Monday, June 10, 2024

American Plays in London: Machinal and Long Day’s Journey into Night

Rosie Sheehy in Machinal. (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

The English director Richard Jones did a fine job with Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which began at the Old Vic and was showcased at the Armory in New York seven years ago. But his take on another 1920s expressionist classic, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, which just closed at the Old Vic, is a mistake pretty much from beginning to end. Machinal, inspired by the Ruth Snyder murder trial, is a feminist take on the protest play that was more or less forgotten for decades after its 1928 premiere and rediscovered when the Public Theatre revived it in 1990. (Arthur Hopkins directed the original production on a set designed by the legendary Robert Edmond Jones, with Zita Johann in the leading role.) Like other signal American expressionist screeds of the era, The Hairy Ape and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, Machinal lashes out at the mechanized society that squashes individualist impulse and wrecks the soul, but Treadwell was the first playwright to identify that society as specifically patriarchal. The protagonist, known for the first half of the play only by the emblematic title the Young Woman, slaves in an office until her boss proposes marriage; she accepts him because he can make her life and that of her widowed mother comfortable (and, we assume, she’ll lose her job if she turns him down). But he’s insensitive and self-involved and he repels her physically. She finds childbirth torturous and doesn’t feel any love for her baby; Treadwell is the first dramatist to put post-partum depression on the stage. It isn’t until the Young Woman, finally referred to her by her name, Helen, goes to a speakeasy with a friend and is picked up by a handsome young adventurer who takes her to bed that she experiences any semblance of freedom and happiness. When the affair is over she kills her husband and is sentenced to the electric chair.