Hovering at the Dawn of Electricity

Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play is, at its heart, about intimacy in an age of technological revolution, “a play hovering at the dawn of electricity,” as her introductory notes say. Its main male character, Dr. Givings, is very much a progressive Man of Science, interested in Everything New. And nothing is much newer, in the 1880s, than electricity.

Although humans have known about electricity in many of its natural forms for millennia (the word comes from the Greek word for amber; the Greeks’ first notice of static electricity was the sparks created by rubbing fur on amber), as Tom McNichol says in AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, before the nineteenth century, and especially before Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla, “electricity remained branded in mystery, an eccentric, invisible force with powers that seemed to come from another world.”

Electricity held a great fascination for the time, especially in America, where most of the innovations were occurring. Electricity seemed to be revolutionizing life, and its pioneers were eager young men, whose careers resemble those of twentieth century figures such Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg: Edison and Westinghouse both had their first successes in their early 20s; Edison achieved international celebrity and was dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park” in his early 30s. His incandescent bulb, perfected in 1879, was changing the way people lived. At the time In the Next Room is set, he was not the gray-haired patriarch of the photographs we most often see today, but a youthful dynamo around forty. As Mark Essig says in Edison and the Electric Chair, he was the “distillation of America’s self-image — unpolished, unpretentious yet gripped by an ambition to transform the world”

The new marvel was adopted very early by the increasingly professionalized and “scientific” medical fellowship. Then as now, Americans seemed eager for the newest medical cures. One of Edison’s earlier inventions was the “Inductorium,” which claimed to cure rheumatism. Soon – beginning the same year in fact that Edison revealed the incandescent light bulb – some doctors began to harness electricity to address the age-old malady of “hysteria.”

Hysteria was a disease first diagnosed in antiquity. Derived from the Greek word for “uterus,” it was long believed that women were afflicted from this organ’s propensity to “wander” throughout the body. By the nineteenth century, as Rachel Maines writes in The Technology of Orgasm, a major inspiration for In the Next Room, the “symptoms” of hysteria included “anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema, and vaginal lubrication.” “Hysterical paroxysm,” a common description for what is now called female orgasm, was described by one nineteenth century physician as “the most common of all diseases except fevers.” Hysteria wasn’t dropped as a medical diagnosis until 1952.

Sarah Ruhl has said she was “stunned” in reading Maines’ book to discover one of the commonly prescribed cures for hysterical symptoms: as Maines writes, “massage to orgasm of female patients was a staple of medical practice among some (but certainly not all) Western physicians from the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s.” Beginning in the late 1870s, electricity came to the aid of “the job nobody wanted” with the invention of the electric vibrator.

From a perspective of more than a century, it is difficult to guess what the doctors, midwives and patients thought was going on. It is easy to find quotes from the period, from men and women, saying that women (except perhaps prostitutes) had little or no sex drive, or anecdotes about piano legs being covered for propriety’s sake. But there are also accounts of marriages and romantic relationships that were mutually sensual in ways that seem surprisingly modern (John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, for instance, or – more surprisingly – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert). In any case, the electric vibrator, whether in a physician’s operating theater or (after the turn of the century) as a commonly advertised household appliance in women’s magazines – the fifth appliance electrified, predating the vacuum cleaner by a decade – it seems to have been viewed with little controversy, certainly much less than the speculum or tampon encountered in the same period. 

In the Next Room is set in the late 1880s. Within the next few years, the spread of electricity would help usher in an era of American industrial power and Sigmund Freud (along with Edison’s moving pictures) would bring sex out of the closet. Sarah Ruhl asks us to ponder whether these have been unalloyed successes, whether we are not still faced with trying to understand what’s “in the next room” not only of “other people’s minds, and bodies,” but of our own souls.

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