Inspired by the notorious case of Ruth Snyder, an adulteress who died in the electric chair for the murder of her husband, Machinal is the personal tragedy of a gentle individual alien to a crowded, hard society. It is told in nine episodes in an expressionistic style, dramatized consistently from the viewpoint of the Young Woman. Each episode depicts a phase in the Young Woman’s life, usually a situation in which a woman is supposed to be fulfilled. In only one phase does the Young Woman find companionship, peace, freedom, happiness, beauty, or meaning: That particular episode leads to her killing her husband and ultimately to her own death.
The play opens in a business office where typical office employees work to the incessant noise of their adding machines and typewriters, vocalize their working procedures, and in staccato, repeat themselves as well as office gossip. Through the gossip, the audience learns that the Young Woman lives with her mother and has no social life but that the Boss is “sweet” on her. The Young Woman distinguishes herself from the office regimentation by being late to work. She explains that she had to escape the airless crowd of the subway and walk in fresh air. The Boss proposes marriage, but the Young Woman is repelled by his touch. Although the other girls approve of marrying for security, the Telephone Girl tells the Young Woman to avoid that double bed. In soliloquy the Young Woman presents a hypothetical scenario that involves marriage, babies, exhaustion, and the search for real companionship with “somebody.”
The Young Woman has no fulfillment in work or in her parental home. The second episode, accompanied by counterpointing offstage dialogue in other apartments, reveals the Young Woman’s unsatisfying relationship with her mother, a nag who accepts the status quo of women even though she is a dependent widow whose chief entertainment is the daily garbage collection. The Young Woman agonizes over the convention that women must marry. She tells her mother of her revulsion for her boss and about her longing for love, but the two women cannot communicate well on this topic. In exchange for financial security, the mother is quite willing for the daughter to contract a loveless marriage with a decent man, and the Boss is a “Vice-President—of course he’s decent.”
Eventually the Young Woman marries the Boss. In the grim “Honeymoon” episode, the Young Woman is panicky. Although her new husband is not cruel, he is vulgar. Bragging about the hotel room that costs “twelve bucks a day” and repeating crude jokes, he is insensitive to her reticence about undressing but is prudish about keeping the curtains closed when his bride is trying to get a breath of fresh air. The scene darkens on the...
(The entire section is 1137 words.)