By Nicole Motahari
In the Next Room by Sarah Ruhl is a jewel of a play, with a title that is strongly symbolic of the constraints imposed upon society in the Victorian Era. In the play, Catherine and Dr. Givings are always physically and emotionally separated by the walls of ‘the next room’, the operating theater in which Dr. Givings relieves hysteria in his patients. Other characters, such as Leo and Mrs. Daldry also find their lives separated into two portions: what happens in the outside world of Victorian America, and the strange goings on that occur in the next room.
The ‘Next Room’ itself is where Dr. Givings treats his patients, and is represented on stage by a wall separating it from the parlor area. The good doctor goes out of his way to keep his wife from realizing exactly what goes on in the other room, and tries to keep Catherine from ever stepping foot in there, and by doing so, he turns that simple wall onstage into a barrier that prevents them from being able to communicate with each other as a husband and wife should. When Catherine inquires about his profession, and suggests that Dr. Givings experiment on her, he tells her “It would be unseemly for a man of science to do experiments on his wife,” (Ruhl 56) effectively brushing off her concerns and questions before leaving for the club.
The Victorian Era was a period of time in which even discussing sexuality was a social taboo. Society kept its corset laces pulled tight, and in the play, this greatly affects how characters behave. During this time period, women were not meant to enjoy sexual relations with their husbands; the only purpose of sex was to procreate. Throughout the play, the vibrator is used as a substitute for the orgasms that in modern times are brought about by having sex. This brings into discussion the subtitle of this piece- “The Vibrator Play”.
Upon first reading the title, one might wrongly assume that the play is about sex. More than anything, this is a play about reconnecting. The vibrator is a piece of technology, in the same way tablets and IPhones are modern technology today. Just as technology now is driving personal relationships apart, in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, the vibrator is breaking the connections between people and their loved ones.
Dr. Givings and Catherine are a prime example of the vibrator driving apart relationships. While the vibrator is a key instrument in Dr. Givings’ work, he spends all his time taking care of others’ needs, and ignoring the needs of his own wife. At the end of the play, when Catherine breaks down, she tells him “you are gone-you are at the club or in the next room, always in the next room with the door locked. You see that women are capable of pressing a button themselves” (Ruhl 138). His need to “make people feel better” (Ruhl 139) has broken apart his marriage, leaving his place in Catherine’s heart available to any other man. While the vibrator treats Leo, to help him become ‘inspired’ once more, he gives Catherine Givings lessons on love and passion.
However, Leo himself is in love with Elizabeth, the nursemaid, the one female in the play who is never directly involved with the vibrator, and as it turns out, she is the one person in the play who is better at connecting than anyone else. According to Leo, Elizabeth’s soul is in her eyes, and as he paints her as the Madonna as Lottie suckles from her, Leo casually throws out a phrase to Catherine that sums up society’s values- “Leave behind the stranglehold of convention and loosen your corset, Mrs. Givings, you will breathe much better” (Ruhl 106). The undergarments in the play symbolize convention, and in the next room, the characters shed their undergarments before being treated, symbolically shedding the values instilled in them by society. It is in the doctor’s room that the more interesting portions of the play take place, in the room where society’s conventions are shed and the inner soul can be freed.
This is very much the case between Annie and Mrs. Daldry. Their attraction quietly grows during the play, through quoted Greek works and Annie stimulating Sabrina. Annie really does belong in the other room, not just because of her sexuality, but because of her knowledge. During the Victorian Era, it was still believed that over-educating a woman could cause fertility issues. For Annie to be so well educated is an anomaly in the time period she lives in, which explains Mrs. Daldry’s surprise at Annie’s Greek.
The concept of homosexuality also plays a fascinating role in the play. There are many instances in the play where we see the vibrator used between two women to provide relief, satisfy curiosity and bring them closer together. While Annie and Mrs. Daldry are, of course, a major example, the relationship between Sabrina and Catherine should not be taken lightly either. Catherine is extremely inquisitive, especially about her husband’s profession, and pushes Mrs. Daldry into helping her experiment with the vibrator. This could never have happened in the parlor -where Mrs. Daldry can barely talk about what Dr. Givings does- but it happens in the next room -where Mrs. Daldry is slowly growing mentally and physically attracted to another woman (something that was and sometimes still is highly frowned upon). As portrayed in this instance, location in the play largely determines the attitudes of the various characters.
Mrs. Daldry and Mrs. Givings spend a great deal of time in the play trying to understand the feelings the vibrator causes in them, giving credit to the subtitle “The vibrator Play”, but though the play revolves around the vibrator, they learn from Elizabeth that there’s more to it than just sexual pleasure. When Elizabeth explains that many women get the feelings the vibrator produces from having relations with the husbands, Ruhl makes it very clear that it’s a play about intimacy and reconnecting.
At first Catherine tries to connect with Leo, mistaking his friendship and affection for love, but as he gently explains to her on page 137 “You do not love me. You only think you do. You love your husband.” During the last scene of the play, Catherine and Dr. Givings finally come together, and Sarah Ruhl portrays their relationship as starting anew. They move out of the house, into the garden. The garden has been talked about before in the play, but not seen. Gardens themselves are symbols of rebirth and renewal; they represent change and fertility as well as paradise. This can be compared to the only other time readers/viewers of the play see the Givings’ attempt to have sex, back in the parlor. On that occasion, they were awkward and sheepish; trying to feel their way around, but again symbolically, the furniture and the parlor represented society and common taboos at the time, so it makes sense that while Mrs. Givings was able to reach orgasm in the other room with Mrs. Daldry and the vibrator, the occasion in the parlor failed.
In contrast, we have the garden scene, which is lush and beautiful. It starts out inside, with Catherine crying as she attempts to masturbate with the ever-present vibrator, unable to reach completion. She longs for love and intimacy, and when Dr. Givings comes upon her (no pun intended), he finally opens up to her and ‘gives’ her the love she needs. When they kiss, Catherine asks him to take her away from the house, away from the vibrator, away from all the barriers that have held them apart so far throughout the play.
They undress each other, shedding their hesitation as they shed their clothing, each layer removed representing the different obstacles holding them apart- the vibrator, society, all the misunderstandings that have passed between them, until finally they are bare, stripped of all defenses, on equal ground. Slowly, gently, they discover each other, learning, gaining knowledge of each other’s hearts and bodies. They are far away from the vibrator which breaks the connection between people, just as much of the technology we use today, which is supposed to help bring people closer together, really just pushes them apart.
Ruhl provides a parallel, and as Dr. and Mrs. Givings explore each other in the garden, softly exclaiming here and there, the gas lamps are flickering. The electricity that has been present in the play (and has almost taken on a personality of its own) is nowhere to be seen. All that’s left to be seen is two people in love.