The Vibrator Play: A Thrilling Premise

Vibrator_PlayWho knew that some doctors in the medical community of 1880s America were using electric vibrators to treat hysterical women? Playwright Sarah Ruhl knew, that’s who. And apparently novelist Ami McKay, and historian Rachel Maines. But still, it is hardly a widely known practice for most theatergoers. If Ruhl’s In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play is successful, a whole slew of people will be aware of this rather unorthodox late 19th and early 20th century approach to dealing with hysterical patients.

Ruhl’s play opens with the perfect image of the Victorian wife, a lovely young woman, standing on stage in her parlor, holding an infant to her chest. She is the angel in the house, dressed in an elegant gown, wearing a corset, beaming with happiness in this domestic scene. She is Mrs. Givings, wife of Doctor Givings, the friendly provider of electric stimulation therapy to unhappy women. The only possible flaw in their happy lives is that Mrs. G has insufficient milk, and they need a wet nurse for the beloved baby.

The stage is divided into two large rooms: the women’s realm of the parlor, and the doctor’s office, mainly equipped with a patient’s padded examining table and the mystery machine. In the back is a place where he and his assistant, the helpful midwife Annie, can wash their hands fairly regularly. When a new patient arrives at the front door, Dr. Givings hurries his wife off to other quarters, fearing the childless Mrs. Daldry might be unnerved by the presence of a baby. Mrs. D enters in a dark veil, expressing her hidden shame over her nervous hysteria. She is the opposite of the lovely Mrs. G, who is filled with girlish energy and enthusiasm. Mrs. D’s husband is grim, a man who has had to accept a very flawed wife, one given to weeping, muttering, head-aches, and an odd aversion to her green curtains (an allusion for the feminists in the audience to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”—a classic women’s studies text of female hysteria and escalating madness in a bright woman whose doctor husband keeps her confined indoors and resting all the time to recover from her malady).

Basically Ruhl’s play lays out a somewhat complicated story of privileged women’s lives in the 1880s, their societal restraints, their ignorance about sexuality, and their fear of disappointments—those they provoke and those they experience. The most mentally healthy woman on stage turns out to be the black servant and wet nurse, Elizabeth. She is married, and the mother of two sons. Her low class status has given her opportunities to experience the world with greater clarity than the privileged women, maintained like birds in cunning cages, protected and therefore kept overly innocent.

On the contrary, the rambunctious Mrs. G is always seeking new stimulation, loves to walk out in the rain, leaps into an impetuous crush on an English painter, and ultimately demands to know what is going on in her husband’s office. Of course what goes on there is the most shocking aspect of this Broadway play: the patient takes off her gown, undoes her stays, climbs under a sheet, and gets stimulated to orgasm by the doctor’s electric vibrator. As he explains to Mrs. D, “We’re going to produce a paroxysm.” It’s the dawn of electricity, and this new mechanical device is seen as the perfect method for calming the hysterical woman. It works. Mrs. D immediately looks better, more alive, and she declares, “I feel wonderful,” a laugh line for the audience. She may not know what is going on, but we do.

Here lies the crux of my somewhat ambivalent response to the play: although it has a number of powerful scenes, and the characters are sufficiently complicated, for the most part, the tone is unclear, and ultimately the play’s effect is less than the sum of its parts. If we are laughing at the deluded Mrs. D because she certainly isn’t aware what an orgasm is, then are we judging these Victorian ladies, Annie and Mrs. G, as well? Are we, the superior contemporary audience, simply looking back at a more ignorant time and having a good laugh?

I don’t believe that is Ruhl’s intention (although who ever knows what a writer’s intention is…including the writer?). She seems to be trying to make several feminist points: that women deserve sexual satisfaction and autonomy; that some husbands can be trained to grasp this; that 19th century black women were probably more aware of their sexuality. Unfortunately, if that is close to what she is attempting, the play suffers by being more didactic than emotionally moving. For me, Ruhl bit off more that she could chew (other sub-plot lines also run through the play). The play is certainly more effective at its raggedy edges than at its somewhat sentimental—if visually lovely—conclusion.

That said, the directing, acting, set, and music are all first-rate. In fact, all of the actors deserve kudos (particularly Laura Benanti as Mrs. Givings and Chandler Williams as the painter Leo Irving). And it certainly is a provocative subject, not so much that women want sexual satisfaction (yes, Dr. Freud, that is what they want), but that we actually witness on stage the excitement of these Victorian ladies as they grasp just how pleasurable the “paroxysm” is. It’s like a 19th century Hite Report, and that was pretty thrilling reading way back in 1976. - Victoria Sullivan

Lincoln Center Production at the Lyceum Theatre, 49 West 45th St.
Official opening Nov. 19

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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