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Love in the age of electricity

January 18, 2010

Last week was the final in the run of “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play,” the very well-received new play by American playwright Sarah Ruhl, playing on Broadway through Lincoln Center Theater.

photo by Joan Marcus/Lincoln Center Theater

Reviewers note how Ruhl smartly avoids cheap shots at her 19th-century characters, whose realities may seem absurd to a contemporary audience, instead using a sincere approach that gets at timely themes. The vibrator in question is wielded by a doctor as a new clinical treatment for the condition of hysteria, a disorder found in women. No women get diagnosed with hysteria (whose name comes from the Greek word for uterus) today, which may not surprise anyone, but in Victorian times it was very common. Now it seems transparent that a group of corseted, economically dependent, low-status people would be the ones inclined to hysteria for external (and subject to change), not internal, reasons.

The saying about hindsight being 20/20 is not quite right, I think – hindsight is convinced that it’s 20/20, and the mute past cannot argue the contrary. The individual or society looking back has free rein to flatter themselves as wise and to disparage the past as myopic. Of course it seems clear that 19th-century physicians were too self-inflated with their cultural norms to recognize hysteria for what it was, and wasn’t. That’s why a recent Times magazine article, “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” is a nice change of pace: it shows the possibility of fallibility in today’s medical sciences. It says, of a set of anthropologists and psychiatrists:

Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places.

While vibrators are still a kind of therapeutic tool, in the play’s late 19th century setting they are exclusively that – and not for dabblers, or self-starters, but for the sick, who have no other recourse but professional help. The twist that intrigues reviewers is the full belief in the treatment’s prescribed role that Ruhl has written into her characters. She does not flatter contemporary audiences by suggesting that people of the past were fools not to see a situation as we do. So when the young Dr. Givings applies the vibrator to female patients suffering from hysteria and leads them to “paroxysms” (orgasms), all parties initially take the treatment at face value.

The New Yorker review quotes the playwright’s stage directions for the first paroxysm that occurs onstage:

“‘Now remember that these are the days before digital pornography. There is no cliché of how women are supposed to orgasm, no idea in their heads of how they are supposed to sound.’”

To read that Ruhl had this insight was gratifying. It’s no small feat to meticulously distance oneself from contemporary assumptions and sensationalist habits. The Times review notes how pointedly Ruhl’s earnest belief in her characters’ situation contrasts with most popular portrayals of women, where across demographics, circumstances, and even timeframes, they share a certain brand of sexuality. As the “Americanization” article points out, we are as likely as anyone to be overconfident in our insight into human nature.

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