- In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play
Sarah Ruhl's work has been produced widely throughout the United States over the past several years, but her first (and only, as of this writing) Broadway production was a recent accomplishment, having premiered at the Lyceum Theatre in November 2009. In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, inspired by Rachel Maines's book The Technology of Orgasm, is set in an upstate New York spa town in the 1880s and dramatizes the early use of the vibrator as a medical instrument. The protagonist, Catherine Givings (Laura Benanti), is married to a gynecologist and hysteria specialist (Michael Cerveris), who induces "paroxysms" (the word "orgasm" is never spoken) in his patients with the newly invented vibrator. The premise of vibrator as medical instrument is rich with possibility for exploring female sexuality—now and in the Victorian era—and Ruhl takes full advantage of the emotional and comic potential. The strength of the play lies in her gentle critique both of Victorian gender roles and of the conventions of current gender representation. In the Next Room's fairly realistic style also incorporates some elements of Brechtian staging that subvert our expectations that nudity in performance is a particularly female condition and highlight how gender functions in representation on the twenty-first-century stage.
The characters are clearly Ruhl creations: Catherine, in particular, is delightfully quirky and possesses a curiosity common to many of her female characters. Followers of Ruhl's work may, however, be surprised at the play's realist leanings: actors never address the audience directly, there are no raining elevators, and the primary source of magic is electric lighting—magical indeed, given the time period. Catherine begins the play as a happy wife and new mother, and all seems well with her world. Her curiosity about what exactly goes on in her husband's operating theatre (the titular "next room") begins to reveal the imperfections in her life and marriage and her growing restlessness with the role society has assigned her. Ruhl uses Catherine's dissatisfaction to critique Victorian gender roles, particularly those that still inform popular philosophies of sex and gender. In one memorable monologue, for example, Catherine remarks, "Isn't it strange about Jesus? That is to say, about Jesus being a man? For it is women who are eaten—who turn their bodies into food."
The staging of the final moments of the play reinforces Ruhl's critique. Catherine's husband is initially horrified by her growing sexual awareness, but in the face of her genuine distress, he eventually allows his strict propriety to break down. Catherine asks him to "open" her, undress her in the winter garden. As they abandon Victorian gender roles and embrace a new sexual equality, In the Next Room's staging shifts away from realism: the walls of the living room and operating theatre fly slowly out of the theatre space, revealing snow-covered trees behind. Here, in the winter garden, the two slowly undress each other, and Catherine sees her husband's body for the first time. He disrobes completely, but she retains a camisole and underskirt.
More than forty years after Hair, nudity on the Broadway stage—whether male or female—is hardly shocking (and it certainly wasn't in the recent revival of the musical). I argue, however, that male nudity in scenes of heterosexual intimacy (especially with the woman remaining partially clothed) is, in fact, quite innovative. Laura Mulvey's theories of woman as visual object in classic film (and, as others would argue, in most other representations) remain firmly entrenched, despite being challenged and complicated. Dominant modes of gender representation still train audiences to expect female nudity, but not male. Other elements of the final scene of Ruhl's play support the notion that she is intentionally manipulating traditional representations of gender. As Dr. Givings removes the last of his clothes, he stands still, feet together, arms at his sides, passive to his wife's gaze while she is...