The stage brightens on a courtroom where a judge finishes a case and turns his attention to Helen and her attorney, the Lawyer for Defense. As Helen takes the stand, two reporters write rapidly in their notebooks. Offstage, telegraph instruments click and prattle. Apparently, Helen has been held in jail since the night George died. Beginning his questioning, the Lawyer for Defense asks Helen if her marriage was a happy one, and whether or not she and George ever quarreled. She tells him that they never even had one argument, to which he says, “Six years without one quarrel! Six years! Gentlemen of the jury, I ask you to consider this fact! Six years of life without a quarrel.” As he says this, the jury members smile amongst themselves.
The fact that George and Helen never had an argument is true, and it seems surprising at first, given that Helen detested George. But upon further consideration, it makes sense that the couple never quarreled: fighting is what people do when they’re in love and trying to communicate, not when they simply coexist in the same house. Indeed, arguing implies that both parties care about the wellbeing of the relationship. George, for his part, was always too wrapped up in his delusions about marriage to truly recognize Helen’s discontent, and Helen never bothered to challenge her husband because doing so seemed futile. Instead of quarrelling, then, they plodded along like a senseless machine until eventually everything broke.
Continuing with his questions, the Lawyer for Defense eventually asks Helen if she killed George. She insists that she did not, telling him that on the night of June 3rd—when he died—she awoke to find two “dark” men standing over her husband’s bed. “Your husband’s bed—” the Lawyer for Defense interrupts. “That was also your bed, was it not, Mrs. Jones?” She confirms that he’s correct. “You meant his side of the bed, didn’t you?” he presses. “Yes. His side,” she says. Turning to the jury, the lawyer reiterates this fact, saying, “Mr. and Mrs. Jones slept in the same bed.” Moving on, Helen says she saw two “big dark looking men” above the bed and froze in fear as one of them lifted something in his hand and hit George in the head with it. When George tried to sit up, she maintains, the man hit him again, and he collapsed on the bed.
Helen’s lawyer does of course have more expertise than her when it comes to the law, but it’s worth noting how eager he is to put words in her mouth, as if she herself is incapable of clarifying what she means. “You meant his side of the bed, didn’t you?” he asks her, a question that recalls the doctor’s revision of the nurse’s notes about Helen’s gagging in the hospital. Yet again, the audience sees how the men in Machinal jump to attention when there’s an opportunity to censor the women around them. To be fair, the lawyer is in this moment trying to portray Helen’s relationship with George as idyllic and loving, so it makes sense that he wants to make sure the jury knows the couple slept in the same bed, but his manner of leading her to the answer is patronizing, in the same way that all the other men in Helen’s life have communicated with her in a condescending manner.
At this point, Helen explains, the two men fled the room. Quickly, she tried to stop the bleeding from George’s temples with a collection of towels, but soon realized he’d already died. It was then, she says, that she decided to call the police. Satisfied, the Lawyer for Defense sits down and lets the Lawyer for Prosecution take over. “The accused woman told a straightforward story of—” writes one reporter. “The accused woman told a rambling, disconnected story of—” writes another.
The two reporters’ conflicting interpretations of Helen’s unfolding trial demonstrate the instability of language and truth in Machinal. Indeed, words appear to be in this moment completely malleable, capable of twisting anything—even the same thing—in any direction. This has implications for how the characters interact, and it’s no surprise that nobody in the play communicates very effectively, considering the strange way language functions.
The Lawyer for Prosecution begins by confirming that Helen did nothing when she saw the two intruders appear over George’s side of the bed. Pressing on, he points out that she “made no effort to follow them or cry out after them” when they left, either. Helen claims she failed to make these efforts because she could see that George had been hurt. “Ah!” the lawyer says. “You saw Mr. Jones was hurt! You saw this—how did you see it?” When she can’t respond, he asks, “Then there was a light in the room?” At first, Helen agrees that there was “a sort of light,” but then retracts her statement, saying—at the suggestion of the lawyer—that “perhaps” the light came from the window. “Oh,” says the lawyer, “the shade was up!” Helen admits that it was down.
The Lawyer for Prosecution builds a convincing case supporting the idea that Helen is lying about the events of June 3rd. And although he’s only doing his job, it’s notable that he obtains the information he needs by leading Helen into questions, using her own words against her. As such, Treadwell portrays language as something that can be wielded against Helen by those in power. Whereas in the beginning of the play George and other characters refused to listen to her, now the lawyer obsessively scrutinizes her every word, weaponizing language.
The Lawyer for Prosecution hounds Helen with questions, asking why she didn’t call a doctor. Producing a broken bottleneck, he asks whether she’s ever seen it. She acknowledges that this was the instrument used to kill her husband, and the lawyer points out that the bottle has no fingerprints on it. “You are in the habit of wearing rubber gloves at night, Mrs. Jones—are you not?” he asks. She tells him that she used to do this before she was married, but stopped because George disliked the feel of them. She adds that she didn’t mind changing her habits because she didn’t care anymore whether or not her hands looked good. “You did not suddenly begin to care particularly for your hands again—about a year ago this spring?” the Lawyer for Prosecution asks.
