Screen readers: Two navigational links to follow.Skip to site navigation.Skip to page content.
The University of Iowa News Services
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 1, 2012

In the Next Room was inspired by the surprising history of the vibrator

Sarah Ruhl's adult comedy In the Next Room or the vibrator play, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, will be performed at 8 p.m. Feb. 10-11 and 16-18, and at 2 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 12 and 19, in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building.

"One of the most striking things about Sarah Ruhl's play is that she shows us a world at the dawn of some of the newest technology in the 19th century, all the while reminding us of important questions about the course of history in the past 125 years and the way we live now; about ways new technology can still act as a barrier to intimacy," says the play's director Meredith Alexander, a member of the faculty of the UI Department of Theatre Arts.

The play is based on the actual history of the vibrator, which was not only one of the first small appliances to be electrified, but was used by 19th-century physicians as a treatment for women diagnosed with "hysteria." Women of means and social status in Victorian America would visit the offices of medical professionals to receive "gynecologic massage" until a "paroxysm" was achieved.

This production's dramaturg, Jenni Page-White, writes, "Bewilderingly, physicians saw nothing sexual in these massage treatments. The paroxysm was simply the crisis of a disease, like a fever breaking -– certainly not an orgasm.

"By the time the Victorian era rolled around, female orgasm was considered incidental to male sexuality, if even possible at all. Women were thought to have no sexual desire, only a desire for motherhood. Men were instructed to show sexual restraint towards their wives, dispatching their husbandly duties as quickly as possible (preferably under five minutes) in order to spare their spouses' tender sensibilities."

By the 20th century vibrators of various designs were also available for home therapy through Sears and other popular catalogs, and advertised in mainstream women's magazines. As a cheaper option that could be used in private, the vibrator was a popular appliance, and predated many other home appliances -- a decade before the electric vacuum and the electric iron.

Ruhl uses this history to explore a variety of themes, including ignorance of female sexuality, motherhood and breastfeeding, and jealousy -- as well as the impact of technology and society and relationships.

Ruhl's heroines, Sabrina Daldry and Catherine Givings, are sexually frustrated wives who are eager to have their symptoms relieved by the doctor's machine.

Mrs. Daldry is content to experience her "hysterical paroxysms" at the clinic, and submit to her husband's performance of conjugal duties, but Mrs. Givings, who is still in love with Dr. Givings, the gynecologist, grows more desperate as she tries to get him to address the same condition in her —- his own wife —- that he treats in other women.

Ruhl wrote, "Though the vibrator may have been the play's starting point, ultimately I'm more interested in the relationships that expand around the device, and the whole notion of compartmentalization, of what goes on 'in the next room' -— literally, in the room next to the living room where the vibrations take place, but also in the next room of other people's minds, and bodies. To what extent does marriage imply a 'next room'?

Ultimately it is the silence between people, and how they manage to shatter it, that draws me to these characters. And I think as sophisticated as we moderns are, we certainly understand silence between people —- and the comedy (or tragedy) that results when two people in adjacent rooms are unable or unwilling to speak."

Responding to the Broadway production, Charles Isherwood's review in the New York Times called the play: "A fanciful but compassionate consideration of the treatment, and the mistreatment, of women in the late 19th century…

"Ruhl's play is hardly intended as an elaborate dirty joke at the expense of the medical profession. Her real subject is the fundamental absence of sympathy and understanding between women and the men whose rules they had to live by for so long, and the suspicion and fear surrounding female sexuality and even female fertility."

A recent winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, Ruhl is fast leaving her mark on the American theater with hundreds of stagings of her plays across the country and abroad. Iowa Summer Rep was the first company to present a festival of her work, in 2009.

San Francisco theater critic Chad Jones considers Ruhl "a writer so attuned to the human heart that her work may actually be beneficial to your health. Love is a mess, Ruhl tells us. It's dirty (like a good joke), messy and at its best, like really good homemade chocolate ice cream."

Artistic contributors to the UI production of "In the Next Room" include scenic designer Andrew Nelson, lighting designer Jennifer Tillapaugh, costume designer Lisa Borton, and sound designer Lindsay Wolf.

This production includes material of an adult nature. Potential audience members who are concerned about whether it is appropriate for them should contact the Department of Theatre Arts at 319-335-2700 for additional information.

The Department of Theatre Arts is part of the UI Division of Performing Arts in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Tickets for the performances are $17; UI student $5; senior citizen $12; youth $10 from the Hancher Box Office. Any remaining tickets will be available at the Theatre Building box office an hour before curtain time.

The Hancher Box Office, located on the first floor of the south end of the Old Capitol Mall near the parking ramp, is open for phone (319-335-1160 or 800-HANCHER) or walk-up business from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. Tickets may be ordered online at

UI arts events are searchable on the UI Master Calendar:

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Meredith Alexander, Winston Barclay, University News Services,