This month marks the quadricentennial anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. No author is so frequently performed — as I write, four of his history plays are running concurrently in a single production in New York — and entire libraries, like the Folger in Washington, D.C., are named for him. Our everyday language is saturated with phrases taken from his work, so that we’re all unconscious Shakespeareans, whether we’ve read a line of the Bard or not.
Imagine, though, if Shakespeare were known only by the title of, say, Hamlet, and his very life, despite a successful career, were otherwise forgotten. Such, until recently, has been the fate of Sophie Treadwell, whose name is unknown to the general public and whose 39-odd plays — a couple more than are attributed to Shakespeare — are known only by a single title: Machinal, as riddling a word as Hamlet would be if that single name were all that was left of Shakespeare.
Treadwell may have survived her obscurity only because Machinal is a curious yet intriguing linguistic invention that has no dictionary meaning but seems vaguely to sum up the Expressionist fascination with machines in the 1910s and 1920s. The play, with its nine interlocked scenes and 29 stipulated performers, opened on Broadway in 1928 (with a young Clark Gable in one of the leads), but three years later it traveled to London under the title of The Life Machine, a very unpoetic reduction but one that perhaps offered a rough approximation of its meaning.
Marriage as slavery
The play’s contemporary popularity owed much to its sensational plot, based on the real-life conviction and execution of Ruth Brown Snyder for the murder of her husband, a story that later inspired James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity. These later, more realistic fictionalizations focused on the actual story — a frustrated and unhappy housewife murdering her husband in complicity with her corset-salesman lover to collect on insurance policies — but Machinal, which was produced within months of Snyder’s execution, uses the actual events merely as a framework for Treadwell’s prime interest: the oppression of women generally and the dehumanizing nature of commercial and industrial society.
Treadwell’s heroine, named Helen in the current EgoPo production, is a young stenographer living trapped with her financially dependent mother and with no time, energy, or spirit for a life of her own. This life of quiet desperation, Treadwell suggests, is the fate of anonymous millions caught up in the machine of the city but particularly crushing to women slotted into low-level clerical jobs with no possibility for change or advancement except through marriage, another form of slavery in which the last bastion of personal integrity — the body itself — will be sacrificed.
Helen is courted by George, a rising young executive at the office, and despite her physical repugnance for him, her mother gives her the facts of life: George is a meal ticket she can’t pass up.
George is a perfect specimen of his kind: a go-getter for whom a wife is a respectable receptacle for lust and whose mind is otherwise set on cash. He does love or at least fancy Helen after his fashion, but he assumes that a woman too is a machine that should work as designed when her levers are pushed.
When this fails to occur, he concludes that the machine is defective, although he is stuck with the product.
To give George his due, he suffers dismay and confusion, and treats Helen with as much kindness as his boorishness permits. But that only makes things worse, and Helen, lacking another standard of behavior, naturally blames herself for her unresponsiveness.
When she meets her unnamed lover in a nightclub, her instant attraction reveals to her what life is all about, and she enjoys a season of bliss. But the lover drifts off, as he warned her he would, and Helen, unable to return to her former existence, kills George out of what appears to be sheer desperation. The play concludes with a mocking trial and an execution that completes the premise of the entire work: the destruction of the female body on the altar of a patriarchal society.
Mounting male bodies
There isn’t much subtlety here, and Machinal’s capacity to move us today depends on its ability to convey a sense of woman as the ultimate victim in a society reduced to a mindless repetition worked by human gears. Brenna Geffers’s stylized direction and Thom Weaver’s choreography and production design (particularly brilliant in its use of sound) bring it off, together with Mary Tuomanen’s realization of Helen and Ross Beschler’s equally good if obviously less sympathetic George. Chris Anthony as the lover is hardbodied and appropriately breezy, and the scene where Helen mounts an arch of male bodies to finally discover passion is, literally, the high point of the play, and a brilliant stroke by Weaver. Colleen Corcoran as Mother is by turns an agent of victimization and a victim herself, and the supporting ensemble, with doubling, is generally effective.
The production, a well-disciplined machine itself, places, as Geffers tends to do, as much emphasis on movement as on speech. But a little more tightening would have produced more artistic energy.
All in all, however, this Machinal still packs its punch. Although it was set in a pre-unionized age, it’s now performed in a post-unionized one, where the Machine functions as brutally as ever, spitting out its used parts even more efficiently. Women are now officially liberated, but sex has been effectively mechanized as well.
Also, America still solves its social problems by execution. And in this age of gender equality, putting a woman to death no longer excites much attention. Ruth Snyder was surreptitiously photographed in the electric chair, a picture splashed the next day on the front page of The New York Daily News. Nowadays, it’s all no big deal.
To read another review by Naomi Orwin, click here.