In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Roda Theatre
January 30–March 15, 2009
World Premiere

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Join us for the world premiere of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), written by Sarah Ruhl and staged by Les Waters. Last time these two extraordinary talents teamed up at Berkeley Rep, they gave birth to Eurydice, the beguiling show which went on to New Haven and New York—hitting the year’s Top 10 list in Time magazine and the New York Times. Now the prominent pair reunites to consummate another play of love and longing, commissioned by Berkeley Rep. In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) illuminates the lives of six lonely people seeking relief from a local doctor—but, despite his expertise with a strange new technology, all they really need is intimacy. It’s a tender tale that takes place in the twilight of the Victorian age, an elegant comedy lit by unexpected sparks from the approaching era of electricity, equality, science and sexuality.

The premiere of this play truly is a milestone for Berkeley Rep, which debuted its first new script in 1968 and went on to earn a national reputation for nurturing writers and developing new work. Known for its core values of innovation and excellence, as well as its educated and adventurous audience, Berkeley Rep provides a safe haven for emerging and established artists to take creative risks. In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is the company’s 50th world premiere; in fact, since 1990, Berkeley Rep has presented 40 world premieres, 25 West Coast premieres and two American premieres.

Creative team

Sarah Ruhl · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic Design
David Zinn · Costume Design
Bray Poor · Sound Design
Russell H. Champa · Lighting Design
Jonathan Bell · Composer
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Janet Foster · Casting
Mina Morita · Assistant Director
Larry Dunlap · Pianist

Cast

Hannah Cabell · Catherine Givings
Maria Dizzia · Sabrina Daldry
Paul Niebanck · Dr. Givings
Melle Powers · Elizabeth
Stacy Ross · Annie
John Leonard Thompson · Mr. Daldry
Joaquín Torres · Leo Irving

“A fascinating, funny and evocative play…The disconnect between sensory experience and mental perception forms the tantalizing heart of Ruhl’s latest…Ruhl develops the story with the enticing blend of irreverent humor and skewed realism…It’s beautiful. Like most of the play, the end vibrates with sexually charged comedy and affectionate striving.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“A titillating comedy of manners, marriage and masturbation that more than lives up to its buzz…From orgasms and breast-feeding to lesbianism, Ruhl disentangles the web of taboos that laced up Victorian ladies as tightly as their whalebone corsets. Annie Smart’s set captures the prissiness and confinement of the parlor where women’s bodies were hidden under so many layers of taffeta and fear, they needed a strange new gizmo to discover themselves…Talk about good vibrations.”—San Jose Mercury News

“This serenely funny new work by the author of Eurydice and The Clean House sparkles with wit and invention in Les Waters’ pitch-perfect production.”—Variety

“The magical closing minutes of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)—a wonderful excursus on modern love and sex toys in disguise—made even me a little misty-eyed. It’s like watching the perfectly executed dismount of an Olympian gymnast: all the tricks of stagecraft are employed, but with such judiciousness and precision that they appear to be some sort of divine intervention. Take your sweetheart, or find one in the lobby during intermission. You’ll want a hand to hold.”—Flavorpill

“Breathtakingly inventive…has the potential to be a modern masterpiece…Directed by Les Waters in a manner that quietly and vividly serves the writing, the play is at its best when it disregards the dramatic rules altogether. There’s an acute playfulness at work, an unabashed enjoyment in letting characters test out new possibilities for themselves as they gain insight into the mind-body phenomenon of human sexuality and the oppressive forces that shape its expression.”—Los Angeles Times

“You’ll get a charge out of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Vibrator Play…Crackling dialogue and an engaging story that moves audience both to laughter and tears, and a fresh and delightful look at the dark ages of human sexuality…Les Waters has directed the show masterfully, creating some wild moments of physical humor and an energy to the unfolding story that refuses to let things lag. And the cast is simply phenomenal.”—Bay Area News Group

“A sexual farce that cleverly concerns the romance, loneliness, intimacy, race relations and electricity of six people…The cast of seven excellent actors has a great sense for comedy…It’s brilliantly directed by Les Waters and has wonderful lighting, sound and costumes, and a remarkable set. In the world of theatre, this is truly an enjoyable change of pace.”—KGO-AM

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Cataclysmic, catalytic change

It is a curious fact that in times of suffering and uncertainty, audiences flock to the theatre. On a surface level, it’s easy to say that when we are feeling depressed or worried we seek diversion and distraction; that the theatre can serve as a small haven where we can isolate ourselves for a short time from the troubles that occupy our daily lives. Immersing ourselves in a fictitious world can relieve us from the stress of our own and remind us in a host of different ways that we are not alone.

On a deeper level, however, a spectacularly imagined universe has the capacity to catalyze our unconscious. At its highest level, art seeks to explore the regions of our experience that lay just beyond our consciousness and to give it form through imagination. We encounter something we recognize but which remains somewhat mysterious, unknowable—full of shock or surprise. The images, the language and the music speak to us in a personal, even profound way, although we cannot fully explain why or how. We simply know it to be “real” or “true” while acknowledging that we are at a loss to know its origins or to fully understand its meaning. An encounter with art of this kind is transformational because it connects us to the limitless, to what is impossibly possible, to what lies beyond the limitations of our rational minds.

