The Machinal Machine

Why's everybody suddenly doing an obscure 1928 play?

Sophie Treadwell's Machinal has been going the rounds of college theaters lately. Swarthmore College did a production (directed by Abigail Adams of People's Light & Theatre) a few years ago; my students in the Theatre Arts Program at Penn took their production, directed by my colleague Rose Malague, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; and only last week, only a mile from Villanova, another production of Machinal, by the Theatre Program of Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, was ending its run. If you were as crazy as I was, you could have seen two different productions of the play in the span of three days; if you were even crazier, you could have seen them on consecutive nights.

Machinal used to be one of those plays that was only known to, and only read by, Ph.D students in academic Theater Studies programs. Like Kaufman and Connelly's Beggar on Horseback, Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape and a few others, Machinal represents the attempt of American playwrights in the 1920s to imitate European Expressionism: Wall Street meets The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

So, of all these plays, why is Machinal the one that's now getting produced?

It doesn't hurt that the play was produced in 1990 by the New York Shakespeare Festival, and in London in 1993 at the Royal National Theatre (in a production featuring Fiona Shaw as the Young Woman). It also helps that Treadwell's depiction of the Young Woman is so incontrovertibly feminist. Of all the American women playwrights of the few decades before and after Machinal - Rachel Crothers, Mae West, Clare Booth, Lillian Hellman - only Treadwell and Susan Glaspell depict women's issues from a women's perspective. Inarticulate and unenlightened though she is, the Young Woman nevertheless can shriek out "I'll not submit any more" as she recovers from delivering her child. And she goes to the electric chair - defeated, humiliated, stripped of power and shorn of her hair - nonetheless triumphantly unrepentant.

What an opportunity the play affords to directors and designers! Just look at what Embree does at Villanova, and what Hiroshi Iwasaki did at Bryn Mawr. Both productions have the jagged oblique angles of Expressionism, ashen makeup, a color scheme like a black-and-white movie (including an enormous American flag drained of its colors in the trial scene at Villanova), and a huge back-lit doorway. At Bryn Mawr, Iwasaki and director (and visiting faculty member) Cynthia Croot used an incessant mechanical sound score (by Gordon Adams) and video loops of churning machinery (by Harky Jewitt and Simone Marean) viewed continuously through a large picture window in one of the set's trapezoidal walls. Croot choreographed the entire play with high-style postmodern mechanistic movements, the ensemble rolling desks around the stage and dancing a Pina Bausch-like ballet with metal attache cases.

What an opportunity for gender-bending! The Penn production used only a single male actor (as the husband) in a cast of six. At Bryn Mawr, the male homosexual seduction that takes place at an adjacent table in the speakeasy, while the lover is propositioning the Young Woman, was a pas-de-deux of two women in drag. Cool.

And what an opportunity for the actor playing the Young Woman! Croot has asked that I not actually review her production, so let me only say that the young woman who played the Young Woman (I don't know her name, since the program listed the actors without identifying which roles they played) was amazing.

Machinal may not be fun, but it's evidently here to stay. If you missed the production at Bryn Mawr, and if you can't make the one at Villanova, just wait: there are a few more college theaters in town, not to mention professional theater companies, and at this rate at least one of them is bound to do the play again soon.

- Cary M. Mazer