The Broadway Play About Vibrators

Amy Keyishian
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In The Next Room playbill
Photo from Lincoln Center Theater
I remember when going to Times Square to watch someone using a sex toy was a dirty thing. Now, I'd do it with my parents!

Okay, maybe not so much. But a play by Sarah Ruhl called In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play was on Broadway from October 2009 to January 2010, and while the subject matter seemed awfully blue, the play itself was a really neat little exploration of the history of vibrators, their medical use, and how that might have impacted one couple and their contemporaries.

And yeah, I did say "medical use of vibrators." Haven't you been reading my posts?

Here's a quick recap: In Ancient Greece, doctors would treat a disease they called "hysteria" -- something that only affected women and was sort of a catch-all for any female complaint that couldn't be diagnosed -- with "hysterical paroxysm." In other words, doctors and midwives could prescribe -- and provide -- orgasms.

This went on through medieval and Renaissance times. In 1869, a doctor named George Taylor, MD, revolutionized the process with the invention of an automatic vibrator -- powered by steam, like a train, if you can believe it. This thing was clunky, awkward, and took up nearly a whole room -- no hiding it in your bedside table -- and was operated by the good doctor himself. Kinky!

Sarah Ruhl, a playwright who has received a MacArthur "genius grant" and whose plays have been nominated for Pulitzers, was inspired to write this play after reading a history book called The Technology of Orgasm. The story, set in the 1800s, revolves around a fictional doctor whose wife has just had their first child, and who wonders why they seem to be drifting apart. His business is bringing women to orgasm in his "operating theater," in the room next to their living room, but there's nothing all that sexy about it -- it's very detached, and the women he "services" don't realize this could be connected to what they do in the bedroom. The doctor doesn't seem to get it, either; it's all very clinical.

Slowly, the wife, Catherine, begins to connect her tension and dissatisfaction to her husband's business. The women who come out of his office look so flushed, calm, and healthy! She asks him to "experiment" on her, but he says no, because she's "without a hint of neurosis." So she breaks into his office herself, with the help of one of his patients, and tries it out for herself. This leads her to force her husband out of his cold and clinical existence, and back into a passionate relationship with her. In the end, they manage to reconnect in a deeper way -- because their passions (her physical, and his emotional) have been unleashed.

The play's no longer running at Lincoln Center, but it's up for three Tony Awards on June 13: Best Play, Best Performance by a Featured Actress, and Best Costume Design. You can watch a clip on the Tony Awards site; don't worry, it's safe for work.

All in all, the play is charming and hilarious -- but also a weirdly chilling reminder that it wasn't so long ago that we weren't expected, or even sometimes allowed, to explore and enjoy our sexual feelings, even within our marriages. It's an attitude that continues to this day in some places, whether by societal stricture or just plain old disapproval.

You O, girls!

Are you ready for a production of In the Next Room in your town? Tell us in the comments!

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