Did you hear the machines? The detail that caught my attention before the play even began was the sound of footsteps. The clicking of shoes as the cast paced back and forth on what seemed to be a secret assembly line on the stage. Their routine felt complimentary, predetermined by uniquely embedded binary codes that ensured each heel’s click echoed another. This formed a rhythm that evoked a sense of order and submission to some higher power. Were we in the midst of a robot army?
A transparent theme in Machinal is machines. Their rigid, suffocating, self-programmed nature is however captured in a rather indirect execution: expressionism. This artistic approach is known as “seeking to express emotional experience rather than impressions of the external world.” Rather than constructing a visually physical reality, the goal is to allow the audience to adventure feelings that embody the alternate space – an experience so powerful that they would make the story their own.
The most transparent evidence of this operation was the minimal presence of props. This direction initially confused me, but it allowed a deeper exploration of the play’s message and design motives. Only stationary objects such as office chairs and the bed were present for most of the play as well as the tapping, zip and ding of typewriters and other devices as opposed to their physical presence. The use of noise to depict real props demonstrates the power of taking away the sense of sight. When less focus is put on sight, audition and touch are enhanced, making the audience feel like they themselves are in those chairs and operating those appliances. The use of negative space further enables the visually simplistic set to envelope underlying emotions. Different values of grey are sharply cut by lines that form geometric structures. The definition of these shapes depends on interpretation. In some acts they felt like windows whilst in others simply the walls of the boss’ office. The metal-like textures made the environment feel stiff, harsh and restricting. Expressionism is in play. The ceiling too featured these structures hanging down. This application of the principle of movement draws the audience’s attention back on to the cast. It also stresses the compact atmosphere inside ‘the machine’. Consider the workings of a clock with different hands and gears from all directions, churning and hitting as the device performed. This was the experience created – a misty power plant and its busy mice.
The whole set is then transformed after the female lead, Helen’s, sins are committed. More handheld objects were present, the first being the potted plant after she spent the night with the strange man followed by the newspapers read before she murdered her husband. Wooden textures coated a now opaque form that were newly enclosed walls and stands of the court. This contrast of textures and shapes helped amplify the sudden turn of the play. Order was now present more in the form of the physical reality instead of the resulting emotional experience. The large size and height of the walls was daunting, and the audience was able to see the actual suffocation Helen experienced by the restricting straps of the electric chair. Prior to this, material for interpretation was only drawn from the cast’s gestures, such as Helen’s squirming on the plain hospital bed. This new physical presence surprised me and made me wonder whether another design motive was to translate the experience of derealization and depersonization that Helen lived. It was as if the world around her was unreal before then. It was as if she only felt real once she fought against her oppressor.
The music between each episodic transition is another clear illustration of Machinal’s clever sound design. This helps carry the audience’s emotional flow, keeping them on the edge of their seats. An episodic structure is still achieved with a sense of unity needed to convey the world of the play as not much more than one big machine. The choice of structure of the play alone is worth applauding as it captures the rapidly evolving capitalist industrial world in which it takes place. This coupled with the directions to have set alterations be carried out by the cast adds to the mechanical feel of the Machinal. The cast themselves are part of the machine. They are under its control, helping it assemble and reassemble. Perhaps this was a part of the script’s directions as it so effectively reinforces the robotic mockery of the society’s oppression.
The cast’s attire additionally contributes. The boxy monochromatic silhouettes bared arbitrary lines, hinting a methodized uniform. Similar values and saturations once again echo the principle of unity within the system whilst the lines create the feeling of the cast each being a piece of the bigger contraption. These lines also intensify the emotional experience as the audience could feel as if the lines were on them, as if they were too a part of the machine. In contrast, Helen wore lighter colours and more of a figure showing fit. She had white gloves that added to a desirable young wife motif that costume design seemed to strive for. This is arguably the most relatable design choice in Machinal for a 2018 audience, as whether the feminine extent of a women’s clothing makes her more or less desirable is still very much in question. In the later court scene, Helen wears a much darker coat than the other characters. These distinctions really help emphasize her as the lead.
Lighting surely cannot be forgotten when deconstructing Machinal’s expressionism. The blinding bright light cast in the office and court scenes translates the glaring eyes of those watching over the capitalist system. The light closes into Helen whenever she begins an inner monologue, creating an emphasis that resembles suffocation. In her first monologue, this spotlight expands and contracts with her fragmented lines, simulating an almost heavy breathing-like rhythm or the intense beating of her heart. During her second monologue in the hospital, the spotlight shrinks in and remains only on her, lighting clearly every bit of her discomfort and allowing the faces of the crowd around her bed to be barely seen. Perhaps this is the image of the play that will stay with me the longest as the claustrophobia it evoked was so haunting.
Tracing Machinal to its earliest forms, we can see that the machine capitalist patriarchal society from which women cannot break free is its base. Building a mechanical empire from these grounds in my opinion is genius as it captures the reality whilst poking fun at it. Expressionism was the cherry on top needed to deliver this objective as its personal experience made the cold steel bars more approachable.
Did I hear the machines? I felt the machine.