- Play title: Machinal
- Author: Sophie Treadwell
- Published: 1928
- Page count: 83
Machinal is a play by American writer, Sophie Treadwell. The play is based largely on the trial and execution of murderess, Ruth Snyder, who was the first woman to be sentenced to death by electric chair in New York state. Treadwell’s work is not divided into acts like traditional plays but is told instead in nine episodes. Each episode shows how the central character of Helen, simply referred to as “Young Woman,” struggles with the progressively changing and challenging roles that society seems to impose upon her. Treadwell’s own words from the play’s introduction offer the best summation of the story, she writes, “the plot is the story of a woman who murders her husband – an ordinary young woman, any woman.” The protagonist, Helen, is a sensitive, anxious woman who grapples with life until she finally commits the horrible crime. A defining feature of the work is Treadwell’s use of expressionist techniques, for example, onstage and offstage sounds of various machines from office equipment to a riveting tool on a construction site. Treadwell explained the title Machinal as “machine like” and it may also be rendered as mechanical or automatic.
Ways to access the text: reading.
There are at least two online sources for the play. Firstly, the website Openfist.org has a scanned copy of the full play text. As the website does not appear to have a search box, you may simply enter “openfist.org Machinal” as an internet search term. The second option is the webpage, ciaranhinds.eu/pdf/machinal.pdf which shows the same edition of the text but with a better quality scan.
Advice to readers: the first episode of the play, 12 pages long, is not reader-friendly due to short exchanges of highly repetitive dialogue but this is only in the first episode. A persevering reader will later appreciate the relevance of the artistic effect in this first scene. The rest of the play is indeed reader friendly.
There is no audiobook version of the text.
Why read Machinal?
Reasons to murder a husband.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that the play’s female protagonist murders her husband. Even if a reader skips the play’s introductory notes, it can be guessed from the parallel with Ruth Snyder’s story. The pressing question is why the character of Helen Jones murders her husband? Treadwell presents Mr. George H. Jones as a successful businessman who provides his wife with a lovely home and even financially supports her elderly mother. Mr. Jones is not depicted as any of the stereotypical types that would account for a wife’s revenge, he is not a drunk, nor a wife beater, nor an adulterer. The one thing that disgusts Helen Jones are her husband’s “fat hands,” but this is surely no justification for murder! Treadwell’s depiction of Mr. Jones is captivating as he is in some respects a nobody, yet his murder is obviously the pivotal point of Helen’s life. If the playwright depicts a responsible, benign husband then surely the motive for murder rests elsewhere. The presence of a motive that is not linked to the victim, but may be found elsewhere, is the abiding message of this play. Does a reader discover that Helen is a monstrously selfish and cold-blooded killer like the media depiction of Ruth Snyder, or that there is some broader societal problem that drives Helen to her crime?
9 defining episodes.
Treadwell constructed nine individual, self-contained scenes to communicate the play’s full story. In the playwright’s own words, “the plan is to tell this story by showing the different phases of life that the woman comes in contact with, and in none of which she finds any place, any peace.” The phases of Helen’s life that Treadwell is referring to include both the ‘normal’ and unusual and may be listed respectively as follows: single working woman, daughter, wife, mother, adulteress, lover, obedient wife, defendant, condemned woman. The striking element of Treadwell’s words is that Helen never has a sense of place or peace, that she is always somehow alienated or feels alienated even from the first four phases/roles which most women would experience. One may also focus on Treadwell’s decision to use “episode” to name the scenes. “Episode,” for example in the context of a woman ‘having an episode’ has the connotation of someone acting out or misbehaving, often due to feeling overwhelmed. Indeed, in all nine episodes of the play, Helen does not conform to societal expectations and often displays high levels of anxiety. Therefore, one should look at each scene as encapsulating a role, for example the role of daughter in “At Home” but also as a description of the emotional experience of Helen in that situation. In this way, one comes to understand why Helen reaches the crisis that she does at the play’s conclusion.
