Machinal (1999) · 7.5 min (in four movements)

An overture, epilogue, and two text settings based on Sophie Treadwell’s dramatic play

soprano voice, flute (doubling piccolo), violin, cello, piano

Program Note

Sophie Treadwell’s play Machinal was first produced in 1928. It premiered on Broadway with Clark Gable cast as the lover, Dick Roe. It was a critical success and ran for 91 performances. In 1931, the drama premiered in London to some mixed reviews, mostly because of the sexual and violent nature of the play. However, Machinal’s greatest success came in Russia at Moscow’s Kamemy Theatre, after which the play toured throughout the Russian provinces. Later, in 1954, the play was even produced for television.

The play’s title means “automatic” or “mechanical” in French. Sophie Treadwell wrote the play based loosely on the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, who together murdered Snyder’s husband. Convicted of murdering her husband, Snyder later received the electric chair. Out of this event came the powerful, demanding drama, Machinal.


A woman’s role during this era in history is confined and regimented to wife, mother, housekeeper, and sexual partner. Love is considered unnecessary, and thus many women are trapped in their dependent status, living a hellish life in a loveless marriage. The relationship between Helen Jones and her husband, George H. Jones, is no different. However, when a man intercedes and Helen is given a momentary glimpse of passion, her life is forever changed. She sees how society confines her, how her husband unconsciously dominates her every decision, and she feels that there is no escape. With a feeling of hopelessness, Helen commits an egregious crime, murdering her husband to free herself from the constraints of society and, ironically, to save her husband from the pain of a divorce. This heavy play is a powerful expressionistic drama about women’s forced financial dependency upon men during the 1920s and their trapped existence in a male-dominated, oppressive wasteland.

This setting includes an “Overture,” which sets the mood for the drama; the first two scenes (episodes), “Business” and “Home” (there are nine episodes in the play); and an “Epilogue,” which comes at the very end of the play.

The first episode, “Business” takes place within the George H. Jones Company office. A young woman (later revealed to be Helen Jones) is late for work, and her coworkers chide her, telling her she may lose her job. She is a frantic woman, crushed by society. She is often late because she cannot stand the stifling crowds of the subway. This serves as a metaphor for how she feels about society in general. In the office, it becomes apparent that George H. Jones, a kind, flabby-handed, slovenly man, has asked Helen to marry him. She does not know how to answer. Helen wants nothing more than to be free of her terrible job, but the answer is a loveless marriage to an unattractive, unappealing man.

In the second episode, Helen returns “Home” to discuss the proposal with her mother. At first her mother does not understand why Helen feels that she must get married. Helen even says, “All women get married, don’t they?” However, as soon as Helen’s mother discovers that the man is wealthy, she changes her tune, telling her daughter to marry him straightaway. Helen tries to explain that she does not love George, and her mother responds, “Love! – What does that amount to! Will it clothe you? Will it feed you? Will it pay the bills?” The two women argue, and a major theme of the play is expressed: the role of marriage and a woman’s dependent status on her husband’s wealth in the 1920s.

The “Epilogue” represents the protagonist’s (Helen Jones’) ascension into the afterlife; after having been killed at the electric chair, she no longer must be tortured by her mechanical daily life – she is now, finally, free.

In 1999, I was asked by my Northeastern University colleague, Nancy Kindelan, Professor of Theatre, to do sound design for the play Machinal by Sophie Treadwell that she was directing for the Department of Theatre. Performances ran February 18-20 & 24-27, 1999 at the University’s Studio Theatre.

Later that year, I was looking to participate in the Ernest Bach Festival Composers’ Symposium in Newport, Oregon, and decided to craft aspects of my sound design for Machinal into a song cycle, based on an adaptation written by me, and following the same structure of the play; i.e., an overture, nine episodes, and epilogue. I was only able to finish the Overture, the first two episodes: “Business” and “Home,” and the Epilogue, but had these four movements performed at the Festival on July 24, 1999, featuring Henry Mollicone, conductor; Tessa Brinkman, flute; Marty Jennings, violin; Nancy Ives, cello; Jeffrey Payne, piano; and Brenda Baker, soprano. In these two episodes, the soprano sings the majority of my adapted text, but several lines (representing other characters in the play) are spoken by the musicians. These movements, essentially, are a prototype for a planned larger musical form, perhaps an evening length music drama, which I still hope to return to and complete.

In 2010, at the request of composer Mohammed Fairouz, this unfinished setting of Machinal was performed in two concerts by the Mimesis Ensemble. One at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center (October 17, 2010) featuring Alyssa Bowlby, soprano; Jeremiah Bills, flute, piccolo; Chaludi Schaer, violin; Patrick McGuire, cello; and Manon Hutton-DeWys, piano. And the second at the Faust Harrison Piano Hall in New York City (December 14, 2010) featuring Alyssa Bowlby, soprano; Nathalie Joachim, flute, piccolo; Laura Lutzke, violin; Paul Wolfram, cello; and Manon Hutton-DeWys, piano. In addition, works by Mohammed Fairouz, and Pulitzer Prize winning composers Gunther Schuller and Yehudi Wyner were also presented (and in attendance) for both concerts.


“I was captivated by four excerpts from Anthony De Ritis’s 1999 score for the 1928 psycho-feminist play Machinal.”
– Lloyd Schwartz, The Boston Phoenix (December 1, 2010)

View Score
Performance of Machinal by the Mimesis Ensemble, Northeastern University’s Fenway Center, Boston, MA, featuring Alyssa Bowlby, soprano; Jeremiah Bills, flute, piccolo; Chaludi Schaer, violin; Patrick McGuire, cello; and Manon Hutton-DeWys, piano (October 17, 2010)
Text (Adapted)

Text to the unfinished song cycle Machinal, adapted by Anthony Paul De Ritis [text]

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