Sophie Treadwell

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Machinal: Episode 5: Prohibited Summary & Analysis

In Episode Five the lights turn on to reveal a speakeasy-style bar with three tables. At one, an older man sits with a younger man and flirtatiously encourages him to try a certain kind of sherry, saying he wants him to “taste pleasure.” At another, a man tries to convince a woman to get an abortion. At the final table, a man named Mr. Smith sits with his friend Mr. Roe, whom he has promised to introduce to his lover’s friend. Having waited for the two women for quite some time, Mr. Roe declares that he’s leaving, but Mr. Smith begs him to stay, saying, “Listen—as a favor to me—I got to be home by six—I promised my wife—sure. That don’t leave me no time at all if we got to hang around—entertain some dame. You got to take her off my hands.”
Treadwell quickly establishes this bar as a place where taboo, illicit things take place, achieving this by peopling it with two male intimates (homosexuality was not yet widely accepted when Machinal was produced) and a couple contemplating an abortion (an illegal procedure in the early 1900s). In this place of deviant behavior, Mr. Smith and Mr. Roe are relative interlopers, sneaking into this underground world from their own world—the world of patriarchy and good appearances. It seems, then, that in order to undermine or defy the institution of marriage, one must often venture to the very edges of American society, as Mr. Smith does in this scene in an attempt to cheat on his wife.
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Finally, the women arrive to meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Roe, and the audience recognizes them as the telephone girl and Helen. Apparently, Mr. Smith has been having an affair with the telephone girl, who introduces Helen to Mr. Roe. After a short conversation, Mr. Smith and the telephone girl decide to depart, meaning that Helen and Mr. Roe will be left alone (fortunately, they’ve clearly taken a liking to one another). Before leaving, Mr. Smith says to Helen, “Get him to tell you how he killed a couple of spig down in Mexico.” Helen asks Mr. Roe about this, and he explains that he was captured by Mexican bandits. To escape, he got them drunk one night, filled the bottle with stones, and killed them with it. 
Though the audience may not be surprised to find Helen in this shady bar, her presence—and willingness to talk to Mr. Roe—says something important about her: since the last time she was onstage, she has clearly changed. Whereas before giving birth she was frustrated with George’s control over her but never crossed his authority, now she seems willing to exercise her independence, even (or perhaps especially) if it means undermining her husband.
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At the table with the couple contemplating abortion, the man says, “What about your job? […] You got to keep your job, haven’t you? […] Haven’t you?” This convinces the woman, and they leave to go make arrangements. Back at Helen’s table, Mr. Roe keeps talking about his escape from the Mexican bandits. At one point in the conversation, he puts his hand over Helen’s, and she delights in his touch. They decide to go back to his apartment, and as they leave he puts a nickel in an electric piano, which plays as the scene goes black. When the lights come back on for Episode Six, the electric piano has faded into the soft music of a hand organ.
The unnamed man trying to convince his lover to get an abortion appears to have the same mentality as Helen’s coworkers when it comes to love. Simply put, he approaches emotional issues with a business-oriented, capitalist mindset, drawing upon the idea of financial failure in order to get his lover to have an abortion. One thing that’s worth noting is that by saying, “You got to keep your job, haven’t you?” he uses the woman’s independence against her, giving her the impression that she would be unable to work at all if she were a mother; thus, in order to maintain her self-sufficient lifestyle, she must consent to the procedure.
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