Which brings us to the enormously talented writer Sara Ruhl, whose newest play, In the Next Room, is at first look an elegiac comedy about the discovery of sexual self-awareness. Set at the dawn of the age of electricity, the story follows a fictional psychiatrist who uses a remarkable new invention, the vibrator, to treat women suffering from “hysteria.” Through a series of relationships Ms. Ruhl introduces us to a world where stifled Victorian mores clash with burgeoning, secret desires. The disparity between the scientific experiment that the doctor thinks he is conducting and the social drama he unwittingly catalyzes is not only the stuff of comedy, but provides a dynamic theatrical vehicle to examine the beginning of a social revolution.

Beyond its comical veneer, however, In the Next Room immerses us in the mysteries of gender and the quixotic nature of desire. By using the vibrator, each character is induced to undergo experiences that they do not cognitively understand. Sexual climaxes awaken dormant parts of their deepest selves, and they begin to recognize the profound gap that separates their acculturated behavior in the external world and the yearnings of their inner life. They begin to question their definition of happiness. The sheer power, delight and availability of orgasms prompt the demand for satisfaction in other aspects of life. For some characters, increased self-awareness brings sorrow upon realizing that they cannot sufficiently change their circumstances. For others, a new life unfolds containing a dream of happiness they never thought possible. Moreover, what it revealed is the melancholy that lives below the surface of each and every desire.

Who better to bring tonight’s play to life than Les Waters, who resumes his wonderful collaboration with Ms. Ruhl? We hope your experience will be nothing less than transformative.

Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

Enjoying the view?

Many of you are sitting in familiar seats, seats that you’ve enjoyed for shows throughout the season. I hope you’ll hold onto your seats! If you’re a subscriber, you’ll soon receive your annual renewal form, either in the mail or online. Tony and the artistic staff have been planning next season for months, and we’re confident that we’ll offer seven wonderful productions for 2009–10.

With the economy in such dreadful condition, you might ask yourself whether a subscription to the theatre is a good investment. What would you expect me to say other than a resounding, “Of course!” In good times and in bad, Berkeley Rep is a great value. We always try to stay ahead of the curve, and I think we’ve done it again: last season, we anticipated the economic downturn by reducing ticket prices for almost a third of the seats in both theatres. They now sell for less than they did in 1999! As a result, subscribers can see seven plays at Berkeley Rep for as little as $20 per ticket. Even our premium seats are quite reasonable—because our subscribers always get the very best price.

Our free events also help theatre lovers stretch their entertainment dollars, by turning a play into an entire evening of adventure. By choosing certain dates, subscribers can enjoy pre-show talks with our docents, post-show discussions with our artists, late-night parties with your peers or gourmet tastings with local culinary artisans—all at no extra charge.

We’re all watching our wallets, but I hope that these savings are not the only reason you renew. I hope you come back, year after year, because you value the unusual theatrical journeys that only begin at Berkeley Rep. That you enjoy the thoughtful, stimulating, sometimes provocative, and often cathartic experience that truly is not available elsewhere.

As I write this, two of our shows are touring the country. A film version of one is about to open at Sundance, and the script for another is on the New York Times’ bestseller list. For three straight years, shows that originated here have ranked among the Top 10 plays of the year in the Times—and they’ve also been counted among the year’s best in the LA Times, Newsday, Time Magazine, USA Today and of course your local paper. Our subscribers saw all of these plays before they traveled to Los Angeles, New York, Montreal and beyond. And the show you’re about to see is part of an ambitious project—we’ve pledged to commission 50 new plays by 2013. You won’t see shows like these on any other stage.

From that familiar seat, you can literally see into the future of American theatre. So I hope you’ll join us for another year. We certainly couldn’t do it without you.

Susan Medak

Surreal life: The plays of Sarah Ruhl

By John Lahr

When the playwright Sarah Ruhl works at home, she sits at a desk in her young daughter Anna’s bedroom, beside a window overlooking a paddletennis court amid a red brick apartment maze on the East Side of Manhattan. A white gate, like a picket fence, stretches across the width of the small room, dividing the toddler’s play area from her mother’s. Ruhl, who is 34 and has already won a half-million-dollar MacArthur Fellowship for her plays (which include The Clean House, a comedy that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005), writes in a poised, crystalline style about things that are irrational and invisible. Ruhl is a fabulist. Her plays celebrate what she calls “the pleasure of heightened things.” In them, fish walk and caper (Passion Play), stones talk and weep (Eurydice), a dog is a witness to and the narrator of a family tragedy (Dog Play), a woman turns into an almond (Melancholy Play). Ruhl’s characters occupy, she has said, “the real world and also a suspended state.” Her new play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, now at Playwrights Horizons, is a meditation on death, love, and disconnection in the digital age; like her other works, it inhabits a dramatic netherworld between personal suspense and suspended time. “Cell phones, iPods, wireless computers will change people in ways we don’t even understand,” Ruhl told me. “We’re less connected to the present. No one is where they are. There’s absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore—you connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them? Because you never see them—you just talk to them. I find that terrifying.”

