Tears on Trial in the 1920s: Female Emotion and Style in Chicago and Machinal

Jean Marie Lutes, Villanova University
Vol. 30, No. 2 (Fall 2011), 343-369

This essay analyzes emotionality in the work of Maurine Watkins and Sophie Treadwell, two journalists-turned-playwrights who based their most influential and long-lived plays on the real-life trials of women accused of murder. Interlacing analysis of news coverage with a discussion of Watkins’s Chicago (1926) and Treadwell’s Machinal (1928), Lutes argues that by the 1920s, the mass media had redrawn the conventions of emotional expression, particularly for women, so that emotions were valued by virtue of their legibility, rather than their authenticity. Expressions of emotion were inherently audience-oriented, interpreted as performances, as more or less convincing arrangements of feelings. Evaluations of emotional expression, then, centered more on assessing the style and legibility of the expression itself, rather than determining its source. This change did not so much privilege style over substance as insist, in a quintessentially modernist move, that style was substance. Watkins and Treadwell both sought to represent the affective consequences of mass-circulated conventions of expression; they imagined emotions being deployed as class markers and showed assessments of female composure to be a critical element in judgments of women. Ultimately, their writings re-compose female emotion on their own terms, not to authenticate that emotion, but rather to indict the process of authentication itself. Figuring out how to feel correctly, in these plays, becomes an exercise in style and social privilege, and everyone’s emotional life is always playing to a packed house.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]