Machinal is a play inundated by machines. The constant presence of mechanical sounds and industrialized landscapes shapes Helen’s life into an existence ruled by isolation, monotony, and anxiety. In a note titled “The Plan,” Treadwell comments on the nature of the play, explaining Helen’s relationship to the external world: “The woman is essentially soft, tender, and the life around her is essentially hard, mechanized. Business, home, marriage, having a child, seeking pleasure—all are difficult for her—mechanical, nerve nagging.” This “nerve nagging” quality is evident from the very beginning of the play, as the characters must contend with the sounds of “typewriters, adding machine[s], manifold[s], telephone bells, [and] buzzers.” Machines, in other words, are everywhere, creating a cacophony of meaningless, random sounds that mount in the background and reflect the play’s (and Helen’s) nervous energy, her growing sense that she’s at odds with the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, she’s unable to thrive within this mechanical world, and Treadwell showcases how the machine-like (or “machinal”) society of the early 20th century can be cold, impersonal, and oppressive to those who are already struggling against patriarchal power structures. Indeed, when Helen meets her death in the electric chair, Treadwell demonstrates how a misogynistic society wields the power of the mechanical world to punish those who act against it.
The people who thrive—at least initially—in Machinal are those who treat themselves like machines. For example, George, who is wealthy and who successfully pursues the woman he loves, shows himself to be a repetitive, unfeeling, and one-dimensional character—inhuman in more ways than one. After making a business deal one night, he prompts Helen to ask him about it. Knowing exactly what he wants to hear, she asks him the following questions: “Did you put it over?”; “Did you swing it?”; “Did they come through?”; “Did they sign?”; “On the dotted line?”; “The property’s yours?” When the phone rings moments later, George says to his business partner: “Hello—hello D.D.—Yes—I put it over—they came across—I put it over on them—yep—yep—yep—I’ll say I am—yep—on the dotted line.” In this way, it’s clear that George recites this series of statements every time he makes a deal. Later, while reading the newspaper, he says, “Here’s a man says ‘I owe my success to a yeast cake a day—my digestion is good—I sleep very well[…].’” In this passage especially, George’s appreciation of routine casts him as orderly, structured, and automated, as if he’s a well-calibrated machine designed to yield specific results. What he fails to pay attention to, however, are the elements of existence that make a person human, such as thoughtful interaction with loved ones. Rather, he is so hung up on talking about his deals and what he “owe[s] his success to” that he neglects to nurture his relationship with Helen, a failure that eventually leads to his death, since she perhaps would not have wanted to kill him if he had genuinely listened to her and considered her thoughts and emotions—if, in other words, he had treated her as a human being. Consequently, although George’s mechanical personality allows him to thrive in the world at large, it dooms him in his personal life.
In contrast to George, Helen wants to live on her own terms, and so she rejects the tyranny of industrial or mechanical life. This is why she can’t stand to ride on the subway. “I had to get out!” she says, justifying why she’s late to work. When her colleagues ask, “Out where?” she says, “In the air!” She then clarifies, saying, “I thought I would faint! I had to get out in the air!” This response perfectly juxtaposes the mechanical world with the natural world—suffocation versus fresh “air”—and Helen speaks about riding the subway as if it’s a threat to her very life, framing it as something that deprives her of the most fundamental biological necessity: oxygen. Because this conversation occurs at the beginning of the play, Helen’s fear of the mechanical world may at first seem overdramatic, but considering that she’s later put to death by an electric chair—an ordinary piece of furniture repurposed and outfitted with fatal machinery—her concerns emerge as valid and even visionary.
Not only is Helen fearful of the effects of the mechanical world, she’s also uninterested in using it to her advantage. This is evident in the opening scene, when she sits down at her office desk and does nothing but stare at her own hands because her stenography machine is broken. The fact that she doesn’t even make an effort to fix the machine indicates her complete lack of interest in joining or utilizing the mechanical world, instead wanting to indulge more natural, human modes of being, which she does by contentedly studying her hands. Even when she could make use of a machine, she opts for more rudimentary objects—indeed, when she murders George, she doesn’t use a gun, but rather a bottle filled with pebbles. Not only is this bludgeon a primitive weapon, but it’s also emotionally significant to her, since the man with whom she’s been having an affair told her that he once used a pebble-filled bottle to escape from and kill several bandits in Mexico. Therefore, there is a small amount of sentimentality to Helen’s choice of weapon. And because sentimentality is a very human thing, Treadwell presents Helen as a character who stands in complete opposition to the mechanical world. Unlike her procedural, predictable husband, she pays attention to her emotions and rejects the impersonal monotony of a mechanical existence.
However, Helen’s resistance of the mechanical world ultimately fails to liberate her from the 20th century’s structural oppression of women. Unfortunately, society uses the mechanical world against her, forcing her to submit to a male-dominated society by killing her with an electric chair. The play therefore suggests a rather bleak, defeatist message, indicating that the impersonal industrial world has been given unchecked power that rarely fails. Just before the jailers turn on the electric chair, one reporter says to another, “Suppose the machine shouldn’t work!” In response, the other reporter says, “It’ll work!—It always works.” Technically, this is untrue—there have been a significant number of instances throughout history in which the electric chair has failed to kill the condemned prisoner. Nonetheless, the reporter’s statement that “it always works” is accurate in a larger sense, especially when one defines the “it” in this sentence as the broader patriarchy and its oppression of women. In other words, the oppressive patriarchal society—in conjunction with the mechanized world—does seem to “always work,” at least in Machinal. If this is true, then the only possible optimistic conclusion audiences can take away from this aspect of the play is that a person must work within the system that oppresses her if she hopes to change it. Although it’s important to reject harmful structures of power, one can only hope to effect change by challenging society on its own terms.
The Mechanical World ThemeTracker
The Mechanical World 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.
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.
She comes into the light. She wears a white chemise that might be the tunic of a dancer, and as she comes into the light she fastens about her waist a little skirt. She really wears almost exactly the clothes that women wear now, but the finesse of their cut, and the grace and ease with which she puts them on, must turn this episode of her dressing into a personification, an idealization of a woman clothing herself. All her gestures must be unconscious, innocent, relaxed, sure and full of natural grace. As she sits facing the window pulling on a stocking.