Based on the real murder trial of Ruth Snyder in the late
1920s, Machinal is a case study of the demands and
difficulties presented to the modern woman of the times.
Snyder was the first woman executed at the electric chair
and Sophie Treadwell witnessed her trial when she worked as
a journalist in New York City.
Accused for killing her husband with her lover, Ruth Snyder
was vilified by the press as a ruthless flapper and the
downfall of womanhood due to modern music and decadent
lifestyle of the Jazz age. After marrying her boss in the
office where she worked, Ruth Snyder took up with a lover
and plotted the death of her husband.
Machinal is a expressionist drama which presents the events
from the point of view of the young woman. It shows how she
feels stifled by her work at the office and that the
machine-like work was destroying her soul (a common theme
in the 1920s). She then marries her boss and is caught in a
loveless life with her new husband who is significantly
older then herself. She also cannot feel any desire for the
expected role of motherhood or that of the “good wife”
demanded upon her.
Her only moment of joy occurs when she
takes a lover who is an adventurer from Mexico. Originally
played by Clark Gable, the lover represents freedom from
modern life to the Young Woman. Soon after he leaves, she
murders her husband and his put on trial and executed.
Treadwell’s interpretation of The Young Woman is that of a
victim of social and private demands on women in the late
1920s. Rather than the evil siren that Ruth Snyder was
often presented as by the press, Treadwell gets inside the
psyche of a modern woman and shows what could lead her to
such an act.
Machinal is an important piece of feminist drama and Sophie
Treadwell won many awards for her production. Also one of
the early great American plays written by a woman, the
drama remains a significant classic of the American stage.