Machinal Summary

Sophie Treadwell


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Machinal Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Machinal by Sophie Treadwell.

Machinal, a play written in 1928 by Sophie Treadwell, chronicles the life and execution of a young female stenographer who ends up murdering her husband. None of the characters in Treadwell’s play are given names. Rather, they are identified by their role, for example, “a stenographer,” “a mother,” and “a husband.” Not naming the characters allows readers and viewers to imagine them in real life, as anyone. The real-life inspiration for the main character was a woman named Ruth Snyder, who was executed via the electric chair in 1928.

Ruth Snyder was a housewife who supposedly conspired with her lover to kill her husband. She took out several life insurance policies on him and attempted to murder him several times before finally succeeding. In Treadwell’s play, the main character marries her boss despite the fact that she despises him. After they have a child, she ends up having an affair with a younger man. She murders her husband and, after her trial, is executed in the electric chair, just like Snyder, her real-life counterpart.

Machinal is an example of expressionist drama. This style is characterized by a number of defining elements, including a spiritual awakening. For Treadwell’s play, that spiritual awakening occurs when the stenographer discovers her love for life after beginning an affair. Expressionist plays are also referred to as station dramas because the way the character’s suffering is modeled after Christ’s Stations of the Cross—in episodes. Other well-known Expressionist playwrights include Eugene O’Neill and Elmer Rice.

Machinal was named in Burns Mantle’s “The Best Plays of 1928-29.” It was revived in 1994 by the Royal National Theatre and won three Laurence Olivier Awards. In 2014, it was produced on Broadway and was nominated for four Tony Awards. Treadwell’s play was also adapted for television in 1954 and again in 1960. The play was well-received when it first premiered, with critics lauding the play as “great art.” The play’s 1928 Broadway run also featured Clark Gable in his Broadway debut.

Sophie Treadwell’s other works to reach Broadway include Hope for a Harvest Plumes in the Dust, Lone Valley, Ladies Leave, Gringo, and O, Nightingale. In addition to being a playwright, Treadwell was also a notable journalist with the San Francisco Bulletin, where she wrote features and critiqued drama. She also wrote several novels, including Lusita and One Fierce Hour and Sweet.