The term "female hysteria" isn't fashionable these days. Bringing to mind unkempt women flailing about drenched on windswept moors or gibbering in attics dressed in mothballed wedding gowns, the phrase seems anachronistic at best and at worst, sexist. Yet for hundreds of years up to the early 20th century, the expression was used to describe a variety of fathomless medical symptoms peculiar mostly to women, from insomnia and irritability to fluid retention and fatigue.
In a patriarchal world, marriage was the favored antidote for such pesky feminine ailments. However, for the many cases where standard matrimonial sex failed to alleviate the symptoms, doctors often advocated "pelvic massage." Surprisingly, physicians didn't enjoy bringing female patients to orgasm through therapeutic genital rubbing, finding it to be time-consuming and hard on the wrists. So when the mechanization of the process became possible through the discovery of electricity and the invention of the vibrator, medical professionals and patients alike raised a cheer.
It is at this point in the history of Western civilization that Sarah Ruhl's orgasmic new drama In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) unabashedly inserts itself, in a world premiere production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Part sober inquiry into the impact of technological advances on modern society and part journey into the renegade nooks of womanhood, the play arguably does more to articulate the complex nature of human sexuality and desire than centuries' worth of medical research by the likes of Hippocrates, Galen, and Kinsey.
The play takes place in the 1880s in the well-appointed home of a respected physician, Dr. Givings, and his wife, Catherine. On the surface, the couple represents the very picture of upstanding, Victorian, middle-class living. They're educated, own a lot of uncomfortable-looking furniture, and hardly ever touch. But the façade is as thin as the wall separating the Givingses' lounge from the doctor's operating theater next door. While Dr. Givings employs a variety of newfangled electrical instruments to relieve the symptoms of his hysterical patients in one room, his supposedly "blooming young wife" begins to experience hysterical symptoms of her own in the other. When the couple hires a wet nurse to feed their baby daughter, owing to some kind of hazily understood deficiency in the mother's breast milk, Mrs. Givings' mild case of anxiety and restlessness becomes considerably worse. As the play unfolds, the comings and goings of various husbands, helpers, and textbook hysterics make the Givingses' battle to maintain face in front of each other and the rest of the world particularly difficult. Yet they're hardly alone in their suffering: Practically all the people who pass through the Givingses' living room have their own issues with symptoms to match.
On the face of it, the late-19th-century world in which the play is set is an exciting time to be alive, what with Thomas Edison's marvelous electric inventions revolutionizing society. Metaphorically, electricity represents both the enlightenment that comes with scientific advancement and the darkness that ensues from its misuse. When the characters in Ruhl's drama aren't playing with the switch of the Givingses' beautiful new living room lamp, they're benefiting from the therapeutic effects of Dr. Givings' vibrators. But technology has its limits. Sometimes the mechanical massagers work well, sending patients off rosy-cheeked and full of restored enthusiasm for painting and playing the piano. Elsewhere, the technology fails miserably. At one point, the equipment short-circuits, causing a blackout. At another, it makes Mrs. Givings (played with pent-up sexual energy by Hannah Cabell) deeply embarrass her husband (a forthright Paul Niebanck). As the play's casual, comic references to electrocution experiments involving birds, dogs, and elephants suggest, technology is ultimately as sinister as it is sublime.
Contrastingly, many of the play's most intimate and truthful moments happen in the dark or semidark. The lights are out when Annie, Dr. Givings' aide (a soft-spoken, stoical Stacy Ross) administers a manual pelvic massage to one of Dr. Givings' patients, Mrs. Daldry (played with sensitive sweetness by Maria Dizzia), giving her the biggest orgasm of her life and hinting at a powerful intimacy between these two women. Mrs. Givings and Elizabeth, her wet nurse (the profoundly moving Melle Powers), have one of the play's most vivid conversations, about childbirth and Jesus, by candlelight.
Like the suppressed feelings and desires of the characters, In the Next Room celebrates subliminal, shadowy things. Ruhl's text is packed with startling-whimsical images of angels, snow, and ghosts lurking in the folds of heavy curtains, hovering at the edges of half-finished paintings, and walking up and down the spine of a woman on the brink of sexual ecstasy. Yet as much as the drama seems to favor a nebulous view of the human psyche over binary absolutes like light/dark, on/off, art/science, and black/white, the dramatist is ambivalent about milquetoast shades of gray. As such, Ruhl sometimes playfully eschews subtlety. She unapologetically ends her drama with an over-the-top, Harlequin-romance–style sexual fantasy, which director Les Walters — summoning all of the theater's technological powers to transform set designer Annie Smart's hyperdetailed Victorian interiors into a garden complete with falling snow — spares no expense to stage.
In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association did away with the term female hysteria. Hysteria is no longer recognized as a disease, and the vibrator, once valued by doctors as a viable treatment for hysterical symptoms, went underground. But despite major advances in the fields of neurology, psychology, and, of course, vibrator technology, people — especially women — are still suffering from the same issues today. No amount of Viagra or Prozac can make them go away. If Ruhl's beautiful play points to anything, it's the danger of ignoring or suppressing the root causes of disorders and focusing only on the symptoms. Perhaps it's time to dust off those Gothic novels and history books and reappropriate the term "hysteria." The word might be old-fashioned and a catchall for multiple ailments. But with its etymological root in the ancient Greek word for womb or uterus, it's much more powerfully connected to the source of feminine experience than "schizophrenia" or "anxiety attack."