In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play is a 2009 play about the early use of the vibrator when it was first invented in the 19th century and was used to treat women for hysteria. The main character is Catherine Givings, whose husband is a doctor pioneering this treatment, and the play centers on her curiosity about the vibrator and subsequently about her own sexuality. The performance plays on the perceptions of the 21st century audience – a large amount of the drama comes from the tension between the audience’s idea of a vibrator being for pleasure and intimacy, Catherine’s experience of it as pleasurable, and her husband’s idea of it as a medical tool.
This oddity of our perception of the play surfaced a few times – it seems like a depiction of the 19th century, but really it’s a depiction of the 19th century through a 21st century lens. There were several moments that reminded me that this play, though set in the past, was written by someone who has contemporary ideas. There were a few moments – a kiss between two women, a wet nurse agreeing to sit for a portrait nursing a child – where I found myself wondering if those things would have really happened in the 1800s or if a 19th century sense of modesty would have prevented them. (I actually ended up deep in an internet black hole looking up 19th century lesbians after wondering this, and it turns out that yes, queer women did exist! It would have been difficult for them to be openly lesbian, but there are some records of queer women in America all the way back to the colonies.) So maybe it is historically accurate – but I’m not familiar enough with 19th century social customs to be the judge of that. So it does make for a little bit of an odd experience, because I found myself occasionally wondering how true to life the play really is.
However, for the most part these concerns were at the back of my mind, because the play isn’t really “about” the 1800s. At its heart, I would say that this play is about intimacy between human beings. As Catherine’s curiosity about the vibrator grows, she is also growing more and more frustrated at the lack of emotional intimacy between her and her husband, who is constantly preoccupied with his patients and experimental treatments, and is very clinical with her when they do interact. Frustrated with him, she attempts to find that intimacy with another person; when she is rejected there, near the play’s end, she goes to the vibrator and her husband finds her using it on herself and crying. The play ends with a tender scene between the two of them.
This plotline looks carefully at the oppositions and intersections of intimacy and pleasure. Though the pleasure Catherine experiences from the vibrator leads her to discover greater intimacy with her husband, there’s also a sense of the feeling of intimacy as something natural, opposed to the unnaturalness of the electric vibrator. Throughout the play, there’s a feeling of electricity as something unknown and unnatural. The characters, especially the women, aren’t entirely comfortable with the electric lights in the house and seem happier with them turned down. In the very last scene of the play, after Dr. Givings finds Catherine using the vibrator, the two go outside in the garden, and here is where they finally experience a tender, intimate moment between the two of them – outside, away from the vibrator, away from the electric lights. This distinction is highlighted beautifully when Dr. Givings expresses concern that someone will see them, and Catherine replies with, “The streetlights aren’t electric yet. Thank goodness some things still flicker” – a beautiful line that highlights the idea of a relationship between two people as living, organic, unpredictable, unlike the harsh light of electricity. This last scene was sweet, tender, breathtaking – it truly evoked the feeling of two lovers completely wrapped up in each other, unaware of anything happening around them. It was the fulfillment of their relationship, after him being distracted throughout the entire play, and both sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy were implied in their embrace – a full realization of both their relationship and their sexuality.