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A conversation with playwright Sarah Ruhl

March 23, 2012 by Corey Adkins, Artistic Associate for Engagement in In the Next Room

A conversation with playwright Sarah Ruhl

Let’s start with the obvious question: how did you decide to write a play about the history of the vibrator?

Sarah Ruhl: I read The Technology of the Orgasm by Rachel Maines, and I was so shocked and fascinated to find out that doctors treated women with vibrators in the 19th century for hysteria. The other fact that I found equally interesting was that before the invention of vibrators, the doctors stimulated the women manually, and it wasn’t seen as sexual at all. Once I started writing, the characters came to me, and then the relationships got complicated and entangled. You’re lucky if voices start speaking to you, which they did in this case, and then you follow the characters.  

How consciously are you trying to write about sexuality with historical accuracy?


SR: The play is set in the 19th century, so there are some details I want to get right, at least suggestively. When I'm writing the play, I want to have a firm sense of where and how these characters might have lived. But I'm a contemporary woman writing with subsequent knowledge that informs my view of the period. In terms of the sexuality, I was aiming less for self-consciousness than for a kind of innocence. In some ways, people then were innocent of sexuality compared to the biological knowledge we've acquired about the subject since.  

Why did you decide to set the play in a single room? And in “a prosperous spa town outside of New York City, perhaps Saratoga Springs”?


SR: I like to set myself formal challenges when I’m writing and wanted to write this particular one with the challenge of having simultaneous and continuous action in two rooms. Saratoga Springs— I was teaching [there] and loved the history of the place. I learned that vibrators were part of the healing treatment there, particularly hydraulic vibrators—the salubrious effects of “the waters” sometimes meant vibrators. I also learned that it had a thriving African American community after the war.  

Why did you choose the title In the Next Room?


SR: For a long time, I used The Vibrator Play as a working title. I was never satisfied with it; it seemed so utilitarian. At some point while working on the play's production…I told myself: The Vibrator Play is too facile. The play is not a sex farce about vibrators. It's about wet nurses; it's about the body. It's misleading to say it's purely about the object. So I changed the title to In the Next Room, with or the vibrator play as the subtitle. Subtitles are very 19th-century; a lot of great novels from that period have them.  

Dr. Givings is presented much more sympathetically than technologically-minded doctors usually are in stories like this, going back as far as [Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story] The Yellow Wallpaper. Why did you make that decision?


SR: Maybe because I am surrounded by doctors in my family, I have a lot of respect and compassion for doctors in general. Reading historical accounts, these men were not perverse. They genuinely wanted to help these women, and in a way you have to believe that they did, even as weird and misguided as it seems today.   

It’s an interesting comment on where we are as a society that the play’s subtitle can still draw embarrassed giggles. But your treatment of the technology and patients in the play isn’t at all salacious. It seems the play moves beyond vibrators.


SR: Ultimately the play is about intimacy. And I think in the age we live in, raw emotional intimacy is far more radical than physical intimacy or selling sex, which we see on every block. We see radical emotional intimacy far less frequently.

– Excerpted from interviews with Brendan Lemon
for Lincoln Center Theater, Patrick Lee for Theatre
Development Fund and Walter Bilderback for The
Wilma Theater.

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