Sophie Treadwell and Radical Theatre

Sophie Treadwell drafted numerous versions of the Machinal script before she reached the final one. Here Resident Director Joseph Winters shares what it was like working with these drafts for the current production, and how the process gave him a true understanding of radical theatre and the power it has.

I love the word radical when approaching theatre because it means ‘going back to the root’, stripping off the dead earth that has settled and compacted around a play. Ninety years and multiple productions stand between us at the Almeida and Sophie Treadwell sitting at her typewriter, working on her first drafts in 1928. And yet, Natalie Abrahami, who is directing this production, is clear that we should try to get as close to Sophie Treadwell’s original writing process as possible. As we begin to assemble our rehearsal script, she tells me, “when I’m working on a text with a playwright who can no longer be in the room giving notes, I always imagine she would be whispering in my ear, ‘Make my play seem like a new play’.” Luckily, all ten of Treadwell’s original drafts for Machinal are kept at the University of Arizona and one of Natalie’s first decisions is to get as many of these as possible scanned and sent through to us so that we can see how Sophie Treadwell crafted her play, and if there is anything we want to restore from earlier versions.

We each sift through the drafts, looking for lines which might have been cut by previous directors, or censors, or even by Treadwell herself. In an alternative version of the first scene we find a manager bellowing at his overworked employees, “Profits – give me profits!” In our post-financial crisis production, and with what we now know about the 1929 Wall Street Crash that came months after Treadwell’s play opened, this line feels totally vibrant, so back in it goes. One scene towards the end of the play, titled ‘Domestic’, seems to have gone through many different iterations, some entirely naturalistic, some so expressionist as to suggest the supernatural. We take this as in an invitation to delve in and explore all the possibilities, trying to find what feels right for 2018.

The most exciting revelation of all is the myriad versions of each of the Young Woman’s monologues. These are the spine of the play and help to chart the Young Woman’s inner life; getting our hands on Sophie Treadwell’s handwritten drafts is an incredible tool for understanding her original intentions and thoughts about the character. There are sections in one draft so specific about the realities of pregnancy and childbirth that they were excised from the text performed in her lifetime, and, to our knowledge, haven’t made it onto a stage since. We think they are full of fire and honesty, so in they go too, as well as many other exciting roots that we find buried in the hundreds of pages we explore.

The result is a new rehearsal draft. It is largely the final script that Sophie Treadwell approved before her death, but coloured with all our re-insertions and a few interventions made entirely new for this production. The text is multi-coloured and filled with footnotes so that Natalie and I can quickly see at a glance where each part of the script came from. Once we’ve settled on a stable rehearsal draft, we create another draft for the actors - this is clean of all the extra information, with all of Sophie Treadwell’s stage directions and line-readings also stripped out. It is a clean slate, ready to encourage actors’ original responses, though of course they are always welcome to cross reference with our fuller, slightly unwieldy documents, once rehearsals are underway. Natalie describes it in terms of rehearsing music: the actors have their libretto, and we have the whole musical score.

Such an approach to the play is grounded in the writer’s own radicalism: Sophie Treadwell is one of the most inspiring playwrights I’ve ever read. Writing over fifty plays in a culture that openly privileged male artists, she produced her own work on Broadway, as well as writing novels and producing pioneering journalism. The work she made is coruscating and delves straight to the base fabric of her society, stripping away the polite theatrical conventions of her age and establishing a radical new theatrical form in order to explore her culture. Often we come across the phrase that Sophie Treadwell was ‘ahead of her time’ or that she ‘anticipated’ the concerns of our age. This kind of thinking is flattering, but it lets us off the hook. In truth, Sophie Treadwell did not write Machinal in order to be relevant ninety years after her own opening night. The shocking thing is not how contemporary the past feels, but how outdated the present really is. This is the value of staging classic plays: they hold a mirror up not only to a singular cultural moment but also to the passage of time. In many ways, as we progress through each scene of Machinal, it will become clear how far we have come since 1928 – but in many ways it will also reveal how the overarching structures of our lives, how the archetypes sitting underneath our relationships, have barely shifted at all. Ultimately, what becomes clear is how well Sophie Treadwell understood the nature of capitalist, patriarchal society, and its degrading consequences for individuals stuck within the urban machine. As such, we should not praise Sophie Treadwell for her foresight but for her insight. We should not marvel at her prescience but at our own impotence.

This production follows hot on the heels of a new play, The Writer, by Ella Hickson. It would be bizarre not to acknowledge how tangibly these two writers illuminate each other. Early in Hickson’s play, one character advocates dismantling capitalism and ending patriarchy. In previews, that line used to get laughs, but on the night of Harvey Weinstein’s arrest, and the Irish vote to repeal the 8th, it got a round of applause. Perhaps we are finally catching up with Sophie Treadwell, and Ella Hickson. Sophie Treadwell understood her society to its very root, and that is the first level on which we are asked to engage with the play: what are the base archetypes structuring all our relationships and conversations? When we believe we are acting as an individual, how far are we unconsciously performing a role written for us by the societal machine? Are we just like characters in a play, saying the lines written for our roles as worker, daughter, mother, husband, lover, judge and jury? What would it feel like to break out of that rhythm? What would it mean to be free, truly free, radically free?

Machinal is previewing from 4 June, click here for tickets and info.