The Mechanics of Murder: A History of Machinal

By Robert Simonson
January 27, 2014

Playbill.com offers a history of the expressionist drama Machinal, which was inspired by the real-life execution of Ruth Snyder.



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Along with Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine and Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, Sophie Treadwell's play Machinal — currently in revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre — is one of the few expressionistic dramas of American creation to have entered the dramatic canon.

Treadwell was a journalist as well as a playwright, and an adventerous one. She infiltrated prostitution in San Francisco by posing as a homeless prostitute. During World War I, she was one of the first female foreign war correspondents in American history. Her greatest journalistic coup was a two-day interview with the Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa.

Treadwell based Machinal on the case of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted in 1927 of murdering her husband Albert, with the help of her lover Judd Gray, and executed at Sing Sing Prison Jan. 12, 1928. Grey, too, was convicted and executed only moments before Snyder. The two had hoped to collect on Albert's $48,000 health insurance policy, which paid out double if the holder died a violent death. (Snyder's case gave the world plenty of art: It also inspired James M. Cain's novel "Double Indemnity," which was made into a famous film in 1944 by Billy Wilder.)

Treadwell — who, at the time, was more famous for being the wife of W.O. McGeehan, a sportswriter at the New York Herald-Tribune, than for being a playwright — worked fast. The play premiered on Broadway Sept. 7, 1928, following a tryout in New Haven, less than eight months after Snyder's death. The production was produced and directed by Arthur Hopkins, a powerhouse in his day, and regarded as the thinking man's Broadway producer. With the production, he said he sought to "liberate the stage from the confinement of box sets and give greater scope for lighting." Zita Johann played the Young Woman, the character based on Snyder, and George Stillwell was the Husband.

Sophie Treadwell

The production received admiring notices. Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, wrote, "From the sordid mess of a brutal murder the author, actors and producer of Machinal… have with great skill managed to retrieve a frail and sombre beauty of character." Strangely enough, however, Atkinson admitted as to being unable to describe the play's "precise quality" in what he called his "ambiguous review." Theatre Arts wrote, "All sorts of things that do not strictly belong to the play, things that would be excluded by other playwrights, stray into Machinal and sink out of sight again, giving us glimpses and other dimensions which the ordinary self-contained play is too 'well-made' ever to tolerate.'"

A week after the opening, an unsigned Times article presciently observed, "The only recent play which seems a worthy candidate for preservation is Machinal. Its drama is so detached, impersonal and abstract that it seems timeless. In a hundred years it should still be vital and vivid."

The Times continued to ladle out praise for the play and production. Nevertheless, it lasted only 91 performances and was a box-office failure. (Even so, it was the longest run the luckless Treadwell enjoyed for any of seven plays of hers that made it to Broadway. After 1941, she abandoned the stage and devoted herself to novels.) The original production is famous today primarily for casting a very young Clark Cable in the role of the lover and helping to spark his film career.

The play's first New York revival was Off-Broadway at the Gate Theatre in 1960. Gene Frankel directed, and the cast featured Delores Sutton, Vincent Gardenia and Gerald O'Loughlin. Treadwell had granted the show's producer, Richard Karp, the rights to the play, but with the proviso that he find "the right actress." In the end, Treadwell herself found the actress, spotting Sutton on a television program. Once again, Atkinson was on the scene, and approved of the result, calling it "one of Off-Broadway's most vivid productions."

Another 30 years passed before Machinal was again revived Off-Broadway, this time at the Public Theater in 1990. Michael Grief directed a cast led by Jodie Markell, John Seitz and William Fichtner. The production was well-recognized, winning three Obie Awards, including ones for Grief and Markell.

The play has also enjoyed an extended life overseas. In 1993, it was mounted by Stephen Daldry at the Royal National Theatre, starring Fiona Shaw. The show won three Olivier Awards the following year.

Sophie Treadwell died in 1970 at the age of 79. Her obituary was headlined: "Sophie Treadwell; Wrote Machinal."