Machinal is a much-lauded example of expressionist drama. M. H. Abrams describes how “the expressionistic artist or writer undertakes to express a personal vision – of human life and human society. This is done by exaggerating and distorting what, according to the norms of artistic realism, are objective features of the world, and by embodying violent extremes of mood and feeling.” As an impressionistic style is therefore quite distinctive, it is worth analysing how it may contribute to a reader’s better understanding of a playwright’s chosen topics. It is noteworthy that expressionism does not have prescriptive rules, and this is also evident in Treadwell’s play as she addresses the story of Ruth Snyder which suggests a realistic approach, something that expressionistic artists rejected. However, there are two other topics which Treadwell addresses in a clearly expressionistic style, namely, an ever more modernized and technological society, plus the role of women in that society. One may view the Snyder story as a necessary but complex anchor to the real world in a play that is predominantly expressionistic. Indeed, Treadwell prepares the reader for a decidedly subjective depiction of the world in the introduction when she describes her main character as “essentially soft, tender and the life around her is essentially hard, mechanized.” As a result, we witness a protagonist who experiences great difficulty manoeuvring the normal phases of life because they seem to her quite, “mechanical, nerve nagging.” This essay will explore how Treadwell communicates the life experiences of such a character through an impactful, impressionistic style. Another quote from Abrams supplies a guideline for which aspects of the play deserve one’s focus, he writes, “expressionist dramatists tended to represent anonymous human types instead of individualized characters, to replace plot by episodic renderings of intense and rapidly oscillating states, [and] often to fragment the dialogue into exclamatory and seemingly incoherent sentences or phrases.” As such, characterization, emotional states, and dialogue are key factors to understanding expressionistic drama.
The play opens with “Episode One – To Business” and this is arguably the most impactful scene due to its impressionistic style. In regard to characterization, Treadwell gives the office staff no names, so they are identified only by their tasks, like “adding clerk” and “stenographer.” This technique universalizes the scene, making it represent any typical office environment. Yet, the playwright significantly lets the boss, Jones, retain his proper name, and Helen is called “young woman” and “Miss. A.” which equally distinguishes her from a mere worker. In this way, Treadwell instantly establishes a hierarchy of importance from anonymous staff, to a woman identified by youth and sex, and finally the boss, Jones, at the apex of power. Then, when one considers the depiction of an emotional state, Helen becomes the obvious focus. Helen’s thoughts are expressed at the end of the first scene where a stream of consciousness is given in telegraphic style, mostly just individual words, part sentences, and names, all separated by dashes. This closing ‘monologue of thoughts’ expresses Helen’s intense doubts about marriage. She craves freedom from the office and from her mother as well, yet thoughts of marriage trigger her feelings of disgust towards Jones. Her closing words, “something – somebody” will be repeated throughout the play at crucial moments to express her desperate search. The third distinctive feature of expressionistic drama is dialogue and in this first scene the dialogue is staccato and also highly repetitive. The key repetitions range from the obsequious “good morning” said to Mr. Jones to the accusatory “you’re late” said to Helen followed by the almost chanted, expectant cries for her to provide an “excuse.” As Helen is Mr. Jones’ object of desire, she has inadvertently raised her head above the parapet and is now open to criticism. When one looks at the content of the dialogue, it is a tangled mix of mundane office talk and gossip about Miss. A. (Helen) possibly marrying Jones. For example, the filing clerk asks, “what’s the matter with Q?” which refers to a filing task but also to Jones’ possible marriage proposal to Helen. This double meaning is highlighted by the other staff responses to the problem of Q with replies like, “has it personality? … has it halitosis? … has it got it?” Similarly, the adding clerk guesses Jones’ income aloud and the stenographer simultaneously types a business letter while considering the possible marriage, “will she have him? This agreement entered into – party of the first part.” The jumbled dialogue alerts a reader to the only topic of interest in the office, but also alerts a reader to how business and romance are being unnaturally melded together. In this first scene, Treadwell has already distanced Helen from the others and shown her story’s importance.
