WOMEN

The Vibrator Play: The Woman Behind The Buzz

04/04/2012 11:17 am ET

The play In the Next Room, also known as the Vibrator Play, was a big hit a couple of years ago in New York, which surprised no one more than Sarah Ruhl, the playwright. Although Ruhl, then 34, was a recipient of the MacArthur "genius"" grant and a Pulitzer prize finalist, she thought the subject matter would confine the play to a small theatre downtown and sink without trace. "Who would know?" she says, looking back at its three Tony nominations and multiple restagings, one in conservative Texas. "I mean, I would not have thought a play about vibrators would be something people would go to."

This spring, it is opening in Bath. The play revolves around a 19th-century doctor, who treats women for "hysteria" with the use of a vibrator, a common practice at the time and not considered sexual, amazingly, since women weren't supposed to have sexual desire. "They thought it was releasing fluid that had built up and was causing the womb to be flooded," she says, over tea in her Brooklyn Heights neighbourhood, "giving the woman hysterical symptoms. Which in a way is quite accurate. But, because women didn't have sexual pleasure, supposedly - it got erased from consciousness in the 19th century - it was considered just medical." Even more extraordinarily, before vibrators took off, the treatment was executed manually. "It astonished me," says Ruhl.

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