In the year of 1927 in New York, a woman named Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, were sentenced to death by electrocution for the murder of Snyder’s husband. Coinciding with fresh women rights, the image of Snyder as a young mother, wife as well as murderess, became subject to character analysis. In the eyes of the public Snyder had turned in to something barely human. Was this to be the daunting outcome of equal rights?
Journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell attended the trial in 1927 and decided to offer a different perspective in her expressionist drama Machinal (1928), which is loosely based on the real life story. Since 1928, the play has had numerous revivals over the world, most recently in 2014 on Broadway, and in 2015 the play has its first opening in Sweden at the Gothenburg City Theater.
Treadwell’s protagonist is a young woman (Söderström), who works at George H Jones Company in New York. As suggested by the play’s title, she feels suffocated by the mechanical stiffness of everyday, working life. When faced with the proposal of her boss, Mr Jones (Blomgren), she utters: ”I am not ready yet”. In a gripping scene with her mother (Victoria Olmarker) the young woman (later revealed as Helen) tries to explain her search for love and her horror of resigning herself to the automatism of a dollhouse life. The mother’s accusation of Helen’s “superiority” over reality ends in an outburst followed by a request of forgiveness from Helen. She agrees to marry Mr Jones, staging a life suited for society’s expectations. However, the stifling atmosphere of the office is only replaced by another imprisonment as someone’s wife and (later on) mother.
The years go by, and in the search of a way out of her misery, Helen turns to the speakeasy bars of New York, where she meets Dick Roe (Lindgren). His rough life experience excites Helen and he, in turn, sympathizes with her need for freedom. The two start an affair. In her own house, however, Helen feels more trapped than ever. In a scene where the spouses are reading the newspaper, dark thoughts draw closer, passion takes over and with a swift shift of setting we are in the courtroom where Helen is charged with murder.
The set (by Kajsa Hilton-Brown), a turning table of locations where the cast swirls in and out of offices and bars, has an authentic atmosphere with the contemporary coloring. The cast (led by Sisela Lindblom) puts on a wonderful show, which at several occasions offers comedy as the entire setting and cast expertly emphasize just how theatrical real life can be. What is real when we are submitting ourselves to machinery?
Just like in the media frenzy of Snyder’s trial, the question of portrayal and judgment can be raised in the social media climate today. Perhaps we are better than ever at keeping each other in line of social expectations? In any case, this production of Machinal proves the drama’s relevance and importance today in Sweden just as in the Interwar Years in New York.