Looming over Ruhl’s writing table is a poster of a photograph from Walker Evans’s late-nineteen-thirties series of New York City subway riders, a gift from her husband, Tony Charuvastra, a child psychiatrist. (They married in 2005, after a seven-year courtship.) The juxtaposition of photographer and playwright—both entrepreneurs of tone and atmosphere—is one of those unconscious visual provocations that Ruhl’s plays relish. “I like to see people speaking ordinary words in strange places, or people speaking extraordinary words in ordinary places,” Ruhl has said. Evans wanted to project, he wrote, the “delights of seeing”; Ruhl wants to project the delights of pretense, “the interplay between the actual and the magical.” Evans once wrote about the “dream of making photographs like poems.” Ruhl began her career as a poet—her first book, Death in Another Country, a collection of verse, was published when she was 20—and she sees her plays as “three-dimensional poems.” Evans’s subway photos were taken at furtive angles, with his lens hidden in the buttonhole of his coat and an operating cable up his sleeve; Ruhl’s narrative strategy is similarly oblique and cunning, and she aspires to a kind of reportorial anonymity. “If one is unseen, one has the liberty to observe and make things up,” she told me. “It’s very difficult to overhear a conversation if one is speaking loudly.” One night, at the Lincoln Center production of The Clean House—a tale about an unhappy Brazilian maid looking for the perfect joke in the midst of her employer’s family ructions—Ruhl sat unrecognized behind an elderly couple. “I didn’t not like it,” the woman said after the houselights came up. “I didn’t not like it,” her gentleman friend chimed in. “They turned to me,” Ruhl recalled, and asked, “ ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘I didn’t not like it, either.’ ”

Ruhl, like her plays, is deceptively placid. She is petite and polite. Her voice is high-pitched, as if she had been hitting the helium bottle. She wears her auburn hair pinned back by a barrette, in demure schoolmarm fashion; in her choice of clothes, too, she favors an unprepossessing look—a carapace of ordinariness, forged out of her Illinois childhood and “the ability of Midwesterners to pulverize people who seem slightly precocious,” she explained. (“In third grade, somebody sent me a poison-pen letter,” Ruhl, who was bullied for being intelligent, said. “I corrected the punctuation and sent it back.”) Nothing in her modest mien indicates her steeliness, her depth, or her piquant wit. Ruhl is reserved but not shy, alert but not aggressive. She feels big emotions; she just doesn’t express them in a big way. “I had one boyfriend who really wished I would yell and scream at him,” she said. Even her laugh is just three short, unobtrusive intakes of breath.

But if Ruhl’s demeanor is unassuming, her plays are bold. Her nonlinear form of realism—full of astonishments, surprises, and mysteries—is low on exposition and psychology. “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life,” she has said. “Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned. They’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions. Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.”

Lightness—the distillation of things into a quick, terse, almost innocent directness—is a value on which Ruhl puts much weight. “Italo Calvino has an essay that I think is profound,” she told me, scouting a floor-length living-room bookshelf until she found Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium,” a series of posthumously published lectures on the imaginative qualities that the new millennium should call into play. Of his defining categories—among them quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity—lightness is foremost. “In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought,” he writes. Ruhl, in her plays, contends with the pressing existential issues; her stoical comic posture is a means of killing gravity, of taking the heaviness out of her words in order to better contend with life. “Lightness isn’t stupidity,” she said. “It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom—stepping back to be able to laugh at horrible things even as you’re experiencing them.” In Melancholy Play (2002), a farce about suffering, Ruhl dramatized the point. Among a group of sad sacks, who are gourmands of grief—they fight over “a vial of tears”—a bank teller named Tilly causes havoc when she pronounces herself happy. “I feel lighter and lighter,” Tilly says. “I am trying to cultivate—a sensation of—gravity. But nothing helps.”

Lightness, Ruhl said, was “probably a family style.” She grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, where she had “a wonderful family. I’m not like a lot of artists in that way.” Her father, Patrick, marketed toys for a number of years, a job that was a mismatch for his intellectual abilities. “He should have been a history professor,” Ruhl said, though he loved puns, reading, language, and jazz. “I think Sarah’s appreciation of music comes from him,” her older sister, Kate Ruhl, a psychiatrist, told me. So, too, did her fascination with language. Each Saturday, from the time Ruhl was five, Patrick took his daughters to the Walker Bros. Original Pancake House for breakfast and taught them a new word, along with its etymology. (The language lesson and some of Patrick’s words—“ostracize,” “peripatetic,” “defunct”—are memorialized in the 2003 Eurydice, a retelling of the Orpheus myth from his inamorata’s point of view, in which the dead Father, reunited with his daughter, tries to re-teach her lost vocabulary.) Patrick died of cancer in 1994, when Ruhl was twenty. That year, because he was ill, the family had to forgo its usual summer trip to Cape Cod; instead, as Kate recalled, “we brought Cape Cod to our house. We pretended we were away—we would watch dumb summer movies, get the kid food we ate on the Cape. We were a really good foursome.” Ruhl, recollecting her father’s last days, said, “He’d be making jokes about having radioactive urine. We’d all be laughing. It was so gracious.”

Ruhl’s mother, Kathleen, who now holds a PhD in Language, Literacy, and Rhetoric, from the University of Illinois, added to the family’s sense of caprice. For most of her children’s growing up, Kathleen was a high-school English teacher who moonlighted as an actress and a director. She would come down to dinner—according to Ruhl, who calls her “vivid”—“doing the maid’s speech from Ionesco’s Bald Soprano.” Ruhl said, “We were encouraged to play at home, so that art-making didn’t seem like an escape from family or a retreat but very much a part of life.” Even Kathleen’s method of inculcating manners was a license to play. “We had Pig Night,” Kathleen said. “One night a week, the girls could be as horrible as they wanted. The rest of the week, they had to make an effort.” The Ruhl children knew all about performance. They were taken on summer pilgrimages to Stratford, Ontario, to see Shakespeare. Ruhl has memories of being bewildered and furious, watching Julius Caesar (“lots of white togas”) and going backstage after The Tempest to look at the ship (“That was magical”). Kathleen would also tote them to her rehearsals. Even as a girl, Ruhl, who was considered an “old soul” by her family, had a keen analytic eye. “One of the most intense theatrical experiences for her was when I directed Enter Laughing,” Kathleen said. “She got to know all the actors. By that point, people would ask her for her notes. She was six or seven.”

