Machinal is a strong echo of its cultural context, making it an interesting and refreshing piece of theatre. It touches on the rising issues of the time, which would go onto have an immense impact on today’s popular culture. This makes Machinal both relevant and timely for a modern audience, without obscuring Treadwell’s original aims and views, through her use of expressionism.
Treadwell was one of the first few dramatists that brought this obscure genre to the Broadway, in the late 20s. The aim of the expressionist movement, which was shared by Treadwell, was to replicate the new and regenerated spirit of American culture. Treadwell uses the character of the young Woman as a vehicle for this view.
Though Treadwell never achieved the same celebrated success and recognition of many of her male colleagues, today she is considered one of the most accomplished writers and dramatists of the early twentieth century. Machinal is considered the best and most successful of her works and first opened on Broadway in 1928. In a South Atlantic review, (Weiss 2006) states that Treadwell has “dedicated her literary career to exploring the lives and motives of lonely and trapped individuals”.
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In spring 1927, Treadwell attended the infamous trial of Ruth Synder and her lover, Judd Gray, although, Treadwell did not officially cover the trial as a reporter, the time she spent in the courtroom served as the catalyst for Machinal. Synder seemed like a harmless housewife and her lover was portrayed as an unintelligent accessory in her crimes. The trial attracted an amazing public interest, with over 180 reporters that wrote a total of 1,500,000 words on the case. Almost every day there was some new coverage about the Synder-Gray trial. The media turmoil did not stop until Synder and Gray were finally executed via an electric chair in January 1928. Synder became the first woman to be executed in 20th century New York State.
Many have argued that Treadwell chose to use expressionistic techniques in an attempt to focus solely on the theme of one woman’s imprisonment in an indifferent marriage. By using expressionism, Treadwell distances Machinal from the melodramatic case on which it is based on.
Treadwell’s character of the young woman is the unprecedented embodiment of the 1920s new woman. This new type of woman was not devoted to social service, in comparison to the progressive generations, resulting with a woman more in tune with the capitalistic spirit of the era.
The first episode takes place within the George H. Jones Company office. The Young woman is late for work and scolded by her co-workers. Treadwell writes Helen as a unnerved woman, who is clearly crushed by society – a feeling probably expressed by the “old” woman. She is often late as she cannot stand the stifling crowds of the subway, this serves as a metaphor for how Helen feels about society in general. “Daunted by urban industrialisation, represented here by deafening machine noises, train whistles and welding riveting sounds.” (Dolan 1992). Helen wants nothing more put to be free of her prison of a job, but instead is forced into a callous marriage with an unattractive, unappealing man.
Unlike the “old” woman, the “new” woman was eager to compete and longing to find personal fulfilment. You could argue the new woman, was now selfish. The young woman wants personal fulfilment, whereas, her mother clings to the old view of women. Here Treadwell clearly expresses the vast difference between the Helen and her mother’s generation and their personal views of women.
What replaced the moralizing piousness of the matriarchy was an irreverent “egalitarian popular and mass culture” which was steeped in the ethos of “terrible honesty” as Raymond Chandler puts it. Douglas interprets the desire to strip away the deceptive appearances of modern life and glimpse the sometimes unpleasant underlying realities (Glenn 1997). This is what Treadwell does with the Husband and the Young Women. On the surface it looks like the perfect opportunity for a marriage, he’s a successful business man and she’s a woman destined for motherhood, with no real future, however, below the surface a horrific murder takes place.
“New” women also began staking claim to their own bodies, taking part in a sexual liberation. We see this in Machinal where the young woman doesn’t allow her husband to be too intimate with her, but happily has an illicit love affair with a stranger – she has control of her body! Many of the ideas of this era, and those Treadwell expands upon in her play, have fuelled the rapid change in sexual thought. Nevertheless, these ideas were already floating around intellectual New York circles prior to the First World War, in the writings of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis and Ellen Key. Here, thinkers expressed sex as being central to the human experience, emphasising that women are also sexual beings with human impulses and desires, just like their male counterparts. Restraining these impulses would be self-destructive.
By the 1920s these ideas idea flooded the mainstream media. Treadwell puts focus on this again through the young woman (the expressionistic vehicle), as the only way she finds freedom is through an illicit love affair. Machinal reflects a culture moving closer and closer to being more secular and leaving behind biblical verses such as “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.”
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Christianity inevitably plays a very important role in the last episode of Machinal. The young woman’s attempt of objectification finally explodes into murder. Treadwell represents her final suppression at the hands of the church and the court. The ultimate justice of God, where the priest continually says: “Father forgive her, Christ forgive her”. Treadwell is possibly stating how the young woman is now beyond the help of any earthly justice.
She is finally secluded behind bars and continues to be determined to resist any governing authority. The executioner shears a clip off her hair, the final invasion of her bodily privacy, this suggests that the young woman has finally been sterilized and is completely under the law.
One of Treadwell’s main messages is that all men are born free, whereas women are not. However, this is not what the bible teaches, the bible teaches that the entire human race are bound by sin, however, it was woman who sinned first and as a punishment she was made to submit to the authority of man and allow her husband to rule over her. This is something that would have been deeply rooted in the views of the people from the 1920s and Treadwell is trying to express, that women do not have certain freedoms, like men do. Dolan states that “Treadwell’s text ironizes the liberal humanist notion that all me are born free” (Dolan 1992).
From further inference we also notice that no one in the play is given a clear identity. The fact that we don’t find out what the young woman’s (Helen) name is until later episodes reveals that this is not important to character development. Many of the characters are defined purely by their occupation or role in life (in the case of the Mother) “this device elucidates the idea that the young woman’s struggles can be the plight of any woman”.
Machinal can also be read as a feminist version of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine, as both plays use expressionistic techniques and attempt to contextualize an secluded act of murder. “To do so is to worry the abstract mode of Expressionism itself. Writing a type of play meant to highlight the universality of a subject’s experience; Treadwell begins by suggesting her subject’s specificity – as a woman, and as a woman based on one individual woman.” (Strand 1992)
The plot of Machinal might portray Helen Jones as the villain; her role is quite the opposite. Treadwell clearly intender her to be a tragic heroine, the play is written with heated anger. Treadwell suggests women are doomed to wander forever in the dead wasteland of male dominated society, under complete authority. Since this is an expressionistic piece, its intent is to convey emotion and feeling, not realism, which would make Helen the villain. Helen does not murder her husband because she is evil; she does it because she has no other option.
In conclusion, Machinal is indeed a strong representation and reflection of the cultural context of the time, using expressionism as a way for the audience to sympathise and empathise with the characters, rather than viewing them as social products of the 1920s, bringing the characters into the 21st century.
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