Interview with Jerry Dickey, Sophie Treadwell Expert

Posted on: December 17th, 2013 by Roundabout

Sophie Treadwell

Ted Sod: What can you tell us about Sophie Treadwell’s life and career as a playwright? like Mary Chase, she began as a journalist—correct?

Jerry Dickey: Actually, Sophie Treadwell’s interests in theatre and journalism developed simultaneously, especially while she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley between 1902 and 1906. After a short stint as a vaudeville performer upon graduation, she was hired as a journalist for the San Francisco Bulletin, where she met her husband, William O. McGeehan, a noted sports writer. They were married in 1910, and Treadwell continued writing plays as she rapidly made a name for herself as an investigative journalist and serial writer. McGeehan moved to New York in 1914 to write for the New York Evening Journal, and Treadwell followed the next year when she was hired as a journalist by the New York American. She had her first play produced on Broadway in 1922, the first of seven of her plays to reach Broadway stages, with Machinal being by far her most critically successful.

Treadwell led a remarkable life that fueled much of her playwriting. She marched for women’s suffrage with the feminist Lucy Stone League; during World War I, she was one of the first state-accredited female foreign war correspondents; she collaborated with Marcel Duchamp on a work of modern art; she had an affair with the painter Maynard Dixon; as a journalist she covered the tumultuous events of the Mexican Revolution, including a first-hand account of the assassination of Mexican President Carranza and the only western journalist’s interview with Pancho Villa at his post-Revolution hideaway in Canutillo; she studied acting with the Moscow Art Theatre-emigré Richard Boleslavsky; she sued John Barrymore for plagiarism; she wrote, produced and acted in her own plays on Broadway; and at age 64—sixteen years after the death of her husband—she became a single mother when she adopted a German baby boy. When the Royal National Theatre in London produced Machinal in 1993, the critic for the Daily Telegraph wrote that “Treadwell is one of those fascinating people whose life was full of adventure but about whom little was ever recorded. […] Inexplicably, there is no biography of her.”  Only now are the details of her life becoming better known.


TS: Machinal had a brief run of 91 performances on Broadway in 1928. Was the play ahead of its time? Were audiences not ready for what was described as its “expressionistic” style? It seems the play was given new life after the Public Theatre’s 1990 production—is that true?

JD: The expressionistic style of Machinal would not have been altogether unfamiliar to New York audiences in 1928. Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight, Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, and several expressionistic plays by Eugene O’Neill had previously received critical acclaim in the New York press. But what was different about Treadwell’s use of expressionistic techniques was her blending of them with moments of intimacy that seemed more like domestic American realism. According to stage directions in an early manuscript, Treadwell hoped the unique style of the play—inner monologues, an expressionistic soundscape of the world around the Young Woman, and the quieter moments of intimacy—would create a suggestive atmosphere that would encourage the audience to fill in the gaps and complete the narrative for themselves. As Treadwell wrote, she hoped these effects would quicken “still secret places in the consciousness of the audience, especially of women.”  The play never received a fully expressionistic staging until it was produced by the famed Russian director Alexander Tairov at the Kamerny Theatre in 1933.


Original Production Photo, 1928

The appearance of Machinal in a couple of drama anthologies kept the play alive for critical study in colleges and universities and probably facilitated an off-Broadway revival in 1960. But, yes, it was Michael Greif’s Public Theatre production featuring Jodie Markell in 1990 that accelerated interest in the play and Treadwell.

TS: What are the challenges of producing and directing Machinal? How have you noticed that contemporary audiences relate to Treadwell’s play? What do you feel resonates for people when they see a modern production?

JD: One of the greatest challenges I’ve noticed is that Treadwell does such a remarkable job of dramatizing the various social and economic factors that have shaped the Young Woman’s circumstances and attitudes that it is sometimes easy to dismiss her as a victim. Our contemporary society is also more open in sexual matters than it was in the 1920s, so some audience members may grow slightly impatient with the Young Woman’s sexual anxieties in the first part of the play. The actions that Treadwell presents as “prohibited” in Episode 5—homosexuality, abortion, extramarital affairs—don’t possess the same aura of taboo they did during the play’s premiere. That said, I have seen that the play’s depiction of our society’s unequal treatment toward women, the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, the seeming anonymity of existence in urban cities, and biases in our media coverage and judicial system—including the issue of capital punishment—all have a powerful effect on contemporary audiences.