“When other kids were outside playing, Sarah would be wrapped in a comforter drinking tea and reading,” Kate said. “We used to joke that she had consumption.” Ruhl told me, “There was always a little part of me that stood apart and observed and made things up. My mom says that, even before I could write, I would tell stories and she would type them up for me.” Then as now, storytelling worked as an antidepressant for her. “If I’m sad in life, I’ll tell someone something strange and funny that happened to me to make myself feel better,” she said. The thrill of transformation is something she began learning at the age of ten, through improvisational games at the Piven Theatre, a 70-seat venue in Evanston, Illinois, whose Young People’s Company, to which Ruhl briefly belonged, can claim such accomplished graduates as John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Jeff Garlin, and Rosanna Arquette. Joyce Piven, the co-founder and artistic director, told me, “We acted stories, myths, fairy tales, folktales, then literary tales—Chekhov, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Salinger.” The theatre, Ruhl said, “didn’t use props, and didn’t have sets. Language did everything. So, from an early age: no fourth wall, and things can transform in the moment.” As an improviser, according to Piven, Ruhl “wasn’t a standout—she’s not basically a performer.” (Ruhl concurs: “I don’t like being watched.”) But she began taking Piven’s scene-study class, and ended up teaching the work. “She hears the play in all its dimensions,” Piven said, adding, “She writes from a distance, so she can play. Even if you’re writing about a very serious thing and invested up to your eyes, intensity can kill a lot for the actor and the writer.”

Apart from a courtroom drama about a land-mass dispute between an isthmus and an island, which Ruhl wrote in fourth grade, and which her teacher declined to stage—“Perhaps that’s why I’m writing plays now, to exorcize my psychic battle with Mr. Spangenberger,” Ruhl says—she didn’t start writing plays until her junior year at Brown University, in 1995. In Dog Play, her first piece, a ten-minute exercise assigned by her teacher, the playwright Paula Vogel, Ruhl synthesized Kabuki stage techniques with a suburban American environment to evoke her grief over her father’s death. The Dog, whose baying “as though his heart is breaking” opens the show, says, “I dreamed last night that I could speak and everyone could understand. I was telling them that he is not dead, that I can see him. No one believed me.” Vogel, who later cited Ruhl in her award-winning play Baltimore Waltz as one of the people “who had changed the way I looked at drama,” told me, “I sat with this short play in my study and sobbed. She had an emotional maturity that no one else in the class had.” Vogel added, “I said, ‘I want to work with you,’ and she answered, ‘Well, I’m going to be a poet. I’m not gonna be doing playwriting.’ My heart kind of sank, but I went, ‘Well, O.K. Good luck.’ ” But Vogel’s appreciation of Ruhl’s work prevailed. “I do think it’s important having someone say, ‘You could do this for life,’ ” Ruhl said. “Paula was that person.”

Ruhl spent the next year at Pembroke College, Oxford, where she studied English literature, and when she returned her sights were not on poetry but on playwriting. Her literary volte-face was due in part to her confusion about the confessional “I” of her poetic voice, which she felt had been exhausted in mourning her father. In “Dream,” for instance, she wrote, “I wake this morning and gather a mouthful of dirt— / words—with a teaspoon, that you may speak to me again.” “I didn’t know what a poem should be anymore,” she said. “Plays provided a way to open up content and have many voices. I felt that onstage one could speak lyrically and with emotion, and that the actor was longing for that kind of speech, whereas in poetic discourse emotion was in some circles becoming embarrassing.”

The turning point for Ruhl came in 1997, at a production of Passion Play, her first full-length work, which Vogel had arranged at Trinity Repertory Company, in Providence, Rhode Island. Kathleen drove herself and Sarah to the event. They had an accident, and Sarah was briefly knocked unconscious. Nonetheless, she managed to see her play. “At a visceral level, watching the play, I thought, This is it,” she said. “Some people stood. What whorish playwright wouldn’t be excited about that? It was momentous and strange.”

Ruhl’s theatre aspires to reclaim the audience’s atrophied imagination. “Now, some people consume imagination, and some people do the imagining,” she said. “I find it very worrisome. That should be one thing that people know they can do.” Ruhl writes with space, sound, and image as well as words. Her stage directions often challenge her directors’ scenic imagination as well. In Eurydice, the dead Father builds Eurydice a room of string in the underworld. The stage directions read, “He makes four walls and a door out of string. / Time passes. / It takes time to build a room out of string.” Ruhl’s goal is to make the audience live in the moment, to make the known world unfamiliar in order to reanimate it. Here the essential nature of the underworld—its sense of absence—is made visceral by the volumes of meticulously constructed empty space that the string defines.

“I’m interested in the things theatre can do that other forms can’t,” Ruhl told me. “So theatre as pure plumbing of self, in a psychological way, seems very readerly to me.” Her plays are distinguished by a minimum of backstory; the audience is submerged in a series of unfolding dramatic moments. Eurydice, for instance, opens, wittily, with Eurydice and Orpheus at the beach. When Orpheus offers her the world, it’s the real one. “All those birds. Thank you,” Eurydice says. “And the sea! For me? When? Now? It’s mine already? (Orpheus nods.) Wow.” The dialogue and the situation have precise, ironic resonances, but the audience has to work for them. The play coaxes the spectators to swim in the magical, sometimes menacing flow of the unconscious. Ruhl prefers the revelations of the surreal moment to the narrated psychological one. In the prologue to Passion Play—a triptych that uses for its dissection of faith, politics, and political icons the organizing conceit of the staging of Christ’s Passion in separate acts by the Elizabethans, Nazi-era Germans, and contemporary Americans—Ruhl announced her daring, playfully cajoling the public to focus on the moment and the mythic:

We ask you, dear audience,
To use your eyes, ears, your most inward sight.
For here is day (A painted sun is raised)
And here is night (A painted moon is raised)
And now, the play.

