Machinal is an example of Expressionist theater, a style of performance that aligns itself with the modernist artistic concept of Expressionism, which sought to represent not tangible, external reality, but rather the inner and subjective world of emotions and personal experience. In keeping with this, Treadwell imbues her scenes with disorder and chaos, qualities often invoked by the use of everyday sounds, needless repetitions of speech, and exaggerated linguistic clichés. In fact, she takes these elements to extreme heights by giving Helen long and nearly dissociative monologues in which the she almost nonsensically regurgitates common turns of phrase, repeating them time and again in a way that lends pathos to her words. By using fragmentation and the emotional distortions of Expressionism, then, Treadwell is able to use language to vividly represent Helen’s attempts to liberate herself from the oppressive structures surrounding her.
Helen’s tendency to repeat ideas and phrases she has heard throughout daily life indicates just how much of the surrounding discourse she absorbs and subsequently struggles with internally. This private battle against what other people tell her is apparent in her very first monologue, when she thinks aloud to herself in the office, speaking fervently amidst the “subdued accompaniment of the office sounds and voices.” In this monologue, Helen voices complaints, saying, “don’t touch me” and “no—I can’t” when George makes advances in her imagination (or perhaps in her memory). As in real life, however, these small protests get lost amidst the babble of other peoples’ words; thus, even in her own head, Helen can’t escape George H. Jones and his commanding name, his commanding title. She even evokes the company’s name, inserting “George H. Jones and Company” into her thoughts about marriage. This aligns with her mother’s eventual assertion that Mr. Jones must be a “decent man” because he’s the Vice-President of a successful company. Indeed, it’s clear that Helen has internalized the fragmentary bits of advice and opinion forced upon her by everyone she encounters. Treadwell projects these internalizations outward, creating a cascade of disconnected speech that reveals to the audience just how many thoughts Helen is dealing with—a stark contrast to George’s calm, one-track mind.
While Helen’s thought patterns anxiously reflect the chaos of the world around her, George seems to only ever think about business and about how he wants his wife to behave around him. It is perhaps because of this discrepancy that their conversations are themselves so fragmented. On the night Helen kills George, they pass the time in a sitting room, both lounging and reading newspapers. As they sit, they read out various lines from the news that strike their interest, creating a mosaic of the outside world that highlights the differences between them. George reads aloud the phrases, “Record production,” “Sale hits a million,” “Market trend steady,” and “Owns a life interest.” Helen, on the other hand, quotes, “Girl turns on gas,” “Woman leaves all for love,” and “Young wife disappears.” In this way Treadwell emphasizes the couple’s conflicting interests. Moreover, she highlights how fragmented conversation—nonlinear dialogue that doesn’t connect one idea to the next—allows Helen to hide her worries in plain sight. Busy vocalizing the financial stories that draw his interest, George doesn’t pick up on the fact that his wife is clearly preoccupied by morbid stories of death, loneliness, and forbidden love.
Even when George stops reading the newspaper and listens to his wife, he doesn’t understand the implications of what she says. To him, her fragmentary way of speaking denotes nothing more than unsubstantiated anxiety. His misogyny comes into play here, as he discounts her strange and random declarations—which hint heavily at her macabre intentions—as silly and childish. When she reads aloud a piece of news about “jewels and precious stones,” she worriedly puts her hand to her throat. “I feel as though I were drowning ... with stones around my neck,” she says. In response, he merely says, “You just imagine that,” to which she says only one word: “Stifling.” Thinking he can easily solve this strange line of thought—which is far more complicated than he cares to believe—he says, “You don’t breathe deep enough—breathe now—look at me.” The problem with his dismissive attitude is that it allows him to ignore the true import of what Helen is saying—namely, that she is “stifl[ed]” by the lavish life she leads with him at her side. After all, the mere idea of pearls leads her to think about death. Because she vocalizes these feelings without fully explaining how they connect to her broader thoughts and emotions, though, George patronizingly ignores her, brushing all concerns away by telling her that the source of her discontent comes solely from her imagination. Using fragmentation, then, Helen voices her tormented thoughts while simultaneously obscuring them from her husband.
Fragmentation is also used in Machinal in a purely auditory sense to achieve moments of heightened emotion and pathos. This occurs most prevalently right before Helen kills George. After having read in the newspaper about “jewels and precious stones” and having a disconnected conversation with George about stones in general, Helen suddenly hears the voice of the man with whom she’s been having an affair (“I filled an empty bottle with small stones,” his voice says). Echoing this line, a chorus of voices chants, “Stones—stones—precious stones—millstones—stones—stones—millstones.” In this way, Treadwell connects Helen’s previous meditation on “jewels” with the lurking idea of murder, reminding the audience of the weapon Helen’s lover used against the Mexican bandits. As such, Helen’s fragmentary thought process brings her to a point of action, and the audience tracks her developing emotions in a nonlinear way that mirrors her desperation. In turn, Treadwell’s expressionist technique of creating a fractal narrative about Helen’s internal world allows audience members to better relate to her plight as an oppressed woman. That is, through the use of fragmentary voices and narration, Treadwell invites the audience to actually experience Helen’s emotions. Ultimately, this makes Helen a sympathetic character rather than a cold-blooded psychotic killer—a dynamic that’s important to the play’s feminist and anti-establishment values, since for Treadwell to entirely condemn Helen would be equivalent to condemning her struggle against oppression.
Fragmentation and Expressionism ThemeTracker
Fragmentation and Expressionism Quotes in Machinal
Before the curtain
Sounds of machines going. They continue throughout the scene, and accompany the YOUNG WOMAN’s thoughts after the scene is blacked out.
At the rise of the curtain
All machines are disclosed, and all the characters with the exception of the YOUNG WOMAN.
Of these characters, the YOUNG WOMAN, going any day to any business. Ordinary. The confusion of her own inner thoughts, emotions, desires, dreams cuts her off from any actual adjustment to the routine of work. She gets through this routine with a very small surface of her consciousness. She is not homely and she is not pretty. She is preoccupied with herself—with her person. She has well kept hands, and a trick of constantly arranging her hair over her ears.
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.
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.