IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY
2010 Pulitzer Prize Finalist
By Sarah Ruhl
November 4-21, 2010
Playhouse at Overture Center
Dr. Givings is obsessed with the marvels of medical technology. His wife, Catherine, is only a bystander in her husband’s world, listening at the door as he treats his female patients with a strange new electric device. The doctor is not sure exactly how vibrators cure the women he treats, but they do keep coming back. The only woman not helped by the doctor is his own wife, who longs to connect with him – without the aid of electricity. A tender tale that takes place in the twilight of the Victorian age, this elegant comedy is lit by unexpected sparks from the approaching era of electricity, equality, science, and sexuality.
The Isthmus' Jennifer A. Smith applauds In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,
"As helmed by Forward artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, this is a handsome, smart and well-acted production . . . Scott A. Rött’s costumes are sumptuous.” Click here for full review.
Lindsay Christians of The Capital Times says, "With In the Next Room, Forward Theater took on a challenging title and a drama that could have easily been played broadly for laughs. This astute, poignant production demonstrates that Forward is not only ready to step up as Madison’s premiere professional company, but has already done so." Click here for full review.
James Malone of Dane101.com says, "In the Next Room; or, the Vibrator Play has a title that suggests a broad, bawdy sex comedy. What the Forward Theater Company brings instead is a unexpectedly gentle and heartfelt play about longing and intimacy." Click here for full review.
Mike Fischer at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says, "They're all good, in a cast with no weak links and a play stuffed with quietly evocative scenes...the result is electrifying, and you don't even need to plug in to feel it." Click here for full review.
Another great review from the Milwaukee area by Damien Jacques at OnMilwaukee.com, "The show was produced on Broadway a year ago, and Madison's Forward Theater Company opened an entertaining production of it last weekend. In the Next Room is not sexy, salacious or prurient. It is amusing, gently feminist and really about an ageless relationship problem -- one half of a couple being too busy and preoccupied to pay adequate attention to the other half." Click here for full review.
Laurie Stark, Your Ill-fitting Overcoat Blog says, "Despite its eyebrow-raising title, this play is ultimately about intimacy, vulnerability, and the intersection of jealousy and love. For me, In the Next Room was a play of moments. Some made me blush, some made me laugh, and a few made me cry. The last scene of the play is the sweetest, most affecting scene I have ever seen on stage." Click here for full review.
Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission
Sarah Ruhl is among the most acclaimed and accomplished young playwrights on the contemporary scene. A recent winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for the comedy The Clean House, which has been seen at many regional theaters and was produced in 2007 at Lincoln Center Theater. Her other plays include Eurydice, a playful gloss on the Orpheus myth. Ms. Ruhl's signature style blends a vibrant emotionalism with quirky comedy in theatrically adventurous ways. -- Charles Isherwood, The New York Times, June 18, 2007
Q&A: Sarah Ruhl
The award-winning playwright on the inspiration for “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play”
By PATRICK LEE for the Theatre Development Fund
Sarah Ruhl’s plays, which include The Clean House and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, have made her one of the most distinctive and celebrated playwrights to emerge this decade. Already the winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, she’s currently making her Broadway debut with Lincoln Center Theater’s production of In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, a 19th century period drama that explores a surprising intersection of sex, medicine and electricity.
TDF: What inspired this play?
SR: I read The Technology Of The Orgasm by Rachel Maines, and I was so shocked and fascinated to find out that doctors treated women with vibrators in the 19th century for hysteria. The other fact that I found equally interesting was that before the invention of vibrators, the doctors stimulated the women manually, and it wasn’t seen as sexual at all. Once I started writing, the characters came to me, and then the relationships got complicated and entangled. You’re lucky if voices start speaking to you, which they did in this case, and then you follow the characters.
TDF: Since an audience of today knows more than the characters do, how do you keep modernity out of the writing?
