Critical Context

In the decade of the 1920’s, American theatergoers attended many good German and American social-protest expressionist plays but even more bad imitations. Most critics of the era recognized Machinal as a fine contribution to the genre, in theme and form acting as a companion piece to Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (pr., pb. 1923). However, whereas Rice’s Mr. Zero has a slave nature, which is eternally reborn through poor education, and his murder of his boss is a momentary aberration, Treadwell’s Helen is always a rebel spirit, born of Treadwell’s experiences as an international investigative reporter and feminist. She picketed for women’s suffrage, wrote newspaper features on homeless women and a play about early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and accomplished such “masculine” feats as reporting on World War I and interviewing a hero of the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa. The themes of Machinal reflect the heart of her life’s work.

Moreover, the themes of Machinal are central to expressionism and to the work of other female writers of Treadwell’s time. Burns Mantle included Machinal in his Best Plays series because he found it a strong, original, stage-effective work, significant as a character study. Nevertheless, while The Adding Machine has been anthologized and eulogized, Machinal, though relatively successful on Broadway and in London and Moscow in the 1920’s, was largely neglected except by the occasional theater scholar until feminist critics discovered it in the 1970’s. Feminists have recognized the play for what it is: a forerunner to the plays of Harold Pinter, Wendy Wasserstein, and David Mamet, and in substance still acutely relevant to the concerns of women and others subjugated in twenty-first century society.