday existence. Why should the Lover, of all characters, include Helen Jones in the abhorrent reality of mechanization and dehumanization? (The instance discussed here is merely preliminary to his ultimate betrayal, to be sure.) Is it not because he is not "the right guy" within the acceptable social behavior and mores of the times? Maybe. "Quien sabe?"
It is precisely this textual uncertainty in the representation of male-female relations and the institution of marriage, with all the entailing issues of economic, romantic, or sexual references, that must have played a vital part in ensuring the success of Machinal. Whether, however, the play's ambiguous stance and its deep entanglement in the contradictory ideas of women's place in society were deliberately ignored or genuinely not recognized at the time of its production is not to be settled from our historical distance and anachronistic perspective.
Kornelia Tancheva, "Sophie Treadwell's Play Machinal: Strategies of Reception and Interpretation," in Experimenters, Rebels, and Disparate Voices: The Theatre of the 1920s Celebrates American Diversity, edited by Arthur Gewirtz and James J. Kolb, Praeger, 2003, pp. 101–07.
In the following essay, Jones examines how Treadwell uses Machinal to explore Ruth Snyder's mind and the story left out of her court proceedings.
On March 20, 1927, Albert Snyder was found murdered in his bed, beaten on the head with a blunt object, chloroformed, and strangled with a piece of picture wire. When the police arrived, his wife, Ruth, was discovered outside their daughter's room, bound and gagged. She told police she had been attacked by a tall Italian man, and claimed to have fainted when he grabbed her, remaining unconscious for over five hours. The small house had been ransacked, drawers were emptied, and Ruth's jewelry stolen. Police became suspicious when the "stolen" jewelry was found under Ruth's mattress, and when she neglected to ask after her husband they felt sure she was involved in the murder. When told he was dead, they said the tears she shed were "suspiciously few." After nearly twenty hours of questioning, Ruth Snyder confessed that, with her lover, Judd Gray, she had beaten her husband to death with a sash weight while her nine-year-old daughter slept in the next room. Later she would change her story to say that it was Gray who had masterminded the murder and that she had been unable to stop him.
Ultimately both Ruth and Gray were convicted of murder and executed at Sing Sing on January 12, 1928. Eight months after Ruth Snyder died in the electric chair, Sophie Treadwell's play Machinal, directed by Arthur Hopkins, and designed by Robert Edmund Jones, opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York City. Increasingly, scholars and directors are "rediscovering" this play, and many consider it to be one of America's finest expressionist dramas. Most of the original reviewers in 1928 wrote that Machinal was only loosely based on the Ruth Snyder case, and this position has been quoted and accepted by contemporary scholarship. However, a close examination of that trial and the unprecedented coverage it received lead me to believe that Ruth Snyder was never far from Sophie Treadwell's mind as she wrote Machinal.
In a last-minute attempt to save Ruth's life, her attorneys had asked that an alienist (psychiatrist) be brought in to testify on her behalf. Hoping to save their client, the lawyers wanted to examine Ruth's mind in light of modern science. The Governor denied the request. It is possible to look at Machinal as Treadwell's attempt to examine Ruth's mind in the light of modern drama, ironically, giving her an appropriately theatrical life-after-death. I believe Machinal is the testimony, disallowed by the court of law, that Treadwell wished to introduce into the court of public opinion. She sets forth her argument in a drama, not to prove Snyder's innocence, but to ask if perhaps there is another way of looking at the case, one that the all-male jury and predominantly male press corps did not understand. But in order to appreciate Treadwell's defense of Ruth, it is first necessary to contextualize the actual trial.
Albert Snyder's murder had captured the imagination of the public and created a media event of astonishing proportions. Over 1500 people attended the Snyder trial and 180 reporters were assigned to the case. Treadwell, an experienced journalist, was not officially covering the trial, but she was a spectator in the courtroom. For the first time in history, microphones and speakers were set up in a courtroom so that everyone could hear the testimony. One had to have a ticket to be admitted, and scalpers were ready, as always, to make a quick buck, selling tickets for fifty dollars apiece. The second day Ruth took the stand, the New York Times described the spectators in the courtroom as "a typical Broadway audience, sophisticated and cynical." In attendance were playwright Willard Mack; philosopher Will Durant; W.E. Woodward; Ben Hecht; Fannie Hurst; and Nora Bayes. Spectators were as interested in the stars as in the trial, and the tabloids solicited celebrity opinions for their columns. David Belasco, who came every day and sat in a front row seat, wrote:
Poor unfortunate woman—drawn into this mess as she embarked on what she thought was to be the great romance of her life! I have looked at her with much sympathy.
Peggy Hopkins Joyce was less kind:
And so I say there is no excuse for Ruth Snyder. Maybe if I knew the woman intimately I could find something that would explain her kissing her lover and sash-weighting her husband to death almost simultaneously. But looking at her in court where she is on exhibition as a sort of blue-ribbon defendant and where she is supposed to be trying to impress a jury with her innocence, I shudder. How did she get that way? (my italics)
Newspapers capitalized on the huge market for this sordid courtroom drama. By May 5, 1927 (according to the Evening Post) "Approximately 1,500,000 words about the Snyder story" had been "filed on press wires." The New York Times ran an article on the trial almost every day from the morning of the murder to the night of the execution. For those who could not attend, the newspapers, in column after column, recreated the trial in phenomenal detail: reprinting the testimony, reporting everything Snyder and Gray said or did, reviewing their performances on the stand, and keeping a running commentary on the "audience's" reaction.
The characters in this courtroom drama were easily recognizable—The Wife, The Lover, The Cuckold—and journalists became stage managers, arranging the narrative, casting the characters, and manipulating audience response to this stock scenario. When Gray testified that he and Ruth had planned to kill Albert Snyder two weeks earlier but had gotten "cold feet," the New York Times reporter wrote:
There was a general, noisy sigh of relief throughout the courtroom over this good news. Carried away by the dramatic interest of the story, the hearers forgot themselves and enjoyed the illusion of a happy ending for a fraction of a second. Then a few lines later the confession launched into a description of the reconstruction of the plot and its execution on March 20.
