That's Hysterical!

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

That's Hysterical!

From medieval times to the mid-twentieth century, women (and occasionally men) presenting with symptoms of faintness, anxiety, sleeplessness, mood swings, nervousness, shortness of breath, irritability, chronic arousal or sensations of heaviness in the abdomen and lower pelvic region, were diagnosed with a curious disease known as “hysteria.” And for equally as long, the prescribed cure for female hysterical patients was induction of a “paroxysm” through vaginal massage.    

Around 300 BC, Hippocrates defined hysteria (from the Greek  hystera, or uterus) as suffocation or madness of the womb. In the second century, the physician Galen wrote that hysteria was caused by sexual deprivation: it seemed particularly common among virgins, nuns, or widows—and even married women from time to time. He believed that inducing an expulsion of fluids by coaxing the uterus back into its rightful position would ease the troubling condition. During Elizabethan times a vigorous horseback ride was a prescribed remedy.  

In the Victorian era—when In the Next Room is set—high collars, low hemlines and strict social and moral codes ruled the day.  Given this rigid society, it’s probably no surprise that in 1859 one doctor claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria, and the disease’s symptoms had come to include women with “a tendency to cause trouble.” Professional medical treatment was the only answer, and manual manipulation was prescribed to induce a “paroxysm” (i.e., orgasm) in an effort to alleviate the affliction. (Masturbation was not an acceptable cure.) This was a purely medical procedure—and one which male physicians considered tedious, often foisting it off on midwives.  

Then, with the dawn of the electric age, came the electromechanical vibrator. It could produce a paroxysm in mere minutes and required no particular skill to operate, making it an ideal palliative for the female syndrome that Freud characterized as “frigidity.” And though the device served a woman’s physical (and sensual) needs, it remained a medical implement devoid of sexual connotation.  Sears Roebuck and Company’s 1918 Electrical Goods catalog encouraged husbands to purchase the appliance to restore their wives’ bright eyes and pink cheeks. But when vibrators began appearing in 1920s pornographic films, their once wholesome image was destroyed; the public now associated them with amoral sexual behavior rather than antiseptic healthcare.  

Although hysteria was seen as the problem, the condition itself was actually a symptom—of a repressive male-dominated society. The Victorian woman was seen as inherently frail and flighty: “the weaker sex.” In society’s eyes (read: men’s eyes) she was a victim of her innately unstable reproductive system, and this defined her character and determined the roles she was meant to play. Since society was a male-driven enterprise, it’s no surprise that the invention and administration of the “cure” for this condition was, too.
Perhaps it’s also unsurprising that these men saw no connection between hysteria and a woman’s possible sexual dissatisfaction—or their role in it. The disease’s associations with pleasure, sex, or even physical love (or lack thereof) remained naively absent from the conversation.  With In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, Sarah Ruhl starts the conversation again—and this time with a female touch.




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