The special value of the impressionistic techniques used by Treadwell links primarily to the tone of the scene. By anonymizing the office staff, the playwright depicts practically every office imaginable and presents people as replaceable worker bees. For instance, the stenographer is the epitome of the conscientious employee because she is punctual and productive however she is described as a “faded, efficient woman office worker. Drying, dried” denoting a wasted life. The sounds of the office, as per the stage directions, are bells, buzzers, and typewriters – all metallic, mechanical sounds which are harsh on the ear. Thus, the environment is unnatural, even soul-destroying. The only conversation apart from discussing office duties is about Helen, notably the sole person who may eventually escape office life and forever have “breakfast in bed” if she marries Jones. The repetitive nature of the conversation, like the background noise, gives the impression of a grey, unimaginative office environment in all respects. However, Helen is different, the adding clerk says, “she doesn’t belong in an office” and that “she’s artistic.” Treadwell allows Helen a semi-identity as “Miss. A.” who is also referred to as “young woman,” but such titles also highlight her dilemma. She is only special because of Jones’ romantic interest in her. Yet, Treadwell shows Helen’s emerging personal identity while also capturing the emotional state of the young woman. The playwright does this by showing Helen take two important actions, firstly she steps out of the crowded subway carriage, and then later in the office she flinches when Mr. Jones touches her shoulder. As such, she steps out of the unthinking flow of society, she pardons herself from the rat-race meaning not only the nameless thousands in subway carriages going to work but also all the “young, cheap and amorous” women like the “telephone girl” who would readily marry a boss like Jones to get ahead in the world. Helen’s closing thoughts succinctly convey her anxiety over wanting to gain freedom from the drudge of office life, yet she has only one escape route, namely marriage to George H. Jones. Her angst-ridden message delivered in efficient, telegraphic style text reflects how her life is inescapably shaped by the technology of the era, the electric telegraph. Therefore, in some respects Helen’s escape seems quite illusory. Treadwell’s strategy is to win over the spectator/reader as an ally of Helen’s by artistically presenting the world the young woman inhabits. Therefore, the tone achieved by Treadwell in the first scene has two dimensions, the winning of the reader’s alliance and the communication of how the world feels to Helen.
As a whole, Machinal addresses three separate yet overlapping topics: a real-life murder case, the modern world, and feminism. The verisimilitude of the drama is most evident in the fact that Ruth Snyder was indeed tried and convicted of murder in New York in 1927. For this reason, it is unnecessary to outline in detail the overall facts of Snyder’s case with the obvious exception of noting any major alterations to the real story by Treadwell. However, the other two aspects, namely a depiction of the modern world and a feminist’s view of women’s role in that world, are dependent on the techniques of expressionistic art to gain true communicative force in the drama. Even though the opening scene is exemplary of impressionistic techniques, the play has nine episodes in total, so it is necessary to provide a broader overview.
Treadwell named her drama, Machinal, which means “machine like” and this refers to her view of modern life. One prominent expressionistic feature of the work is that the playwright relies heavily on sound to communicate the oppressive, emotionally draining reality of the modern world. When considering the play’s sounds, one must first differentiate those that are actually consoling to Helen from the other, stressful, cacophonous sounds. For example, Helen welcomes the sound of the Negro spiritual song when she is in her prison room because as she says, “I understand him. He is condemned.” She is also pleased by the sound of “Cielito Lindo” (Little Heaven) played on the hand organ which she hears with her lover, Dick Roe. There is even a reference to the sound of the sea that Helen remembers hearing when holding a “pink sea shell” to her ear as a child. Treadwell demonstrates via these pleasant, consoling sounds that Helen can indeed experience true calm and thereby lessens and maybe challenges any impression that Helen is “crazy” as her mother labels her, or “neurotic” like her doctor says. The soundscape of the play is crucial in particular scenes to capture Helen’s intense negative feelings. In “Episode Two – At Home,” Helen tries to ask her mother’s advice on marriage, but the scene is characterized by noisy interruptions of all kinds. There’s the radio, neighbours’ voices, the buzzer, her mother’s nagging/complaining and the clatter of dishes. Helen’s tension is first apparent when the garbage man buzzes and she jumps up from the table (like every night) causing her mother to comment, “you act like you’re crazy.” In this scene, Treadwell cleverly intertwines the overheard neighbours’ conversations with Helen’s questions to her mother. The topics of those neighbours’ conversations are respectively: parental control – teenage lovers’ trysts – a husband who does not account for his nights out – a husband’s kiss that is a prelude to unwanted