Themes and Meanings
The title, Machinal, pronounced either as the French word meaning “mechanical” or to rhyme with “bacchanal” (suggesting an orgy of women otherwise repressed by their male-dominated society), implies the intertwined themes of the play: the modern commercial-industrial society’s reinforcement of the stultifying effects of patriarchy on subjugated women. Inevitably, the play seems to say, the subordinated will seek freedom and significance by whatever means they can, even by violence.
The power of industrial and commercial mechanization to turn workers into robots (a newly minted term in the 1920’s) was the subject of much of that era’s social criticism. Like other expressionist dramas, Treadwell’s Machinal uses mechanical devices to make her point: here, unnerving, vulgarizing, routinizing, isolating, and dehumanizing the characters of the play. Helen is unnerved by the great underground machine, the subway train, packing people into its breathless cars like sardines in a can. The clerks in her office become as numerical, alphabetical, and categorized as the materials with which they work: The Telephone Girl’s responses are as routine as a phone’s ringing, and the telephone becomes a factor in isolating the characters rather than in encouraging communication. Even the music in the speakeasy and outside the lovers’ room is vulgarized by a mechanical player piano and hand organ. The final isolation and dehumanization by...
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