As a storyteller, Ruhl marches to Ovid’s drum rather than Aristotle’s. “Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid’s way of telling stories,” she said, describing Ovid’s narrative strategy as “one thing transforming into another.” She went on, “His is not the neat Aristotelian arc but, instead, small transformations that are delightful and tragic.” And she added, “The Aristotelian model—a person wants something, comes close to getting it but is smashed down, then finally gets it, or not, then learns something from the experience—I don’t find helpful. It’s a strange way to look at experience.

“I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably,” Ruhl said. “The acting style isn’t explicated, either. It’s not psychological.” In The Clean House, for instance, one stage direction reads, “Lane cries. She laughs. She cries. She laughs. And this goes on for some time.” To Ruhl, this kind of emotionally labile performance is a “virtuosic” exhibition of behavior. “It feels true to me,” she said. “Children are certainly that way. I’m interested in these kinds of state changes. ‘I was happy, now I’m sad.’ ” She continued, “If you distill people’s subjectivity and how they view the world emotionally, you don’t get realism.” The irrationality of emotion is one of the themes to which Ruhl’s plays continually return. “I don’t want to smooth out the emotions to the point where you could interpret them totally rationally, so that they have a clear reference point to the past,” she said. “Psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don’t feel like emotions to me.”

In Ruhl’s plays, turbulent feeling can erupt at any moment, for no apparent reason; actors are challenged to inhabit the emotional moment without motivation. Sometimes, during rehearsal, an anxious actor will approach Ruhl to try and pin down the role. She thinks to herself, “Oh, come on, just ride it.” She told me, “I prefer an actor who says, ‘My character doesn’t have a backstory, so I won’t concoct one. I will live as fully in every moment as I can. I will let the language move me, as opposed to a secret backstory of my own.’ ” She likes her actors to have “a sense of irony,” and to be “touched with a little brush of the irrational.”

One afternoon in January, in the fifth-floor rehearsal room of Playwrights Horizons, Ruhl took a seat beside the director Anne Bogart at the top of a horseshoe of white Formica tables. It was the second day of rehearsal for Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Behind them was the maquette of the play’s spare proscenium set—its backdrop of sky and its sliding side panels painted in the deep, sombre blues, grays, and browns of Edward Hopper’s palette. The Hopper tones suggested the longing and the solitude that are the play’s internal weather and that the cavernous, mostly furniture-free space magnified. As an epigram to her script, Ruhl appended an observation by Mark Strand about the people who wait in Hopper’s paintings: “They are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company.”

Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a mad pilgrimage of an imagination as it is invaded and atomized by the phone, which transforms private as well as public space. At a café, when a man sitting next to the quirky Jean won’t answer the intrusive ringing of his phone, she answers it herself, realizing only slowly that the man is dead. In the moment of recognition, staring into his transfigured face, which appears, the stage direction reads, “as though he was just looking at something he found eminently beautiful,” Jean falls in love. “I can be very medieval about love—like the notion that love is through the eyes and that it’s very immediate, as opposed to modern and neurotic,” Ruhl told me. Jean speaks to the corpse; the stage direction reads, “She holds his hand. She keeps hold of it.” In the image, Ruhl’s main thematic tragicomic preoccupations of being both disembodied and disconnected coalesce. To keep alive the reality of her newfound love object, Jean answers his calls and fabricates stories about his dying thoughts to lovers, business partners, and family, all of whom she eventually meets. (The Dead Man’s name, it turns out, is Gordon, and he sold body parts for a living.)

Of the many ghostly figures in this bright play—Jean, who declares, “I like to disappear”; Gordon’s termagant mother, who sees it as her job “to mourn him until the day I die”; Dwight, an unnoticed second son—the Dead Man is the only bona-fide ghost. This being a Ruhl play, he is, naturally, heard from.

“Have a seat,” Bogart said to Bill Camp, the actor who was then playing the Dead Man. “Take your time. And see if we might help you, or not.” The Dead Man has a soliloquy at the opening of Act II, and Bogart was planting the seed of using the audience as an acting partner in the scene. Ruhl is a fan of direct address. In Melancholy Play, her production notes admonish theatricals: “The audience knows the difference between being talked to and being talked at. Talk to them, please.” Ruhl told me, “We’re in the theatre and people are speaking to us. You could say it’s more real.” She said to Camp, “There is charm in the monologue—the slow, easy charm of talking to an airplane partner in first class. Don’t be afraid of it.”

