25 October 2002: Treadwell, Machinal

Amherst College Department of Theatre and Dance, Kirby Theatre, Amherst College. Directed by Manuame Mukasa. performed without intermission. Playing time about 2 hours 20 minutes.

I don’t know the name of this director. I presume he is a member of the Theatre and Dance Department faculty. He has a remarkably sure hand and evidently a winning way of working with undergraduates, some of whom turned in fine, well-honed performances and all of whom benefited from the imposition of a salutary discipline. A real innovation in this mounting was, not simply the extensive amount of doubling that occurred, but the quadrupling of the role of the Woman (Helen Jones), acted by four separate actresses, each quite individualized and physically distinct from the others. The method of mise en scène is quite simple: each scene is set behind a lowered gauze curtain, or scrim, with only enough light behind it for stagehands to see their way. Before the scrim, the four actors playing the Woman come together, giving sympathy and moral support to one another for what the designated Woman must now go through. After a particularly grueling scene, the designated Woman in is in tears or simply an emotional wreck, and has to be supported by the others (one of them actually “faints” at one point). Thus we progress through the nine scenes of this stark, uncompromising quasi-expressionistic drama — and proceed to lose our way.

The director has paid some ostensibly extensive service to the expressionistic elements of the script; and yet, the further removed beyond the obtrusive mechanistic opening, with the adding machine going, the files being rhythmically inserted into a 4-drawer filing cabinet, and so on, the further we find ourselves removed from the world of Elmer Rice and the closer we come to the world of Jean-Paul Sartre. There is no exit from this world, all right, except through the profoundly self-destructive means that Helen in desperation discovers for herself; but it is the existential world of the twentieth-century French philosophes, not the Mitteleuropa of Georg Kaiser and Karel Capek: a world no less cruel, perhaps, but more inherently absurd than socially decadent. The choice to cast the Woman four times over and to supply her with what late twentieth-century therapists might call a support system effectively removes her from the soulless world of a machine-like surround and cushions her fall in advance. The aim is to elicit pity for her: not the most ignoble of motives, but one that permanently distracts us from the sustained critique of a dehumanized society on whose groundwork this play is based. Despite the script, this Woman is never alone; we know that, though the play seems not to. It passed through my mind that there were so many good actors who tried out for these roles that it gave the director, who knew he was going to do a lot of doubling anyway, the idea of doubling the Woman. If you double the role at all, you have to have at least three performers of the role, and preferably more. He got that, and so he could — and did — find himself in the seemingly enviable position of casting each scene with the actress best suited to its dominant valences. It was a brilliant theatrical maneuver — but it ended up doing less than full-service to the play overall. In fact, it ended up sentimentalizing it and so trivializing it, blunting its rigorous analysis of an inhuman world which, when it finds itself threatened by someone who refuses to submit (a crucial word in the play) to the brutality of its treatment of human beings, it unleashes a terrible juggernaut of vindictive retribution.

That retribution is most evident, not in the final scene of execution, but in the trial scene — “Episode Eight: The Law” — in which every possible incriminating detail seems to have been ferreted out by the relentless, almost preternaturally omniscient Lawyer for the Prosecution. Mukasa seems not to have known what to do with this scene — seems to have been unable to trust the script. As a result, he hokes it up, making a travesty of it by reinterpreting it as a boxing match, and interposing the bartender from Episode Five (The Speakeasy) as a referee who has to keep separating the opposing attorneys, one of whom (Defense) is a cowboy in a ten- or fifteen-gallon hat and string tie, and the other (Prosecution) is a Broadway shyster in an oversize brim-down felt hat. For a moment I thought some new scene had been interpolated, it was so out of key and out of keeping with the seriousness of the dramatic action and — by rights — the oppressive sameness of the world of Sophie Treadwell’s play.

This is too bad. There were many fine things about this production. The sixth scene — “Intimate” — in particular was wonderful, with Julia Powers as the Woman, winsome and suddenly blossoming under the touch of the only man she has ever found whose hands don’t make her blood run cold. That man, played with easy grace and remarkable, low-key self-possession and confidence by Bernard Bygott — tall, muscular, blond, prominent features: a “hunk,” in short, who to top it all off has a fine light tenor voice just right for lilting “Cielito Lindo” — made an exceptionally pleasant, erotic counterpart. I could see these two playing a fine Brick and Maggie in Act II of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. By the end of the scene, however, we had forgotten all about Machinal and its ironies. This man strong though he was didn’t seem like the murderer of two Mexican kidnappers that he claimed himself to be, nor do we get from him, as directed by Mukasa, any sense that this was an easy victory over a woman starved for affection. After Helen leaves, we see him smile and shrug just a little, with no sense of how deeply he has exploited her or how little he really cares for or understands her. This is a pussycat of a guy, not the “Richard Roe” who will betray her in his deposition read out at the trial, a deposition so painful that the Woman cannot bear to hear it read to its end but breaks down and confesses her guilt on the spot. And so disjunctions abound.

The more I think of it, the less I believe Mukasa has understood what Treadwell was after. Instead of reading the play as a profound critique of society, he has dumbed it down and offered it to us as an ode of solicitous concern over the plight of a woman who never meets Mr Right until it’s too late. Mr Jones has no idea of any of this, but we — and the Sisterhood in whose cause we deplore all the Joneses and other strongmen of the world — are congratulated for understanding and sympathizing. We leave the theatre with a clear conscience. The world may be a terrible place, but we are inured, for the moment at least, to its depredations. Poor Helen. Too bad she had such a shrew for a mother and a lunkhead for a husband. She deserved a lot better.

About the pronunciation of the play title. I have read somewhere that Treadwell herself found it necessary to coach readers on how to say it: MaCHINal. Not MACHin ALL, as I have sometimes heard it said. It half-rhymes with “Urinal” though its accent is on the second, not the first, syllable.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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