sex. Thus, Helen’s own story, her past and foreshadowed future come in echoes through an open window while her mother sits dumbly opposite her, unable to answer the most basic of questions. The neighbours’ overheard conversations are the acoustic detritus of daily life but contain essential common knowledge, yet Helen’s frustration builds due to her mother’s silence on such everyday issues. Then in “Episode Five – Maternal” the sound of a riveting machine grates on Helen’s nerves. The explanation for the sound is a new hospital wing being built which makes it the “biggest Maternity Hospital in the world” with the obvious connotation of a baby production-line. A doctor orders Helen’s nurse to “put the child to breast” while Helen shouts “no” and the riveting machine sounds in the background. The analogy is that a mother who fails to bond with her child will have it forcibly fixed to her breast just like someone may rivet two pieces of metal together. As the scene suggests that Helen suffers from postnatal depression, the analogy of mechanical bonding gives full expression to the cruelty of the doctor. The message of the scene is dependent on the sound effect. To conclude the analysis of Treadwell’s critique of modern, mechanical life using sounds, one may look to episodes eight and nine, “The Law” and “A Machine.” In the courtroom, Helen’s personal story is beginning to be appropriated by journalists and this is communicated by the incessant “clicking of telegraph instruments offstage.” Then in the final scene, the convicted woman’s speech is cut short on no less than two occasions, initially when she tries to impart a message for her own daughter, “tell her –” but cannot finish as “it’s time” (execution time) and then when she is actually being executed in the electric chair, she tries to say two final words but cannot finish, “somebody! Somebod-.” The gradual depletion of Helen’s power of self-expression is paralleled by the burst of activity from journalists and the associated telegraphic messages. The electric chair itself is the ultimate machine of the modern world and it shows how Helen may be totally silenced.
One may classify Machinal as a feminist work due to Treadwell’s apparent sympathy for the female protagonist in various life phases/roles, from daughter, wife, mother, to condemned woman. Treadwell makes clear that women’s choices in 1920’s America were highly restricted. Helen’s despairing plea for “something – somebody” at the close of episode one is never answered, proven by her last word, “somebod-.” While Treadwell uses sounds to great effect to communicate a dehumanized, technological, oppressive force, it is language itself that is the main tool used to communicate Helen’s predicament as a woman. Impressionistic dialogue is stylistically fragmented or incoherent, yet it is not the typography that holds the key but how it reflects the failures of communication in any given scene. One needs to look not only as Helen’s fragmented sentences, her telegraphic style of delivery, but also at miscommunication between the sexes and even between different generations. In short, Helen’s language fails but not in the conventional sense. The first major example is Helen’s crucial discussion with her mother about marriage. Helen’s overall question may be broken down into three segments:
“All women get married, don’t they?”
“Oh Ma, tell me! … About all that – love!”
“Your skin oughtn’t to curl – ought it – when he just comes near you”?
These questions are somewhat pathetic as they expose Helen’s lack of experience and vulnerability. Helen’s mother has already decided based on Jones’ position as company Vice-President and moreover his agreement to financially support an aging mother, that marriage is the best option. While Helen flails about trying to express her thoughts in quite an emotional state, her questions are still surprisingly clear, for example “when he puts a hand on me, my blood turns cold. But your blood oughtn’t to run cold, ought it?” Helen’s mother treats her daughter’s pleas for advice as if they were truly incoherent, illogical, and crazy. The responses that Helen receives display the older woman’s unwillingness to assist in any way, replying, “tell you what? … Do you what? … See what?” The mother has already concluded that a company Vice-President must be a “decent” man and that love does not “pay the bills.” Treadwell highlights that the women are not just separated by a generation gap, but more importantly by their world views. Helen’s frustration at her mother increases when having open heartedly explained her own anxieties, her mother replies with, “nonsense … you’re crazy” which finally leads to Helen’s emotional outburst, “Ma – if you tell me that again I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” This is a defining moment in the play as Treadwell depicts the anger that comes from powerlessness when even normal language fails Helen. It is the contrast of a young woman with expectations of life versus the practical, decidedly anti-feminist views of an older woman. The scene may also be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Helen’s eventual crime of murder. Treadwell’s message is that Helen who is just “an ordinary young woman” faces immense challenges due primarily to the position of women in society. Helen’s language fails because women have no real power in society. The implicit feminist warning is that Helen is an ‘Everywoman’ and therefore any normal woman could end up in the same position.
