Rediscovering playwright Sophie Treadwell

Rebecca Hall in Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal" at American Rebecca Hall in Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal" at American Airlines Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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Who is Sophie Treadwell? And what's she doing on Broadway?

Better questions: Why doesn't everyone know her name? And what took so long?

Treadwell, whose 1928 "Machinal" will be revived on Broadway on Thursday starring Rebecca Hall after a mere 86-year absence, was an actress, a journalist in the '20s and one of America's first female foreign war correspondents. She interviewed Pancho Villa in Mexico and covered World War I from the front. She also wrote 40 plays, all relegated to the lonely, crowded ghetto of forgotten words in women's-studies anthologies.

"Machinal" brought Treadwell instant fame in its '28 world premiere, with a cast that included a young buck named Clark Gable. Critic Brooks Atkinson called it "an illuminating, measured drama, the likes of such we are not likely to see again." Right he was. Few did see it again.

In fact, some of us were lucky enough to discover the play at the Public Theater in 1990. It was then I fell hard for Treadwell, whom I secretly refer to in my head as my friend "Soph." It was a riveting production staged by a virtual unknown named Michael Greif, many lifetimes before he became a directing star with "Rent."

The play was a revelation, a tough, coiled Expressionistic study of a young woman, called Young Woman, described by the playwright as "ordinary ... she is not homely and she is not pretty." She does deadening office work in a cold mechanistic world, marries the boss she hates, gets abused by her lover, with whom she kills her husband. The climax is inspired by the sensational 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband and became the first woman executed in the electric chair. It is believed that Treadwell reported the trial herself.

Lyndsey Turner, the British director making her American debut with the new Roundabout Theatre Company revival, has been carrying around "Machinal" in her head since she read it in college. "For a play written in 1928," she told me in a recent phone interview, "it is as formally bold and daring as any avant-garde theater across the whole world. It is unbelievably prescient and has so much to say about our entire society."

Treadwell described the work as a "tragedy of submission," but Turner prefers a "dream of freedom. Can you imagine an actor having to play the play as a 'tragedy of submission' every night?" Turner jokes. "There would be nothing for her to play. No, a dream of freedom is better."

This is not to suggest Turner is tampering or updating the material to stress its timeliness. "New York audiences are really smart and can make the leap. I think people will be saying, 'My God, that could have been written yesterday.'"

Treadwell was excruciatingly specific about the sound effects for her play's nine episodes -- the bells and buzzers, the dehumanizing industrial backdrop and clickety-clackety racket of the Machine Age. "We're still puzzling out how they managed to make the sound happen," marvels Turner about the technology behind the original production. "They must have been sonic pioneers, integrating the story with the polyphony of noises."

If the description reminds you of "The Adding Machine," Elmer Rice's 1923 urban- Expressionist nightmare, you're not alone. But Treadwell's Young Woman also suggests a female version of Georg B├╝chner's Woyzeck -- not especially pretty, not particularly articulate -- trying her best to punch her way through a mystifying world with tangles of internal monologues.

In last month's Vogue, Rebecca Hall added comparisons with the existential power of Samuel Beckett. "With its surreal poetry and utter lack of sentimentality," she said, "I think it's every bit as good."

Like Turner, Hall is making her Broadway debut in the revival, though the British actress has performed several times at Brooklyn Academy of Music -- first in a 2005 "As You Like It" directed by her father, Peter Hall. But those were roles in classics, not as a woman doggedly described as unremarkable.

"How do you play unremarkable?" muses Turner. "If you're looking for Medea, you won't get it." In her marriage, at a speak-easy, at the doctor or in the electric chair, the woman -- and, thus, Everywoman -- is defined by what Turner calls her "voicelessness."

Apropos of voicelessness, consider history's pile of women playwrights we never hear. In her introduction to her valuable anthology, "Plays by American Women: 1900-1930," Judith E. Barlow introduces us to Anna Cora Mowatt, whose plays in the mid-19th century helped break down moral restrictions on women in theater. Barlow tells us about Martha Morton, possibly the first American woman to have a playwrighting career and, in 1906, co-founder of the Society of Dramatic Authors -- created because the American Dramatists Club excluded women.

What about the 20th century? The question will be raised Feb. 17 at "Forgotten Treasures," an invitation-only concert reading of scenes from 10 plays by women. Kathleen Chalfant, Maryann Plunkett and Tamara Tunie will perform for a group called History Matters/Back to the Future," which promotes women's plays from around the country; visit historymattersbacktothefuture.com/home.html

Among the evening's forgotten playwrights is Maurine Dallas Watkins, a name we should remember as the journalist whose 1926 play is the basis of the musical "Chicago." Like "Machinal," the subject is women on trial for murdering their men. Like Treadwell, Watkins was a courtroom reporter.

Turner has an explanation. "So many female reporters were sent to cover murder trials," she says, opining that it wasn't because of their understanding of legal processes. "They were sent because they were better at picking up little bits of human lives that readers wanted to read. A quaver in the voice. An uplifted chin. It was the power of observations, the tiny details, that made the court scene."

Although Turner isn't on a mission to rediscover a century of forgotten women playwrights, she says, "I'm always on the hunt for something that hasn't been seen." With "Machinal," her hope is to shift the play beyond its usual place as a "two-inch footnote. If we get people talking about one of the great American dramas again, we will have done our job."

In other words, my Soph will be more than an afterthought in dramatic history. She might even be a find.

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