The characters in Machinal often fail to effectively relate to one another using language. Instead of communicating clearly and listening to what other people have to say, they hold forth with their own monologues and ideas, showing themselves incapable of engaging in the give-and-take of successful conversation. Under these fraught circumstances, Helen finds herself hopelessly estranged from her husband, who never opens himself up to the possibility that their marriage has made her utterly miserable—instead, he speaks to her at length about things that clearly do nothing but deepen her feelings of unease, rendering it impossible for her to make him see that she’s unhappy. In other words, the characters in Machinal do not use communication as a relational tool, but rather as something that heightens their own senses of individuality, thereby driving them apart instead of bringing them together. Dialogue, then, ceases to be collaborative, and language takes on an isolating function.
When George interacts with Helen, he misses (or perhaps willfully ignores) all verbal and physical clues that indicate she’s uncomfortable or unhappy. Nowhere is this more evident than when the couple arrives in their honeymoon hotel room. “Say,” George intones, “you look a little white around the gills! What’s the matter?” Somberly, she replies, “Nothing,” to which he says, “You look like you’re scared.” “No,” she says. And as if this settles the matter, he concludes, “Nothing to be scared of. You’re with your husband, you know.” Although George does recognize something amiss in his wife’s behavior, he does very little to actually address whatever is bothering her. In fact, his questions are more self-centered than empathetic, since his concern about Helen’s grim attitude seems to come mainly from his notion that, like him, she ought to be happy on their honeymoon. When he says Helen has “nothing to be scared of” because she is “with [her] husband,” he shows a total lack of understanding that he is the thing that scares her most. Unfortunately, her monosyllabic, solemn replies aren’t enough to tip him off to the fact that her experience is vastly different from his, and George and Helen find themselves trapped in a pattern of conversation that is completely uncommunicative.
This unfortunate uncommunicative dynamic sits at the heart of Helen and George’s relationship. Significantly, when Helen is most distressed, she fails to express herself at all, at least until the end of the play, when she finally stands up for herself and speaks out. In the scenes leading up to George’s death, Helen retreats into silence when she feels particularly aggrieved. This is evident when she lies in her hospital bed days after having given birth, and hardly speaks any words at all. Instead, she shakes her head vigorously and refuses to communicate, but George and the nurse are perfectly willing to speak on Helen’s behalf: when she doesn’t respond, they fill the silence with their own thoughts—thoughts that depict her health and mentality in ways that they (George and the nurse) find agreeable. “She’s getting stronger!” the nurse insists. Although they should be able to intuit from Helen’s silence that she’s unhappy, they instead use her refusal to speak as an opportunity to advance their own narrative about her experience. This allows them to take possession of any agency Helen may have, though one can also argue that Helen strips herself of this agency by giving up her right to speak.
At the same time, though, Helen and George’s previous conversations have already demonstrated that Helen gains very little in the way of power even when she does communicate with her husband. Perhaps, then, she’s silent so often because she has come to understand that her words don’t matter when she talks to George. Although he picks up on her discomfort, asking, “Everything O.K.?,” he actively ignores when she shakes her head “no,” pushing on by spewing platitudes about “brac[ing] up,” which ultimately keep him from paying sincere attention to his wife’s concerns. Treadwell suggests that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Helen speaks. Since George only ever uses language to propagate his own narrative, any attempt to effectively communicate with him is pointless. In turn, this is what drives Helen to kill him, since killing him seems to be the only path out from underneath his oppressive, silencing effect. In a twisted way, then, the murder is Helen’s most drastic act of communication, borne of all her failed and repressed attempts preceding it.
The disconnect preventing effective communication in Machinal grows out of the characters’ inability to step outside their individual perspectives. Indeed, Treadwell shows that each person clings to his or her own interpretation of a situation. When Helen is on trial, for example, the courtroom reporters jot down wildly different accounts of the event. Although this is just a minor example, Treadwell fills her play with such instances of people investing themselves in their individuality and choosing to use language to reinforce their own perspectives. In the same way that all of George’s conversations with Helen are non-collaborative opportunities to advance his own ideas about marriage, the reporters’ divergent accounts use language to broadcast what they believe are unassailable facts. As such, the characters in Machinal repeatedly use language to emphasize and protect their individuality, not to relate to one another.
Communication Quotes in Machinal
Marry me—wants to marry me—George H. Jones—George H. Jones and Company—Mrs. George H. Jones—Mrs. George H. Jones. Dear Madame—marry—do you take this man to be your wedded husband—I do—to love honor and to love—kisses—no—I can’t—George H. Jones—How would you like to marry me—What do you say—Why Mr. Jones I—let me look at your little hands—you have such pretty little hands—let me hold your pretty little hands—George H. Jones—Fat hands—flabby hands—don’t touch me—please—fat hands are never weary—[…]—don’t touch me—please—no—can’t—must—somebody—something—no rest—must rest—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—late—alarm clock—alarm clock—alarm clock—hurry—job—ma—nag—nag—nag—ma—hurry—job—no job—no money—installments due—no money—[…]—money—no work—no worry—free!—rest—sleep till nine—sleep till ten—sleep till noon—now you take a good rest this morning—don’t get up till you want to—thank you—oh thank you—oh don’t!—please don’t touch me—I want to rest—no rest—earn—got to earn—married—earn—no—yes—earn—all girls—most girls—ma—pa—ma—all women—most women—I can’t—must—maybe—must—somebody—something—ma—pa—ma—can I, ma? Tell me, ma—something—somebody.
