Interview with Jerry Dickey, Sophie Treadwell Expert
Jerry Dickey: Actually, Sophie Treadwell's interests in theatre and journalism developed simultaneously, especially while she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley between 1902 and 1906. After a short stint as a vaudeville performer upon graduation, she was hired as a journalist for the San Francisco Bulletin, where she met her husband,William O. McGeehan, a noted sports writer. They were married in 1910, and Treadwell continued writing plays as she rapidly made a name for herself as an investigative journalist and serial writer. McGeehan moved to New York in 1914 to write for the New York Evening Journal, and Treadwell followed the next year when she was hired as a journalist by the New York American. She had her first play produced on Broadway in 1922, the first of seven of her plays to reach Broadway stages, with Machinal being by far her most critically successful.
Treadwell led a remarkable life that fueled much of her playwriting. She marched for women's suffrage with the feminist Lucy Stone League; during World War I, she was one of the first state-accredited female foreign war correspondents; she collaborated with Marcel Duchamp on a work of modern art; she had an affair with the painter Maynard Dixon; as a journalist she covered the tumultuous events of the Mexican Revolution, including a first-hand account of the assassination of Mexican President Carranza and the only western journalist's interview with Pancho Villa at his post-Revolution hideaway in Canutillo; she studied acting with the Moscow Art Theatre-emigré Richard Boleslavsky; she sued John Barrymore for plagiarism; she wrote, produced and acted in her own plays on Broadway; and at age 64-sixteen years after the death of her husband-she became a single mother when she adopted a German baby boy. When the Royal National Theatre in London produced Machinal in 1993, the critic for the Daily Telegraph wrote that "Treadwell is one of those fascinating people whose life was full of adventure but about whom little was ever recorded. [...] Inexplicably, there is no biography of her." Only now are the details of her life becoming better known.
TS: Machinal had a brief run of 91 performances on Broadway in 1928. Was the play ahead of its time? Were audiences not ready for what was described as its "expressionistic" style? It seems the play was given new life after The Public Theatre's 1990 production-is that true?
JD: The expressionistic style of Machinal would not have been altogether unfamiliar to New York audiences in 1928. Georg Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight, Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, and several expressionistic plays by Eugene O'Neill had previously received critical acclaim in the New York press. But what was different about Treadwell's use of expressionistic techniques was her blending of them with moments of intimacy that seemed more like domestic American realism. According to stage directions in an early manuscript, Treadwell hoped the unique style of the play-inner monologues, an expressionistic soundscape of the world around the Young Woman, and the quieter moments of intimacy-would create a suggestive atmosphere that would encourage the audience to fill in the gaps and complete the narrative for themselves. As Treadwell wrote, she hoped these effects would quicken "still secret places in the consciousness of the audience, especially of women." The play never received a fully expressionistic staging until it was produced by the famed Russian director Alexander Tairov at the Kamerny Theatre in 1933.