SR: Ultimately, that double sightedness is important. You can’t ever completely write a period piece when you’re writing from a contemporary sensibility because you’re always looking back. I tried to maintain a real innocence and to tell it from the characters’ point of view. I didn’t want it to turn into a wink-wink, nudge-nudge campy version. You hear the word “vibrator” and some people want to laugh because it has a set of campy associations. Not that I don’t admire and appreciate a certain kind of camp, but I wanted this to feel human rather than to make a joke out of their sexuality.
TDF: You show so much compassion for the doctor in the play…
SR: Maybe because I am surrounded by doctors in my family, I have a lot of respect and compassion for doctors in general. Reading historical accounts, these men were not perverse. They genuinely wanted to help these women, and in a way you have to believe that they did, even as weird and misguided as it seems today. I didn’t set out to write a treatise about gender politics in the 19th century. I was interested in him as a full human being.
TDF: Do you see this play as a stylistic departure?
SR: People have said it is, but I don’t purposefully write in a stylistically different way, except insofar as I have the need to have people talk in a way that I find interesting. Because this play is set in the 19th century, I felt a permission to write dialogue in a somewhat elevated language, because we don’t really know how people talked then. I wanted the frame around the play to be very real and grounded — it looks, sounds and smells like a costume drama. I didn’t want people thinking that these vibrator treatments were something that I thought up and that the play was in some dream landscape. The content of the play is so radical that I needed the audience to believe in the world.
TDF: Do you write in broad strokes or labor over every word?
SR: I obsess over every word. Perhaps because I started as a poet, where you might have twenty words and each one matters, I think of theatre that way too. A big rewrite for me in a day might be to cut two words and a semicolon. The first rewrites I did were mostly due to the technical challenges of having two rooms happen simultaneously — you need to be very exact about how long it takes to unbutton a corset while a line is being said. The rewriting in New York that was partly based on what the actors were bringing. I’ve adored working with them; they’re not egoists, they all submit to telling the story, so I was never writing around them. If Laura Benanti can’t say that line, or if Michael Cerveris can’t make something work, then there must be something wrong with it, and it ought to be changed.
TDF: Is there a theme that runs through all your plays?
SR: Probably an obsession with love and death. This play and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” share a curiosity about what technology is doing to us as human beings culturally and psychologically. I do hope that during some of the speeches about electricity that people are reflecting about how seismic shifts in technology affect our psychic life.
TDF: What do you hope the audience is thinking about women?
SR: I was very moved on opening night by some formidable actresses, who were moved that the play was told from a woman’s point of view. You don’t read about vibrating treatments or wet nursing in 19th century novels. Even on a contemporary stage, there are certain elements of a woman’s experience that are left out. It’s important for me to draw a curtain aside. I think putting some of those things on stage is saying something, but as for what exactly it is saying, I would leave that to the men and women who see it to refract from their own experience.
Sarah Ruhl was born in Wilmette, Illinois in 1974. She studied under Paula Vogel at Brown University (A.B., 1997; M.F.A., 2001) and did graduate work at Pembroke College, Oxford.
She gained widespread recognition for her play “The Clean House”, a romantic comedy about a physician who cannot convince her depressed Brazilian maid to clean her house. It won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2004, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005.
Her play “Eurydice” was produced off-Broadway at New York's Second Stage Theatre in June-July 2007.
She is also known for her “Passion Play” cycle that opened at Washington's Arena Stage in 2005, and subsequently was produced by the Goodman Theatre and Yale Rep. Passion Play made its New York City premiere in Spring 2010 in a production by the Epic Theatre Ensemble at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, New York. Each part of the trilogy depicts the staging of a Passion Play at a different place and during a different historical period: Elizabethan England, Nazi Germany, and the United States from the time of the Vietnam War until the present.
In February 2009, her play "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” premiered at Berkeley Rep. The play opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre with previews starting on October 22, 2009 and an official opening in November 2009. This marked her Broadway debut. "In the Next Room" was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, Best Actress, and Best Costume.
Other plays include “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and the premiere of “Stage Kiss” at the Goodman Theatre as part of their 2010-2011 season.
