Best known for her expressionist play Machinal, Sophie Treadwell has been regarded as a one-hit wonder. But, the director of the world premiere of her ‘lost’ psychological thriller Garry tells Nick Smurthwaite, nothing could be further from the truth
American playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell is often regarded as a one-hit wonder. Her award-winning 1928 play Machinal, an expressionist tragedy underpinned by the author’s feminist ideals, has been revived many times, often to great acclaim, on both sides of the Atlantic.
But, Treadwell had seven plays produced on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s, and wrote dozens more that were never put on. Now, one of these ‘lost’ plays, Garry, is having its world premiere thanks to its producer-director Graham Watts.
Watts specialises in finding unproduced or rarely produced plays by neglected writers. Last year, he staged the world premiere of the 17th-century play The Unnatural Tragedy by Margaret Cavendish at the White Bear Theatre in south London. Cavendish was one of the first women to write plays under her own name.
The director’s decision to stage Garry – considered too controversial to produce when Treadwell wrote it in 1954 – was based on a two-line synopsis of the play he read in a biography of the playwright. Watts applied to the University of Arizona in Tucson, Treadwell’s literary executors, and was pleasantly surprised by the response.
He says: “I asked them to send me a copy of the original script, which was a painstaking process because it was typed on very thin onion paper, so every sheet had to be scanned in separately. To my surprise, it turned out that the keeper of the archive had seen and liked my production of The Unnatural Tragedy when he was in London, so he was more than happy to give me permission to stage Garry.”
Described by Watts as “a tense psychological thriller”, Garry tackles themes of prostitution, homosexuality and the role of women in the 1950s. It was thought by some to have been inspired by the high-profile lawyer Roy Cohn, who features in the later play, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
In the play, a rich and prominent citizen lures an unemployed young man to the Waldorf Hotel and proceeds to sexually assault him.
“You’d struggle to get it put on in certain parts of America today, let alone 60 years ago,” says Watts. “For those of a more liberal frame of mind, there are obviously echoes of the scandals of recent times.”
Long before the life-changing success of Machinal in 1928, Treadwell had already distinguished herself as a fearless journalist. She was encouraged by the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, where she started out, to go under cover to get the best stories. Famously, in 1915, she posed as a homeless prostitute to expose the hypocrisy of certain charitable organisations in the city.
She was the only accredited female foreign correspondent to go to France to write about the First World War. Because she was not given access to the front lines, she volunteered as a nurse and wrote about the effect the war was having on the women of Europe.
When Treadwell returned to New York, she was hired by the New York American, later renamed the New York Herald Tribune, where she covered the tail end of the Mexican Revolution and became the only foreign journalist permitted to interview the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. The two-day interview was the inspiration for her 1922 melodrama Gringo, which marked her Broadway debut.
Her investigative journalism often focused on society’s outcast and oppressed. Her biggest hit, Machinal, was also kick-started by her reporting role. In 1927, she attended the trial of Ruth Snyder, a housewife and mother accused of murdering her husband, who became the first woman in New York state to be electrocuted.
Treadwell saw the universally vilified Snyder as the victim of society’s expectations of women who snapped under the weight of a bad marriage. Machinal was the author’s way of giving the dead and disenfranchised Snyder a voice.
Her detractors accused Treadwell of being more interested in themes than structure in her plays, and she was famous for falling out with producers trying to persuade her to make her work more commercial.
Watts, who has seen Treadwell’s correspondence, talks of a letter from a designer friend, urging her to change her style. “She replies, saying she doesn’t care what people think. ‘This is how I write, this is what I do.’ I think we can extrapolate from that that she was constantly at loggerheads with the Broadway establishment.”
Neither did she win many friends for taking the actor John Barrymore – a leading man on Broadway for three decades – to court for blatantly plagiarising one of her earlier plays. She won the case, but the press dubbed her “Treadmill” because of her persistence and provocation.
No wonder the American theatre scholar Jerry Dickey entitled his biography Broadway’s Bravest Woman, when it was published in 2006.
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