Sophie Treadwell

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Sophie Treadwell (October 3, 1885 – February 20, 1970), was an American playwright and journalist of the first half of the 20th century. She is best known for her play Machinal which is often included in drama anthologies as an example of expressionism or modernism in theatre. Treadwell also wrote novels and serial stories which appeared in newspapers. In addition to writing plays Treadwell also produced, directed, and acted in some of her productions. The styles and subjects of Treadwell's writings are vast, but many present women's issues, subjects of current media coverage, or aspects of Sophie's Mexican heritage.

Sophie on U.S. Auto Tour[1]

Heritage and childhood[edit]

Sophie Anita Treadwell was born in 1885 in Stockton, California.[2] Between 1890 and 1891, Sophie's father, Alfred Treadwell, deserted her and her mother and moved to San Francisco.[2][3] Although she primarily lived with her mother, occasionally Sophie would spend summers in San Francisco with her father. During these visits, Sophie was first exposed to theatre; she witnessed famous actresses Helena Modjeska and Sarah Bernhardt in The Merchant of Venice and Phèdre, respectively. In 1902, Sophie and her mother, Nettie Fairchild Treadwell moved to San Francisco.[2]

Although Sophie's father was also born in Stockton, CA, he spent most of his formative years in Mexico with his native born mother.[3] Both Treadwell's paternal grandmother and great-grandmother were Mexican women of Spanish descent[3]. Sophie's father had a Catholic education and was fluent in five languages [3]. Treadwell's strong female role model was her grandmother Anna Gray Fairchild, a Scottish immigrant, who managed a large ranch after the death of her husband[3].

University and early career[edit]

Sophie at UC Berkeley[1]

Treadwell received her Bachelor of Letters in French from the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied from 1902-1906.[2][3] Due to financial pressure, Treadwell worked several jobs during her studies; receiving additional training in shorthand and typing, teaching English as a second language in the evenings, as well as working in the circulation department of the San Francisco Call.[3] It was also during this time that she first began to write; early drafts of shorter plays, songs, and short fictional stories.[3] During college, she also had her first brushes with mental illness, a variety of nervous conditions that would plague her and lead to several extended hospitilizations throughout her life.[2][3]

After college, Treadwell studied acting and was mentored by renowned Polish actress Helena Modjeska, whose memoirs she was hired to write in 1908.[2] In 1910, Sophie married William O. McGeehan, a sports reporter.[2]

New York and Broadway[edit]

In 1915, Sophie moved to New York[2], following her husband who had already made the cross-country move for his career[3]. Treadwell joined the Lucy Stone League of suffragettes.[2] Here Sophie befriended and became associated with many well known modernist personalities and artists of the time, notably Louise and Walter Arensberg who ran a New York Salon, and painter Marcel Duchamp.

Congruous with Treadwell's advocacy for sexual independence, birth control rights, and increased sexual freedom for women, Sophie had an affair with the artist Maynard Dixon between 1916-1919[3].

Eight of Treadwell's plays appeared on Broadway between 1922-1941.[4] Gringo was Treadwell's first play to be produced on Broadway.[2] Most of these plays were merely written by Treadwell, but in addition she produced Lone Valley and O, Nightingale, the later of which she also staged[4] New York became the setting for the majority of Treadwell's plays.[5]. Critics often negatively judged Treadwell's plays as having poorly developed plots, unsympathetic characters, or objectionable themes[3].

Later years[edit]

In the 1950's and 60's Treadwell turned to writing mostly fiction in the form of short stories and novels, which may be influenced by the lack of success from her Broadway ventures[3]. Treadwell lived for a time as an expatriate in Vienna, Austria as well as in Torremolinos in Southern Spain.[3] When Sophie returned to the U.S. she lived in Newton, Connecticut before moving to Tucson, Arizona where she spent her final years[3].

Plays and novels[edit]

Treadwell is credited with writing 39 plays,[3] numerous serials and journalistic articles, short stories, and novels. The subjects of her writings are as diverse as the mediums she was writing in. Many of Treadwell's works are difficult to obtain and the majority of her plays have not previously been produced as of this writing. Below is a chronological chart of her known works.

Many of Treadwell's plays follow the traditional late nineteenth century well-made play structure, but some share the more modern style and feminist concerns Treadwell is known for from her often anthologized Machinal[3]. Although Treadwell's plays primarily feature lead female characters, the women presented vary greatly in their behavior, beliefs, and social status[3]. Some of Treadwell's plays contain hints of autobiography from Treadwell's heritage to her extra-marital affair[3].

