Machinal is a play told in nine scenes, or “episodes.” Before the curtain’s first opening, machines can be heard rattling as office workers steadily plod along on their typewriters, adding machines, and other similar pieces of equipment. When the curtain lifts and the lights go on, the workers murmur to themselves as they go about their business. Between the telephone girl’s cheery greetings, the adding clerk’s spoken arithmetic, the filing clerk’s murmurs, and the stenographer’s correspondences, they talk to one another about a young woman named Helen, who’s late to work. They remark that this is the third time that week that Helen has been delayed. When she finally appears, Helen tells them she had to get off the subway because she felt trapped. Her colleagues ignore her troubles, moving on to tell her that the boss, George H. Jones, has been looking for her. “He’s bellowing for you!” says the telephone girl.
When Helen goes into Mr. Jones’s office, her coworkers gossip about the boss’s affinity for her, speculating that he’ll ask her to marry him. Moments later, Helen returns and sits still in front of her typewriter. When the stenographer asks her why she isn’t working, she says she can’t because the machine is broken. Mr. Jones emerges from his office and puts his hands on Helen’s shoulders, and when he leaves again, her colleagues ask why she flinched when he touched her. She merely says, “Nothing!—Just his hand.” Then, as she sorts the mail, her coworkers talk openly about Mr. Jones’s interest in her, saying that her job depends on whether or not she accepts his proposal. If she says no, they maintain, she’ll be fired. If she says yes, she won’t need to work anymore, and she’ll have breakfast in bed every morning. As they chatter, the machines click and rattle and Helen thinks aloud to herself, considering Mr. Jones’s proposal in a frantic, indecisive manner, saying, “Marry me—wants to marry me—George H. Jones—George H. Jones and Company—Mrs. George H. Jones—Mrs. George H. Jones.” Helen carries on in this way until the scene goes black.
In Episode Two, Helen sits in a kitchen with her mother. The two women argue about the meal, and Helen tells her mother that George wants to marry her. At first, her mother is skeptical, but once she learns George is wealthy, she encourages Helen to move forward with the idea. “I can’t, Ma! I can’t!” Helen says. “I don’t love him.” Her mother scoffs at this, saying, “Love!—what does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?” Still, Helen complains that George’s hands are fat and that he’s constantly “pressing” on her, but her mother waves this away, calling her crazy. “Ma,” Helen exclaims, “if you tell me that again I’ll kill you!” She then breaks into a short monologue, admitting that perhaps she is crazy before eventually asking for her mother’s forgiveness. At the end of the scene, she decides to marry George, and the lights go off and faint jazz plays into Episode Three.
In Episode Three, George and Helen enter a hotel room on their honeymoon. While George is happy and boisterous, Helen is skittish, quiet, and hesitant to embrace her new husband. George urges her to relax, asking why she looks so scared. “Nothing to be scared of,” he says. “You’re with your husband, you know.” With this, he puts her on his lap, touches her knee, and kisses her neck. As she squirms, he urges her to calm down. She stands to change her clothes, moving into the bathroom and closing the door despite George’s protests that she shouldn’t have to hide her body anymore. When she emerges, she’s crying. She tells George she misses her mother, which confuses him, since she told him earlier that she was glad to spend time away from the old woman. “I want her now,” Helen says. “I want somebody.” As George tries to comfort her, the stage goes black.
In Episode Four, Helen lies in a maternity ward. As a nurse asks her questions about how she’s feeling, she refuses to speak, merely shaking her head when necessary. “Aren’t you glad it’s a girl?” the nurse asks. Helen shakes her head and the nurse chastises her. The nurse asks if Helen needs anything, and Helen points outside, where construction is noisily underway, but the nurse can do nothing to stop the raucous sounds. When George arrives, the nurse tells him Helen’s “getting stronger,” and he says, “Of course she is!” He then moves toward Helen, telling her she needs to “brace up” and that he understands everything she went through in childbirth because he was standing in the hall listening while she was in labor. “Pull yourself together!” he says. As he goes on, Helen starts choking and pointing at the door. “She’s got that gagging again—like she had the last time I was here,” George tells the nurse before leaving and promising to return the next day. The doctor then enters, insists that she try breastfeeding, and demands that she start eating solid food. When he leaves with the nurse, Helen speaks to herself at length, saying, in part, “Let me alone—let me alone—let me alone—I’ve submitted to enough—I won’t submit to any more…” When the lights go out, the sound of construction accompanies an electric piano until the stage goes bright again for Episode Five.