This is the first indication that the Lawyer for Prosecution knows about Helen’s infidelity in her marriage to George. The idea that Helen started caring about her hands again when she met her lover indicates that this affair truly was as liberating as it seemed it might be, since it clearly renewed her sense of agency, revitalizing her desire to care for her body in the way she saw fit—regardless of George’s preferences.
Helen refutes the notion that she started caring about her hands again last spring, saying she didn’t own any gloves at the time of George’s death. At this point, the lawyer for the prosecution produces a pair of rubber gloves found in her home, along with the nightgown she wore on her husband’s last night among the living. The nightgown is clean, and Helen explains that she washed George’s blood from it before calling the police. Shifting his attention to the bottle and a small collection of stones, the lawyer asks when Helen first saw the items together. “The night my husband was done away with,” she says. Sensing a weakness in her response, he continues, saying, “Mrs. Jones, do you remember about a year ago, a year ago this spring, bringing home to your house—a lily, a Chinese water lily?” She assures him she doesn’t, but he remains unconvinced.
Slowly the Lawyer for Prosecution is amassing evidence against Helen. At this point, though, each fact seems unrelated to others. Indeed, the lawyer’s approach depends upon fragmentation to create a mosaic of suspicion as he presents one possibly condemning item after another. In this way, he builds tension while also letting the jury try to make their own conclusions, clearly knowing that the most powerful kind of argument is one that requires listeners to connect the dots for themselves.
“You don’t remember about a year ago bringing this bowl into your bedroom filled with small stones and some water and a lily,” the Lawyer for Prosecution asks Helen. He then tells a story about Helen taking home this lily and caring for it until it died, at which point she placed it—with its small stones inside—on the top shelf of her closet, hiding it away. “Under the heavy artillery fire of the State’s attorney’s brilliant cross-questioning, the accused woman’s defense was badly riddled. Pale and trembling, she—” writes one reporter. “Undaunted by the Prosecution’s machine-gun attack, the defendant was able to maintain her position of innocence in the face of rapid-fire questioning that threatened, but never seriously menaced her defense. Flushed but calm she—” writes another.
Once again, Treadwell showcases the malleable nature of interpretation. When the reporters dictate their notes, their accounts differ to an absurd degree—so much so that the discrepancy takes on a comedic effect, as if the entire pursuit of objectivity is a farce in and of itself. This is a characteristic outlook of expressionist art, which places emphasis on subjectivity and perception rather than on objective fact, and it becomes clear that the outcome of Helen’s trial will depend upon a triumph or failure of language; whoever can put the best spin on the truth (no matter what it is) will “win.”
Cutting to the chase, the Lawyer for Prosecution introduces an affidavit signed by Mr. Roe. Though the Lawyer for Defense objects, the judge allows the paper to be introduced, and the Lawyer for Prosecution reads it aloud. In the affidavit, Mr. Roe upholds that he met Helen in a speakeasy a year before George’s death and that she visited his apartment almost every day after that until he moved to Mexico in the fall. “I gave her a blue bowl filled with pebbles,” he writes, “also containing a flowering lily.”
Mr. Roe’s willingness to betray Helen and testify against her innocence proves once and for all that he never cared about her in the same way that she cared about him. Rather, he was happy to have her company while he was around, but clearly had no emotional connection to her. As such, Helen’s personal liberation from George—which she achieved by cheating on him with Mr. Roe—was predicated on yet another loveless relationship.
Suddenly, Helen breaks into a yell, pleading, “No! No!” When the Lawyer for Prosecution asks her what’s wrong, she asks him to stop reading. “Why not!” he asks. “I did it!” she replies. “I did it! I did it!” Stunned, the judge asks, “You confess you killed your husband?” Helen responds, “I put him out of the way—yes,” saying she did so “to be free.” When the judge asks why she didn’t simply file for a divorce, she says, “Oh I couldn’t do that!! I couldn’t hurt him like that!” The court erupts in laughter at this, and Helen begins to moan, overcome by her realization of—as the stage direction says—“the enormity of her isolation.” As her moans continue until the end of the scene, the courtroom bursts into noise. “Murderess confesses,” one reporter writes. “Paramour brings confession,” scribbles another. “I did it! Woman cries!” says a third.
The loud courtroom—the laughter, the reporters, the judge—heighten the “isolation” Helen feels in this moment; in a sea of noise, she has nobody to turn to for support. Her heartfelt confession that she couldn’t divorce George because it would hurt him is met with laughter, as if everybody is teaming up against her. In fact, even the reporters, who throughout the trial have had conflicting views, finally come together to publicize the same message: that Helen is guilty. In other words, the system Helen exists in functions like a well-oiled machine only when it comes to further suppressing and oppressing her.