Sophie Treadwell

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Machinal Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sophie Treadwell

Born in 1885, Sophie Treadwell grew up as an only child in Stockton, California. When she was still quite young, her father left the family and moved to San Francisco, where the future playwright visited him during the summers, experiences that first exposed her to the theater. When she attended the University of California at Berkley in 1902, she began writing and acting in plays while also serving as a correspondent for the college at The San Francisco Examiner. This position was only one of several jobs she held in order to support herself while attending school. During this hectic time Treadwell also dealt with mental illness—a battle against anxiety that would follow her throughout her life, sometimes resulting in lengthy hospital stays. After graduating college in 1906 and marrying a sports writer who worked for the San Francisco Bulletin, Treadwell and her new husband moved to New York, where the young writer became involved with the fight for women’s suffrage. Because of her strong belief in female independence and freedom, she and her husband lived separately in the city as she quickly made connections with important modernist artists. This period saw some of her most important reporting and theatrical writing, and Treadwell became known not only for her impressive undercover and immersive journalism, but also for her advocacy of authors’ rights. By the time she died in 1970, she had written four novels and almost 40 plays, several of which she produced and directed herself and which appeared on Broadway.
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Historical Context of Machinal

The plot of Machinal draws inspiration from the infamous 1925 case of Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband after starting an affair with another man. Unlike Helen and Mr. Roe, who don’t work together to kill George, Snyder and her lover, Henry Judd Gray, collaborated in their plans to kill Albert Snyder. After persuading Albert to buy life insurance, Ruth and Henry strangled him and tried to make his death look like it was the result of a botched break-in. Like Helen, Ruth’s story in court didn’t hold up under intense scrutiny, and she finally broke when the prosecutors produced a piece of paper they found in the Snyder home. This paper bore the initials of Mr. Snyder’s former wife, Jessie Guishard. In a state of panic, Ruth thought these were Henry’s initials, an association that made her prosecutors suspicious, since Henry’s name hadn’t yet come up in the trial. Both lovers were eventually found guilty, and they tried to put the blame on one another. In 1928—the year Machinal was produced—Ruth went to the electric chair. The entire ordeal was sensationalized throughout the media; a reporter even snuck a camera into the execution room, and the following day the New York Daily News ran a picture of Ruth in the electric chair.

Other Books Related to Machinal

When Machinal appeared on the stage in 1928, it was compared to Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, published in 1925. This novel depicts a courtroom scene in which the protagonist, Clyde, must stand trial for murdering his lover—a section similar to Machinal’s penultimate scene, in which Helen delivers a weak defense in an attempt to avoid being found guilty of murdering her husband. Like Helen, Clyde is sent to the electric chair, and the emotional timbre of this scene—which presents a cascade of raw emotion and regret—matches Machinal’s skittish and fragmented expressive quality. Both works are poignant portraits of misunderstood and misguided individuals in the early 20th century. Another work to which critics compared Machinal is Elmer Rice’s 1923 play, The Adding Machine, an expressionist piece of theater that recounts the story of Mr. Zero, an accountant who, after learning that he’ll be replaced at his company by an adding machine, kills his boss. Found guilty, he is hanged and goes to a certain kind of afterlife, where he’s made to work at an adding machine. In addition to the obvious similarities between Mr. Zero and Helen’s death sentences, the two plays critically examine the heartlessly pragmatic and capitalist world of America in the 1920s, depicting the futility of emotionally vacant labor using surrealist and expressionist techniques.
Key Facts about Machinal
  • Full Title: Machinal
  • When Published: The play was written in 1928 and premiered on September 7th of the same year.
  • Literary Period: Expressionism
  • Genre: Expressionist Theater
  • Setting: New York City in the 1920s
  • Climax: Fed up with her loveless marriage and driven to a breaking point by her husband’s emotionless companionship, Helen suddenly hears the voice of her secret lover narrating how he killed two men in Mexico with a bottle full of stones. Unable to control herself as she sits with her unsuspecting husband, Helen springs from her chair, yelling, “Oh! Oh!” before the lights snap off and a chorus of voices echoes the word “stones” time and again. In the following scene, the audience learns that she has killed George.
  • Antagonist: The mechanical and impersonal world of 20th-century society, which oppresses Helen and refuses to acknowledge her emotional needs, instead prioritizing capitalist and pragmatic concepts of success in a male-dominated world. George, her husband, is a human manifestation of this sexism and ignorance.

Extra Credit for Machinal

Controversy. In the 1920s, Treadwell brought to court the well-known actor John Barrymore, who tried to put on a play about Edgar Allan Poe he claimed his wife wrote. Treadwell upheld that this play stole large amounts of material from something she herself had written and showed to Barrymore. Treadwell ended up winning the lawsuit and the play was stopped. Unfortunately, the media depicted her unfavorably because of this scandal.

Mexico. Treadwell’s father was born in California but grew up primarily in Mexico, where his family lived. This is why much of the playwright’s work somehow involves Mexico.