An Unwritten Chapter, pr. 1915 (adaptation of her serial “How I Got My Husband and How I Lost Him”)
Claws, pr. 1918
Gringo, pr. 1922
O, Nightingale, pr. 1925
Machinal, pr. 1928
Ladies Leave, pr. 1929
For Saxophone, wr. 1934
Plumes in the Dust, pr. 1936
Hope for a Harvest, pr. 1941
Highway, pr. 1944
Woman with Lilies, wr. 1948-1967, pr. 1967 (as Now He Doesn’t Want to Play)
One Fierce Hour and Sweet, 1959
Hope for a Harvest, 1953 (adaptation of her play)
Highway, 1954 (adaptation of her play)
Sophie Anita Treadwell was born in 1885 to Alfred B. and Nettie Fairchild Treadwell. When Sophie was five, her father moved to San Francisco. During her childhood, she and her mother sometimes lived with her father, sometimes not. She attended the University of California at Berkeley from 1902 to 1906. There she was involved in theater and, despite struggles with poverty and illness, graduated with a bachelor of letters degree with an emphasis in French.
Following her graduation, Treadwell moved to Los Angeles, where she performed in vaudeville. In 1908 her friend Constance Skinner, who had been a drama critic, arranged for Treadwell to type the memoirs of actress Helena Modjeska. It was Modjeska who encouraged Treadwell’s ambitions to be a dramatist. Also in 1908, Treadwell began her career as a journalist at the San Francisco Bulletin.
In 1910 she married noted journalist and sports reporter William O. McGeehan. After her marriage, she retained her maiden name and continued her active participation in the movement for women’s suffrage. She wrote frequently on women’s issues, and one of her serials, “How I Got My Husband and How I Lost Him,” was adapted for the stage and produced under the title An Unwritten Chapter in San Francisco in 1915.
Treadwell was an accredited war correspondent during World War I, one of the first American women to serve in such a capacity. She spent four months in France in 1915, writing for the San Francisco Bulletin and Harper’s Weekly. During the war, she also continued to write plays, including Claws, produced in a 1918 showcase.
During the 1920’s Treadwell used information from her investigations as a reporter in creating dramas. For example, she covered the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1920’s, obtaining an exclusive interview with Pancho Villa for the New York Tribune. This provided her with the background for Gringo, her first Broadway production (1922), which featured a character based on Villa.
In 1927 Treadwell attended the murder trial of Ruth Snyder, a sensational event that was headline news for much of the year. Snyder was convicted of conspiring with her lover Judd Gray to murder her husband. Both died in the electric chair; Snyder was the first woman so executed in New York. The trial provided the inspiration for Treadwell’s most successful play, Machinal, produced on Broadway in 1928. The play was produced in London (under the title The Life Machine) in 1931. In 1933 Treadwell visited Moscow for the Russian production of Machinal. Revived Off-Broadway in 1960, it remains her best-known work.
Travel was also important to Treadwell. She and McGeehan took two long trips through Europe and Africa. After McGeehan’s death in 1933 and that of her mother in 1934, Treadwell traveled to Egypt and the Far East. During this period she continued to write plays; For Saxophone was copyrighted in 1934, and Plumes in the Dust was produced on Broadway in 1936.
Like Machinal, For Saxophone is an experiment in expressionism. Although it has never been produced or published, the play has generated a surprising amount of critical comment. Considered Treadwell’s most innovative work, it extends the expressionistic techniques used in Machinal to include music. Although other American playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill and Elmer Rice, were experimenting with expressionism in the 1920’s, Treadwell tried to expand the form as a way to focus on women as subjects in drama. That she could not get For Saxophone produced was a huge disappointment.
In 1949 Treadwell adopted a German baby, William, and divided her time during the next few years among Europe, Mexico, Connecticut, and California. From 1956 to 1965, she lived mostly in Spain, writing novels and seeking cures for a variety of illnesses. In 1965 she moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she remained for the rest of her life. The University of Arizona produced Woman with Lilies under the title Now He Doesn’t Want to Play in 1967. When Treadwell died in 1970, she left her estate to the Tucson diocese of the Roman Catholic Church; royalties for her work are used to support local orphanages.
Work of feminist scholars intent on restoring women playwrights to the theatrical canon has given Sophie Treadwell a place in the history of American theater. Continued revivals of Machinal and its positive critical reception have assured that place.