Women’s Role in Society
One of the play’s central themes is the subordinate role of women in modern society. At each turn in the plot, Helen’s life is decided and limited by men, who often do not have her best interests in mind. Her boss takes her as a wife. Her lover seduces and then abandons her. In court, she is tossed around in the lion’s den of judges, lawyers, and reporters, all of them men. In her final moments, she is again surrounded by men: priest, barber, and executioner. The play asks us whether Helen’s behavior is insane at all. In a world thus controlled by men, a woman’s violence and neurosis seem sane.
Treadwell wrote Machinal in 1928, several decades before the civil rights movement changed the landscape of race in America. The play contains two notable instances of racial tension. During Helen’s court hearing, she describes her husband’s murderers as “big dark-looking men.” One suspects that Helen invented such characters in order to play on the jury’s prejudices and fears about African American men. In prison, Helen hears an African American man singing a spiritual. She finds the words more soothing than those of the priest because, in her words, “I understand him. He is condemned. I understand him.” In this moment, Treadwell points to the overlapping plight of women and African Americans in America.
(The entire section is 918 words.)