Plays and novels[edit]

Title Year Background
A Man's Own 1905 one-act written when Treadwell was only 20 years old; this play is set in an office in Chicago, IL and concerns economics and family matters[5]
Le Grand Prix 1907 Sophie's first full-length play[2]
The Right Man 1908[2]
The Settlement 1911 unpublished[2][3]
The High Cost 1911[2] begun in 1908 under the title Constance Darrow[3]
An Unwritten Chapter 1915 a one-act later renamed Sympathy, it is a stage adaptation of the serial How I Got My Husband and How I Lost Him.[3] Sympathy was the first of Treadwell's plays to be produced, in San Francisco.[2] This 3-character one-act is set in an apartment and the characters are Jean Traig, a performer and Mori, her servant, and a Man; the play has romantic and economic themes.[5]
Guess Again 1915–1918 2-character one-act[2] romance set in a New York apartment
To Him who Waits 1915–1918 one-act[2][3]
His Luck 1915–1918 one-act[2]
La Cachucha 1915–1918 one-act[2] set in a NY apartment and the characters are dancer Seniorita Viviana Ybarra y De La Guerra, businessman John S. Watkins, and musician Senor Alvaredos. The subject matter of the play is both domestic and romantic[5]
John Doane 1915–1918 a one-act,[2] featuring six characters with an abstract setting and family, romantic, and social subject matter[5]
Claws 1916–1918[3] Ms Treadwell wrote, produced, and acted in this play's first production[2]
Trance 1918 3-character comedic one-act[2] set in a house London, England. The subject is listed as family and the characters are Madame de Vere, Charlie, and John Randolphe[5]
Madame Bluff 1918 Comedy[3]
The Answer 1918 3-act, 6-character play set in an apartment in New York City. The subject matter of the play is war and domestic matters and several of the characters in the play represent military personnel[5]
The Eye of the Beholder 1919 one-act, previously titled Mrs. Wayne.[2][3] Treadwell copyrighted this drama in 1919, a historical accolade for a female playwright at this time.[2] This 7-character drama is set in a rural house and the play's subject matter revolves around family matters and romance[5]. Produced in 2007 at The American Century Theater in Arlington, VA[3]
Rights 1921 based on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft[2]
Gringo 1922 Ran on Broadway December 1922-January 1923,[4] this 3-act drama is set in a mine and camp in Mexico and if loaded with subject matter of: violence, interracial romance (white and Hispanic), family, and intellectual matters. Occupations listed for this 20-character play include: journalist, miner, servant, homemaker, criminal, laborer, and musician[5]
O Nightingale 1925 a comedy, ran on Broadway April 1925-May 1925[4]
Machinal 1928 titled The Life Machine in the London premiere,[3] premiered on Broadway September 1928-November 1928 and was revived on Broadway January 2014-March 2014.[4] The story of Machinal is told over 9 scenes by 29 identifies characters.[5] Six distinct settings appear in the play: office, house, hotel, hospital, bar, courtroom, prison,[5] The main character in the play is the 'young woman,' played in the 2014 Broadway production by Rebecca Hall.[4] 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. This play has also been revived off Broadway and on television and is, by far, Treadwell's best known work[3].
Ladies Leave 1929 a comedy, ran on Broadway in October 1929.[4] A 6 character play in 3-acts that is set in a NYC apartment which deals with the subjects of family, domestic, and social matter, as well as romance. Occupations represtented in the play include doctor, servant, publisher, and editor[5]
The Island 1930 A comedy set in rural Mexico with subject matter of mostly romantic and socially centered content. A writer, servant, and military personnel are represented among the eight characters in the play[5]
Lusita 1931 A novel
Lone Valley 1933 written, staged, and produced by Treadwell, ran on Broadway March 1933[4]
Intimations For Saxophone 1934 Produced in 2004 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.[3]
Plumes in the Dust 1936 ran on Broadway in November 1936[5]
Hope for a Harvest 1941 Treadwell's last play to premier on Broadway during her lifetime, it ran November–December 1941 at the Guild Theatre in New York.[4] The genre is noted as drama, and the play is set in a rural house in Treadwell's own San Joaquin Valley California. There are 17 characters in the play and the subjects range from economics and social issues, to family and romance. The characters occupations are listed as housekeeper, artist, homemaker, and farmer[5]
Highway 1944 A 2-act comedy set in a restaurant in rural Texas. The play features 16 characters of white, Hispanic, and American Indian races with a myriad of occupations with subject matter ranging from economics and family, to health and romance[5]
The Last Border 1944 this play is set in the federal district of Mexico City, and the 13 characters are White or Hispanic. The play's subjects include violence, romance, and social issues[5]
Judgement in the Morning 1952 A 3-act play set both in the upper-east side and an upper-west side of New York City, with a multiracial cast who portray a range of socioeconomically divided characters from a lawyer and politician—to a laborer and a criminal[5]
Gary 1954 A 2-act drama set in an Upper West Side apartment in New York City including topics of socioeconomic and family matters, romance, and violence . The four character are labeled as Wilma a laborer, Peggy a prostitute, Garry a criminal, and Dave a journalist; the abstract notes that the characters feature both heterosexual and bisexual orientations[5]
One Fierce Hour and Sweet 1959 A novel
Woman with Lilies 1967