The failures of language between the sexes are depicted in multiple scenes. “Episode Three – Honeymoon” is an unusual example because Helen says “no” a considerable number of times but never to the question we anticipate hearing. For instance, when she is undressing in the bathroom and her husband says that he is coming in, she replies, “No! Please! Please don’t.” The most important statement in the scene is evidently when Mr. Jones declares, “I’m your husband, you know” because this implies specific marital rights and therefore the lack of any necessity for certain requests. As such, Helen’s multiple “no” responses are in vain as she will never be asked permission for what her husband now sees as a right, namely conjugal rights to sexual relations. Therefore, the woman who starts to weep and cries out for her mother is in fact utterly powerless. Later, when Helen tells her daughter’s age in court as being, “she’s five – past five,” then in the context of a six-year marriage it seems the child was conceived on their honeymoon. The honeymoon scene requires a reader to understand the failure of language as going beyond the spoken word and to include Helen’s obvious signs of distress and anxiety. Treadwell depicts a more overt example of miscommunication in the hospital. When the nurse makes a note on Mrs. Jones’ medical chart that the patient was “gagging” then the doctor interprets it quite literally, “gagging – you mean nausea” but the nurse’s attempt to explain fully is rejected. The gagging was Helen’s anxious response to her husband’s visit, a strong emotional response later given full expression in Helen’s thoughts about the breeding dog, Vixen, and her own seemingly comparable situation, impregnated with a child she did not want. At the close of the scene, Helen finally says, “I’ll not submit any more” and this is apparently referring to non-consensual sexual submission. Treadwell is often testing readers to look with a more intuitive and less literal eye to each episode. For example, there is wonderful use of irony in “Episode Seven – Domestic” where Mr. Jones reads a serious newspaper article aloud to his wife, quoting, “all men are born free and entitled to the pursuit of happiness.” The meaning of the quote in the context of the play is excruciatingly literal, in that men and only men have freedom. Helen’s reality is different and is reflected in the tabloid headlines she reads silently to herself, “girl turns on gas … woman leaves all for love … young wife disappears” and these are the solutions she sees. Finally, in the male environment of the courtroom (male judge and all-male jury), language is also distorted as it begins to conform to legal requirements for example, a six-year marriage without a quarrel is unquestionably evidence of a “happy marriage.” In all, Treadwell displays how language fails due to the selfish concerns of an interlocuter (Helen’s mother), due to too literal an interpretation (Helen’s doctor), due to the environment (marriage), and in the final scene, Helen’s speech is fragmented, unfinished because she is executed.
Treadwell achieves a remarkable success by taking as her topic the media sensation that was the trial and execution of Ruth Snyder and presenting the story in an expressionistic drama. One could say that the playwright takes advantage of the notoriety of the murder as a hook to catch the public’s attention before bringing them on a new journey by retelling the story. As explored, the specific style of expressionism especially as it relates to characterization, emotional states, and dialogue, elevates Treadwell’s work. The playwright manages to communicate in a unique way by placing before the audience a vivid impression of how Helen sees the world.
Sympathy for a murderess.
Treadwell’s play challenges a reader to have sympathy for the character of Helen Jones. The playwright effectively reframes the Snyder story and presents it to an audience to adjudicate anew on the crime. While one may indeed sympathize with Helen’s plight, the rhetoric of the presentation asks that one accept, maybe just tentatively, Helen’s motive for murdering her husband and this aspect of the play bears further discussion. The public came to know the real-life murderer, Ruth Snyder, only through the intense media attention to the court proceedings but Treadwell depicts Helen through all her most important life phases creating a comprehensive background story. The playwright obviously controls the narrative and as Abrams writes, “the expressionist artist or writer undertakes to express a personal vision – usually a troubled or tensely emotional vision – of human life and human society.” As such, the character of Helen serves a communicative purpose and that is to disseminate Treadwell’s particular perspective on the real-life murder case. In the play, Treadwell depicts how the media take over Helen’s story once it becomes public (as happened Snyder) and therefore the playwright is regaining control of the narrative in Machinal. This new presentation of the story means each reader must decide if Helen’s punishment is deserved or unfair.
