“Is Nothing My Own?”
“Machinal” Explores the Female Identity in New University Theatre Production
By Bailey Mount Editor-in-Chief
“It’s like I’m all tight inside,” says protagonist Helen Jones. “Sometimes I feel like I’m stifling!”
Themes of confinement and oppression run rampant in Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal.” Opening on Oct. 13 at the Long Beach State University Theatre, the play examines the pervasiveness of misogyny through Helen’s (April Sigman-Marx) struggle for autonomy in a world that seeks every opportunity to deny it her.
Helen is a tragic figure from the beginning. She’s confined to the roles of daughter and worker. When she marries her boss (Tom Trudgeon) out of dissatisfaction with her life, she must become a wife and a mother. This too ultimately leaves her unhappy and drives her to commit a final desperate act to free herself from the world that’s slowly crushing her.
The world of “Machinal” is one of collectivism and submission. Not only can one never be alone, but one must not want to be alone. To be alone is to be free of another’s will — and in “Machinal,” one must always exert their will over another.
This is why Helen is never truly alone. With an effectively harrowing performance from Sigman-Marx, the audience is forced to live through her discomfort, her anguish, her sorrow and her shame. Her head is the crowded subway she loathes; it’s filled with rushing thoughts and cramped with a cacophony of disagreeing voices that often manifest in the form of her coworkers, mother and husband. The ensemble cast is as pervasive as it is insightful in its demonstration of a fruitless rebellion.
Helen’s monologues are a vicious slam poetry session, leaping from thought to hopeless thought. She wants to be free, but meets resistance from all sides. Her coworkers — four cogs that do little but add to the repetitive “Fahrenheit 451”-esque atmosphere — advise her to marry. Her husband, an infantilizing man that Trudgeon makes convincingly cringeworthy, encourages her to “pull the blinds down,” to ignore both the outside world and its temptations of freedom.
Perhaps worst of all, her mother — meant to be a symbol of nurturance and protection — advises her to not concern herself with such intangible aspirations.
“I’ll tell you what you can count on,” she says. “You can count on that you’ve got to eat and sleep, that you got to get old, and that you got to die. All the rest is in your head!”
Since we spend the entirety of “Machinal” in Helen’s head, what is defined through this generalization — love, autonomy and desire being “all the rest” — becomes the driving force in her quest for independence.
“Is nothing mine?” she asks in the play’s final scene.
Unfortunately, the reality presented in “Machinal” answers in the affirmative. All Helen is allowed are her own thoughts; they are not enough to make a difference.
It is her inability to achieve this, however, that most compels the audience to act. It is her failure that solicits the one character trait from the audience that Helen herself could not create: resolve. What gives her tragedy meaning is how it inspires others to not let such a thing continue.
“Machinal” will be playing through Oct. 21 at the University Theatre, with a special discussion on the play’s implications on Oct. 19 at 6 p.m. before its evening performance. Director Julianne Just and Assistant Professor of Sociology Nancy Martin will lead the conversation.
Performances will be at 7 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $15 for LBSU students and faculty and $20 for members of the general public. They can be purchased online or at the box office.