Expressionism was a literary and performance style of theatre that came to prominence in the early part of the twentieth century. It began in Germany as an artistic movement, but the ideas that made up the foundation of this style quickly traveled across Europe and to the United States (Packard 169). Sophie Treadwell was a working journalist and playwright in the United States in the 1920s, and wrote what is arguably her most famous play, Machinal, in 1928. The plot of Machinal was based on a murder case that she was reporting on at the time, and revolved around a young woman that allegedly murdered her husband (Treadwell vii). In the following paragraphs, I will explore why Machinal is considered an expressionist piece of dramatic literature.
The form of expressionism in theatre was conceived partly in reaction to Realism, the dominant style of late nineteenth century. Realism demanded that theatre reflect a flawless version of reality. After witnessing the horrors of World War One, society began to develop a different world view. Expressionism was a result of that changing, and less optimistic, worldview. Expressionism focuses on questions of social and political inequalities, and usually includes some sort of spiritual awakening by the protagonist. Generally, the protagonist is sacrificed to demonstrate the world’s cruelty (Watson 363). The text of an expressionist play contains disjointed conversations, characters named by their type rather than acknowledging their individuality, and generally contains a nightmarish quality in terms of mood and tone (Brockett 149). Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal exhibits all of these qualities.
In the opening pages of the play, we are introduced to characters that are given stereotypical rather than individual names. The protagonist is called “Young Woman,” and although we later learn that her name is Helen, she continues to be described as “Young Woman” in throughout the play (Treadwell 13, 83). Other characters include Adding Clerk, Telephone Girl, Singer, Woman at Bar, Priest, and Judge (Treadwell xii). In fact, the only character in the entire play that is given an actual name in the list of characters is George H. Jones, the man that the Young Woman marries. By giving Mr. Jones a name when others lack one, Treadwell establishes that George H. Jones is a powerful man in control of his own life. His power, juxtaposed with the absolute lack of control that the Young Woman has over her own life, provides the catalyst that propels the play forward. Treadwell’s use of stereotypical character names indicates the influence of expressionism in her work.
One of the hallmarks of the expressionist theatre movement is the instance of choppy, staccato dialogue throughout the play. In Machinal, this type of dialogue starts even from the opening scene:
Filing Clerk: I’m asking yuh-
Telephone Girl: WELL?
Filing Clerk: Nothing filed with it.
Telephone Girl: Well?
Filing Clerk: Look at A. Look at B. What’s the matter with Q?
Telephone Girl: Ain’t Popular. (Treadwell 2)
These characters are never called by name, and even their dialogue has the rhythmic feel of a 1920s office. The Filing Clerk even repeats the same phrase, “Hot Dog!” at consistent intervals throughout the scene, giving the whole thing the impression of a choreographed, machine-like dance. Later in the play, after the Young Woman has given birth in a hospital wing that is currently under construction, she has a long stream of consciousness monologue that also exhibits the choppy, stilted dialogue representative of the expressionist movement. The Young Woman says, “Let me alone- let me alone-let me alone-I’ve submitted to enough-I won’t submit to any more-crawl off-crawl off in the dark-Vixen crawled under the bed- way back in the corner under the bed-they were all drowned-puppies don’t go to heaven-heaven-golden stairs” (Treadwell 30). This monologue continues for more than a page. Although these two examples of dialogues are distinctly different, they are both indicative of the style of expressionism.
In Machinal, the Young Woman is propelled through her own life by forces almost completely outside of her control. She feels compelled to marry her boss, George H. Jones, even though she is repulsed by him. She says, “George H. Jones -fat hands -flabby hands-don’t touch me- please-fat hands are never weary –please don’t- married-all girls-most girls-married” (Treadwell 11). The Young Woman ultimately marries him because she knows that, as a woman in the 1920s, her choices for supporting herself outside of marriage are limited. Even her own mother pushes her to marry him, despite her feelings. Her mother says, “I’ll tell you what you can count on! You can count that you’ve got to eat and sleep and get up and put clothes on and take ‘em off again-that you got to get old-and that you got to die. That’s what you can count on!” (Treadwell 17). After marrying Mr. Jones and having a baby, the Young Woman is pushed to breastfeed against her will. A nurse tells her, “Put the child to breast. No? You don’t want to nurse your baby? Why not? These modern neurotic women, eh Doctor? Bring the baby!” (Treadwell 29). Despite her reluctance, the Young Woman is forced to nurse the baby.
Again and again, the Young Woman is made to submit, until finally, she meets a man. She has an affair with him. She begins to experience life; to feel free for the first time. She tells her lover, “I never knew I could feel like this way. I never knew I could feel like this! So-so purified! Don’t laugh at me.” (Treadwell 51). Finally, the Young Woman reaches her breaking point and kills her husband. She is arrested, tried, convicted, and ultimately executed. As the title, Machinal, suggests, the Young Woman is once again a part of the machine of society. In her final moments, she screams to her own mother to help her daughter: “Wait, Mother, my child, my little strange child! I never knew her! She’ll never know me. Let her live, Mother. Let her live! Live! Tell her” (Treadwell 81). The Young Woman is not allowed to finish. She is not able to tell her daughter whatever it was that she desperately wanted to share. She is once again made to submit to society’s expectations.
Although the Young Woman is certainly not blameless, she is an example of the extreme measures that a person may take when they are given no control in their own life. The plot of Machinal certainly contains the spiritual awakening of the Young Woman in the form of her affair, as well as the sacrifice of the protagonist (the execution) to demonstrate the world’s cruelty. In this way, Machinal adheres to the conventions of the expressionist theatre movement.
Machinal was written at the height of the expressionist theatre movement in the United States. It contains a number of the hallmarks of the style, including the staccato language, as well as characters named by stereotype rather than as individuals. Most importantly, it tells the story of a young woman who experiences a spiritual awakening but who is ultimately sacrificed to show the cruelty of society. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal is an excellent example of the expressionist theatre movement.
Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert R. Findlay. Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama since the Late Nineteenth Century. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991. Print.
Packard, William, David Pickering, and Charlotte Savidge. The Facts on File Dictionary of the Theatre. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Print.
Treadwell, Sophie. Machinal. London: Royal National Theatre, 1993. Print.
Watson, Jack, and Grant Fletcher McKernie. A Cultural History of Theatre. New York: Longman, 1993. Print.