Dr. Givings’ Good Vibrations

Ancient orgasm-inducing technology is the centerpiece of Sarah Ruhl's new play.

The set pieces for Sarah Ruhl’s new comedy, In the Next Room
(or the vibrator play
) nearly replicate those of
Hedda Gabler: a living room with arm chairs, candlesticks, a
spinet piano, and sumptuous rugs. Except there’s also an “operating
theater” with an examining table, bassinet, electrical lamps (scads of
them), and an odd, hulky instrument that plugs into the wall and lets
out an annoying buzzing sound. It’s the 1880s and we are peering into
the home of Mrs. Givings, a well-heeled, corseted, Victorian
woman in her late twenties, and her husband Dr. Givings, a man
roughly twenty years her senior who specializes in “hysterical
disorders” and gynecology. It turns out the strange machine next to his
examining table is actually a primitive version of the vibrator —
that same piece of orgasm-inducing technology that we now see in sex
toy shops throughout the world, usually in a much sleeker, portable
form. The thing’s giant, obtrusive form belies its purpose, making it
look as though modern gadgetry has stepped in not only to disrupt a
very traditional domestic sphere, but also to impose a new,
contemporary form of intimacy. Thus it emerges as the play’s central
metaphor.

Like all of Sarah Ruhl’s work (she also authored the 2005 Pulitzer
Prize finalist The Clean House and 2006 play Eurydice,
which recast the myth of Orpheus from his wife’s point of view) In
the Next Room
is an incredibly clean and literary play. It revels
in transparent metaphors: the many electrical lamps which represent Dr.
Givings’ fetish for technology (several times in the play he delivers
lectures on the wonders of electricity while masturbating his
patients); the wet nurse who becomes both an artistic muse and a
Madonna figure; the confining zippers, buttons, and ruffled layers that
characterize Victorian clothing; and funniest of all, the heavy rain
— and later, snow — that parallels a series of ecstatic
female ejaculations. Such analogies might seem campy had Ruhl tried to
make the play pornographic, but given the historical context —
Victorian mores running up against progress and modernity — it’s
appropriate that the characters resort to sublimated language and
innuendo.

In fact, In the Next Room is a pretty progressive play, even
by 2009 standards. It’s safe to assume that most of Ruhl’s audience is
familiar with vibrators, but watching so many female (and one male)
orgasms onstage is a different kettle of fish. Not to mention that most
of them are rendered awkwardly, to emphasize the taboo-ness of female
pleasure at a time when people still believed that hysteria was
triggered by excess fluid in the womb. But all that happens in the
midst of a gentle, sweet, traditional comedy. You see the word
“vibrator” in the title, and you think one thing. Then it turns out to
be something else. In the Next Room runs January 30 through
March 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2025 Addison St.,
Berkeley). BerkeleyRep.org

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