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.


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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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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(Drama for Students)


Expressionism is the leading theme in Machinal. Expressionism is a theory in art, drama, or...

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