“I love that image of being in first class,” Bogart said. Then Camp got to work. “I woke up that morning—the day I died—thinking I’d like a lobster bisque,” he began. Ruhl cast out her sentences straight and true like a fly line, their rhythms setting ideas down crisply and carefully for her listeners to catch. Sometimes she did it with a fillip of observation (“I got onto the subway. A tomb for people’s eyes”); sometimes with a flick of humor (“It doesn’t really make your mouth water, does it, lentil soup?” Gordon asks. “Something watery—something brown—and hot carrots. Like death”); sometimes with the surprise of information (“Ate my sushi,” Gordon says, in a detour about a restaurant run by a former Chinese surgeon who did organ extractions. “You can tell with tuna whether they slice it from the belly or from the tail end. He always gave me the belly. It’s the good part”). By the point in the soliloquy where Gordon arrives at the café, where he learns that the last bowl of lobster bisque has just been sold, the rhythm and command of Ruhl’s language have slyly let out a lot of the story line. “I’m thinking, That bitch over there ate all the lobster bisque, this is all her fault,” Gordon says as he begins to have a heart attack. “And I look over at her, and she looks like an angel—not like a bitch at all—and I think—good—good—I’m glad she had the last bite—I’m glad. Then I die.”

Afterward, parsing the soliloquy with Camp, Ruhl returned to the sushi-eating story. In the text, she said, it seems that the character is “talking about something important, like organs, when actually it isn’t that important in his moral structure. But sushi is the important part of what he’s talking about. There was something thrilling in the way you were talking about the ‘belly is the best part of the tuna.’ That was the place where you slowed down, even though it was parenthetical. That seemed really right to me.” She added, “This is a man who is used to talking at length and to having people listen. There’s a kind of confidence. He’s allowed to improvise and to surprise himself with language the way most people aren’t, because people stop listening.”

Ruhl takes the same pleasure in language. On the way to a preview, eight weeks later, she worried about the calibration of the words in a rewrite of her ending. “I hope I’m not overarticulating,” she said, striding through the chill night air in bluejeans, backpack on her shoulders. In the lobby, the director Mark Wing-Davey, who will stage Passion Play at the Yale Repertory Theatre later this year, swept Ruhl up against his massive body like a grizzly bear hugging a salmon. “She’s a playwright with a voice that thrums,” Wing-Davey told me as we took our seats. He went on, “You hear that voice and you think, That doesn’t come around that often.” Ruhl’s theatrical authority bred trust in the audience. In the game of hide-and-seek she played with it, there was always something to be found. It gave them permission to play. No matter how wild the zigzags of logic or the lampoon of conventional storytelling—what she called her “anti-money shots”—the audience was right with Ruhl’s flights of goofy fancy: a cell-phone ballet set to the chattering gab of the spheres, a rendezvous with Gordon on his rung of Hell, a redemptive finale. “I intend the ending to be an actual hymn to love,” she told me. Out of the atomized half lives of the characters, Ruhl’s tale, true to comedy’s mission, stage-managed wholeness: Jean says to Dwight, Gordon’s brother, “Let’s start loving each other right now, Dwight—not a mediocre love, but the strongest love in the world, absolutely requited.”

In the lobby after the preview, I talked to Wing-Davey about the oddness of the play’s ironic detachment and its unabashed optimism. “Why shouldn’t it be?” he said, adding, “Right now Sarah’s life is great—a young child, newly married, the darling of the American theatre scene, her plays are done.” Nonetheless, for good luck at each opening night, Ruhl comes armed with an amulet, a small pink Ganesh-type elephant. If her sister or her husband is beside her in the theatre, as the lights come down, Ruhl’s ritual is to whisper the words of a young, excited, theatregoing Minnesota girl from her favorite childhood series, the “Betsy-Tacy” stories, words that to Ruhl signal “the experience of opening and of forgetting.” “The curtain goes up! The curtain goes up!” she says.

Originally published in the March 17, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. Reprinted with permission.

Strange bedfellows

Physicians, the vibrator, and Victorian America

By Madeleine Oldham

Throughout history, women’s bodies have provided humanity with a wellspring of puzzlement and wonder—their reproductive powers reliably arouse responses ranging from reverence to fear. In keeping with the human instinct to understand and conquer nature, for thousands of years people have endeavored to harness female sexuality. Early philosophers and doctors zeroed in on the uterus as a nexus for these unknowable strange and scary forces in an attempt to control and contain them. The uterus was thought to be responsible for a considerable host of afflictions that fell under the heading of “hysteria.”

Hysteria as an illness dates back to antiquity: the word derives from the Greek hystera which means uterus, or more literally, “of the womb.” Thus hysteria has always connoted female concerns. (The American Psychiatric Association retired the term in 1952, later adopting the more gender-neutral “conversion disorder” instead.) Documented male cases of hysteria do exist, though they are far and away the exception rather than the rule. The disease became a sort of catchall assessment for a variety of tangible yet unexplained symptoms stemming from no obviously discernable cause. Doctors stamped the hysterical label on many conditions that we now recognize as other things: schizophrenia, anxiety and panic attacks, epilepsy, etc. But they also applied it to a vast cornucopia of symptoms like nervousness, boldness, fainting, excessive energy, apathy in the bedroom, an overly hearty sexual appetite—basically anything not readily identifiable as something else.

The most frequently prescribed and preferred treatment for hysteria was marriage, and for a woman to be “strongly encountered” by her husband. Pre-20th-century logic determined that if the symptoms emanated from the womb, a sexual release would purge them. However, with the female body being so enigmatic, not many doctors recognized the fact that traditional intercourse alone does not provide said release for a significant number of women. If marriage proved unsuccessful, which it often did due to many women’s uncooperative physiology (today, figures are quoted that anywhere from 50–70% of all women do not achieve orgasm without some form of clitoral stimulation), those women were considered deficient or abnormal and in need of further remedy.