The lawyers were apparently given to theatrics, and they too became characters in the media drama. Describing the cross-examination of Gray by Snyder's attorney, the New York Times reporter wrote:
Mr. Hazelton denounced Gray, he reinforced his rhetoric with pantomime. He gave a sort of dramatic reading of the part which he claimed Gray played in the case. Swaggering about in the first place as the spruce lady-killer which he pictured Gray to be, he snapped into an imitation of Gray on the murder night. The lawyer distorted his face, bent himself over like a hunchback, thrust forth his chin, stuck out his arms, moved his hands about with all fingers vibrating at a terrific rate and scurried to and fro in front of the jury.
The language of the theatre was constantly invoked to describe the trial. Damon Runyon wrote:
This remains the best show in town, if I may say so, as I shouldn't. Business couldn't be better. In fact, there is some talk of sending out a No. 2 company and 8,000,000 different blondes are being considered for the leading female role. No one has yet been picked for Henry Judd Gray's part but that will be easy. Almost any citizen will do, with a little rehearsal.
When Ruth first learned that her jury would be all men, she said, "I'm sorry. I believe that women would understand this case better than men." Ruth was right to be worried about her credibility in the eyes of the twelve men chosen to judge her. The jury and the press seemed to excuse Gray's part in the murder by casting him as the weak-willed, impressionable sap. His attorney's opening statement made it clear who the villain was in this murder story:
He was dominated by a cold, heartless, calculating mastermind and master will. He was a helpless mendicant of a designing, deadly, conscienceless abnormal woman, a human serpent, a human fiend in the guise of a woman. He was in the web, in the abyss; he was dominated, he was commanded, he was driven by this malicious character. He became inveigled and was drawn into this hopeless chasm, when reason was gone, when mind was gone, when manhood was gone and when his mind was absolutely weakened by lust and by passion and by abnormal relations.
Despite his lawyers' efforts, Gray was found guilty, and on May 13, 1927 both he and Ruth were sentenced to die in the electric chair. After the verdict one juror told the New York Times reporter: "There was little doubt in any of our minds as to what the verdict would be. We all knew that Mrs. Snyder was lying.… We all believed every word that Gray said."
The execution proved to be as dramatic as the trial; rumors that Snyder's attorneys were planning to resuscitate Ruth after her death created a riot in the streets of New York. Thousands lined up to watch the prisoners brought to the death house at Sing Sing. The few women reporters covering the trial were barred from witnessing the execution, and most waited outside the prison gates with the mob. Ishbel Ross, in her book Ladies of the Press, describes the scene outside Sing Sing on the night Ruth Snyder was electrocuted.
On the night that Ruth Snyder died, Miss McCarthy, who was then on the Journal, was one of the newspaper women who waited outside the prison while a huge crowd made shocking whoopee at the gates. It might have been a carnival instead of an execution. There was a screaming mob of more than 2000. There were cars with licenses from five different states. Boys in raccoon coats with bottles of gin in their pockets sat in parked roadsters.… Vendors sold hot dogs and popcorn…
The most seasoned reporters were startled by the antics of this ghoulish crowd. Brick Terrett… came out after it was over. He had seen Ruth die in the chair. "Julia, for God's sake take a walk with me," he said to Miss McCarthy. "Talk to me about anything. My God, she looked so little."
Another man who had come out with him from witnessing the same scene vomited on the spot.
The ultimate act in this media drama took place when a reporter from the Daily News, managing to sneak a camera into the execution chamber by strapping it to his leg, took a picture of Ruth Snyder at the moment of her death. In the end, the trial was transformed into a spectacular production, worthy of Belasco himself. The day after Snyder and Gray were executed, the New York World headline read: "SNYDER TRAGEDY IN PROSAIC SETTING: Dramatic Police Work Got Speedy Confessions From Wife and her Lover—Trial a Jazzy Affair." A New York Times editorial said simply—"The End of the Show."
Although public opinion ran strongly against Ruth Snyder, several newspapers ran editorials claiming that the trial had been unable to determine the real "truth" of the murder. One journalist for the New York Evening Post, echoing Peggy Joyce Hopkins, asked:
How then does Mrs. Snyder differ from those other dissatisfied wives with heavily insured husbands? Or from the subtle women who meet men without their husbands' knowledge? We do not know the answers to these questions, and will perhaps never know them. The law does not try to find out; it deals only with events and with the superficial motives leading to them. So here is the real mystery in the Snyder case. It is the profound mystery of personality. The mystery of impulses.
It is the mystery "of personality and impulse" that Treadwell explores in Machinal, using an expressionistic style to freely enter the subconscious mind of her subject and convey the part of Ruth's story that was not heard at the trial. Treadwell looks beyond the "events and superficial motives" that were revealed in the courtroom and questions the court's assumptions of cause and effect, asking if there might not be a more complex psychological reality involved in this case.
In Machinal, surface details differ, often substantially, from the Ruth Snyder story; this led most reviewers to write that the play was only loosely based on the Snyder case. But, just as an expressionist painting reveals the inner, rather than outer, life of its subject, so Machinal explores the subtext of the trial whose surface details were so well known to Treadwell's audience. Treadwell begins the play with what some have seen as a disclaimer of the connection to Ruth Snyder. "THE PLOT is the story of a woman who murders her husband—an ordinary young woman, any woman." Rather than distancing the play from the real-life trial, this statement articulates the subliminal fear that made Ruth Snyder so threatening and so interesting. In an analysis of the case, written for law students in 1938, John Kobler explains the fascination Ruth Snyder had for the average citizen.
Psychotic freaks who go in for fancy dismemberment and other baroque horrors may momentarily titillate the old gentleman in carpet slippers, but when Mrs Jones next door laces her husband's chowder with weed killer that same old gentleman is jounced off his perch. The thing is too near home, too understandable. Subconsciously he identifies himself with poor Jones. He may even view his own consort in fresh perspective—and wonder a little.
The prosecuting attorney proved that Ruth killed her husband to get out of an unhappy marriage, but how was the Snyder marriage different from thousands of other unhappy marriages? The trial couldn't explain what made this particular unhappy wife kill her husband, and so, subliminally, all wives became suspect. Ruth's very ordinariness was her danger.
