Plot spoilers aren’t a big worry with Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal. Just about every description of the expressionist drama says it was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, a Queens housewife who murdered her husband and was executed at New York’s Sing Sing. Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater, which is currently reviving the play through September 24, doesn’t bother hiding any of these facts. The theatre’s poster for Machinal shows an electric chair.
So, there isn’t really much suspense about how Machinal ends. It isn’t that kind of true-crime entertainment. “It is more about how she got there than what she did,” says Greenhouse’s artistic director, Jacob Harvey, who is directing the play. Indeed, Treadwell’s groundbreaking script shows a young woman bending under society’s pressures as she feels pushed down the path toward murder. “Sophie Treadwell … has in no sense capitalized a sensational murder trial in her strangely-moving, shadowy drama,” New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in 1928, when Machinal made its Broadway premiere with a young Clark Gable in the cast. “Rather has she written a tragedy of submission; she has held an individual character against the hard surface of a mechanical age.”
Machinal was a high point of the expressionist theatre movement, which often featured actors speaking in a heightened style and themes such as the failure of social values. “It’s a play we all read in our theatre history class,” Harvey says. “It has always fascinated me. But it doesn’t get produced that often, and I think that’s kind of tragic. It has been quite a long time since it’s been in Chicago.”
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Harvey chose Machinal as the opening play of Greenhouse’s 2017-2018 season (the theatre’s second year as a producing entity) because its damning portrayal of a mechanistic world still feels relevant to him. “If you watch this story and realize it was written in the 1920s and it’s set in the 1920s, you look at this and go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is still happening almost 100 years later.’”
Treadwell, who was born in California in 1885, worked as a teacher in a mining camp, a governess on a ranch, and a vaudeville singer. As a journalist, she landed an exclusive interview with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Treadwell marched with suffragettes and studied with the legendary Polish actress Helena Modjeska. She wrote 40 plays, sometimes directing or producing them herself—a rare feat for a woman in the early 20th century.
In 1927, Treadwell attended the highly publicized New York City trial of Ruth Snyder and her lover, Henry Judd Gray, who were accused of garroting Snyder’s husband, stuffing his nose full of chloroform-soaked rags, and then trying to make his death look like it was part of a burglary. Mocking the stupidity of their scheme, reporter Damon Runyon called it “the dumbbell murder case.” Convicted, Snyder went to the electric chair moments before her lover. Her death was famously captured in a grim photo by a newspaperman from Chicago, who’d secretly strapped a camera to his ankle.
Rather than covering the case as a journalist, Treadwell absorbed its details to study the forces that would influence a woman to commit such a terrible deed. Her script for Machinal (the title means “automatic” or “mechanical” in French) presents a sequence of nine scenes depicting “the different phases of life that a woman comes in contact with, and in none of which she finds any place, any peace,” according to her stage directions.
Setting the tone, the first scene takes place in an office, where the young woman’s co-workers speak in repetitious patterns, echoing the rhythm of machinery. “That dialogue is the sounds of this office,” Harvey says. “It’s the sound of the typewriters and the bells dinging and the phones ringing. We orchestrate that into this beautiful cacophony.”
The script for Machinal includes nearly 50 characters, some of them appearing for just a moment or a few lines of dialogue. At Greenhouse, a cast of ten will divvy up those roles, with Heather Chrisler starring as the story’s central figure, a young woman named Helen, who reluctantly marries her boss, finds herself mired in an unhappy marriage, and strikes up an affair with a man she meets in a bar. Speaking about Chrisler, who has acted in shows at Remy Bumppo Theatre and First Folio Theatre, Harvey says, “What I’m looking for the most is an adventurous spirit and an open heart. She definitely brings both of those things to the table.”
Treadwell’s stage directions for Machinal don’t offer much guidance about how the characters move, but the dialogue has kinetic energy. That inspired Harvey to bring in Elizabeth Margolius as a “movement director.” Her job is working with the actors to create motions that heighten the expression of their characters. “I don’t call myself a choreographer. I don’t have a lot of dance experience,” explains Margolius. “What I do is create movement based on the character and story. It’s never movement for movement’s sake. Every single thing has to illuminate the story.”
Margolius (who directed Uncle Philip’s Coat last season at Greenhouse) shares Harvey’s enthusiasm for Machinal. “I have a list I keep of dream projects, musicals or plays that I want to work on one day, and Machinal has been on that list for maybe a decade.”
Margolius sees Machinal as a story about the oppression of women. But she adds that the play is about more than that. “It’s a reflection on so many groups of people in our society who feel left out or put-upon,” she suggests. “It’s about how society influences us, and the choices we make. It’s just a fascinating study in human behavior.”
Like Margolius, Harvey approaches theatrical performance by emphasizing physicality. As an acting student, he learned from commedia dell’arte and the physical theatre of France’s Jacques Lecoq. “I find that’s the best way to explore a character. How do they walk? What’s their rhythm? What’s their tempo? And let that inform the psychological world of the character.”
And Harvey says that physical approach creates an exciting experience for the audience. “I believe in theatre being a very visceral experience, not only for the actors onstage, but for the people in the audience. If you walk out of this show saying, ‘Wow, that was a whirlwind,’ and you’re out of breath, I think we’ve done our jobs well.”