The Victorian era in particular embraced the diagnosis of hysteria with perhaps a tad too much gusto. Conservative sexual attitudes at the time contributed to a rampant proclivity for purging any behavior or characteristic that did not conform to societal norms. An ideal woman radiated chastity and modesty; feelings of lust or desire were considered unseemly or abhorrent, and often indicative of an underlying problem requiring fixing. And yet, contradictorily, though a passionless woman was thought a pure woman, she was also sometimes proclaimed to need medical treatment, particularly if she objected to sex. The message to women was confusing: be chaste, but want sex a little bit (and of course only with your husband); don’t show enthusiasm, but don’t be lethargic either.

It was commonly believed back then that women had little or no sexual desire. From the female perspective, sex was to be endured. Victorian ideas about the purpose of intercourse indicate that most women thought sex existed mainly for reproductive reasons, and possibly for male pleasure, but very rarely did people acknowledge that sex might also provide pleasure for the woman. Dr. Clelia Mosher’s famous study of 45 Victorian wives and their sex lives confirms that a large number of women knew next to nothing about sex until marriage. Some refer to having read parts of a female-penned populist guide to gynecology and midwifery in order to glean something ahead of time, but most went in all but blind. Without knowing much about what to expect, or what was expected of them, sex may have been a terrifying prospect for many women. Oftentimes, things would not go smoothly, and a couple would seek a doctor’s advice, where a pronouncement of hysteria was likely.

If marriage failed to alleviate hysterical symptoms, doctors usually then prescribed “pelvic massage” in order to induce a “paroxysm,” which literally means a sudden fit or convulsion, but we know now that in this context it was simply another name for an orgasm. It is interesting to note that while the favored remedy was a vigorous bedroom encounter with one’s husband, doctors were yet able to achieve clinical distance with the pelvic massage they administered in their offices, maintaining that the “hysterical paroxysms” they induced were purely medicinal and contained nothing of the sexual about them. Similar logic applied to the intense fear of masturbation, or “onanism,” as it was referred to at the time. If a paroxysm occurred in a doctor’s office or the marriage bed this was seen as a positive result, but if achieved by the woman herself (or a man, for that matter) in privacy, it became unacceptable and depraved. It was believed with absolute certainty that these two situations resulted in completely different effects, despite sharing the same outcome. Rachel P. Maines suggests a possible cause of this striking ability to compartmentalize in the preface to her book, The Technology of Orgasm: “Doctors who failed to recognize the orgasm in their patients must never have seen them in their wives.”

Physicians had been prescribing pelvic massage in various forms since ancient Greek times, and possibly earlier, as a cure for hysteria. The simplest method was also the most labor intensive: the manual treatment. Using one’s fingers to elicit a paroxysm could take an hour or more and thus prove quite tedious and tiring. As a result, doctors often handed the task off to a midwife. They also searched for ways to make the process easier. Hydrotherapy was a popular option: they experimented with showers, water pressure, and hot springs, resulting in spa towns like Saratoga Springs or Ballston Spa in New York boasting large populations of doctors. Other prescriptions included horseback and bicycle riding, travel in a carriage, or later a train, and even sewing, as the motion from early, pre-electric sewing machines achieved vibratory effect.

Electric vibrators first appeared in doctors’ offices around 1878, not long after the introduction of electric light. Once public awareness of these new devices grew, so did requests for portable vibrators appropriate for home use. Maines notes that, “The first home appliance to be electrified was the sewing machine in 1889, followed in the next ten years by the fan, the teakettle, the toaster and the vibrator.” The invention was heartily welcomed and hailed as a revelatory and ingenious device. Considered a medical tool, people viewed the vibrator the same way they viewed a stethoscope or a thermometer. According to Maines, “The speculum and the tampon were originally more controversial in medical circles than was the vibrator.”

Many Victorians believed that the universe itself vibrated and undulated with a constant unseen pulsation, which helped to augment the positive connotations of vibration—some people even went so far as to view the use of a vibrator as becoming one with nature. It was not until the 1920s that vibrators fell hard and fast off the map of public acceptance when they began appearing in early pornographic films, used by women to pleasure themselves. By that time, treatment of hysteria had ventured into more Freudian territory, espousing the assumption that physical symptoms were inevitably the result of some sort of early psychological trauma. Curing diagnosed hysterics became more about attending to a disconnect between the mind and the body and less about perceived sexual dysfunction. This helped inch society closer to dispelling the outdated notion that female sexuality was a problem that needed to be solved.

Wet nursing at the end of the 19th century

By Alex Rosenthal

Wet nursing was an act of biological necessity for some families and a social choice for others throughout the 19th century. Some mothers were incapable of breast-feeding their own children, whether due to illness, death during childbirth or a deficiency of milk. Other mothers belonging to the middle and upper classes, while capable of breast-feeding, viewed it as a coarse and confining act, ruining their figures and making them feel shackled by the needs of their child. This created the demand for wet nurses, who represented the safest alternative to maternal breast-feeding. Artificial feeding was potentially deadly due to the fact that federal regulation of dairy products did not yet exist—the milk of diseased cows was sometimes distributed, milk cans and baby bottles were often contaminated with bacteria and milk often spoiled in transport or storage due to lack of reliable preservation before pasteurization.

Although it may have been the safer option, wet nursing often created complicated dynamics within the home. There are accounts of neighbors and friends serving as wet nurses for each other, but most records portray wet nursing as an employer-employee relationship. Middle- and upper-class women hired lower-class wet nurses essentially as household servants; most wet nurses were required to live in their employers’ home and leave their own children behind to survive on artificial formula, as employers worried that wet nurses would give preferential treatment to their own children. Infant mortality was prevalent, and babies without access to human milk were at considerable risk, so for a woman with a living child to nurse someone else’s child often meant endangering the life of her own. The incentive to risk their children’s lives was monetary, as wet nursing in the service of the wealthy paid better than most jobs available to working women, with room, board and other commodities included.