It is a salient point that Helen is depicted as having no power over her own story or her direction in life. In the first scene, we are told that Helen’s “machine’s out of order” and because she is a stenographer, this means her typewriter. Treadwell, as a real-life journalist, would have understood the power of the typewriter for a woman as it allows one to author one’s own story. Yet, Helen only takes down letters dictated by Jones. This lack of control over her own narrative is most evident later in the court case when her defense lawyer defines Helen as “a devoted daughter, gentlemen of the jury! As well as a devoted wife and a devoted mother!” While a strong defense strategy, it precludes Helen from ever admitting to an unhappy marriage. The definition not only misrepresents Helen’s life but crucially removes any burden of fault from her late husband and forces one to seek a motive elsewhere. In this example, Helen’s trajectory is determined by her lawyer, but this has been Helen’s plight all along as she has constantly sought “something – somebody” to save her. Helen constantly seeks an external saviour indicating her own perceived or actual powerlessness. In an interesting twist, Treadwell depicts Helen as the dupe even in the one scene where she appears to gain her freedom, namely, “Episode Five – Prohibited.” What is enlightening about this scene, beside the fact that Helen meets her future lover, Richard Roe, is that each of the four men depicted in this scene manipulates another person. This ranges from a married man, Harry Smith, arranging to have sex with the telephone girl, to the “middle-aged fairy” seducing a boy, to the man who convinces his girlfriend to have an abortion, to Roe seducing Helen with the cliched line about her being “an angel.” The remark that the gay man makes, “Poe was a lover of amontillado,” is not just about a favourite drink but also an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” where a man entombs his friend in a cellar and leaves him to die. Treadwell’s scene “Prohibited” is certainly about entrapment and links to the true motive for murder in the play.
Helen’s motive for murdering her husband is certainly the conundrum of the play and depending on how one interprets the text; the answer may be different. Deciphering the true motive has an enormous impact on one’s sympathy or lack thereof for Helen. There are two main avenues of possible speculation and they are that Helen’s motive is either her affair with Roe, the motive accepted as true in court, or one may look to her marital circumstances, an argument obviously highlighted by Treadwell’s sympathetic depiction of Helen.
If life itself feels mechanical to Helen then the ominous clicking shut of the mechanism, the ultimate entrapment, may indeed be marriage. Like a business deal, marriage is a legal contract. It is clear that Helen makes two major mistakes entering a marriage with Jones because firstly as she tells her mother, “I don’t love him” and secondly, she does not know if her disgust toward him will fade away, “you don’t get over that, do you – ever, do you, or do you?” The challenges of Helen’s marriage are not stated outright, but marital rape is strongly inferred by her “helpless, animal terror” on her honeymoon night and by the fact that she later bears Jones’ child. However, any mention of marital rape is problematic as it is anachronistic in the context of 1920’s America, a crime that does not yet exist in law and possibly not broadly in social consciousness. Trauma is also suggested in the hospital scene by Helen’s rejection of her newborn child and the fact that her “milk hasn’t come yet” which is sometimes a result of stress hormones. Helen is eventually shown to capitulate to the role of obedient wife in episode seven, “Domestic,” when she provides “rote” responses to her husband’s questions. The problem of dissolving her marriage, of divorcing her husband, is a problem of financial dependence and a lack of options. Helen married Jones to escape the oppressive office routine and with the marriage came not only her own financial security but also a monthly allowance for her mother. In 1920’s America, a marriage could only be ended in divorce by proving fault by either party and the accepted reasons were abandonment, mental illness, cruelty, or adultery. Therefore, Helen would not only have to admit fault to escape her marriage but would automatically lose not only her own financial security but her mother’s too. Even though, as stated in court, divorce was indeed the obvious solution and not murder, Helen’s hyper-sensitivity and resulting life difficulties made her unsuited to the workplace and highly dependent. Helen obviously makes a decision at some point not to pursue a divorce but to plan a murder. Helen gets the idea for her murder weapon from her lover, but the story told by Richard Roe is also significant. He describes how he was taken hostage by “a bunch of bandidos” and goes on to justify their murder by stating, “I had to get free, didn’t I?” The comparison is that Helen feels trapped in her own marriage and the situation is complicated further by her mother’s dependence on Jones’ monthly payments. When Roe speaks of freedom in Mexico, Helen replies, “I’ll never get out of here.” Yet, for all these stated reasons, it is difficult to excuse Helen’s desperate resort to murder.
