Monday, January 6, 2014

Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal" - A 1920s Play About a Modern Woman

The Roundabout's Machinal has been lingering with me since I saw an early preview at the American Airlines Theatre. The production did not operate like a well-oiled machine during the preview (I'm sure they will work everything out before it opens later this month); but it sure left an impression on me. Therefore, as I was stuck indoors on a cold wintry January Sunday, I forewent watching the addictive line up on Investigation Discovery (ID) - you know, Wives with Knives, I'd Kill For You, Scorned: Love Kills - and read the 1928 expressionistic play written by journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell. 

The 1927 trial of Ruth Brown Snyder is the inspiration for the play. After being found guilty for killing her husband (surprise, for insurance money), Queens Village housewife Ruth Snyder became the second woman executed by electric chair in NY State. The execution was surreptitiously photographed and famously splattered on the cover of the NY Daily News.

The ID network pretty much rehashes treacherous crime events. Machinal (the French term for mechanical or automatic) though digs deeper and explores what would drive a 1920s modern woman to commit such a crime. On the first page of the play, Treadwell sums up the nine-episode play when she writes:
The woman is essentially soft, tender, and the life around her is essentially hard, mechanized. Business, home, marriage, having a child, seeking pleasure - all are difficult for her - mechanical, nerve nagging. Only in an illicit love does she find anything with life in it for her, and when she loses this, this desperate effort to win free to it again is her undoing. 
There are a few parts of this play that may make you cringe today (it was written in the 1920s after all). For example, the efficient office stenographer is described as faded, dried and drying, the telephone girl is cheap, the middle aged gay man is a fairy preying on a young boy in a Hell's Kitchen speakeasy, Mexicans are referred to as sp*gs and an unseen black inmate is casually called a n*gger. But there is so much more to this play and many of its themes still resonate today...submitting to the mundaneness of life (including office life)...getting into and remaining in a marriage or relationship for convenience instead of love... postpartum depression, which by the way is simply dismissed by the young woman's doctor as neuroticism in episode four entitled "maternal"...and the subjectivity of the press when two reporters have completely different spins on the same court proceedings in episode eight entitled "the law". 

I am so happy that Roundabout resurrected and introduced me to this play...I appreciate their ambitious staging and hope that it does well. In the meantime, I am adding Machinal to my bookshelf!

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