October 3, 1888 – Sophie Treadwell:
“I suppose I got to marry somebody—all girls do.”
Broadway and nearly all theatres in the USA have been dark since mid-March, and are expected to remain that way through at least through spring 2021. What is next for Broadway? Will theatres use plexiglass placed between the audience’s chairs, which will be more spaced out anyway, plus protection for the performers as well? Audiences will probably be limited for the performances, and those in attendance will have to answer a questionnaire and have their temperatures taken after coming in from the socially distanced box-office line.
Treadwell was a special talent: A social activist, playwright, world traveler and international journalist. She advocated for sexual independence, birth control rights, and increased sexual freedom for women. Treadwell had brief affairs with men and women.
Born in Stockton, Treadwell was abandoned by her father who split for San Francisco when she was 5 years old. Growing up, she spent summers with him; it was there that he introduced his daughter to the world of theatre.
In 1906, she graduated from UC-Berkeley. In 1907, she met her first girlfriend, Helena Modjeska, a Polish actor who gave her acting lessons, so to speak. In 1908, she started writing for the San Francisco Examiner, and she married sportswriter William O. McGeehan in 1910.
McGeehan later said their relationship was one of ”great companionship”. They were rarely in the same city at the same time.
The McGeehans moved to New York City in 1915, where Treadwell joined the Women’s Suffrage movement while trying to break into the in New York theatre scene. She joined a group of suffragettes known as the Lucy Stone League. It led her to taking up a separate residence from her husband and maintaining her own last name despite their marriage. She participated in a 150-mile march to the New York Legislature in Albany to deliver a petition on Women’s Suffrage.
Treadwell became friends with art patrons Walter and Louise Arensberg, who introduced her to other artists and activists including Marcel Duchamp, Algonquin Round Table regulars Heywood Broun and Ruth Hale, and acting great Katherine Cornell.
Treadwell was different from most female playwrights of her day, by pursuing commercial productions of her works on Broadway. Most lesbian playwrights, such as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, were writing during the height of the Little Theatre Movement and produced experimental works for small audiences.
Seven of Treadwell’s plays had runs on Broadway between 1922-41, including Machinal, her most revived work. Machinal is told over nine scenes by 29 identified characters. Six distinct settings appear in the play: office, house, hotel, hospital, bar, courtroom, prison, The main character in the play is the ‘young woman,’ played in the 2014 Broadway production by Rebecca Hall. None of the characters are named, but identified by their station or occupation. The story is loosely based on the murder trial of Ruth Snyder. Her execution in the electric chair at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in 1928 for the murder of her husband was captured in an infamous photograph. The original production marked the debut of Clark Gable on Broadway.
The best theatre actors performed roles in Treadwell plays including Helen Hayes, Frederic March and Robert Preston.
Treadwell also produced, directed and acted in some of her productions. Her plays, comedies and dramas, touched on women’s issues of her time (with strong roles for women), and Treadwell’s Mexican heritage.
As a journalist, she traveled to France to cover World War I, the only credentialed female U.S. foreign correspondent. Later, she was the only foreign journalist to interview Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
McGeehan died in 1933. In the 1950s and 1960s, Treadwell wrote short stories and novels, and traveled. She retired to Arizona.
Machinal was produced in 1990 by the New York Shakespeare Festival and in 1993 by the Royal National Theatre in London. One of the top plays of the 1928-29 Broadway season, it was rediscovered by Feminist literary types in the 1990s. It was nominated for four Tony Awards in a Broadway revival in 2014.
Treadwell had a strong personality and was notoriously particular with directors and designers.
In the early 1920s, Treadwell sued theatre icon John Barrymore over the production of a play about Edgar Allen Poe. Barrymore announced he was producing the play, written by his wife. Treadwell claimed it was based on a manuscript she had shared with him years earlier. She won in court but lost in the court of the Broadway community.
Being a woman and a playwright in the 20th century made it tough to be taken seriously and being difficult made it even tougher. Treadwell’s time on Broadway ended in 1941.
She adapted her autobiographical novel Hope For A Harvest (1936), written after traveling to Egypt and the Middle East, a look at, among other subjects, the growing xenophobia in the USA at the time. Though it got good reviews, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, theatre attendance dropped dramatically, and the play closed after ten performances. And the curtain dropped on her career.
Gary, written in 1954, features bisexual characters. The world premiere was presented in London last summer.
Treadwell was more famous during her lifetime as a journalist, going undercover for assignments for weeks at a time, later resurfacing to write a series of stories on social issues.
In a series she wrote for the San Francisco Bulletin in 1914 titled An Outcast At The Christian Door, she posed as a homeless prostitute to discover what kind of assistance she might receive from the various churches.
For most of her life, Treadwell’s central goal was simply to work and keep on working. Near death, Treadwell wrote:
“Work is the greatest thing on earth, greater than love, greater than death. Work is the product of time and energy and time is the brother of death. Death is the reward for having lived.”