In court, Helen’s affair is clearly accepted as her motive for murdering her husband. The prosecution lawyer introduces Richard Roe’s signed affidavit which he says supplies “a motive for this murder – this brutal and cold-blooded murder of a sleeping man.” Roe’s affidavit forces Helen to confess to the crime and thereby the document seals her fate. To digress a moment, Treadwell has changed the original story in a quite conspicuous way here because both Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray were tried, sentenced, and executed. In the play, Roe not only lives free in Mexico but betrays Helen by providing the only evidence capable of convicting her. Thus, the hint of betrayal intimated in the bar scene, “Prohibited,” actually happens but it serves the purpose of arousing our sympathy for Helen. Her ideal man, the ‘somebody’ she had waited for, turns out to be a cad. Furthermore, the general unreliability of Roe displays that the affair as a motive for murder is flawed for three separate reasons. Firstly, Helen visited Roe’s apartment almost daily while still married to Jones but remained undetected and therefore unrestricted. Secondly, Roe was a self-confessed womanizer who on their first meeting rejected Helen’s talk of a shared future by replying “quien sabe” (who knows) so evidently, he was not marriage material. Finally, while the timeline of events is somewhat vague, Roe clearly ended the relationship at some point as he now lives in Mexico. While the affair proves Helen’s adultery, it is not automatically a motive for murder since Roe offered her no future. To accept the affair as a motive for murder is only credible if one believes that Helen is exceptionally naive.
The actual, or at least most probable, motive for Helen murdering her husband is the trauma of forced submission. This is not limited to what Helen endures in her marriage but may be understood to also include the context of women’s limited rights in that era. In expressionistic drama, a distorted representation of the world is used to communicate the character’s emotional state, but the emotional state is true, lived, and has consequences. Helen’s repeated plea for “something – somebody” is a plea for help, for salvation, which is never satisfied. Rather than receive help, the protagonist is met with increasingly humiliating demands to submit, for example, to her mother’s selfish advice, to her boss’s “fat hands [that] are never weary,” to non-consensual marital sex, to bearing a child, to public betrayal by her lover, Roe, and finally to the prison barbers who shave her hair – Helen cries, “submit! Submit! Is nothing mine?” Treadwell depicts how an unhappy woman who loses all hope of escaping a dire situation may indeed become a killer. Helen explains to the priest that when she murdered her husband – “when I did what I did I was free! Free and not afraid!” Helen clearly distinguishes between the murder and “that other sin – that sin of love” which is important regarding motive. Killing Mr. Jones makes Helen free and it is a crime she does not repent. Richard Roe is never a true prospect for Helen, but he proves that she is capable of love and that love is indeed possible in life. In the real case, Ruth Snyder, upon hearing that the trial jury would be all men, said, “I’m sorry. I believe that women would understand this case better than men, and then women have a better sense of justice.” Treadwell echoes this sentiment because she places the reader, as best she can, in Helen’s shoes. It is not the cold logic of the situation that determines how Helen acts in this pitiful saga but instead what she feels are her options.
It is not possible to be sympathetic to a murderess whose only excuse is an unhappy marriage. Many women would have endured much worse situations than Helen. Similarly, it is not possible to be sympathetic to a woman who kills her husband because she seeks freedom to have an affair. Yet, it is possible to empathize and indeed sympathize with a woman who cannot deal with a situation anymore, who feels utterly trapped and chooses the wrong escape plan. Treadwell’s retelling of the Snyder story presents an ‘Everywoman’ who becomes a killer. The housewife who washes the dishes with gloved hands, under the wrong circumstances, may become the perfect gloved killer who leaves no fingerprints. Helen’s refrain of “something – somebody,” used in court to describe the fictional killers, is proof that when there were no outside saviours – she resorted to saving herself. It is a cautionary tale about the risks of making someone constantly submit, leaving them powerless, especially if that someone can be seen as representative of the entire female sex.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Earl McPeek, 1999.
“Gray to Seek Trial Outside of Queens.” New York Times, 26 March 1927.
Treadwell, Sophie. Machinal. Nick Hern Books, 2003.