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Saturday January 22nd

‘In the Next Room’ explores social history of the vibrator

PlayMakers Repertory Company production of In The Next Room.

Credit: Jon Gardiner
Buy Photos PlayMakers Repertory Company production of In The Next Room. Credit: Jon Gardiner

Swing by the doctor’s office for a check-up, a drug prescription and an orgasm.

In the late nineteenth century, women had that option.

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To treat “female hysteria,” doctors frequently used vibrators to bring women to climax.

Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),” — PlayMakers Repertory Company’s current production — explores the social history behind the vibrator’s early use as a viable medical device.

John Sweet, director of the sexuality studies program at UNC, said that the historical understanding of hysteria would apply to 80 percent of women today.

“The definition of hysteria was a woman who was frigid — unable to achieve orgasm,” he said.

Sweet said that though the vibrator’s early history is often considered to be the time period in which the play is set, the devices have existed since ancient times.

“The idea of the hysterical climax was a very ancient idea,” he said.

He also said that ancient vibrators weren’t phallic-shaped, but like electric drills to better stimulate the clitoris.

“Now, the vibrator has to assume the form of a penis to make men feel better,” he said.

The first modern vibrators were clumsy objects. They originally ran on steam power and later became electrical.

At first they were generally regarded as massage devices.

“They were one of the very first home appliances, along with the toaster and the curling iron,” Sweet said.

He said the vibrator didn’t gain notoriety until the 1920s when it began to be depicted in film as a purely sexual object.

In 1968, the battery-powered model emerged.

Carissa Morrison, member of Feminist Students United, said that the increased usage of the vibrator fostered female sexual autonomy.

“It put sexuality and sexual desire in the hands of women,” she said.

Prior to the common use of the vibrator, the general understanding of sex was androcentric — focused on men and male satisfaction, she said.

Morrison also said that a purity complex still surrounds public perception of female masturbation.

“There’s a shame to it,” she said.

Both the history and social stigmas of the device combine in “In the Next Room” to produce comedy and commentary.

“There’s been a lot of work in rehearsal on addressing all the comedic elements and the deep psychological elements,” said Vivienne Benesch, the show’s director.

She said there’s more to the Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated play than its sexual humor, even though that is the initial draw for audiences.

“The subject matter is provocative and titillating, but it’s also a great vehicle for addressing some really profound issues about intimacy,” Benesch said.

She said the play weaves pieces of genres together to tell its story.

“It’s a combination of a funny sex farce and a moving Chekhov play with a little bit of Ibsen’s ‘Doll’s House’ — but all from a female voice,” Benesch said.

Though the vibrator’s relationship to female sexuality fuels the plot, Benesch said she doesn’t think it’s what the play is essentially about.

“It’s about electricity and what turns us on ­— and I don’t just mean sexually.”

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