Machinal

by

Sophie Treadwell

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Machinal: Episode 9: A Machine Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Emerging from the swell of telegraph machines and reporters’ voices, the lights come on for Episode Nine. Helen is behind bars in a prison, a priest sitting next to her. As he reads prayers, the sound of a black man’s voice singing a spiritual song can be heard offstage, along with the background din of an airplane flying overhead. “Stop that nigger yelling,” the jailer says, but Helen protests, saying, “No, let him sing. He helps me.” The priest asks if he himself helps her, but she ignores him, turning her attention back to the black man and saying, “I understand him. He is condemned. I understand him.” At this, the priest resumes his prayers—now chanting in Latin—and two barbers enter the cell to shave off patches of Helen’s hair to ensure that the electric chair will have clean points of contact on her head.
Helen’s assertion that she “understands” the “condemned” black man indicates that she recognizes the bigoted and systemic nature of her oppression. Similar to how a black man was denied rights in the 1920s, women were also systematically subjugated by society and by a government that refused to acknowledge them. Helen’s fellow-feeling in this moment is only made stronger when the priest resumes his prayers in Latin, further isolating her from religion despite the fact that the priest would claim he’s trying to help her. Unlike the black man’s sorrowful song, Helen literally cannot “understand” the priest.
Themes
Marriage and Gender Inequality Theme Icon
Communication Theme Icon
Fragmentation and Expressionism Theme Icon
“No!” Helen screams as the barbers approach. Trying to calm her down, the priest says, “Daughter, you’re ready. You know you are ready,” but she insists otherwise, saying, “Not for this! Not for this!” Nonetheless, the jailer and the barbers state again that they must shave her head, according to the prison’s “regulations” and “routine[s].” As the barbers pin her arms, Helen screams, “I will not be submitted—this indignity! No! I will not be submitted!—Leave me alone! Oh my God am I never to be let alone! Always to have to submit—to submit! No more—not now—I’m going to die—I won’t submit! Not now!” As he finishes shaving her head, one of the barbers says, “You’ll submit, my lady. Right to the end, you’ll submit!” He then praises his own work, saying that he did a very “neat job.” 
Helen’s words in this moment echo phrases she’s already uttered throughout the play. Most prominently, the words “submit” and “alone” both appeared in her monologue in the hospital, when she spoke similar phrases to herself, lamenting the fact that she has lived an entire life of submission, a life where she is denied individuality. Unfortunately, this is the first time she’s ever voiced these thoughts to anybody else, and now it’s too late—she’s already in prison and about to be killed, meaning that (sadly enough) the barber is correct when he says she’ll submit “right to the end.”
Themes
Marriage and Gender Inequality Theme Icon
Communication Theme Icon
Fragmentation and Expressionism Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Turning to the priest, Helen asks why she was born, but he only quotes scripture in response. She asks if nothing is hers—“The hair on my head! The very hair on my head—.” She wonders aloud if she’ll have peace when she’s dead. Again, the priest only references Biblical passages. “Life has been hell to me, Father!” Helen insists, and he replies by saying that this is because she never sought God. “I sought something—,” she says, “I was always seeking something.” Just then, an airplane casts a shadow across the stage as the sound of its engine increases in volume. “He has wings—,” Helen says, “but he isn’t free!” She then admits that the only time she’s ever felt free in her entire life was when she killed George.
The airplane overhead is a sudden reminder to Helen that even a pilot high above the earth can’t escape the tyrannical hold 20th-century society has on a person. Even if she could fly, it seems, Helen would still be trapped in the mechanical world, an engine buzzing in her ears. This skepticism of machines runs throughout the play, beginning with Helen’s inability to ride the subway. And it is this same skepticism that prompts her to say, “He has wings—but he isn’t free!”, a statement that indicates that freedom is more of an emotional phenomenon than something that can be reached using machines. Indeed, when she admits that killing George presented her the only sense of freedom in her life, she portrays liberation as a fleeting and temperamental feeling, albeit a twisted one in this case.
Themes
Marriage and Gender Inequality Theme Icon
The Mechanical World Theme Icon
The priest launches into a long prayer. Helen’s mother appears, but Helen calls her a stranger who has “never known” her. Just as her mother turns away, though, Helen reaches through the bars. It is then that two guards take Helen away, marching her down a hallway until they’re offstage. The scene slowly fades darker and darker until there’s nothing to be seen; only the priest’s voice carries through blackness as he prays on and on. Eventually the voices of reporters join in. “Suppose the machine shouldn’t work!” says one. Another reporter replies, “It’ll work—It always works!” They talk nervously as the priest intones his holy words. Through everything, Helen’s voice rings out once more. “Somebody!” she yells. “Somebod—” Then her voice cuts off, hanging in the air as the priest says, “Christ have mercy—Lord have mercy—Christ have mercy—,” and the curtain closes. 
Treadwell uses fragmentation in two ways in this moment. First of all, Helen’s last outburst is an unfinished sentence, a desperate call that echoes her previous call for “somebody,” which she issued to no avail in her honeymoon hotel when she was uncomfortable being with George. Second of all, the word itself is cut off at the very end, and the audience understands that death has robbed Helen of her voice. This, of course, is nothing new; throughout the entire play, many people have taken away her voice, and it’s only fitting that this should happen at the end. However, it’s important to note that, while Helen’s voice and feelings have typically been curtailed or revised by men, now she gets cut off by a machine—the electric chair. In this way, Treadwell suggests that a system built to oppress women can use machinery to its benefit, turning innovation into a weapon that makes it easier to silence people.
Themes
Marriage and Gender Inequality Theme Icon
Communication Theme Icon
The Mechanical World Theme Icon
Fragmentation and Expressionism Theme Icon
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