The wonderful and wise teacher and designer Sally Melville writes and speaks quite often about the art and craft of knitting, and what it is about the process of making things by hand that makes us stronger, wiser and better people. It does sound like a tall order for two sticks and some string, as some people call it. But Ms. Melville’s ideas are based in sound psychological and neurological research, having to do with the difference between right and left brain activity, the emphasis on process over product, the tactile and meditative nature of knitting, the focus and patience required, and the sense of purpose and joy in creating something useful, and beautiful, from one’s own labor.
Having just seen the terrific production of “Machinal” at the Roundabout, I couldn’t help thinking it provided a perfect portrait of the dehumanization brought about by living and working strictly by the rules of a hierarchical and mechanized world. This play, written by Sophie Treadwell in 1928 and rarely produced, uses an expressionistic style to tell one woman’s story of domination, entrapment and its consequences. It is overtly critical of patriarchy, corporate power, the legal system, the media, and the tight and restricted space in which women were expected to exist.
In the play a young woman, played by the very fine English actress Rebecca Hall, commutes daily to a job she detests, is harassed in the workplace, unhappily married, has an unwelcome baby, is seduced, murders, is prosecuted and executed. Throughout she is passive and increasingly desperate, robotically following orders and expectations, miserable and isolated. There is only one glimmer of light in her life, an encounter with a sailor, which provides a moment of physical warmth and awakens in her the possibility of something other than the grey hell in which she exists. But the society that shaped this creature can yield only violence. The young woman’s sole overt act, in a grab for freedom, is to kill her husband. She “snaps”.
I studied this play in graduate school and I remember thinking at the time that it was trite and predictable…what woman (I thought in 1981) would allow herself to be so dominated, so downtrodden, so exploited? Thirty years on, I marvel at the way director Lyndsey Turner opened this play and helped me to understand the universality of oppression and the terrible consequences when any human is denied the freedom of choice and self determination. It isn’t only a question of personal action, but of grasping the depth to which societal pressures shape the individual. I thank Ms. Melville for helping me to connect these ideas to the necessity of staying true to the work of being human. The young woman in “Machinal” is by Treadwell’s intent a cog in the wheel of a modern, industrialized society – just one of many, easily replaced, of no personal value. Her volcanic eruption of violence cannot be endorsed, but it is possible to understand that it arose from the lethal bubbling of long suffering.
Our modern world has replaced mechanization with technology, meant to free us of the evils of the industrial revolution. The tyranny of little machines has perhaps replaced that of the big ones. But on this MLK day, perhaps it behooves us to remember that no one is free unless we are all free, and that poverty and brutality lead to dehumanization just as much as industrialization ever did. The work of being human – Sally Melville-style – recognizing and honoring craft, savoring the opportunity for loving creation, for growth, learning, understanding and listening, extends out into the world and leaves no place for injustice, abuse, iniquity….evils of which we humans are more than capable. It extends to a consciousness of suffering wherever we find it, and steadfast work for change. Perhaps that is the greatest craft of all.
© Poets Sinews, 2014, reuse by permission only.