“A fascinating, funny and evocative play…The disconnect between sensory experience and mental perception forms the tantalizing heart of Ruhl’s latest…Ruhl develops the story with the enticing blend of irreverent humor and skewed realism…It’s beautiful. Like most of the play, the end vibrates with sexually charged comedy and affectionate striving.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Excerpt from “'The Vibrator Play': Why Yes, It Is About Exactly That”
by Jeff Lunden, NPR
November 21, 2009
The title of her latest comedy may be a little titillating, but playwright Sarah Ruhl wants you to know one thing right upfront:
"A lot of it happens under a sheet."
Yes, Ruhl's impish new play, which opened Nov. 19 at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, is in fact about sexuality. But it's just as much about intimacy, she says. And about marriage.
Ruhl began writing In the Next Room, or the vibrator play after she read a book — called “The Technology of Orgasm” — that described how 19th century doctors treated women diagnosed with "hysteria" by using a curious new electrical device.
Actress Maria Dizzia, who plays a patient named Mrs. Daldry, says hysteria — an exclusively female illness, its name derived from the Greek word for "uterus" — was something of a catchall condition.
"It was irritability, it was sleeplessness, it was anger, it was feeling solemnity," Dizzia says. Any behavior beyond the prescribed feminine ideal — "anything that was pretty much unacceptable to the people around you."
Earlier generations of doctors, according to the history books, had to make do with manual methods to achieve such a release. With the advent of electricity, medical science discovered new options.
In one of the play's scenes, Dr. Givings (actor Michael Cerveris) describes the cause of hysterical symptoms as "congestion in your womb," explaining that "if we can release some of that congestion and invite the juices downwards, your health will be restored."
Ruhl wrote In the Next Room while she was nursing her own child, and she found herself interested in another topic that might be nearly as foreign as Dr. Givings' therapies to a contemporary audience — the history of wet nursing. In the play, Mrs. Givings finds herself unable to produce enough milk to nurse her baby, so she and the doctor hire a young African-American woman to breast-feed the child.
In addressing both topics, Ruhl centers her play on "how we separate out bodily functions and labor and love." She's intrigued, she explains, by "this notion of paying someone to do something that, ideally, one does for one's own child — or paying a doctor for the sexual treatment that ideally your partner is giving you in a more intimate way. So it's all these questions of intimacy."
Excerpt from "Playwright Sarah Ruhl wins Glickman Award for 'Vibrator Play"
Sarah Ruhl’s cheekily titled In the Next Room, or the vibrator play is the 2009 winner of the Will Glickman Award. 1/10/10
Ruhl’s scintillating comedy of sexual manners opened at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year before going on to a buzzed-about Broadway run.
This highly provocative period piece examines the fault lines of gender, power and freedom in the Victorian era, when women were thought incapable of physical pleasure.
Yearning is a running theme throughout Ruhl’s works. From the dead bride in Eurydice to the mousy Luddite in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, her oddball heroines are driven by an insatiable curiosity to explore. In Next Room, two prim young ladies unlace their corsets and discover their own desires.
Insightfully directed by Les Waters, who also directed Ruhl’s sublime Eurydice, it’s a deeply inventive play marked by the playwright’s trademark juxtaposition of the mythic, the mundane and the quirky. The plot may spin around electrical devices, but it’s Ruhl’s facility with subtext and her lust for adventure that give In the Next Room its real charge.
The Glickman Award goes to the author of the best play to make its world premiere in the Bay Area. It comes with a $4,000 prize plus a plaque for the theater that produced the show. Honorary mentions went to Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangup and Ann Randolph’s Loveland.
Competition was fierce because last year included the world premieres of many high-profile projects including the Green Day musical American Idiot and Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of The Kite Runner.