Throughout the script Treadwell makes subtle allusions to the media's portrayal of the real Ruth Snyder. In her character description, Treadwell says of the Young Woman, "The confusion of her own inner thoughts, emotions, desires, dreams cuts her off from any actual adjustment to the routine of work "; the tabloids made much of the fact that Ruth constantly read "Love Magazines" and lived in the dream world of a romance novel. Treadwell also describes the Young Woman as "constantly arranging her hair over her ears." Ruth was very concerned with her appearance, and a great newspaper debate raged over whether she should be allowed to have cosmetics in prison. She requested that a hairdresser dye her hair before she was executed, but the warden denied her request. Determined, she washed her own hair before she died. Reporters noted that in a final "womanly gesture" she smoothed her hair before the executioner put the mask on her face. This moment, complete with the reporter's commentary, is recreated in the final scene of Machinal.
Other events in the play allude to specific testimony at the trial. In the opening episode, the Young Woman repeats several times that she felt as though she was going to faint on the subway. Ruth's attorney claimed that she had fainted when Gray attacked her husband, and had been unable to prevent the murder. The defense spent considerable time establishing that Ruth was a woman prone to fainting. Ruth also fainted in her prison cell several times.
Still, many of Machinal's plot details do correspond directly to Ruth's life, and they serve to connect Treadwell's narrative to the actual trial. In Machinal, the Young Woman, like Ruth Snyder, is an office worker who marries her much older boss. She doesn't love him but she welcomes the security that his money would provide. Ruth admitted that financial considerations played a large part in her decision to wed Snyder, eleven years her senior; she said, "I think the diamond had as much as anything to do with my consenting to marry him. I wouldn't have given that ring up for anything after once [sic] I had it on my hand."
Treadwell spends considerable time establishing the unhappiness of the Young Woman's marriage. This is in contrast to the real trial, where the defense attorney, attempting to portray Ruth as a good wife, shied away from the unpleasant facts of this marriage, which seemed doomed from the start. Ruth Snyder had fallen ill on the day of her wedding and after the ceremony refused to leave with her husband. On their wedding night, Albert Snyder went home alone while Ruth stayed with her mother. Treadwell interprets that night in the third episode of Machinal, entitled "The Honeymoon." While happy couples dance below her, the Young Woman, repulsed by her husband on their wedding night, cowers by the bed, calling for her mother.
In Gray's testimony he described a conversation he had with Ruth at their second meeting.
She said she had never really known what sexual pleasures were with her husband. I sympathized with her, as I recall, that it was too bad, as I felt that was probably one of the greatest reasons for her unhappiness. She told me that when he came over into bed with her that to her it was so disgusting and degrading that she felt like killing him.
The experience of having one's body used by a man one does not love was probably not one that the male jury could sympathize with or understand. Ruth's attorneys never used this line of reasoning in her defense, but in Machinal, Treadwell makes the Young Woman's sexual degradation a central part of her testimony against the system that convicted Ruth Snyder.
Ruth's extra-marital affair was perhaps the most damning evidence against her. At first, the romantic stage lover Richard Roe, an adventurer who travels to exotic places, seems a far cry from Judd Gray, the corset salesman from Syracuse. But to Ruth Snyder, whose husband kept her close at home, Gray's life as a traveling salesman represented freedom and adventure. In the court testimony she says that accompanying Gray on a ten-day sales trip across New York state was the happiest time of her life. If we look not at the outward details but at the internal desires of an unhappy woman, we can see Roe and his exotic travels as a romanticized version of Judd Gray, the traveling salesman.
There was substantial evidence that Albert Snyder beat his wife and his child on several occasions. The couple quarrelled often and Ruth testified that her husband had recently bought a gun and that he had threatened to shoot her. Ruth's attorney, trying to portray her as the model wife, did not bring up this line of questioning, but in his testimony, Judd Gray described another conversation with Ruth—remember he is testifying against her.
She said she could not live with him any longer… I asked her if she really felt in her own mind that he would kill her. She said that he was liable to do anything. At that particular time she complained bitterly about his treatment towards their youngster. She said that he had slapped her on that particular day, and almost knocked her down. I asked her if that was usual. She said that he had slapped her many times and that that particular time she felt as though she could kill him.
Ruth's own attorney never remarked on Albert Snyder's violence towards his wife and child, and it was one of the few parts of the testimony never reported by the press. In light of these circumstances, Episode Six in Machinal, entitled "Intimate," a scene in which the Young Woman discovers love for the first time after years in an unhappy marriage, resonates with compassion rather than judgement. Treadwell shows the Young Woman, who has never experienced love or pleasure at the hands of her husband, in a moment of supreme happiness as sexual passion is finally awakened. She emphasizes the importance of this scene by returning to a naturalistic style of dialogue, asserting that this "illicit" love is more natural and necessary than the degrading sexual manipulation of the woman's marriage. Treadwell's stage directions for this scene are telling: "her dressing [is] a personification, an idealization of a woman clothing herself. All her gestures must be unconscious, innocent, relaxed, sure and full of natural grace." The public condemned Ruth for her sexual relationship with a man who was not her husband, and in their eyes she was a fallen woman. But Treadwell uses the affair and the awakening of sexual passion to bring the Young Woman, finally, into the fullness of her womanhood. Treadwell defends Ruth's infidelity by reversing the court's assumption that a woman's duty is to her husband and asserting that she has a more important duty to herself.
Of course, the most dramatic difference between Machinal and the Snyder trial comes in the actual trial scene. Treadwell makes the Young Woman, alone, responsible for the murder of her husband. Her lover, aside from giving her the idea (by telling her how he once killed a man by hitting him on the head with a bottle full of stones), had nothing to do with the husband's death. But again, Treadwell is not looking at the surface details of the trial, but at its subtext. It was always Ruth Snyder's trial—she was the focus of the media, she was perceived as the master mind behind the murder, she was given the blame for corrupting the innocent Gray. Although Gray inflicted the fatal blows to Albert Snyder's head, it was Ruth Snyder who bore the blame for the act. In Machinal, it is a letter from her lover (safely ensconced in Mexico) that convicts the Young Woman; without that testimony she might have gone free. By having the Young Woman's lover convict her, Treadwell portrayed the political reality of Ruth's trial. It was the testimony of Gray, her co-defendant, that ultimately convicted Ruth. There were no witnesses to the murder, and it came down to his word against hers. In his summation, Ruth's attorney said:
Now I am going to remark at the outset, in no uncertain terms, that you gentlemen might now understand, that this is a case of Henry Judd Gray and the people of the state of New York against Ruth Snyder, and nothing else. She is sandwiched in between two prosecutors and you know it, and the district attorney need only sit idly by and watch the condemnation of this woman by this co-defendant.
