Before the curtain rises, mechanical sounds whirr in the darkness. Typewriters, adding machines, telephones, and buzzers click, rattle, and ring until the curtain opens on an office, where a stenographer, an adding clerk, a filing clerk, and a telephone girl work at desks, busy on their respective machines. As the adding clerk counts and the stenographer mutters while typing and the telephone girl answers phones, the workers intermittently talk about one of their colleagues, Helen, a young woman who’s late yet again. When the boss, George H. Jones, calls, he asks if Helen has arrived yet, and the telephone girl assures him that she’ll deliver a message to Helen from George as soon as Helen arrives. When she hangs up, the workers gossip about Helen, hinting that she has Mr. Jones in the palm of her hand.
From the very beginning of the play, the constant presence of fragmented noise is apparent. The sound of office machines is, in fact, the very first thing the audience hears, and the fact that this noise continues even as the characters try to hold conversation reveals Treadwell’s interest in the chaos of industrialized America. This ultimately lends the play a certain anxious, nerve-rattling quality that eventually brings itself to bear on Helen, who is herself already wound tight by stress. By accosting the audience with hard, mechanical sounds, Treadwell prepares viewers to inhabit Helen’s emotional world.
Mr. Jones arrives and asks after Helen again, but the telephone girl informs him that she still hasn’t come in. “I just wanted her to take a letter,” he says, and when the stenographer offers to do it instead, he refuses, saying, “One thing at a time and that done well.” He retreats into his private office just before Helen finally rushes onstage. “You’ll lose your job,” the stenographer says, chiding her for being late four days in a row. Helen then explains that she had to get off the subway on her way to work because the bodies all around her were pressing in. “I had to get out!” she says. “I thought I would faint! I had to get out in the air!” She tells her skeptical coworkers that it felt like she was dying.
Within minutes of Helen’s arrival onstage, it becomes clear that she’s at odds with the mechanical world surrounding her. Her averseness to the subway—a highly mechanized and orderly mode of transportation—reveals her discomfort with the very city she lives in, and the fact that she thought she might die from this claustrophobic experience illustrates how severely threatening such environments seem to her. As such, it’s easy to see that Helen is unfit even for the room she’s just entered, which is abuzz with mechanical instruments and orderly people.
The telephone girl tells Helen that Mr. Jones wants her, saying, “He’s bellowing for you!” When Helen goes into George’s office, the other workers gossip about her once more. “Do you think he’ll marry her?” the telephone girl asks. “Will she have him?” replies the stenographer. “Will she have him? This agreement entered into—party of the first part—party of the second part—will he have her?” she says, blending her notations and speech. When Helen returns, she sits at her desk. The telephone girl asks if she wants to come on a double date with her, but Helen says she can’t because her mother would “nag” her if she went. “Why don’t you get to work?” says the stenographer. “Can’t,” Helen says. “My machine’s out of order.” The stenographer responds by telling her to sort the mail.
In contrast to the stenographer, who can’t seem to separate real life from her notations—as evidenced by her strangely blended dialogue—Helen is unable to set herself upon her work; when she sees that her machine is “out of order,” she does nothing to fix it, a fact that indicates once again that she is at odds with the mechanical world surrounding her. In this way, she seems to separate her emotional life from her work life, choosing to sit quietly with herself rather than address her broken machine.
Just as Helen’s coworkers start asking her about Mr. Jones’s proposal, he enters and goes to her desk, where he puts his hand on her shoulder and asks if she’s finished his letter. She tells him she hasn’t and goes on sorting the mail until he leaves. Once he’s gone, the telephone girl asks Helen why she flinched when he touched her. “Did he pinch?” she asks. “No!” Helen says. “Then what?” asks the telephone girl. “Nothing!” she replies. “Just his hand.” The telephone girl then says that if this is how she feels, she should refuse Mr. Jones’s marriage proposal. “If she does she’ll lose her job,” the stenographer says. “Fired,” offers the adding clerk. “The sack!” says the filing clerk. If she accepts, though, the coworkers speculate that she’ll live a lavish life with breakfast in bed each morning, a life in which she doesn’t have to work.
In this moment, the idea of marriage takes on implications that go beyond issues of love and happiness. Rather than focusing on whether or not Helen has feelings for George, her coworkers train their attention on the things she stands to gain by marrying him or lose by refusing him. In doing so, they incentivize marriage while also outlining the practical drawbacks of remaining a single woman, or disappointing a man who holds great power over her. It seems the telephone girl is the only one who considers Helen’s emotions, since she tells Helen to say no to George, but this wise counsel is quickly drowned out by the opportunistic logic presented by the others.
Amid the office chaos—the sounds of typewriters and telephones and the murmurs of her colleagues—Helen thinks aloud to herself, considering Mr. Jones’s proposal while also allowing her mind to wander, evoking the wide range of her daily worries. “George H. Jones,” she says at one point, “—Fat hands—flabby hands—don’t touch me—please—fat hands are never weary—please don’t—married—all girls—most girls—married—babies—a baby—curls—little curls all over its head—George H. Jones—straight—thin—bald—don’t touch me—please—no—can’t—must—somebody—something—no rest—must rest—no rest—late today—yesterday—before—late—subway—air—pressing—bodies pressing—bodies—trembling—air—stop—air—late—job—no job—fired—[…]” As she continues, the lights go out and the sound of machines goes on until the stage brightens once more for Episode Two.
The strange and fragmented rhythm of Helen’s monologue mimics the cacophonous sounds of the office, proving once more just how deeply she is affected by the nervous energy of the mechanical world. What’s interesting about her speech, though, is that she both reiterates other peoples’ ideas and inserts her own strong opinions and desires. Indeed, she begins a sentence with the words “most girls,” as if she’s going to repeat something somebody has told her about how to behave. However, she later pivots, expressing her own will by saying things like “don’t touch me” and “no.” Unfortunately, nobody onstage is listening to her, and so her protests are ineffective.