A Review of In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl

On Saturday the 2nd of November, I was fortunate enough to be able to experience the award-nominated play by Sarah Ruhl, either called In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play. I was also lucky enough that the showing was audio described, though the play would have worked well enough without AD.

It is the 1880s. Electricity has just been brought into richer houses. Dr. Givings is studying early psychology practices and has invented a wonderful new machine which he uses to treat women for Hysteria. This machine is an electrical vibrator and the treatment he proscribes is orgasms or “paroxisms” and lots of them.

Though he is observant, he fails to see that his wife Catherine, who has just had a new baby and is running out of milk, is feeling neglected and unloved. One of his patients has a housekeeper, a woman of colour, who recently lost a baby so she is then employed as a wetnurse and the situation develops from there.

Catherine gets lonely and with the help of the other patients as well as the midwife and the housekeeper, not only does she learn about what her husband is doing in the next room, but she learns a lot about love, how the body works, how to take back her powere as a woman and a myriad of other things about herself and others.

Because our group was composed of blind and vision impaired people, we had a tactile tour before the play. We were allowed to feel the whole set including the vibrator and the multiple heads being used. I think that Funkit Kenton would have had a field day. The set designer was very clever. The costumes and the furniture were all very ornate, as would have been seen in the house of a well-to-do doctor in the 1880s. The audio description was done very thoroughly as always and even with this kind of play, they were not squeamish.

The play not only dealt with subjects such as empowering women and sexuality in general, also, the lack thereof and even some issues surrounding race and gender as one patient was a man who suffered from hysteria, a very rare case, and there was a way to “cure” him as well. Two parts stood out vividly to me. One where Leo, a painter, is saying that his friend was so aghast seeing his wife for the first time after marriage because no one had told him women had body hair. He had only seen them in statues. The other was when the wet-nurse told the women that the feelings they were getting were like the ones she had when having relations with her husband and one of the other women said, after they had all sounded aghast at this, that her husband was so considerate, he told her to close her eyes so the pain would go away more quickly. Such barbaric times and there are still people who deal with this on a daily basis in 2018.

I would thoroughly recommend the play to anyone interested in history, the evolution of sexuality and sexual education. There were many comedic elements but among those, so many little scenes that were designed to make you think. I think the play is deserving of the prizes for which it was nominated.

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