Despite the many connections to the trial, there is one moment in Machinal in which Treadwell sharply diverges from Snyder's story. When Ruth was strapped into the electric chair, her last words were, "Father forgive them." Treadwell is not willing to have her Young Woman forgive so easily. As she is being led to the electric chair she pleads to see her daughter, crying, "Wait! Wait! Tell her! Wait! Just a minute more! There's so much I want to tell her—Wait—"
"I'm sorry," Ruth Snyder had said. "I believe women would understand this case better than men." Machinal, a woman's story, told by another woman, premiered on Broadway only eight months after the "Broadway crowd" had seen Ruth Snyder condemned to die. Overall, the play was a critical success, but the reviewers rarely saw how masterfully Treadwell had woven the Snyder trial into her narrative. Their inability to look beyond the surface differences of plot prevented them from appreciating Treadwell's defense of Ruth Snyder and her inherent questioning of the male perspective in the trial. Atkinson of the New York Times wrote:
In superficial details the story resembles the Snyder and Gray murder case. But Sophie Treadwell, who is Mrs. W.O. McGeehan in private life, has in no sense capitalized a sensational murder trial in her strangely moving, shadowy drama. Rather she has written a tragedy of submission.
It is interesting that Atkinson, who felt the need to define Treadwell in terms of her marital status by assigning her husband's name as her true identity, could not see a tragedy of submission in Ruth Snyder's story.
Robert Littell, in his review for Theatre Arts Monthly, also fails to see any significant connection between Treadwell's drama and the Snyder case.
Sophie Treadwell was one of the newspaper women who witnessed the trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey [sic]. This brutal, inhuman murder, one of the ugliest on record, gave her the starting point for Machinal, but only the starting point. Having seen the two monsters, and the motives which led them to kill Snyder, she forgets their story and their characters and asks herself, How is it possible for a sensitive woman of deep feelings to be so oppressed by life and by her husband that she kills him?
Littell categorically dismisses the idea that Ruth Snyder might have feelings or sensitivities, and disallows the possibility that she may have been oppressed by life or brutalized by her husband. The need to keep Ruth an aberration is strong for these reviewers. Ironically, Littell ends up being so sympathetic to Treadwell's Young Woman that he says, "I cannot help feeling that [Miss Treadwell] would have been artistically more successful if she had stopped short of the end."
No doubt Ruth would have preferred that as well.
Jennifer Jones, "In Defense of the Woman: Sophie Treadwell's Machinal," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 485–93.
Barbara L. Bywaters
In the following essay, Bywaters places Machinal and its message of "female insurrection" within the context of feminist discourse and social protest of the twentieth century.
don't touch me—please—no—can't—must—… I want to rest—no rest—earn… all girls—most girls—married
Let me alone—I've submitted to enough… Vixen crawled off
under bed—eight—there were eight—a woman crawled off
under the bed… one two three four… I'll not submit any more—
I put him out of the way—yes… To be free…
When I did what I did I was free!… my child… Let her live! Live! Tell her—
Sophie Treadwell's Machinal transmits a terse, telegraphic message: the institution of marriage is a breeding ground for anger, desperation, and violence. This 1928 expressionist drama imparts the story of an ordinary young woman's marriage to her employer and the societal and psychological pressures that lead her ultimately to murder him. Trivialized by theater critic Robert Brustein in 1960 as "one of those banal tabloid stories… about how a sensitive dish of cream is curdled in the age of the machine," Treadwell's slighted work often has been characterized as a derivative drama of social criticism targeted at the effects of mechanization on the individual. Treadwell's social protest, however, reaches beyond the machine age of the twentieth century. Augmenting a female tradition of literature that dissects the restrictive institution of marriage and its effects on women, Machinal stands as an early twentieth-century piece of subversive drama, conveying the message that female insurrection can lead to "one moment of freedom" before the patriarchal "machinery" crushes the revolt.
Born in Stockton, California, in 1885, Treadwell belongs to a group of early modern American women writers who flourished in what Elaine Showalter has labeled "feminism's awkward age." A respected journalist, actress, playwright, as well as producer and director of her own work when necessary, Treadwell could pose as a prototype for the independent and adventuresome "New Woman" of the early twentieth century. Graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1906, Treadwell, like many women writers in the first half of the century, began her writing career in journalism, working as a staff writer for the San Francisco Bulletin, where she covered as well as participated in the marches for women's suffrage. After her marriage to journalist William O'Connell McGeehan, she moved to the New York Herald Tribune, which sent her to Europe as a war correspondent during World War I. Alternating between journalism and playwriting, Treadwell had her first professional production in 1922 with the drama Gringo, influenced by her exclusive interview with the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa a year earlier. Although Treadwell wrote thirty full-length plays before her death in 1970, only seven were performed on Broadway, and of this handful, only Machinal and Hope for a Harvest (1941) were ever published. Performed in European theaters and produced for television in 1960, Machinal remains Treadwell's only commercial success, and yet it also has been largely overlooked in traditional drama surveys by critics.
