Machinal’s Radical Look at the Lives of Women

By, Elly P. ’21

Every fall, Winsor students delight audiences in plays. This year, surely, will be no different. Machinal is a 1928 play by Mexican-American playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell. It follows the life of a young woman who works as a low-level stenographer and lives with her mother. She marries her boss, whom she finds repulsive, and consequently has an affair and eventually murders her husband. 

Much of the storyline is based around the main character feeling that other people are making choices for her. She dislikes the way that she is treated as a woman but doesn’t fight expectations. To Nazira C. ’20, the actress playing the man with whom the young woman has an affair, this feeling of going along with what is expected of you makes the show particularly relevant to Winsor. As she puts it, “Winsor students kind of push themselves aside to meet standards and expectations: familial expectations, teacher expectations, school expectations, their own expectations. This act of meeting expectations is essentially what [the young woman] does for the better part of the play…our happiness is important, especially today when there are so many things available to us that weren’t available to [the young woman] or even Sophie Treadwell. Our distress might not end in us killing someone, but it’ll definitely have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing.”

Machinal is unique in its usage of Expressionism, an artistic style that aims to depict emotions that occur as a result of events rather than reality. This can be achieved through distortion, exaggeration, and the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of the formal elements of art: lines, shape, form, tone, texture, pattern, color, and composition. Another interesting aspect is the lack of names; Expressionism is allegorical, and the name of the young woman, Helen, is not revealed until the second half of the play. As Mr. J., the director of Machinal says, “Machinal uses Expressionism to show us the female protagonist’s world, and it’s a powerful theatrical style.” 

The  playwright, Sophie Treadwell, also had an interesting background. Treadwell was one of the first and only female war correspondents of World War I and focused on how the war affected women in Europe. She covered the end of the Mexican Revolution and was the only foreigner permitted to interview Pancho Villa, a Mexican Revolutionary general. She also covered the murder trials of Ruth Snyder, which inspired Machinal, and Judd Gray. Besides being a successful journalist, Treadwell was also one of the only women to have her work performed on Broadway in the first half of the 20th century. 

Machinal is still relevant in today’s political climate, 90 years after it was written. Treadwell was writing in the 1920s about the limited choices and lack of agency in making those choices possessed by women. The Kavanaugh hearings and #MeToo movement bring these ideas forward today as well. “To me, the play has an immediacy and a relevancy that make it worth exploring at this current moment,” says Mr. J. The play is able to contribute to the conversations many people are having right now about women and how they are treated by wealthier, more privileged men. Shantel T. ’20, the actress playing Helen, put it best: “Machinal serves as a reminder that although we have improved significantly since the 1900s, we still have a ways to go even pertaining to how women are simply looked upon in society. However, Treadwell also reminds us that women shouldn’t… feel like they need anyone in order to live a sufficient life. I think Winsor really allows us to explore our own independence as a means of highlighting the fact that we are fully capable of overcoming whatever comes our way as long as we support one another.”

The show, although dark, will help to start a dialogue of ideas that, regardless of whether or not students agree with them, can be discussed afterward. Mr. J. hopes that “students will leave in a variety of states; inspired, frustrated, challenged or uplifted, or maybe even a combination of all of the above!” See how you react to the show, and come to see Machinal on November 9 or 10 at 7 p.m. in the Winsor auditorium.