Machinal Opens April 3 at Duke

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Duke University Dept. of Theater Studies will present Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal April 3-13, 2014 in Sheafer Theater in Duke’s Bryan Center. Jules Odendahl-James, visiting lecturer and resident dramaturg in theater studies, is directing the play.

Machinal is the story of “a young woman, any woman,”—a woman destroyed by “a world of money, men, and machines.” Machinal depicts the struggle for personal fulfillment in a world where alienation, commodification and automation reign supreme. A world that is past, present and future.

Treadwell’s 1928 American expressionist masterwork draws inspiration from the case of Ruth Snyder, who was put to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair for killing her husband with the help of her lover Judd Gray. “The murder case was a sensation at the time and was made even more so by a reporter sneaking a camera into the execution chamber. The resulting photograph of Snyder was published on the front page of the Daily Times tabloid,” says Odendahl-James.

“It’s important to remember this play is very much of the 1920s. It was written less than 10 years after women got the right to vote,” she says. “That said, there’s a lot that feels contemporary about feeling trapped in a machine of life that pushes you along without giving you a chance to figure out who you are and why you do things. Certainly technological advancements increase the anxiety about human identity, but Treadwell is very interested in the role that such anxiety and pressure played in women’s lives. That’s specifically why it attracted me—its resonance is still there.

“Machinal was a play by a female playwright that opened on Broadway. In fact, it had its first Broadway revival this past January. And it was unique for Broadway standards of the time. There are lots of theatrical conventions that were new—montage of sound and scenery, archetypal characters—all pushing the envelope of expected realistic dramas. Treadwell was one of a handful of women playwrights working in an era where this type of writing was just taking hold in American theater. Today we are fairly comfortable with these conventions, but at the time they were rather extraordinary,” explains Odendahl-James.

“It’s always interesting to look back and try and think what watching it might have been like for an audience that was unfamiliar with this type of play,” says Odendahl-James. “Ours is a small cast—10 actors, nine who play over thirty roles between them. Developing that kind of ensemble is very appealing for a liberal arts theater program—even more so when we have a chance to do a rather obscure play from the early part of the previous century, but one that connects to our own moment in time.”

Post-show discussion
April 11 “Young Women and Life Machines” – panel discussion

A blog at documents the unfolding of the play.

A video trailer can be found at

Show dates/times/prices/ticket info:
By Sophie Treadwell
Directed by Jules Odendahl-James, Theater Studies faculty
Sheafer Theater, Bryan Center, West Campus
April 3-5 & 10-12 at 8 pm
April 6 & 13 at 2 pm
$10 general admission; $5 students and sr. citizens; 919-684-4444