In olden days a hint of stocking was looked upon as something shocking, but that didn't stop them using electric vibrators to bring women to orgasm -- strictly for medical reasons, of course. That's the premise of New York playwright Sarah Ruhl's new play, which comes to the St James theatre in a production that had its first outing at the Theatre Royal, Bath.
As many of us have discovered, unearthinging a historical fact that forms a great idea for a play isn't enough on its own; you have to tell a story, invent characters and structure it, work out the triangular relationship between the text, the characters and the audience and write good dialogue as well. Making allowances for the fact that this production is still in previews and not fully up to speed, my verdict on the play is a mixed one.
The author's programme note sets out the Thomas Edison flashing lightbulb moment that switched on her desire to create the play: 'I was amazed to find, after reading Rachel Maines' revelatory book The Technology of Orgasm, that many women (and a few men) were treated with electric vibratory massage to ameliorate the symptoms of hysteria. What perhaps stunned me even more was that gynecologists and psychiatrists had used the manual treatment before this remarkable new invention came out, at the dawn of electricity.' Ruhl uses this as a starting point to explore a range of other issues; there are a number of sub-plots involving a sexually voracious English painter, a black wet nurse whose own baby has died, and a nurse who discovers her feelings for other women. The play is deliberately given a binary structure, reflected in the split-level set which shows two rooms simultaneously. Upstairs is the consulting room of Dr Givings, where he puts his new vibrator to work on his patients, and downstairs is the sitting room occupied by his wife Catherine, mother of a young baby who is losing weight because she cannot give it enough milk. Ruhl intelligently takes the division between these two rooms as a metaphor for the 19th century woman's divided self. Sexual frustration and ignorance lead to a complete barrier between the body and the mind, and only the use of the vibrator can break it down. The 'scientific' treatment certainly seems to work for Mrs Daldry, the doctor's patient, whose 'hysteria' vanishes within three minutes of the doctor flicking a switch on his new device. The colour comes back into her cheeks, and inevitably, Catherine gets curious about her husband's magic machine. It's a case of 'I'll have what she's having'. Ruhl writes that after Queen Victoria took the throne, there seemed to be a collective amnesia for a hundred years about female sexuality. I'm a bit sceptical about this, not just because Queen Victoria herself clearly had a very happy sex life with Albert. My guess is that the idea of women enjoing sex was not as rare as all that, but it just wasn't mentioned in public.
Unfortunately, the play seems to meander around a lot and takes a long time to get out of second gear in Laurence Boswell's production. Some of the author's stagecraft is a bit clunky, with too many entrances prompted by characters who have forgotten articles of clothing. The balance between comedy and serious argument is uneven; I found myself wondering what the early Stoppard would have made of this potentially hilarious set-up. One actor -- Natalie Casey in the role of Catherine -- delivers an outstanding performance by taking the risk of boldly seizing the comedic elements of the script. Her quest for what is called in period language a 'paroxysm' is touching and very funny, and she creates real empathy in the audience. This is Catherine's story, or it should be. She's a funnier version of an Ibsen heroine struggling to break free, and her role is by far the best written one. The others are sketchier, and in particular the three male actors seem to be struggling to find the right tone. That's a sign for me that the playwright is much better at creating female characters.
I won't spoil the experience of anyone who intends to see the play by revealing the ending, but I have to say I didn't like the upbeat last scene and felt it should have been gently excised. I don't think this is a story where a happy ending fits plausibly.