Last weekend, the Kenyon College Dance, Drama and Cinema Club (KCDC) performed Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play, Machinal, which means “automatic” or “mechanical” in French and speaks to the impersonal, routine nature of the characters’ lives. The production drew a sizeable and energetic audience on Friday night, but the show’s unsettling nature quickly silenced them.
Machinal tells the story of a young woman who marries her boss, even though she finds him repulsive. Years into an unfulfilling marriage, a passionate affair with an outlaw drives her to murder her husband. Machinal is based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, a housewife who killed her husband in 1927. Treadwell took many creative liberties with the script, incorporating feminist themes within the story of the high-profile murder case.
Associate Professor of Drama Anton Dudley directed KCDC’s production of Machinal, alongside assistant director Kit Fluharty ’19. The show ran Jan. 31, Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 in the Bolton Theater, and starred Delilah Draper ’22 as the protagonist, Helen Jones.
Sound clips of clanking machinery enhanced the cold, detached feeling thanks to sound designers Fluharty and Cora Cicala ’22. Even the program for the production played into the mechanical aesthetic: It simply listed the cast members in alphabetical order without giving their characters’ names, a hint at the characters’ lack of individuality.
The play opened with low lighting and a very simple set. The first scene depicts a group of stenographers, rhythmically typing and taking phone calls. The performers did not have props and mimed these actions instead, ensuring that nothing about the office would have any character. When Helen Jones shows up late to work and fails to match her coworkers’ machine-like rhythm, it is an early sign of her inability to conform to this corporate, machine-like world. Helen continues to stand out not only as a headstrong female character, but also through the contrast between her bright red clothing and the drab colors worn by the other characters.
From the beginning of the play, Draper’s gripping monologues convey Helen’s emotional torture. These monologues not only reflect her unhappiness in her marriage, but also her feelings of incompetence as a mother and her struggle with societal expectations for women. When she gives birth to her child and does not want to breastfeed, a doctor labels her as a “modern neurotic woman,” a common stereotype of the time.
The show is driven not only by Helen’s poignant monologues, but also by her interactions with the world around her. A meal she shares with her mother, played by Kennedy Frazier ’22, is particularly memorable. In this deeply disturbing scene, Helen goes on a distressed tirade about the pressure she feels to get married, leading her mother to call her crazy. However, despite the cruelty of the scene, Draper and Frazier bring tenderness to the characters and reveal the strong bond that they share.
The dynamic between Helen and her husband George Jones, played by Teddy Fischer ’22, brings humor to this dark play. Mr. Jones’ character is tone-deaf, and comes across as wholly unaware of the fact that his wife despises him. Several of his out-of-place comments brought the audience to laughter, a welcome relief from the show’s morose subject matter. Finally, despite the doomed nature of the affair between Helen and the younger man, played by Henry Ratliff ’20, Draper and Ratliff’s scenes together are sweet. The characters’ connection through conversation and song allows a glimpse into Helen Jones’ softer side, underlining the complexity of the character.
Machinal is harrowing and intense, yet manages to be funny at the same time. It does not attempt to justify the atrocity that it depicts, but highlights the challenges faced by women during that time, and treats its complicated protagonist with compassion.