YOUNG WOMAN. Tell me—(Words suddenly pouring out.) Your skin oughtn’t to curl—ought it—when he just comes near you—ought it? That’s wrong, ain’t it? You don’t get over that, do you—ever, do you or do you? How is it, Ma—do you?
MOTHER. Do you what?
YOUNG WOMAN. Do you get used to, it—so after a while it doesn’t matter? Or don’t you? Does it always matter? You ought to be in love, oughtn’t you, Ma? You must be in love, mustn’t you, Ma? That changes everything, doesn’t it—or does it? Maybe if you just like a person it’s all right—is it? When he puts a hand on me, my blood turns cold. But your blood oughtn’t to run cold, ought it? His hands are—his hands are fat, Ma—don’t you see—his hands are fat—and they sort of press—and they’re fat—don’t you see?—Don’t you see?
MOTHER (stares at her bewildered). See what?
YOUNG WOMAN (rushing on). I’ve always thought I’d find somebody—somebody young—and—and attractive—with wavy hair—wavy hair—I always think of children with curls—little curls all over their head—somebody young—and attractive—that I’d like—that I’d love—But I haven’t found anybody like that yet—I haven’t found anybody—I’ve hardly known anybody—you’d never let me go with anybody and—
MOTHER. Are you throwing it up to me that—
YOUNG WOMAN. No—let me finish, Ma! No—let me finish! I just mean I’ve never found anybody—anybody—nobody’s ever asked me—till now—he’s the only man that’s ever asked me—And I suppose I got to marry somebody—all girls do—
YOUNG WOMAN. But, I can’t go on like this, Ma—I don’t know why—but I can’t—it’s like I’m all tight inside—sometimes I feel like I’m stifling!—You don’t know—stifling. (Walks up and down.) I can’t go on like this much longer—going to work—coming home—going to work—coming home—I can’t—Sometimes in the subway I think I’m going to die—sometimes even in the office if something don’t happen—I got to do something—I don’t know—it’s like I’m all tight inside.
HUSBAND. […] Say did I tell you the one about—
YOUNG WOMAN. Yes! Yes!
HUSBAND (with dignity). How do you know which one I meant?
YOUNG WOMAN. You told me them all!
HUSBAND (pulling her back to his knee). No, I didn’t! Not by a jugful! I got a lot of ’em up my sleeve yet—that’s part of what I owe my success to—my ability to spring a good story—You know—you got to learn to relax, little girl—haven’t you?
YOUNG WOMAN. Yes.
HUSBAND. That’s one of the biggest things to learn in life. That’s part of what I owe my success to. Now you go and get those heavy things off—and relax.
Let me alone—let me alone—let me alone—I’ve submitted to enough—I won’t submit to any more—crawl off—crawl off in the dark—Vixen crawled under the bed—way back in the corner under the bed—they were all drowned—puppies don’t go to heaven—heaven—golden stairs—long stairs—long—too long—long golden stairs—climb those golden stairs…—no matter—nothing matters—dead—stairs—long stairs—all the dead going up—going up—to be in heaven—heaven—golden stairs—all the children coming down—coming down to be born—dead going up—children coming down—[…]—St. Peter—St. Peter at the gate—you can’t come in—no matter—it doesn’t matter—I’ll rest—I’ll lie down—down—all written down—down in a big book—no matter—it doesn’t matter—I’ll lie down—[…]—a girl—aren’t you glad it’s a girl—a little girl—with no hair—none—little curls all over his head—a little bald girl—curls—curls all over his head—what kind of hair had God? No matter—it doesn’t matter—everybody loves God—they’ve got to—got to—got to love God—God is love—even if he’s bad they got to love him—even if he’s got fat hands—fat hands—no no—he wouldn’t be God—His hands make you well—He lays on his hands—well—and happy—no matter—doesn’t matter—far—too far—tired—too tired Vixen crawled off under bed—eight—there were eight—a woman crawled off under the bed—[…]—I’ll not submit any more—I’ll not submit—I’ll not submit.
YOUNG WOMAN (reading). Sale of jewels and precious stones.
YOUNG WOMAN puts her hand to throat.
HUSBAND. What’s the matter?
YOUNG WOMAN. I feel as though I were drowning.
YOUNG WOMAN. With stones around my neck.
HUSBAND. You just imagine that.
YOUNG WOMAN. Stifling.
HUSBAND. You don’t breathe deep enough—breathe now—look at me. (He breathes.) Breath is life. Life is breath.
YOUNG WOMAN (suddenly). And what is death?
HUSBAND (smartly). Just—no breath!
YOUNG WOMAN (to herself). Just no breath.
The BARBERS take her by the arms.
YOUNG WOMAN. No! No! Don’t touch me—touch me!
They take her and put her down in the chair, cut a patch from her hair.
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!
BARBER (finishing cutting a patch from her hair). You’ll submit, my lady. Right to the end, you’ll submit! There, and a neat job too.