Episode 1: “To Business”
Machinal begins in an office building in an unspecified American city. The atmosphere is frantic, abuzz with the sounds of typewriters and telephones. The office workers issue an endless stream of meaningless words, phrases, names, and numbers. Into this industrial cacophony walks the protagonist, Helen, known only as “Young Woman.” She is late. Her coworkers immediately begin to criticize her, which only deepens her flustered feeling. As the stenographer, telephone girl, and adding clerk pepper Helen with questions and admonishments, it is revealed that their supervisor, Mr. George H. Jones, is infatuated with Helen and wishes to marry her. George emerges for a brief chat with Helen, behaving affectionately toward her. As the scene comes to a close, Helen engages in a fraught interior monologue, expressing her dread at the thought of marrying the repulsive George. Her inner thoughts are a reflection of her outer world: clipped, fragmented, and disjointed.
Episode 2: “At Home”
The evening after the first episode, Helen has returned to the apartment she shares with her mother. The two eat dinner together. Helen wishes to discuss her potential marriage to George. However, Helen’s mother, spewing her train of inane chatter, will not let Helen get a word in edgewise. Outside in the apartment court, more voices ring out, adding to the din. As in the first scene, Helen is overwhelmed and cannot hear herself think. Helen finally speaks, weighing practicality and romance. George is wealthy but repulsive. Helen wishes to know whether her mother married for love; her mother cannot recall. Helen reveals that her search for love is really a search for a way out of her life. Her mother fails to affirm her concerns, repeatedly calling her daughter “crazy.”
Episode 3: “Honeymoon”
The third episode begins after the wedding of Helen and George, whose character name has shifted to “Husband.” The two are on vacation by the sea for their honeymoon. Helen’s discomfort in the presence of George is deep and apparent. She refuses his sensual advances. She tries to silence him as he shares a distasteful joke. She responds to his enthusiasm with terse phrases. Most of all, she desires to leave his presence, to escape to the sea. As the episode draws to a close, Helen emerges from the bathroom in her nightgown. The thought of going to bed with her new husband fills her with dread, and she cries out, “Ma! Ma! I want my mother!” She realizes with sudden clarity the loneliness of her life.
Episode 4: “Maternal”
As with many of the play’s episodes, episode four begins after a significant jump in time. The previous episode ends just before Helen and George consummate their marriage. Episode four features Helen in a hospital bed, having just given birth. Her mother and George are there to offer cheer and encouragement. Helen, however, is despondent. She is sorrowful and subdued. When faced with the possibility of meeting her baby, Helen descends into a nervous breakdown, muttering “God Mary Mary God Mary.” Motherhood represents yet another imprisonment for her.
Episode 5: “Prohibited”
Episode five takes place in a speakeasy, a Prohibition-era bar. There are three tables at the bar, each with its own unfolding scene. At the first table, a man and woman discuss the pros and cons of abortion, a theme that points to the unsettling events of the previous scene. At the second table, a man attempts to seduce a boy. The man is referred to as a “fairy” in the text, an antiquated and derogatory term for a homosexual. At the third table, two men wait for two women, who turn out to be Helen and her friend, the telephone girl. Helen’s friend has set up a double date, pairing Helen with a man named Richard Roe. Helen and Richard are left alone, at which point Richard makes sexual advances toward her. Despite his rough demeanor, Helen finds him charming and agrees to go home with him.
Episode 6: “Intimate”
(The entire section is 2,844 words.)