Excerpt from “Female Sexuality in the Victorian Era”
by Jennifer Shakeel
October 21, 2008
While Britain's Victorian era, which spanned roughly sixty years until the turn of the twentieth century, was a time marked by prosperity and ingenuity, it was also a period of repression and shame. Such a contradiction as the contrast between ingenuity and repression was a defining characteristic of the time period, as double standards and mixed messages were prevalent, especially related to women and to sexuality. Women in 19th century Britain were living in the ultimate contradiction: a patriarchy, a societal order in which power and influence is passed through males, ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria. Though history has shown that the Queen herself took great interest in the nude form and had possible lovers after the death of her husband, her Britain was a place of sexual repression, particularly in the lives of her female subjects.
The patriarchal, and sometimes patrilocal, system ensured that men held the most influence and power in nearly every sphere, private and public. Patrilocality, a term used to describe a society in which women leave their families when they get married to go live with the family of their husband, while not as prevalent as societies ranging back to Biblical times, was still common in Victorian Britain. Such a system meant that women severed all ties to their past, in a way starting their lives anew now that they had a husband to define them. Women belonged in the care of men, be it their father, who cared for them until they could find a husband or their husband, who took responsibility after that. As women were viewed, even medically, as being both physically and mentally weaker than their male counterparts, marriage was the only way to assure that they would be secure and safe in life, as their parents could not be counted on to provide for them forever. Being able to care for a home and children was the only way for a woman to repay their husbands for the supposed gift of marriage they were given.
While men were subject to a code of chivalry in the period, women had their own code, alternatively called the Cult of Domesticity and the Cult of True womanhood. The tenants of the "cult" were meant to provide women with guidelines to living a good and productive life (i.e.. a good married life), but also inherently kept them oppressed. Marriage was the ultimate goal, as unmarried females were viewed as impure. Pre-marital sex would cause the same viewpoint and would also leave a woman unable to be married, so marriage was the only way to prove one's virginity and worth. Women, according to the code, were to remain pure, as purity was the one trait that women inherently had over men. They were to be a fitting and good mother. They were to remain pious and do all they could to proselytize their religion to spread the piety. Finally, they were to remain submissive to their men. British cities such as London were seen as entirely corrupted and impure, so it was the woman's job to provide the sexual, moral, and societal purity in the home; to make it a safe haven from the city outside.
Excerpt of “The Technology of Orgasm and the Vibrator”
By Natalie Angier
The New York Times
When female patients suffered "hysterical" or "neurasthenic" symptoms, doctors saw wonderful results from" pelvic massage," culminating in orgasm. The patient was pleased enough to guarantee her habitual patronage.
Electricity has given so much comfort to womankind, such surcease to her life of drudgery. It gave her the vacuum cleaner, the pop-up toaster and the automatic ice dispenser. And perhaps above all, it gave her the vibrator. In the annals of Victorian medicine, a time of "Goetze's device for producing dimples" and "Merrell's strengthening cordial, liver invigorator and purifier of the blood," the debut of the electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s was one medical event that truly worked wonders -- safely, reliably, repeatedly.
As historian Rachel Maines describes in her exhaustively researched if decidedly offbeat work, "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction" (Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), the vibrator was developed to perfect and automate a function that doctors had long performed for their female patients: the relief of physical, emotional and sexual tension through external pelvic massage, culminating in orgasm. For doctors, the routine had usually been tedious, with about as much erotic content as a Kenneth Starr document. "Most of them did it because they felt it was their duty," Dr. Maines said in an interview. "It wasn't sexual at all."
The vibrator, she argues, made that job easy, quick and clean. With a vibrator in the office, a doctor could complete in seconds or minutes what had taken up to an hour through manual means. With a vibrator, a female patient suffering from any number of symptoms labeled "hysterical" or "neurasthenic" could be given relief -- or at least be pleased enough to guarantee her habitual patronage./
"I'm sure the women felt much better afterwards, slept better, smiled more," said Dr. Maines. Besides, she added, hysteria, as it was traditionally defined, was an incurable, chronic disease. "The patient had to go to the doctor regularly," Dr. Maines said. "She didn't die. She was a cash cow."