The University of Iowa

‘Vibrator Play’ hysterical in more ways than one

January 26th, 2012

By Jenni Page-White for the Iowa City Press-Citizen


The word is a familiar part of our general vocabulary.

It evokes images of uncontrollable and irrational behavior, as in “mass hysteria,” or being overcome by emotion or humor, as in “hysterical.”

But the term also refers to a medical diagnosis as old as medical writing itself — a diagnosis reserved primarily for women, but also occasionally for men, and thus subject to prevailing notions of appropriate gender behavior.

Hysteria and its implications for attitudes toward and relationships between the sexes will be highlighted in the upcoming University Theatre production of Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” directed by Meredith Alexander.

Opening Feb. 10, the play takes a look at the use of the vibrator (yes, that kind of vibrator) as clinical treatment for hysteria.

Leading up to the play’s opening, Joan Kjaer’s live WorldCanvass radio and television program will explore “Women, Hysteria, and Medicine.” Starting at 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber, Kjaer will host members of the upcoming production of “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” and University of Iowa faculty from diverse academic fields. Along with addressing some of the play’s intriguing production challenges (and delights), the conversation will attempt to put hysteria in a wider historical and cross-cultural context.

First defined by Hippocrates as madness of the womb, hysteria has occupied the attention of physicians and medical writers for millennia, and its controversial history reveals much about the centuries-old effort to understand the essential differences between male and female sexuality. The affliction has recently seen a resurgence of interest both in academic and popular culture, appearing not only in Ruhl’s play, but in countless books, a documentary film, a puppet rock musical and a Hollywood film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Inspired in part by “The Technology of Orgasm,” a fascinating book by technology historian Rachel Maines, the play is based in historical fact. The vibrator was indeed one of the first electrical devices invented, preceding the vacuum cleaner and iron by almost a decade (an interesting note on Victorian priorities). The vibrator’s power was first harnessed in physicians’ offices in the late 19th century as treatment for hysteria, which at the time was thought to affect as much as three-quarters of the female population.

Why was there such a proliferation of hysterical diagnoses during this time period? The clinical definition of hysteria had expanded over the centuries to include a growing list of complaints during the Victorian era: anxiety, restlessness, retention of fluids, insomnia, heaviness of the abdomen, irritability, shortness of breath, erotic fantasies, the urge to masturbate, depression, weepiness and a general “tendency to cause trouble.” Clearly these “pathological” behaviors have a complicated relationship with female sexuality. With a modern understanding, we might view these symptoms as the normal functioning of a female hormonal cycle, PMS, post-partum depression, or sexual frustration.

Though hysteria was originally thought to be a disease originating in the uterus, it eventually came to be diagnosed in men, further confusing the relationship between pathology and social expectations of gender behavior.

It’s no wonder then, that Victorian physicians declared hysteria an epidemic during their time, a period notorious for sexual repression. The invention of the vibrator revolutionized treatment of the disorder, providing both relief for patients and ease of treatment as well as a steady source of income for the physicians who treated this chronic affliction.

The history of hysteria as a disease paradigm and the intervention of technology in its treatment raise valuable questions about our attitudes towards sexuality today. How does the medical community today view the relationship between sexuality and psychological health? How do we form our current attitudes towards acceptable sexual expression, and how does our consumption of media and technology inform these attitudes?

These will be some of the questions engaged by the WorldCanvass panel and the University Theatre production of the play.

Jenni Page-White is a second-year graduate student in Dramaturgy and serves as the production dramaturg for “In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).”