Although an analysis of Treadwell's dramatic canon reveals a broad spectrum of dramatic forms ranging from light comedy to melodrama to social criticism, it is her longstanding "partisanship of feminism" that marks the majority of her works. Plays such as Oh Nightingale (1925), a conventional comedy about an aspiring actress in New York City; Lone Valley (1933), a melodrama of a reformed prostitute; and Hope for a Harvest, a realistic drama of a woman's attempt to restore her family's farm, all feature female protagonists who struggle for autonomy (albeit not always successfully) in a male-dominated society. Perhaps the strongest declaration of Treadwell's commitment to feminist concerns is her play Rights, an unpublished biographical drama of Mary Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth-century author of the seminal feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Copyrighted in 1921 but never produced, Rights frames Wollstonecraft's bid for personal freedom against the broader struggle of the French Revolution. Criticized as didactic and unfocused, Rights nevertheless capsulizes some feminist issues that receive powerful, searing dramatization in Machinal seven years later, particularly the role of women in the institution of marriage. The bold, vibrant character of Wollstonecraft in Rights, who lashes out, "I am opposed to marriage.… I will not submit to an institution I wish to see abolished," stands behind the docile wife portrayed in Machinal.
Like Rights, Machinal (French for "mechanical") voices Treadwell's feminism with a particular vehemency and radicalism that is softened in many of her other plays. Combining expressionistic techniques, such as repetitive dialogue, audio effects, numerous short scenes, and the distortion of inner and outer reality, Treadwell creates, with the evocative disorientation of an Edvard Munch, the picture of an ordinary young woman driven by desperation to murder. Using her newspaper writing experiences, Treadwell based her play in part on the celebrated 1927 murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, two lovers convicted of killing Mrs. Snyder's husband. With this sensational crime as her foundation, Treadwell builds the story of a young woman forced by economic and societal pressures to marry her employer. Trapped in a loveless mariage, the young woman drifts into an extramarital affair with a handsome adventurer. After her lover's return to Mexico, the woman's sense of confinement and anguish overwhelm her and lead her to murder her husband by striking him over the head with a bottle of stones, a method related to her by the lover. The young woman is convicted of murder when her lover informs the police of their affair in an effort to keep himself from punishment. The play ends with the execution of the young woman.
Coming eight years after the extension of the franchise to women in 1920, Machinal occupies an unusual place in early twentieth-century drama by women. Although a number of theatrical works by women from 1910 to 1920 focused on women characters and feminist themes, by the late 1920s the figure of the independent, daring "New Woman" who challenged the traditional roles for women had been subdued. The "New Woman" who declared in Jesse Lynch Williams's 1918 hit play, Why Marry? had by as early as 1925 metamorphosed into the neurotic housewife of George Kelly's critically acclaimed Craig's Wife, who sought not just independence but "control over the man [she] married." In this respect, the portrayal of women in the dramatic productions of the 1920s and 1930s mirrored the changes in women's roles in the social and economic structures of the time. After the crucial success of achieving the vote in 1920, the feminist movement began to wane, partly because of the conservative backlash prompted by the economic and social turmoil of the late 1920s and early 1930s. A decline in women's enrollment in colleges and in their participation in the work force and professional fields all contributed to an increasing return to traditional domestic roles for women after 1920. Within this more conservative context in both society and the theater, Treadwell's drama of the restrictive nature of traditional marriage for women indeed stands alone as an "isolated expression[ ] of 'feminist' theatre."
Focusing on the social and psychological restrictions imposed on women in a male-dominated society, Machinal features not a "New Woman" of extraordinary talents and determination, but an "Every Woman," one who is neither politically motivated nor ambitious or creative. Opening with the simple statement, "The plot is the story of a woman who murders her husband—an ordinary young woman, any woman", Treadwell begins to construct her "strategy of resistance" against the patriarchal system. Emphasizing the average rather than the special woman, Treadwell implies that it is not the extraordinary "New Woman" of the suffrage movement that the patriarchal system has to fear but rather the outwardly docile, ordinary woman who can be transformed by the social pressures of the patriarchy to act. This accent on the ordinary constitutes the radical in Treadwell's work.
Divided into nine episodes, Machinal opens with a business scene, replete with office workers and cacophonous office machinery, but the topic of the office conversation centers less on business accounts than marriage. Almost like an Austen novel, the characters speculate on whether the female protagonist, Helen (referred to throughout the play as the "Young Woman" to emphasize her anonymity), will marry the boss, George Jones: "Will she have him?… will he have her?" Early in the play, this juxtaposition of business with marriage establishes Treadwell's concentration on the economic basis of marriage. On one hand, Helen would be free of economic pressures if she marries her employer; on the other hand, she would be subordinate in every sense, legally, physically, emotionally, and economically, to a man she does not love or respect. Neither alternative—a life of work or marriage—meets her personal needs.
Helen recognizes that the dilemma posed by the two alternatives is compounded by the social pressure to conform to marriage: "all girls—most girls—married." This emphasis on traditional domestic roles for women accompanied the political and social conservatism of the late 1920s and 1930s. After the early successes of the women's movement in the first decade of the century, many women again began to view marriage as their only option. As Jane F. Bonin stresses in her analysis of prize-winning American plays, many major plays of the 1920s and 1930s, especially those by male playwrights, reinforced the belief that marriage was a necessary goal in a young woman's life:
Again and again, these plays insist that marriage, to any man and under any conditions, is better than none. Especially during the twenties and early thirties, a period when many women were questioning whether a life exclusively preoccupied with home and family was necessary or desirable, the important plays seemed to assume that salvation for women could be found only in marriage, even an unhappy one.
In the expressionistic, telegraphic style that characterizes Machinal, Helen's disjointed monologue at the end of the first episode summarizes this social and psychological conflict confronting the average, young working woman in the early twentieth century:
Mrs. George H. Jones—money—no work—no worry—free!—rest—sleep till nine—sleep till ten—sleep till noon—now you take a good rest this morning—don't get up till you want to—thank you—oh thank you—oh don't—please don't touch me—I want to rest—no rest—earn—got to earn—married—earn—no—yes—earn—all girls—most girls—ma—pa—ma—all women—most women—I can't—must—maybe—must—somebody—something—ma—pa—ma—can I, ma? Tell me, ma—something—somebody.
Helen's vague but desperate need for "something—somebody" to tell her how to resolve the conflicts she faces in a male-dominated society resurface throughout the play.
