Monday, August 20, 2012

Left to Our Own Devices

Remember the good old days when Hamilton Beach made vibrators in addition to blenders?

Yea, neither did I.

But then, I also didn't remember a time when 25% of all women suffered from a disease called hysteria, which basically amounted to sexual frustration.

Apparently playwright Sarah Ruhl did, though, because she wrote a play about it, "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)," currently being produced by  the very creative Cadence Theater Company.

So on this rainy Sunday afternoon, we were part of the matinee audience watching a fascinating slice of cultural history when doctors essentially pleasured women to lessen their symptoms of irritability, fainting and general malaise.

Did I mention it was a love story?

Always cool and poised was the matter-of-fact doctor who serviced his patients while telling inane stories to distract both himself and the women.

"Three minutes, no more than five," he assures his patients.

His young wife, who was passionate and curious about what he was doing (but feeling inadequate as a mother), engaged each patient who came to see her husband in conversation to assuage her loneliness.

Then there was the female patient who went from being listless and always cold to sharing the joys of the electric vibrator with anyone she could.

She was also a fan of the efficient but lonely female nurse using the "manual massage" method.

A man came in exhibiting signs of "male hysteria" and was also treated with the vibrator, albeit in a different place.

Honestly, I've never seen so many orgasms on a stage in one sitting.

Because the  play took place in the 1880s, the women wore elaborate costumes with many layers of corsets, petticoats and bloomers, meaning there was a lot of dressing and undressing before the Hamilton Beach came out.

Often another scene was going on in the living room set to the left of the doctor's "operating theater" where he worked his magic.

The guy next to us seemed constitutionally unable to look at what else was going on elsewhere in the scene when someone was undressing.

Skeevy or just a costume buff? Hard to say.

So much of the play was funny despite addressing issues of  gender roles, sexual freedom and race relations.

But, as a female, it was hard not to feel for the constraints put on women (especially within the confines of marriage) and the utter lack of attention to their physical needs.

I'd be curious to know if the rate of wives killing husbands wasn't higher in those days.

One character said that her husband came to her in the dark while she was sleeping to take his marital rights and returned to his own bed after being satisfied.

No wonder the poor women needed to see the good doctor just to stay sane.

Luckily for them, he offered daily treatment.

By the end of the play,which ended with a beautiful snow-covered winter garden setting executed in a brilliant and believable way, I wanted to walk out of the theater and start telling strangers to buy a ticket.

Smart, funny, poignant, thought-provoking, intimate, why, every quality that describes a good woman could be applied to this play (and by default, Sarah Ruhl).

Not to mention how fortunate we are to have been born once Hamilton Beach-wielding doctors abdicated that responsibility to our mates (or ourselves).

About time we get to be only as hysterical as we want to be.

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