Machinal, a play written by Sophie Treadwell in 1928, just wrapped its revival run at the Roundabout Theater Company.
Feel good theater this is not. Machinal is the story of a young woman who murders her husband. The woman’s name is “Young Woman,” the idea here is that she stands in for every woman, driven to desperation by the misogynistic system of the late 1920s, in which a woman had few options, in which a woman who did not live with her parents or her husband was known as a “woman adrift.”
The young woman goes from her domineering mother’s home to her husband who nauseates her with his touch, bears a child, after which a male doctor disregards her obvious postpartum depression. Eventually she has an affair with a handsome man, who leaves for Mexico. After which our Young Woman can no longer stand her annoying husband and bludgeons him to death.
She’s convicted, sentenced to die in the electric chair. Witnesses note that she adjusts an errant lock of hair before the voltage courses through her body.
The play was compelling, the lead performance by Rebecca Hall engrossing, but the play itself…something seemed not quite right to me, narratively speaking.
Clearly, the audience is meant to sympathize with fragile and shaky young woman, as constrained by the circumstances of her life as she was strapped into that electric chair. But she’s also not entirely sympathetic – after her courtroom confession of her husband’s murder, the judge asks her why she simply didn’t leave her husband. The audience laughs at this line — the look on the young woman’s face in response shows how plainly idiotic she thinks the judge.
I, as a feminist audience member, want to be on the side of the gender-oppressed, but I could not repress a raised eyebrow, an internal girl, please. That Young Woman had other options besides bashing in her husband’s skull with that pebble-filled bottle. After all, she had sufficient freedom to have an affair. And her husband doesn’t seem quite so repellant, just boring and annoying.
I wondered whether Sophie Treadwell was constrained by the facts upon which she based her play. As a writer of narrative nonfiction, this is a predicament with which I could easily sympathize. Treadwell had been a journalist as well as a playwright, and Machinal is based on the story of Ruth Snyder, who in 1928 became the first woman to be executed in Sing Sing since 1899. Treadwell attended Snyder’s trial, although she didn’t cover it.
A quick look at Wikipedia disproved my theory. In fact, Synder’s actual story was much more interesting than the story Treadwell wrote. Snyder got mad at her husband because he was still enthralled with his late fiancée. So she had an affair, took out life insurance on her husband, and with her lover made seven (7!) (Seven!) (7!) attempts on his life before the duo successfully garroted on attempt number eight.
So then I decided I would be angry at Treadwell. She had a good true story and she fucked it up by fictionalizing it! To me, the glory of fictionalizing is to improve a story not to make it more murky and less interesting. My anger eventually propelled me to the New York Public Library, which delivered me Broadway’s Bravest Woman: Selected Writings of Sophie Treadwell.
It turns out that I was not alone in my frustration. For while Treadwell was considered inventive, and multi-talented – a playwright, producer, director, actress, The New York Herald Tribune described her as “a roomful of people” — she also apparently didn’t mind irritating her audience with unlikeable characters.
She wanted her plays to be performed on Broadway, but she also didn’t want to follow the conventions of Broadway. Her friend Alexander Koiransky, Russian drama critic wrote this to her:
Sometimes I think that there is in you a definite perversity, with which you insist upon bringing into your plays things and situations which make them unacceptable to the bosses of Broadway…do not write beautiful plays intrinsically obnoxious to the masters of the hours.
This was not advice Treadwell was wont to follow. “She created realistic complex characters who were difficult to understand by an audience used to simple, understandable heroes and villains,” note editors Dickey and Lopez-Rodriguez.
Let’s be clear: this was adding insult to my narrative injury: now I’m being lumped in with un-nuanced creatures who can’t appreciate complexity of character? I mean, I like a complex character. But you still need to have a plot that follows.
But as I continued to read Broadway’s Bravest Woman, Treadwell’s reputation started to undergo a rehabilitation (with me) . I learned that she was really working out her own personal issues with her parents, and with men, and with the media through her writing. The Synder case wasn’t really an inspiration as much as it was a provocation. As a writer, I absolutely approve of appropriating public issues for private introspection. (Obviously.)
But I definitively turned the corner from irritation towards a grudging fondness when I read that at bottom, Treadwell just didn’t like people all that much. (Misanthropy being among the most sensible and endearing of human characteristics.)
She especially didn’t like people like producers who wanted her to revise her plays to fit “industry norms or traditional formats.” Editors Dickey and Lopez Rodriguez write that Treadwell preferred to rely on “the emotional connection she established with her character, rather than on an assessment of the play’s fundamental action.” That is certainly apparent in Machinal. I still don’t think this was really for the best, narratively, although I will allow that her approach to writing allowed for originality.
So, Sophie Treadwell, I get you. And I have decided to not be angry at you anymore.