Episode Five opens in a speakeasy with three tables. At one of the tables, two men sit waiting for Helen and the telephone girl, who are late. One the men, Mr. Smith, is having an affair and is depending on his friend, Mr. Roe, to preoccupy Helen so that he can quickly spend some private time with the telephone girl before rushing home to his wife. Finally, Helen and the telephone girl arrive. Helen quickly takes a liking to Mr. Roe, who flirts with her until Mr. Smith and the telephone girl leave to have sex. When they’re alone at the table, Mr. Roe tells Helen that he was once captured in Mexico by bandits, and that he filled a bottle with stones and clubbed the men to death in order to escape. Not long afterward, they go to Mr. Roe’s apartment, where Episode Six takes place. Once there, they listen to a hand organ playing in the streets outside, and the implication is that they’ve just made love. Mr. Roe tells her about Mexico, talking about the freedom one feels south of United States. Suddenly, Helen realizes she’s late in getting home, and frantically gathers her belongings. Before leaving, she sees a flower on the windowsill and asks Mr. Roe who gave it to him. He tells her he bought it himself because it reminded him of San Francisco, and the lovers talk about riding free in the mountains around the Bay Area. They kiss, and Helen asks if she can take the flower with her. “Sure—why not?” Mr. Roe says. When she departs, the music in the street plays until abruptly cutting off at the opening of Episode Seven.
Episode Seven finds Helen and George in the sitting room of their house reading separate newspapers. The phone rings, and George learns that one of his business deals has gone through. Upon hanging up, he boasts about the success and goes over to Helen, who flinches when he touches her. He notes that she hasn’t done that in a long time, but says he always ascribed the behavior to her “purity”—an idea she refutes. Later, Helen reads a headline about “jewels and precious stones” that sends her into a panic attack. “I feel as though I were drowning,” she says, putting her hands around her neck. George discounts her complaints, telling her to breathe, but she can’t shake the feeling. “And what is death?” she asks. Soon thereafter, George reads out a headline about a revolution “below the Rio Grande,” and suddenly Helen starts hearing Mr. Roe’s voice along with a vague chorus of other voices echoing his words. “I filled an empty bottle with small stones,” Mr. Roe’s disembodied voice says. “Stones—stones—precious stones—millstones—stones—stones—millstones,” the chorus repeats. As the voices swirl, the sound of a hand organ grows, and amidst this cacophony, Helen jumps out of her chair, says, “Oh! Oh!” and the scene cuts to black while the hand organ and voices repeat over and over again until the light returns for Episode Eight.
In Episode Eight, Helen is in court. Her attorney, the Lawyer for Defense, questions her while the jury, judge, and reporters listen. Led by the Lawyer for Defense’s inquiries, Helen says she didn’t kill her husband. She maintains that she woke up on the night George died and saw two “big dark” men looming over the bed. One of them, she says, clubbed George over the head with a bottle before she could do anything to stop it. When the two “dark” men fled, Helen says, she got towels to try to stop the blood from coming out of George’s head, but she soon discovered he’d died, at which point she called the police. Having concluded, the Lawyer for Defense takes his seat, and the Lawyer for Prosecution takes the floor. His questions slowly reveal that Helen’s story is vague and that she has trouble substantiating or even fully remembering certain details. He shows her the broken bottle used to kill George, saying that he thinks its strange the glass bears no finger prints. “You are in the habit of wearing rubber gloves at night, Mrs. Jones—are you not?” She confirms that she “used to” do this before she was married, but that she no longer owned the gloves. The lawyer refutes this, presenting as evidence a pair of gloves found in her home on the fateful night. As he brings out other damning pieces of evidence, he shows the jury a bowl he claims Helen brought home a year ago that spring. He says the bowl contained a water lily, but Helen denies this. Finally, the lawyer produces an affidavit from Mr. Roe saying that he gave her the water lily and that she has visited his apartment nearly everyday since their first encounter. As the lawyer reads on, Helen becomes flustered and finally breaks out in confession, yelling, “I did it! I did it! I did it!” When the judge asks why, she says, “To be free.” The court adjourns, and the sound of telegraph machines fills the air as the lights go out.
In the ninth episode, Helen is behind bars listening to a priest pray for her. Eventually, two barbers enter the cell to shave her hair to make sure the electric chair has clean points of contact on her head. Helen resists, shouting, “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!” Her pleas fall on unsympathetic ears, and one of the barbers says, “You’ll submit, my lady. Right to the end, you’ll submit!” Before Helen is led to the chair, she hears an airplane flying above, and the thought of flight makes her think of freedom, saying that the only free moment of her entire life was when she killed George. As she’s taken to the chair and strapped in, the priest’s steady voice intones prayers. “Somebody!” cries Helen. “Somebod—.” She never finishes the word, and the priest goes on solemnly praying until the curtain closes.