Machinal is a play written by Sophie Treadwell in 1928. She wrote it shortly after witnessing the Snyder-Gray Trial, and the storyline of the play is not so much "based on" the trial as "suggested by". It is unique in that it is one of very few truly Expressionist American plays; even more so because it was written by a woman.

There are nine "episodes", each in a different location. The first is in an office, with the noise of office machines and of people speaking as repetitively as their machines:

ADDING CLERK: 2490, 28, 76, 123, 36842, 1, 1/4, 37, 804, 23 1/2, 982.
FILING CLERK: Accounts - A. Bonds - B. Contracts - C. Data - D. Earnings - E.

Other scenes call for more industrial and mechanical sounds, such as riveting, an airplane engine, or telephones.

The main character is listed in the script as Young Woman but addressed as first Miss A. and then as Helen. She forces herself to marry the Vice President of the company in an attempt to avoid people, as she would no longer have to work once she was married. On her honeymoon she becomes like a caged animal, frozen at the thought of what she has gotten herself into. The following scene shows her in a hospital bed, awaiting but dreading the arrival of her newborn child, because to her a child is another locked door preventing her freedom.

She finds a glimpse of freedom in a short-lived affair with a man who once killed two Mexicans by hitting them with a bottle full of small stones. Later, at her murder trial, it is revealed that she murdered her husband in the same manner. The last scene shows her in prison with a priest moments before she is to be executed.

The entire script has a structured, industrial style to it, with repeated rythmic phrases to the accompaniment of industrial sounds. One of the unanswered questions presented in the play is, who does Helen really want to be? She craves freedom, which could be interpreted as freedom from her king-of-the-office husband, or the constraints of society at the time, but nowhere is there any reference to what she would do with her freedom. Which is, in itself, another reason why she can never achieve the freedom she needs, because she would not be able to survive it once she had it. Helen is not the strong-willed, frustrated Hedda Gabler, but a weak, nervous, society-oppressed modern woman. At times it seems that the only thing holding her together are the bonds that encircle her life.

Overall, this play is attempting to show what happens when an unwilling soul can only be defined by its relationship to the machines around it, whether they are physical machines, the workings of society, or The Life Machine, which was an alternate title.

Details on the original cast are obscure but it included Clark Gable.

Pronunciation note: while the English pronunciation is ma-SHIN-al, Sophie Treadwell preferred the pronunciation MA-shin-al.

Ma*chin"al (?), a. [L. machinalis: cf. F. machinal.]

Of or pertaining to machines.


© Webster 1913.

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