Female Sexuality Takes Center Stage With 'The Vibrator Play'

In the Victorian era, hysterical paroxysm was the medical terminology for a female orgasm. It was believed to cure female hysteria, a once common medical diagnosis for irritability and a loss of appetite for food or sex. Women genital massages, leading to an orgasm, as treatment. "In The Room Next Door (or the vibrator play)," a new play by Sarah Ruhl, takes on female sexuality and how past generations addressed issues of intimacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

From what we're learning about desire in the lab to what the theatre can teach us. It's another topic that may be inappropriate for young ears. So, an hysterical paroxysm - what might that be? Well, in the Victorian era it meant a female orgasm. It was believed to be a cure for a condition known as female hysteria, a once common medical diagnosis for irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and the tendency to cause trouble. Now, nowadays those are some of the symptoms of depression. But in 1859, a physician claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from quote �hysteria.�

The medical belief was that genital massages leading to an orgasm could cure hysteria, and by the mid-19th century, doctors had created a massage machine that vibrated. That's right ladies, the vibrator was invented before the light bulb. How about that?

Sarah Ruhl's new play entitled �In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)� explores the life of Dr. Givings, who treats women for hysteria with electric massage. And his young wife, Catherine Givings, who, intrigued, wants to know what's going on in the room next door. It's a meditation about relationships and intimacy.

And Sarah Ruhl, the playwright joins us now to talk about it. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SARAH RUHL (Playwright, �In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)�): Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: How did you come up with this idea?

Ms. RUHL: Well, someone had given me this really brilliant book by Rachel Maines called �The Technology of Orgasm.� And, as far as I know, it's sort of the only comprehensive history of the vibrator out there. And she had been interested in the history of leisure of all things. And she came across these magazine clippings from The Ladies Home Journal and other publications advertising the vibrator right along with the electric kettle and other, you know, sundry domestic equipment and thought, is this was I think it is? And so, she set out to write this book and I was amazed by two premises that I had never heard before.

First that doctors used vibrators to treat hysteria and also that before the vibrator was invented they treated women manually, you know, with digital massage for hysteria. I just had no idea. So, it didn't immediately occur to me that this was a play but it was kind of in the back of my mind as something I was fascinated by. And then when I was approached to write a play I had always wanted to write sort of a costume drama, a 19th century costume drama. And thought, wouldn't it be interesting to write one but with all of the things that are left out of the 19th century novel usually.

MARTIN: One of the revelations of the play is just how unaware people could be of their own bodies. I just want to play a short clip. This is a scene where the doctor's wife, Mrs. Givings and her friend call over Catherine's wet nurse to ask if she's ever experienced some strange sensations? Here it is.

(Soundbite of the play �In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)�)

Unidentified Woman #1: Have you ever had this sensation either?

Unidentified Woman #2: Where you feel a shiver all over your body, and you feel like wetting? And your feet get very hot as if you're dancing on devil's coal.

Unidentified Woman #1: �or you see unaccountable patterns of light, electricity under your eyelids, and your heart races, and your legs feel very weak, as though you cannot walk.

Unidentified Woman #2: And your face gets suddenly hot, it's a strange sort of sunburn.

Unidentified Woman #1: Or is there red splotches on your entire body?

Unidentified Woman #2: A strange rash here.

Unidentified Woman#1: And a feeling of burning as you will get no relief, and your mouth is dry. You lick your lips and you find your face is making an ugly expression, so you cover your face with your hands.

Unidentified Woman #2: And sometimes the great outpouring of liquid and the sheets are wet. But it's not an unpleasant sensation but a little frightening. Is that real?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: Has that ever happened to you?

Unidentified Woman #3: I do not know. The sensations are so contradictory.

Unidentified Woman #2: Does anything unite them?

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, many of them are down below.

Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, I see. Well, the things you describe, some of them seem to be sensations that an invalid would have or someone with a horrible fever but others sound like sensations that women might have when they're having relations with their husbands.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm sorry. Perhaps you're joking. Perhaps I should have said�

Unidentified Woman #2: With their husbands?

Unidentified Woman #3: How interesting.

Unidentified Woman #1: Those sensations you were describing, they're not from having relations with your husband?

Unidentified Woman#2: Good heavens, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: My favorite is the laugh where they just think, oh, how ridiculous�

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: �how ridiculous. We've just had a conversation with Lorri Brocco�

Ms. RUHL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: �who is a psychologist studying, researching quite seriously this whole question of desire, how does it work.

Ms. RUHL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And we've talked about the fact that we are in a very sex-exposed society.

Ms. RUHL: Hmm.

MARTIN: We talk about the sex a lot. And I'm curious how you imagined a time when women really didn't know what was going on with their bodies, were not encouraged to know?

Ms. RUHL: Well, that was a fascinating entry point for me into the play, the notion that these women had no language for what was physically happening to them. That there was a kind of innocence surrounding the whole thing, not only for the women but also for the doctor, oddly enough. I mean, I think we might imagine with hindsight that the doctors were sort of perverse or getting some kind of perverse pleasure from this and that they were winking and nodding.

But truly, everyone was so innocent about it. It was though there was some amazing cultural amnesia about female sexuality in the Victorian Age because certainly in the Renaissance or in B.C. China or India people knew exactly how to talk about a female orgasm and how to produce one. But suddenly, women lost the language for it. So, that was fascinating for me just in terms of being a playwright and being interested in language, how these women grappled with expressing themselves for the first time about the experience of having an orgasm.

MARTIN: I know you've been quoted as saying this really isn't about, you know, vibrators, per se. It's really about intimacy. And the play is getting wonderful reviews. So, congratulations to you for that. But what do you think it is that people are responding to in this play? Do you have a sense that for all of our talking about sex and having it all in our face all the time that we really haven't advanced that much at all?

Ms. RUHL: We live in a kind of a pornographic culture, pornography gone mainstream. And so, we think of ourselves as so savvy about sexuality because it's so ever present. But, I think in terms of the true integration of one's emotional life with one's physical life, I think in a way we've gone round the bend the other way, that a certain kind of conversation about sexuality is so prevalent and in your face that we lose the delicacy of how to marry an emotional life to a physical life.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea what would make it better?

Ms. RUHL: That's an interesting question. I mean, I think the title of the play �In The Next Room,� has to do with compartmentalization and people being in separate rooms even though they're married or even though they're in close proximity to each other. So, I think kind of getting out of the - your own room of your own mind or your own body and being, you know, metaphorically in the same room as someone else, whether it be your partner, whoever you're having sex with, your husband, your wife, you know, what have you, I think getting in the same room is kind of the dream of the play in a way.

Although at the end they're actually in a garden, they're not in the room in at all. But I don't what to say about it because on one hand we all thought frank communication would solve the problem. There's plenty of frank communication going on. So, maybe it's something more subtle more than that.

MARTIN: Sarah Ruhl's new play is titled �In The Room Next Door (Or The Vibrator Play).� It is now playing at Lincoln Center in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us and congratulations.

Ms. RUHL: Thank you so much for having me.

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