TS: How do you pronounce Machinal and what does it mean?

JD: I should have mentioned earlier that the play’s title is also something of a challenge in producing the play!  Whenever Machinal has been produced, playbills and reviews offer a guide as to the meaning and pronunciation of the title. The title is a French word meaning mechanical, automatic, or involuntary; its pronunciation is “ma-SHIN-al.”  The playbill for the original Broadway production at the Plymouth Theatre identified the pronunciation of the play as “MAK-i-nal.”  Other Anglicized pronunciations of the title have appeared in print as “MA-shin-al,” “mock-en-AHL,” and “MAK-in-al” (long A).

TS: It is often said that Machinal was inspired by the Ruth Snyder murder trial. Why do you believe Treadwell was attracted to that story?

JD: The short answer is that in 1927 seemingly everybody was intrigued by the Ruth Snyder murder trial. The notion that an apparently “normal” Long Island housewife and mother of a little girl would have an affair with a corset salesman, Judd Gray, and then conspire with him to murder her husband undermined the very ideal of marital domesticity as the bedrock of American society. As depicted in much of the press, Ruth Snyder must have been some sort of cold, calculating monster who ensnared a somewhat overwhelmed lover to do her beck and call. New York newspapers assigned 180 reporters to cover the trial, which was also attended by journalist-authors Damon Runyon and James M. Cain, the latter’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity being inspired by the Snyder case. The fact that Snyder became the first women executed by electric chair in New York State further fueled sensational coverage in the media.

Daily News Newspaper cover, 1927

Although Treadwell did not report on the trial for a newspaper, she had plenty of journalistic experience with similar high-profile murder cases involving women. Treadwell’s coverage of these trials often focused on the defendants’ seemingly unimportant mannerisms and behaviors, often reading into them suggestions of their motives or indicators of physical or verbal abuse by their deceased husbands or lovers. Like many women reporters of her era, Treadwell had been encouraged by editors to avoid the typical objective prosaic style used by male journalists and use instead short phrasing that emphasized the emotions behind the incidents. This type of female reporting led to the women journalists being trivialized with the moniker “sob sisters.” Machinal is Treadwell’s answer to the questions: “What circumstances would make a woman like Ruth Snyder perform such actions?  Is there more to this story than an all-male jury, which was the legal norm of that time, or a patriarchal society conditioned to certain ways of thinking and seeing, can discover?”


TS: How does Treadwell compare to other playwrights of her generation? What themes were most important to her in her writing? Did she consider herself a feminist or a “new woman,” as they were called early in the 20th century?

JD: Treadwell most certainly saw herself as a feminist. As an early member of the Lucy Stone League, she believed that women should retain their own names—and at times their own residences—upon marriage. While she later distanced herself from formal activist organizations, her devotion to the rights of women never waned. She consistently placed women in the subject positions of her plays, and one of her recurring themes is the conflict encountered by women who desire both an independent identity through work/career as well as fulfillment in marriage and family. She dramatized the so-called “new woman” in several plays, always depicting with sympathy their unconventionality in the eyes of traditional society. Although her central female characters are not uniform in terms of class, ideology or behavior, they are consistent in terms of their demand for women’s rights and self-determination.

I would compare her work most closely with that of her contemporary Susan Glaspell. Both dramatists were writing about women’s experiences at a time when America was in transition from Victorian traditionalism to progressive modernism; both wrote in a variety of mediums—including drama, fiction, and journalism; both had deep connections in the modernist art movement as well as the more commercial Broadway theatre; and in works such as Glaspell’s The Verge and Treadwell’s Machinal and Intimations for Saxophone, both experimented radically with dramatic form in an effort to create a new theatrical aesthetic that might be more reflective of women’s experiences.


TS: What do you think Treadwell’s legacy as an artist is?

JD: I think it’s safe to say that in Machinal Treadwell wrote a play of startling originality that will be remembered as one of the great American dramas of the twentieth century. Her achievements as a pioneer for women’s rights seem secure. Perhaps above all, she will be remembered as an absolutely uncompromising artist who refused to abide by any system—political, social or personal—she felt was abusive or unfair.


For more information about Machinal and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Machinal, Upstage

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