Review of In the Next Room, or the vibrator play

Before you second-guess yourself or command that you get your own mind out of the gutter- yes, the title refers to exactly what you think it does. The play, though, is about more than that.

To give you some background of the play itself, it’s written by Sarah Ruhl. This is the first play I’ve ever read or seen of hers in full; before this, I’d only watched my fellow acting students perform a few of her monologues. Even that brief glimpse into her plays made me want to seek out her work and indulge in them; she’s a wonderful writer. Her words flow seamlessly, are dense with meaning, and are sometimes pretty funny, besides. The same goes for In the Next Room. The world premiere of the play was in 2009, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by Les Waters. It went on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony Award nominee for Best Play.
 I first heard of the play about a year ago when I was snooping around on the website of a theatre at which I would be auditioning. The synopsis intrigued me and I was desperate to see it, but sadly, it ran while I was studying abroad and I had to miss it.

The plot as written on the back of the play: In the Next Room… hovers at the dawn of electricity when enthusiasm for the light bulb gave rise to a handy new instrument to treat female hysteria.

Not very descriptive, so I’ll give you a little more information: in the late 1800s, as well as bit earlier and later, many women seemed to suddenly be suffering from a strange illness. It caused their minds to splinter. They became nervous and overly sensitive. They would cry at odd times. New mothers would refuse to have contact with their babies. Some women were tired, sad, and felt weak (which continued the popular notion of the romantic fainting woman), and others were excitable and, for that time, frighteningly interested in sexual affaires (with their husbands or otherwise.) Nowadays, we have names for all of these “symptoms,” among them depression, post-partum depression, bi-polar disorder, or, dare we say it, just being human. Back then, however, there was only one name for it: hysteria.
Hysteria was hard to pin down. It seemed it took any symptom or no symptom for a woman (and, though very rarely, a man) to be diagnosed. If a woman was passive, she was a hysteric. If she was passionate: hysterical. It was a disorder of contradictions and many experts today deny that hysteria was an actual illness. Whether it was or not, however, there were a good many treatments for such an affliction. One of them was the vibrator.
The idea behind using a vibrator came from the notion that a hysterical woman’s body was holding pent-up fluid and tension and in order to get rid of it, she had to have some sort of release. The vibrator, which back then look more like a farm tool than anything and was operated only by a doctor, was used to give them that release. Ruhl’s play revolves around a doctor’s wife, the doctor himself, and his patients, all of whom have some relation to this new-fangled and strange device.

Catherine, the doctor’s wife (whose lines, sadly, are listed under the name Mrs. Givings; this really distances the reader from Catherine as a person, as alive as she is on the page), is living what seems like the ideal life. She’s married to a successful physician who has a knack for discovering new devices, she lives in a lovely house in a spa town and has a new baby girl. But she’s secretly unhappy: her husband spends more time with the patients than he does with his wife, and when he’s finished work, he goes to his club or to lectures on electricity, his fascination. Catherine adores her child, but Catherine is unable to produce enough milk to fortify the baby and is terrified that her child will starve. Through one of Dr. Givings’ patients, she hires a wet nurse and is heartbroken when the baby becomes attached to the nurse.
Ruhl does a wonderful job of making the patients stand-out characters, as well as the patients’ significant others. The first one to be seen is Mrs. Daldry, who can hardly walk or stand to see bright light, so advanced is her state of hysteria. Her husband cares enough to bring his wife to a specialist, but confesses to Catherine that he longs for the energetic, piano-playing young woman that he fell in love with. The rare case of male hysteria is presented by Leo, an artist, who at first seems taken by Catherine, but later falls for Elizabeth, the wet nurse, when he falls in love with her beautiful hands as he paints them.
The relationships between characters is fraught with meaning in the play. Catherine loves her husband and craves his attention; though unaware of what the vibrator does, she becomes jealous of her husband’s private time with Mrs. Daldry and at two points in the show, insists that Dr. Givings use the device on her. When he finally does, he’s alarmed by the passion it stirs in her and refuses to do it again. Catherine develops a friendship with Mrs. Daldry but gets along even better with Mr. Daldry, who allows her to discover who she really is by simply walking in the rain. These are just the beginnings of the intertwined relationships that appear in the play, and Ruhl manages to make even the smallest exchange and touch of the hand mean so much.

The funny thing about finding out about the play when I did is that it just so happened that at the exact time, I was doing research on that very subject for my own full-length play. The subject of vibrators does not, in itself, factor into my play, but it’s impossible to do research on hysteria without reading extensively about this treatment. It also happens that when I studied in England, I took a course called Madness and Medicine in Modern Britain. One area of focus and the topic of not only my sole essay for the class, but for my final exam essay as well? Hysteria, specifically female. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a fascinating topic, so I’m not surprised that a play about it now exists, and Ruhl does an amazing job with a potentially sensitive or over-sexualized topic. The play is potentially very sexy, but it’s also tender, full of questions, and questions what really means love. It made me cry and it is also funny in parts. If you get the chance to see or read it, do so. It’s fantastic.

A few choice quotes:

MRS. DALDRY: (to Mrs. Givings) This [electric] lamp is extraordinary. It hurts my eyes to watch it go on and off, but I enjoy the pain. It’s a kind of religious ecstasy to feel half blind, do you not think?

MRS. GIVINGS: Oh, to think of never carrying a candle! Not to walk through a hallway at night… afraid of tripping in the dark, starting a fire- it makes one more solemn, do you not think? Or to blow out a candle- how beautiful! With one’s own breath, to extinguish the light! Do you think our children’s children will be less solemn? A flick of the finger- and all is lit! A flick of the finger, and all is dark! On, off, on, off! We could change our minds a dozen times a second! On, off, on, off! We shall be like gods!

LEO: Look- there- another window lit- golden- the rest of the house dark- an incomplete painting. I love incomplete paintings- why do painters always insist upon finishing paintings? It’s unaccountable- life is not like that!

DR. GIVINGS: Was your hand on his cheek?
MRS. GIVINGS: It was.
DR. GIVINGS: I see.
MRS. GIVINGS: And do you mind very much?
DR. GIVINGS: It is odd- for some husbands, such things end in a screaming match or even death, one hand on a cheek… Lady novelists like for it to be a tragedy- because it means that the affair mattered, mattered terribly- but it doesn’t, it needn’t.
MRS. GIVINGS: The writer of Madame Bovary was not a woman.
DR. GIVINGS: He was French, which is much the same thing.
MRS. GIVINGS: You dare to make a joke about the French- at this moment? Most men would be- pale with rage!
DR. GIVINGS: pale with rage, exactly, in a sentimental novel. My point is: this is not the end of a book. You made a mistake that is all […] So why then jealousy? My darling, I don’t mind.
MRS. GIVINGS: Oh.  I had hoped that you would mind.

LEO: I have known enough women  to know how to paint. If I had loved fewer, I would be an illustrator; if I had loved more, I would be a poet.
MRS. GIVINGS: Are poets required to love many women?
LEO: Oh, yes. Love animates every line.

MRS. GIVINGS: Did you dream of love at a young age?
MRS. DALDRY: Yes.
MRS. GIVINGS: And what did you think it would be like?
MRS. DALDRY: I thought it would be- never wanting for anything. Being surrounded and lifted up. Like resting on water, for eternity.
MRS. GIVINGS: And is that what you have found in marriage?
MRS. DALDRY: There have been moments of rest. But as it turns out, the earth rests on air, not water, and the air can feel very- insubstantial- at times. Even though it is holding you up, invisibly.
MRS. GIVINGS: Yes.

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Posted on December 22, 2011, in Plays, Rachel, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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