Helen's cry for "somebody" to rescue her from a life of work or marriage merges in episode 2 with her dreams of romance, of "somebody young—and—and attractive—with wavy hair." While at dinner with her mother in their shabby apartment, Helen tries to express her inner turmoil about love and marriage. But Helen's mother, hardened and worn by the rigors of work and an unhappy marriage herself, scoffs at her daughter's romantic idealism, "Love!—what does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?" She exposes with brutal pragmatism the economic basis of the traditional marriage, which often negates romantic love. In this way, Helen's mother is a poorer, less frivolous Mrs. Bennet, but underneath her motivations are the same as Austen's characters'. They both know that for the impecunious young woman, marriage, even a flawed one, is preferable to being alone in a male-dominated society. The absence of Helen's father (he is never mentioned in the play) and her mother's financial dependence on her daughter illustrate in this episode how the traditional marriage can fail to provide the woman with economic or emotional support. Because her mother's financial welfare plays a part in Helen's decision to marry Mr. Jones, it symbolizes how the burden of the marriage devolves on to the next generation of young women trapped in the system.
The metaphor of marriage for women as confinement or imprisonment is introduced in the first two opening scenes and reinforced throughout the play. Using psychosomatic disorders such as claustrophobia and anorexia, which feminist critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have interpreted as expressions of escape in women's writing, Treadwell conveys her female protagonist's inability to cope with the social pressures placed on women. In the first episode, Helen experiences a "stifling" feeling in the subway that makes her repeatedly late for work, an unconscious avoidance of Mr. Jones's attentions. This sense of claustrophobia or suffocation returns in the discussion of marriage with her mother in episode 2. Here, not only does Helen have difficulty breathing; she is unable to swallow her meal. These psychological reactions reappear at key moments in the play whenever Helen feels especially threatened by the inexorable pressures of the marriage.
If Helen's need to escape the confines of marriage is represented by the "stifling" and "gagging" she experiences, her rebellion against male-dominated society can be read in her "madness," which results in the murder of her husband near the end of the play. Gilbert and Gubar's first volume in their critique of modernist works, The War of the Words, describes the madwoman figure of nineteenth-century women's texts who escapes from the attic to take center stage in a number of works by twentieth-century women writers. Linked with militant feminism and violence against the patriarchy, Gilbert and Gubar's madwoman embodies female anger and anxiety over male dominance and, most importantly, the power to resist the formidable pressure to conform to male-prescribed roles. Helen, identified at the outset of the play as an ordinary woman, seems to incorporate little of the madwoman-rebel figure. But her resistance to marriage and, later in the play, to maternity, causes her to be labeled as "crazy" and "neurotic" by those about her. Helen's act of murder, however, injects a mad-like dimension to her behavior that most strongly links her to the rebel figure.
Repeatedly chastised by her mother in the second episode as "crazy" for her refusal to marry Mr. Jones, Helen ultimately displays a level of repressed anger and despair that clashes with her earlier passivity. Marriage is again the catalyst. Throughout episode 2, Helen searches for an escape from marriage to love. Resigning herself to marriage at one point in the scene, Helen dully concedes, "And I suppose I got to marry somebody—all girls do." But as the inevitability of her marriage to Jones looms larger, her feelings of claustrophobia intensify: "it's like I'm all tight inside." Her mother's unsympathetic response, "You're crazy," in the face of her desperation causes Helen to explode in violent anger: "Ma—if you tell me that again I'll kill you! I'll kill you!" This uncharacteristic response is difficult to reconcile with the passivity and tractability that Helen displays throughout the earlier part of the scene. The almost monster-like quality to Helen's explosion indicates another side, a "mad double" that many women writers have used to allow their "proper" heroines to express the violent acts of rebellion they dare not express otherwise. Although Helen Jones is not given a "mad double" in the play, there is some indication in both this scene and in the murder scene of a "darker side" that lurks within her, foreshadowing the murder of her husband that follows.
Episode 2 closes with Helen's numb capitulation to marriage, leading to the honeymoon scene of episode 3. Staging a harsh, unromantic honeymoon night in a tawdry hotel room with jazz music from the dance casino next door intruding in the background, Treadwell again connects economics to marriage in this scene in a way that sharply exposes the traditional patriarchal marriage. Jones's obsession with money, "Twelve bucks a day! They know how to soak you in these pleasure resorts," is coupled with his crass, sexual humor, "Say, what you got under there?" Helen, unprepared for the sexual realities of the night and repelled by a man she does not love, is seized with claustrophobic reactions and ends the scene weeping in terror. Despite the criticism of Freudian scholar W. David Sievers, who has characterized Helen as a "sexually baffled" woman with an unnatural fear of sex communicated by her mother's own sexual frigidity, Helen can more accurately be interpreted as a young woman who feels pressured by the "rules" of the traditional marriage to be intimate with a man against her will.
Here Treadwell charges that the basis of the patriarchal marriage, an exchange of intimacy for economic security, is tantamount to prostitution. The tone of Jones's comment on the cost of the hotel room, "Twelve bucks! Well—we'll get our money's worth out of it all right," seems more appropriate for the brothel than the honeymoon suite. At the conclusion of the episode, Helen pleads for her mother, for "somebody," to save her, but the throbbing rhythm of the jazz music overpowers her cries as the scene blacks out. Criticized in 1931 as "revolting" in British reviews of the play, the honeymoon episode depicts the sexual relationship between husband and wife with a degree of verisimilitude that was considered too "true to life" for public presentation. Treadwell's portrayal of marital intimacy is "revolting" in this episode in a way that the critics failed to realize. Helen's plea for "somebody" to help her suggests the possibility of a rescue, a revolution against a tradition that requires a woman to submit to a kind of "legalized rape" that is truly "revolting."