The wet nurse’s power within the household complicated dynamics further: since good wet nurses took time to find, the life of the child could be in danger if the wet nurse should quit. There are accounts of wet nurses leveraging the threat of leaving to gain resources that were not available to other servants in a household, such as special food, extra pay and lodging for their families.

Several criteria were considered critical to a good wet nurse: health, milk quality and quantity and moral character. Health and milk qualities were important for obvious reasons, and were determined by physician checkups and examinations of the health of the wet nurse’s own baby. Character was an important factor not only because the wet nurse was a powerful member of the household, but also because popular wisdom at the time suggested that passion, heredity and character influenced the quality of milk and could affect a baby. Stories were told of wet nurses who participated in lively activities such as ballroom dancing or intercourse, only to corrupt or kill their young charges with their energized milk. In the early part of the 19th century, many physicians believed that strong emotions would turn a woman’s milk to poison. A lack of rigorous scientific understanding led many to believe that a baby could actually inherit characteristics and flaws of a woman through her milk. Cautionary tales and literature of the time described wet nurses who presented other women’s babies for inspection to hide the frailty of their own, those who drank alcohol in secret while nursing the child and those who disguised that their milk had run dry by feeding the babies formula or not feeding them at all. Many of these fears were no doubt exaggerated by the middle and upper classes’ distrust of the lower. Writers may have also downplayed the frequency and benefits of positive relationships with wet nurses because they were far less sensational than the negative stories. The vilification of wet nurses (as Mr. Daldry says in the play, one physician actually classified them as “one part cow and nine parts devil”) was much in accordance with the adverse portrayal of everything related to a woman’s body at the time, including female sexuality and the diagnosis of hysteria (see “Strange Bedfellows”).

Racial considerations also weighed in on the selection of a wet nurse. Many Southerners in the 18th century had slaves wet nurse their children, allowing the practical benefits and convenience to overrule their interracial concerns. Data suggests that most 18th century Northerners did not accept interracial nursing; rampant racism plus the belief that milk conveyed character and hereditary traits suggested that a white baby would inherit negative qualities from an African-American wet nurse. These attitudes carried over to the 19th century, when interracial wet nursing in the South remained more common and more socially acceptable than in the North. The African-American population stayed concentrated in the South at the time, so the availability of African-American wet nurses may have influenced how acceptable they were; in the North the rarity of the situation reinforced the taboo.

By the end of the 19th century, improvements in artificial milk preparation and preservation made it the preferred method over wet nursing, which declined steadily over the next several decades. Wet nursing mostly became a last resort for babies who were not being sufficiently nourished by artificial formula. It essentially became obsolete in the 1930s with the invention of technology that made sterile, mass distribution of human milk possible. The use of the bottle as an intermediary between one woman’s milk and another woman’s baby proved to be a cheaper, safer and less socially tangled solution to nursing difficulties.

The edge of a new frontier

The advent of electricity in America

By Alex Rosenthal

The invention of electricity helped mark the cusp between the reserved Victorian era and the fast-paced 20th century. Author Tom McNichol describes this period in his book AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War:

It was the dawn, not of electricity, but of the electricity business. It had come to an age scarcely prepared for electricity. It was still the era of the horse and buggy, the telegraph, and the seven-story skyscraper, of the house heated with gas or wood and illuminated with candles, kerosene lamps, and gas fixtures. Seemingly overnight, there was a new world, one in which unseen forces could do all those tasks and more. Electricity would quicken the pulse of everyday life.

However, the transition into the illuminated world of electricity did not take place overnight. In the 1880s a number of costly hurdles stood in the way of having electrical power. The infrastructure required to supply homes with electricity en masse would not be in place for a number of years, and most of the first consumers of electricity were large businesses and factories in the middle of cities. It was not common for domestic businesses to be electrified until after 1910. Wealthy people like JP Morgan and the Vanderbilts had their own electricity plants built to supply their homes with power, because most plants at the time could only supply electricity to locations within a half-mile radius. Victorian homes would also not have had wires already built into the walls at the time of their construction. Homeowners would have had to either pay to demolish parts of the walls to put wires inside, or as some households did at the time, run wiring along molding external to the walls. Finally, although light bulbs were beginning to be mass produced, these too cost a substantial amount and had far shorter life spans than their modern equivalents.

Doorbells and light bulbs were among the limited household uses of electricity in the 1880s, replacing hand bells and dirty, dim and dangerous gas lighting. Because electricity would not become affordable and widespread until after 1910, other common applications did not find a market during the 19th century. For example, while the electric stove was introduced in 1892, it took years to catch on domestically, and the first self-contained refrigerator did not go on the market until 1923. The few who did adopt electricity early found creative uses for it. Some placed light bulbs in “electroliers” that refracted light through cut crystal as in a chandelier. Elegant lamp shades made of stained glass created beautifully colored displays of the new light source.

At the time of its inception, electricity was something revolutionary and fascinating. Stores installed electric lighting that drew customers like moths, and towns and worlds fairs created massive displays of light, showing off the marvels of the new technology. David Nye, author of Electrifying America writes that, “Electricity enhanced and transformed the everyday, changing the familiar into something rare and strange.” However, as electricity became increasingly prevalent and cost-effective, it also became another everyday part of life and lost some of its novel magic. Within just a few years it must have become as difficult to imagine a world without electricity as it is today to imagine a world without the internet.

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