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....
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...