Several themes relating to challenges within the culture are evident in Sophie Treadwell’s play Machinal.
These include harassment, marriage, and gender roles. Helen’s struggles in the beginning of the play relate to the sexual harassment she receives from her boss, George, who touches her shoulders as she sits at her desk. She feels pressure from both her mother and her own social conditioning to marry George, even though she doesn’t like him and finds him disgusting. After struggling to even consummate the marriage on her wedding night, Helen eventually has a baby girl. When asked whether she is delighted at the sex of the infant, her reply indicates she is unhappy. This suggests that Helen knows how difficult a woman’s life is.
Treadwell is most concerned with the idea that women are controlled though out their lives—and even in their deaths. At various points in the play, Helen complains that she cannot “submit” to certain actions. This occurs shortly after childbirth and as they shave her head in preparation for the electric chair.
Women in society are expected to submit themselves to their parents, their husbands, and society as a whole, and when Helen resists, she is forced to submit anyway. This suggests that society, just like a machine, is arranged in such a way that every aspect of a woman’s life is prescribed and that any attempt to escape this rigid path will end in severe punishment.