Any credible list of the greatest U.S. plays would include Sophie Treadwell’s MACHINAL. It is our tautest and most rigorously constructed in the Expressionist mode, by any standard a masterpiece of feminist art, and one of the most universally applicable (and least commercially motivated) of all BOATS (Based-On-A-True-Story) dramas. It has not been revived on Broadway since its premiere in 1928, which means that it is about time, but, with Rebecca Hall in the lead, it was worth the wait.
Hall is English, and has distinguished herself both in the classical drama of her homeland and in films ranging from Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA to the surveillance society thriller CLOSED CIRCUIT. Her vocal and acting skills are impeccable – accent and cultural understanding are no issues – and her presence before an audience is unflappable. She has a lanky swanky frame perfect for the 1920s and dowdy gorgeous looks that are both sophisticated and working class at the same time. The character she plays – called only, as is typical in Expressionism, by a socially dictated moniker, Young Woman – is based on Ruth Snyder, who was executed by the state of New York as the adulterous killer of her husband following one of the more notorious murder trials of the time.
Treadwell, I imagine quite accurately, saw Snyder as a person trapped in a great social mechanism, whose parts included religion, family, the law, finance, and the patriarchy. It is the basic aesthetic of Expressionism that the world of the drama is constructed according to the central character’s perception of it, one that is more accurate, in terms of social critique, than the way in which the average inhabitants of the society – represented by the play’s other characters – perceive it. That of MACHINAL is, like that of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS or Elmer Rice’s ADDING MACHINE, a merciless human machine. The cogs in its wheels are called Telephone Girl, Mother (acted with devouring conviction by Suzanne Bertish), Doctor, Husband (cynically realized by Michael Cumpsty in a manner that must, as someone once said of the first George Bush, remind every divorced heterosexual woman in the audience of her first one), Lover (played with confident seductiveness by Morgan Spector), Guard, Priest (his lines declaimed with frightening indifference by Edward James Hyland), and the like; their names, like Young Woman’s, and hence their individuality, matter nothing to the machine.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production, directed by Lyndsey Turner with a set by Es Devlin, embodies the machinery of the world Treadwell portrays almost in homage to her name, as a giant rotating treadmill that is impossible to outrun. The repetitions of 20th century modernity are there, in sight and sound: the subways, the switchboards, the adding machines, the file cabinets, the sheer force of convention and economic need, the–way–that–things–are–done. It is Young Woman who, in the play and in Hall’s rendition, bravely declines to incorporate these rhythms into her being, who is ill-at-ease in their midst, and whose forced adherence to them, through employment, marriage to her boss, and obligation to her mother leads to a fundamental disorder of her being and, by means of the electric chair, her absorption into the veritable nervous system of the system she would reject. This is consonant with those theories of Expressionistic acting that seek to activate the nerves of the performer, and Hall, by design or intuition, understands the connection. There is an underlying nervousness to her portrayal which congeals in a deep emotion that, faced with the inexorability of the machine, even when it slows down or is out-of-whack, catches awkwardly in her throat as though coughed up from the bottom of her lungs.
MACHINAL is, like so many of the literary and artistic works clustered before and after the 1929 crash, a splendidly relevant work today. One has only to glance at the theater marquee and note how readily the image of the machine blends with its surroundings on 42nd Street to see what I mean.