In the spring of 1927, Treadwell attended a notorious trial in which Ruth Snyder, a seemingly innocuous Long Island housewife, was accused of conspiring with her lover, Judd Gray, in the murder of her husband. The trial attracted huge public interest, fueled by the 180 reporters who were assigned to cover the proceedings. The media frenzy continued unabated until the defendants were executed by electric chair in January 1928, Snyder becoming the first woman executed in New York State in the twentieth century.
Treadwell did not attend the trial in an official journalistic capacity, although she had extensive experience writing about similar cases for papers in San Francisco and New York. Instead, Treadwell used the trial as a springboard for her own speculations about what circumstances might have driven Snyder to commit such a violent act. The result was an expressionist drama titled Machinal, which when produced on Broadway in September of 1928 quickly became Treadwell's greatest critical success.
Machinal is written in nine scenes, each of which depicts, according to the play's stage directions, "the different phases of life that a woman comes in contact with, and in none of which she finds any place, any peace." The titles of the scenes reflect the social institutions or environments that help define expectations for women's behavior: "To Business," "At Home," "Honeymoon," "Maternal," "Prohibited," "Intimate," "Domestic," and "The Law." The play makes innovative use of an extensive network of sound effects, snippets of overheard dialogue, and lengthy interior monologues by the central character of the Young Woman. Most critics applauded the play's original style. Noted drama critic Oliver M. Sayler, writing in Footlights and Lamplights, concluded that Machinal is "one of the first [plays] by an American dramatist successfully to merge expressionist form and expressionist content," and in doing so "frequently touches more startling heights and lucid vision than Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and Strange Interlude."
Following its initial Broadway run, Machinal received a number of productions internationally. It appeared on London's West End in 1931 under the title, The Life Machine, and was produced twice in Moscow in 1933, most notably by Alexander Tairov's Kamerny Theatre. Treadwell traveled to Russia for the production, where she became, at her insistence, the first American dramatist to receive production royalties from the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the play was aired on both NBC and ABC television in 1954 and 1960 respectively, produced off-Broadway in 1960, and revived by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1990. Machinal has received numerous productions since this last New York revival.
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