Treadwell's first job as a journalist was with the San Francisco Bulletin, where she was hired in 1908 as a feature writer and theatre critic.[2] She interviewed celebrities, such as Jack London, and covered several high profile murder trials.[2] Later, when living in New York, Treadwell covered the murder trials of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray whose stories influenced subsequent plays.[2][3] She traveled to France to cover the First World War, she was only female foreign correspondent writing from overseas at that time.[3] When Sophie returned to New York, she was hired by the New York American.[2] For the New York Herald Tribune in 1920, Sophie covered the end of the Mexican revolution.[2] In 1921, she was the only foreign journalist permitted to interview Pancho Villa.[2] In 1941, Sophie spent ten month in Mexico City as a correspondent for the Tribune. Later, Treadwell wrote for the Tribune about her visit to post-war Germany.[2][3]

Contemporaries and context[edit]

Although Treadwell was writing during the height of the Little Theatre Movement in the United States, her desire to produce her works on Broadway for mainstream audiences set her apart from her contemporaries. Treadwell was only peripherally involved in the movement through her work at the Provincetown Players during their early existence.[3]

Noteworthy women playwrights writing in the same era as Treadwell are:[3]

Through the use of various 'isms' these playwrights explored new and alternative ways of presenting women's lives in their plays.[3]

Treadwell remained widely unknown and un-talked about in the world of theatre scholarship until select feminist scholars resuscitated interest in her works following revivals of Machinal in 1990 by the New York Shakespeare Festival and in 1993 by the Royal National Theatre in London[3].

Resources and further reading[edit]

The majority of Treadwell's works are stored at the University of Arizona Library Special Collections and the rest at The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library. The rights to Treadwell's works were passed on in her will to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson: A Corporation Sole.[2][3] One who wishes to obtain the rights to Treadwell's plays can address an enquiry to: Fiscal and Administrative Services, Diocese of Tucson, PO Box 31, Tucson, AZ 85702. Proceeds earned from the production or printing of Treadwell's works are used to benefit Native American children in Arizona. Further biographical information and critical analysis about Treadwell may be found in:

  • "Broadway's Bravest Woman: Selected Writings of Sophie Treadwell". Edited and with introductions by Jerry Dickey and Miriam Lopez-Rodiriguez. Southern Illonois University Press, 2006.
  • "Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell". Barbara Ozieblo and Jerry Dickey. Routledge, 2008.
  • Dickey, Jerry (1999). "The expressionist movement: Sophie Treadwell". In Murphy, Brenda. The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights. Cambridge University Press. pp. 66–81. ISBN 9780521576802. 

All of Treadwell's plays are published electronically in "North American Women's Drama" through the academic database publisher Alexander Street Press. Access to this resource is available by purchase directly through ASP's website, or through library access at many academic institutions that have purchased a license to the database.

In addition, Machinal is (or was) included in the following anthologies[3]:

  • Twenty-Five Best Plays of the Modern American Theatreby John Glassner- now out of print, originally published in 1949
  • Plays by American Women: 1900-1930 Judith Barlow's anthology, published in 1981


  1. ^ a b "The Sophie Treadwell Collection". The Sophie Treadwell Collection. Special Collections, University of Arizona Library. Retrieved 1 May 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag Dickey, Jerry; Lopez-Rodriguez, Miriam (2006). Broadway's Bravest Woman. Southern Illinois University. ISBN 0-8093-2675-2. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am Ozieblo, Barbara; Dickey, Jerry (2008). Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-40485-1. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Sophie Treadwell". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "North American Women's Drama". Alexander Street Press. 

See also[edit]