Despite being written almost 100 years ago, Machinal by Sophie Treadwell remains a powerful play that is often uncomfortable to watch. A new production of it at the Titchfield Festival Theatre resonated with Portsmouth author Jackie Green on an almost physical level.
It’s inspired by the real-life story of Ruth Snyder, the first woman to be sentenced to the electric chair in New York at a time when many women were seen as disposable objects. This notion of female powerlessness runs throughout the play; the need to be loved and the freedom to love are other important themes. Machinal touches on many issues which were taboo in 1928, when the play was first performed: divorce, sexual infidelity, homosexuality and abortion.
Ruth is a vulnerable woman controlled by society and those immediately around her. She lives with a demanding, selfish mother and works for an overbearing, manipulative boss who grooms her into accepting his marriage proposal. 1920s New York was a time of great contradictions. The American manufacturing industry was booming and woman were just being accepted into the world of work. Ruth finds herself in a noisy, clattering, mechanical and cold environment. The stage production inventively deploys a cacophony of typewriters, ringing telephones and automated verbal responses from the workers to emphasise the loveless life Ruth is living. Her only escape is to take a lover – this is where her dark plan to commit murder begins to take shape.
Director Janette Evans has coaxed a slick performance from the entire cast using minimal and intelligent set changes to maximum effect. Nix Clements was superb as Helen working with a script whose dialogue is sometimes clipped, mirroring the rhythms of the ominous beat of the mechanical world of the 1920s. She illuminated the mental fragility of this young woman trying to cope with an impersonal workplace and lack of status. The emotional textures Nix worked into her character was extraordinary. Fergus Milton, Kay Fraser, Colin Martin and the entire ensemble cast performed as a tight unit which helped to immerse the audience in a uniquely disturbing time and space.
The real-life creator of the electric chair was a New York dentist. He first tested his lethal invention by making dogs run in and out of water that he sent electricity through using various types of electrode. Despite this, he believed the chair was a more humane method of execution than hanging. This is a chilling enough story but I must admit the execution scene in Machinal truly brought home the moral arguments against the death penalty (if one is even required) and fired up every hair on my arms!
The tragic image of such a mentally fragile woman trapped by society and marriage, and then physically imprisoned within such a contraption was terrifying. The ominous clanging and clanking of huge machines gave the moment an almost futuristic tone. However, the writer managed to infuse many moments of tenderness and comedy before this final scene completing a thought-provoking piece of theatre… Electric in more ways than one!
Image used with permission of Titchfield Festival Theatre.