Good vibrations

For women suffering from ‘hysterical’ symptoms during the Renaissance, the cure was a speedy marriage. Unsurprisingly, marriage didn’t always relieve women of their symptoms. Female sexuality was so repressed that women were thought to experience no sexual desire or pleasure of their own and were expected merely to abide their husband’s needs with gritted teeth and fortitude. Needless to say, few women found intercourse with their husbands satisfying, so sexual frustration abounded.

Hysteria was thought to be an illness of the uterus that could cause mental instability and was first identified during ancient Greek times. Symptoms included nervousness, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, general irritability, erotic desire… the list is endless, due to the fact that almost any undesirable mental or physical feeling in a woman would be instantly classified as hysterical.

Treatment for hysteria was the induction of paroxysm, most definitely not to be confused with orgasm, which women were considered incapable of experiencing. Doctors or midwives would manually massage female genitalia, applying pressure to the clitoris. This was thought to be a tiring task, causing cramps in the hand. Nevertheless, it provided a steady stream of income for doctors, whose grateful patients would return endlessly, with their husbands’ full approval.

The vibrator was a tool in the hands of male doctors, used to control female sexuality on strictly male terms

Sarah Ruhl’s play is set in the late 19th century, in the years following the discovery and growing use of electricity in America. One of the effects of Edison’s discovery was the invention of the first electric vibrator. Doctors had been experimenting with contraptions for a while but the patenting of the first electric variety would end up being revolutionary. Ruhl’s play is set in the years between invention and widespread availability when use of the vibrator was considered acceptable in a purely medical setting: as a tool in the hands of male doctors, used to control female sexuality on strictly male terms.

In her introduction to the play, Ruhl notes she takes the invention of the electrical vibrator as a “leaping-off point” to explore broader themes around “the relationships that expand around the device, and the whole notion of compartmentalization, of what goes on in the ‘next room'”. She does so by introducing us to Dr Givings and his wife, Catherine.

Dr Givings detachedly treats women (and some men) for hysteria, while Catherine anxiously confronts bodily issues of her own. The set is impressively designed to allow us to witness the scenes that play out simultaneously up in Dr Giving’s treatment room and downstairs, in the mostly female parlour. Upstairs, wealthy women classified as sick are treated (a treat for them indeed) to their body’s own medicine. Downstairs, Catherine fights feelings of motherly inadequacy, as her new baby rejects her milk and she must enviously hire a nourishing wet nurse.

Much to the resentment of Catherine, who grows curious of what goes on upstairs, Dr Givings consistently refuses to ‘experiment’ on his wife. He sees his treatments as just that: sterile and medical. He doesn’t understand why Catherine would want to experience the electric vibrator and doesn’t believe there’s a need. In his treatment room, his patients discover their bodies for the first time, yet are not expected to take pleasure from their discovery. Downstairs, Catherine is denied any knowledge at all.

Nobody feels free to identify, name, or pursue what it is they want

There is only a small cast of characters in Ruhl’s play but her crafting of them makes each character seem at once entirely unique and universal. At times I grew worried that the portrayal of female sexuality was too uniform, but Ruhl successfully avoids this trap by exploring the different effects of the vibrator on different women and even the varying effects for the same women on new occasions.

Ruhl’s play shows her female characters growing in strength and confidence, not from their medical experiences alone, but from their relationships with each other. The world she creates is not only one where sexuality is repressed but also one full of boundaries and constraints in human relations. This stiffness keeps women isolated, classes separated, and races suspicious of each other. Nobody feels free to identify, name, or pursue what it is they want, as wonderfully demonstrated by Sarah Woodward’s character Annie. Catherine provides the focal point for different groups and individuals to interact: her husband sees the world in scientific terms, while Catherine desires human connection.

Although we see two separate rooms whose gendered barriers are emphasised, we never even see the nursery, the domain of Elizabeth, the African American wet nurse Catherine hires. If society is divided, this is true on many levels. It seems on the surface that Elizabeth is entirely subordinate to her wealthy, white employers and aware of her assigned place within society. However, it is her who gently challenges societal expectations; she openly rejects religion, with her shaken faith in God, and in a touching moment that provides smiles for the audience, uncomfortably reveals to her employers that what they’re newly encountering, up in the doctor’s room, is a feeling she associates with intimate relations with her husband.

The play feels, from start to end, like a journey of positive self discovery

With Elizabeth’s character and her place within the family, Ruhl demonstrates the intersections between race and gender that still exist today. Elizabeth must at once follow her employer’s orders and heed her husband’s demands. Yet Ruhl also shows us that it is Elizabeth who, although inferior in society’s eyes, is most contented, with a close family and a physically intimate husband. She perhaps has a quieter voice than the play’s other women, and less tangible power, but a greater perception of societal truths, more satisfying personal relationships and a better sense of self. Elizabeth is still trapped within a doubly divisive society but she is not bound according to the same personal confines as the wealthier women.

Ultimately, Ruhl’s play is a happy one. There are frequent laugh-out-loud moments, and although the humour is not crude, Ruhl does not shy away from portrayals of women experiencing orgasm. Humorous and enjoyable scenes sit comfortably by the more painful moments. The play feels, from start to end, like a journey of positive self discovery, and whilst there are dramatic and emotional moments, the happy ending never seems in doubt. The cast are superb, making for a couple of hours of theatre that are entirely enjoyable.

Ruhl doesn’t seem overly concerned with preaching a moral message, leaving it to the audience to take what they will from the play. It would be great to see more of what Ruhl makes of the myriad contradictions and complexities of expectations around female sexuality today; her play feels tame when compared to the all-encompassing sexuality of modern society, though in both the 19th century and today, it can be the emotional connection that is missing most of all, as Ruhl nicely demonstrates.

In the Next Room tells us that expressions of female sexuality should be encouraged and enjoyed. Sexually empowered women are more confident, more happy and do not present a threat to the men (or other women) who truly care for them and desire an equal relationship – a message we can all agree with.

A note from the editor: In the interests of historical accuracy, I’d like to direct readers to Lesley Hall’s debunking of the notion that vibrators were commonly wielded by Victorian doctors to cure hysteria. While the facts of the matter don’t detract from the play or the themes it covers, it’s good to be aware of the controversy surrounding some of the historical claims!

In The Next Room will be showing at St James’ Theatre in London until 4 January.

The photos are both by Johan Persson.

First image: two women in period dress face each other in conversation, sitting on a sofa.

Second image: A woman stands in the foreground in a living room scene; a man stands in the background. On the upper level in the background, a woman draped in a white sheet is lying on a medical bed with a female nurse at her head and a man standing next to her. All are in period dress.

Shoshana, as an arts graduate with an entirely unscientific mind, tends to take technology for granted. Following this play though, she’ll always take a minute to be grateful for what electricity has given us