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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Treadwell’s play is characteristic of expressionist drama. For instance, her characters are types, not automata or caricatures. The dialogue, though repetitive and clichéd, typical of extreme expressionism, often catches the rhythm, even the brokenness, of common speech. The speech and the characters re-create the effect of regimentation that capitalism and mechanization have wrought upon them and thus also contribute to the dramatization of the protagonist’s impressions of her society.

The one-box set (at times two-box), with minor adjustments from episode to episode, creates the claustrophobic feeling of Helen’s world. Crucial scenes from six years are played fluidly, separated by darkness but linked by sounds that fill the darkness, contributing to Helen’s feeling of unrelieved tension. Cacophony of machine noise is never raised to the wild roar that characterizes many expressionistic plays. It is instead intended to create a background atmosphere of mechanized life surrounding the heroine even as background dialogue in some scenes echoes or counterpoints her thoughts.

Helen as a heroine is a type, but as her unconscious is revealed through free-association soliloquies, as her commonplace experiences are dramatized from her viewpoint, and as her wishes and memories are revealed onstage, the audience sees in the type an individual struggling for rebirth.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Snyder-Gray Murder Trial

During the spring of 1927, Treadwell attended the notorious trial of Ruth Snyder and...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Tragic Heroine

Although the plot of Machinal would seem to make Helen Jones a villain, her role is quite...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1920s: Amelia Earhardt is the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

Today: Women of all ethnicities train...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Expressionism is most frequently used to describe a movement in art; however, it is also used to describe movements in drama and fiction....

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A television adaptation of Machinal was produced and aired in the United States in 1954.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first published in 1899, is a classic, haunting story about a trapped...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)


Bywaters, Barbara L., “Marriage, Madness, and Murder in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal,” in Modern...

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barlow, Judith E. Introduction to Machinal. London: Royal National Theatre and Nick Hern Books, 1993.

Bywaters, Barbara L. “Marriage, Madness, and Murder in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

Dickey, Jerry. “The ‘Real Lives’ of Sophie Treadwell: Expressionism and the Feminine Aesthetic in Machinal and For Saxophone.” In Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne...

(The entire section is 111 words.)