Following a natural progression, episode 4 opens in a maternity ward of a major hospital. Here Treadwell presents one of the most critical portraits of motherhood in modern literature. The claustrophobic set design—one room closed in by a corridor, the window view blocked by the construction of a tall, phallus-like building—and the jarring audio effects of the riveting machine that permeate and overpower the dialogue characterize the sacred institution of motherhood, creating a truly radical vision of what western society considers woman's primary function, maternity. The scene opens with the nurse making her rounds. She tries to engage Helen in routine conversation, "No pain?… Such, a sweet baby you have, too.… Aren't you glad it's a girl? Your milk hasn't come yet—has it?", all questions to which Helen signals "no" in a counter rhythm of negation against the nurse's trite observations on motherhood and the sound of the riveting machine in the background. Helen's responses to motherhood, as an Every Woman figure, are particularly telling. Her refusal to communicate, only gesturing "no," and her inability to eat as she gags on her food both imply a rejection of motherhood. Helen's power to choose what she does with her life, however, is limited. Pressured and pressed into the "machinery" of the patriarchal marriage in the opening scenes and forced by her coarse husband in the honeymoon episode, Helen becomes solidly "riveted" into the system by giving birth. Her severe reaction, the repeated negation of "self," tragically emphasizes her total subsumption by the institution. Treadwell illustrates the totality of Helen's subjection by stressing the lack of control she has over even her own body in this scene.
Helen confronts three male guardians of patriarchy in the maternity ward who claim authority over her. First her husband visits, exhorting her to just "brace up," and "face things." He minimizes the pain of her pregnancy and assumes a measure of authority over the birth process itself, "Everybody's got to brace up and face things! That's what makes the world go round. I know all you've been through but—Oh, yes I do! I know all about it!" Despite his overbearing assertions, Jones understands as little about Helen's experience of childbirth as he did of her distress on their honeymoon night. Helen reacts to this statement with a "violent gesture" of negation and then withdrawal. It is when Jones states with male arrogance, "Having a baby's natural! Perfectly natural thing—" that Helen gags and emphatically gestures for her husband to leave. This is the potent truth that Helen tries to reject throughout the maternity episode: as a woman she has little control over her fate; she is bound to reproduction.
Helen's lack of power is underscored by the male doctor's entrance immediately after the exit of her husband. The doctor usurps jurisdiction over her body in a very literal way. He immediately commands, "Put the child to breast," although she has no milk and refuses to breast-feed. Then, when informed of Helen's nausea, the doctor ignores the protests of both Helen and the nurse and prescribes food for her anyway in a kind of forced feeding. Helen's reaction is one of desperation and despair, and her response to the doctor is simply, "Let me alone." This cry for autonomy then forms the theme of her closing interior monologue. In a stream-of-consciousness flow, Helen remembers the pregnancy of a pet dog of her childhood. The string of associations that follow link the woman to dog as breeding animals in an inescapable bond of biological determinism. In melding the past with present, Helen even expresses a death wish for her own child.
I won't submit to any more—crawl off—crawl off in the dark—Vixen crawled under the bed—way back in the corner under the bed—they were all drowned—puppies don't go to heaven—heaven—golden stairs—long stairs… all the children coming down—coming down to be born—dead going up—children coming down—going up—
As the dog and the woman fuse in a form of reproductive destiny, the paternal authority reaches its zenith when the earthly patriarch, Helen's husband, merges with the ultimate patriarchal authority, God the Father,
What kind of hair has God? no matter—it doesn't matter—everybody loves God—they've got to—got to—got to love God—God is love—even if he's bad they got to love him—even if he's got fat hands—fat hands—
Helen objects that "God never had [a baby]"; Mary was the one who gave birth. "God's on a high throne," and Mary's place is "in a manger—the lowly manger." Clearly the position and the power, God on top and Mary underneath, is with the male. Helen's recognition and indictment of a male society based on biology is underscored with her final lines of the scene, "I'll not submit any more—I'll not submit—I'll not submit—." But as the sound of the riveting machine overpowers her final cry, it is already too late for this ordinary young woman to escape.
Instead of the ardent figure of the newly bound prisoner, episode 5 depicts a Helen Jones whose despondency and restlessness ("I want to keep moving") lead her to an encounter in a bar with a stranger and a subsequent affair. Treadwell's skillful use of setting and the interplay of background dialogues in this scene, significantly entitled "Prohibited," reveals the illusion of escape from marital restrictions that the extramarital affair appears to offer. In addition, Treadwell stresses the subversive side of the intimate encounter that places it outside the boundaries of the legal and sanctioned union of marriage and labels it as an "outlaw" relationship. Helen's initial meeting with her lover occurs in a darkened bar with the mechanical tunes from an electric piano and exchanges between a series of other couples in the bar counterpointed against the main dialogue. One such conversation between a man and woman centers on the possible abortion of her child, which she reluctantly agrees to after being reminded harshly by her lover that she will lose her job if she keeps the child. Again, Treadwell emphasizes that economics and biology play a central role in male-female relationships even outside of marriage.
Against this bleak backdrop, Treadwell stages Helen's love affair. Played by Clark Gable in the original production, the man Helen falls in love with fulfills all the requirements of the romantic lead: he is an experienced lover ("They all fall for you") with "coarse wavy hair" and an adventurer from Mexico who tells stories of his daring escapades, "I got the two birds that guarded me drunk one night, and then I filled the empty bottle with small stones—and let 'em have it!" Trapped in a marriage that provides no emotional or physical fulfillment, Helen yields easily to a man with a handsome face and quick tongue who represents to her a form of outlaw freedom. During their intimate encounter in a dismal basement room in episode 6, Helen experiences a fleeting moment of release and fantasizes a romantic escape with her lover in a series of childhood associations that combine romance with the fairy tales and nursery rhymes told to children: "And the dish ran away with the spoon—I never thought that had any sense before—now I get it." But like marriage and motherhood, romance in a patriarchal society offers neither happiness nor freedom, but an illusion or a momentary feeling of being "on top of the world," "purified." Helen is merely one of many women for her lover—"Jeez, honey, all women look like angels to me" and these few illicit hours have brought her no closer to the freedom she craves—"I'll never get—below the Rio Grande—I'll never get out of here." This grim realization that as a woman she must play out the submissive role determined for her leads Helen from one subversive act, an illicit affair, to the ultimate subversive act of killing her husband—a bid for self-liberation that results simultaneously in self-destruction.
The place of action for Helen's violence is again domestic. Episode 7 portrays a typical evening conversation between Jones and Helen that focuses on his business deals and the news from the daily newspaper. The mechanical and repetitive quality of the exchanges on business illustrates the absence of any real communication between them and the emptiness of their union. Treadwell's integration of newspaper material into the dialogue, however, exposes the true schism between not just this particular married couple but between the male perception of what is significant, "newsworthy," and the conflicting female view of reality. In the opening exchange, both Jones and Helen "read" their own versions of what constitutes the "news," the record of the times:
Husband: Record production.
Young Woman: Girl turns on gas.
Husband: Sale hits a million—
Young Woman: Woman leaves all for love—
Husband: Market trend steady—
Young Woman: Young wife disappears—
Husband: Owns a life interest—
Helen "reads" a woman's story of anguish and escape while her husband sees only economic prosperity. As the scene progresses, Helen interprets a more radical version of the female story, "Prisoner escapes—lifer breaks jail—shoots way to freedom," and finally, "Woman finds husband dead." The possibility of freedom through revolution in these lines indicates the presence of an emerging subversive female consciousness that undermines the male version of what is "real" and which, if acted upon, would threaten the male-dominated social structure. As the weight of her role as wife and mother intensifies, Helen feels "stifled" and "drowned," painfully conscious of her confinement. The background music and internal voices escalate at the conclusion of the scene, and as the possibility of freedom possesses Helen, the "mad double," the agent of rebellion, takes control of her actions. In the middle of night, when the moon is full, she fills a bottle with stones and strikes at her husband in his sleep.
Judged and punished by "The Law" in episodes 8 and 9 for the murder of her husband, Helen completes her metamorphosis from a passive young woman who succumbs to economic and social pressures at the beginning of the play to the militant rebel of the final scenes. Helen's initial description of the killers indicates how far she has moved beyond passivity to actor. Helen tells the prosecutor that she was awakened by hearing "somebody—something—in the room." These two words, "somebody—something," which have formulated her "motif of yearning" in the marriage and honeymoon scenes, are reiterated here with telling significance. Her repetition of the words "somebody," "something" to describe who killed her husband link her violent act with rescue or liberation. In these earlier episodes, the rescuer is vague, an indeterminate pronoun—Helen is the one who is acted upon. But when she identifies her husband's killer as "something," "somebody," "a big dark looking man," on one level she is describing herself because she is the killer. The "somebody," "something," that rescues her from the prison of marriage is this time within herself, something big and dark from within.
Machinal ends with the same kind of understated rebellion that marks Treadwell's first lines. Although Helen confesses her crime, there is no act of contrition and submission as in episode 2 when she begs for her mother's forgiveness and obediently agrees to marry Mr. Jones. Instead, in the final scene before her death, Helen declares to the priest that her only free moment on earth was when she killed her husband: "When I did what I did I was free!" This lack of penitence, almost to the point of exaltation, must be punished by death. Moments before the execution, her mother enters for a final goodbye, and Helen's exclamation, "But she's never known me—never known me—ever—," changes to reconciliation, and her last entreaty is for her own daughter,
Wait! Mother, my child; my little strange child! I never knew her! She'll never know me! Let her live, Mother. Let her live! Live! Tell her—
Generation to generation of women seem alienated, "never known" to one another, each new mother raising her daughter to conform to her expected role in a male-dominated social structure. Helen's plea to communicate to her daughter the realities that Helen has discovered, to "Tell her—," holds the hope of change, of solidarity among generations of women, but this message is cut off abruptly, left uncompleted as Helen is forced to the electric chair. Given the subversive possibilities, that Helen Jones is "any woman, any ordinary woman" who murders her husband, it is imperative that the machine works at the end of Machinal: "It'll work!—It always works!" Otherwise, Helen Jones might be able to pass the message on to her daughter that "somebody," "something," this emerging female consciousness, can help her live.
Sophie Treadwell belongs to the coterie of early modern women playwrights who portrayed with relentless honesty women's struggle for autonomy against a patriarchal system. Concentrating on women's issues and employing the male-dominated mode of drama, feminist playwrights such as Treadwell have threatened to subvert the traditional theater by seeking their own powerful public voice. Their efforts until now have condemned them to a literary anonymity of unpublished works and hasty critiques such as that suffered by Treadwell. The contributions of Sophie Treadwell and women dramatists like her merit reassessment. The story in Machinal of one ordinary woman's attempt to strike back at a repressive institution needs to be communicated. Perhaps instead of being misread or misinterpreted by male critics, Machinal has been comprehended all too well. Silenced for decades by the literary "machine," Sophie Treadwell still has a message to telegraph to her "daughters."
Barbara L. Bywaters, "Marriage, Madness, and Murder in Sophie Treadwell's Machinal," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Associated University Presses, 1990, pp. 97–110.
Bywaters, Barbara L., "Marriage, Madness, and Murder in Sophie Treadwell's Machinal," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Associated University Presses, 1990, pp. 97–110.
Dickey, Jerry, "The 'Real Lives' of Sophie Treadwell: Expressionism and the Feminist Aesthetic in Machinal and For Saxophone," in Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp. 176–84.
Tancheva, Kornelia, "Sophie Treadwell's Play Machinal: Strategies of Reception and Interpretation," in Experimenters, Rebels, and Disparate Voices: The Theatre of the 1920s Celebrates American Diversity, edited by Arthur Gewirtz and James J. Kolb, Praeger, 2003.
Treadwell, Sophie, Machinal, Nick Hern Books, 1993, pp. xi, 16, 17, 23, 24, 75, 79, 82, 83.
Dickey, Jerry, Sophie Treadwell: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1997.
This book chronicles the achievements of Sophie Treadwell, including a career and biographical overview, detailed plot summaries of her plays, criticism, and an annotated bibliography.
Jones, Jennifer, "In Defense of the Woman: Sophie Treadwell's Machinal," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Fall 1994.
Jones highlights the similarities between Machinal and the Snyder-Gray murder trial of 1927.
Kuhns, David F., German Expressionist Theatre: The Actor and the Stage, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Kuhns traces the powerfully stylized, anti-realistic methods of symbolic acting on the German Expressionist stage from 1916 to 1921.
Styan, J. L., Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Vol. 3, Expressionism and Epic Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
This book traces expressionism from German through American playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, and Sean O'Casey.