Wombs in Bloom: a 19th Century Medical Tale

“Womb furie,” the notion that women suffer from a sickness—eventually dubbed “hysteria”—due to their wombs wandering angrily through their bodies, looking for trouble, dates back to the era of Hippocrates (circa 460 B.C. to circa 370 B.C.) and was used as a viable catchall diagnosis for women’s physical, emotional, and psychological problems until well into the 20th century.

“At the moment of orgasm, [the womb] gripped the windpipe, causing the breathless panting so familiar to watchers of When Harry Met Sally,” scientist Vivienne Parry wrote in a 2008 article for the London Times. Hippocrates, she explains, thought a blockage in the womb caused symptoms of nervousness, fluid retention, insomnia, and lack of appetite, though Galen, a second-century Greek physician, claimed it was caused by “sexual deprivation, particularly in passionate women, and was noted in nuns, virgins, widows, and occasionally in married women whose husbands were not up to the job.” 

In Victorian times, the recommended treatment for hysteria was manual stimulation of the patient’s vulva to “hysterical paroxysm”—better known these days as orgasm—by the doctor in recurring in-office sessions. The procedure wasn’t considered sexual, though this insistence on the medical/scientific distance of the doctors and the radical disconnect of the diagnosis from women’s psychology or sexuality might seem disingenuous, at worst, or naïve, at best, to us in 2011. Allowing women such little agency over their own minds and bodies—they were aggressively discouraged from experimenting with manual stimulation on their own or questioning a doctor’s diagnosis—set up an open invitation into the pocket books of hysterical patients. In an interview with The New York Times, Rachel P. Maines, author of the definitive The Technology of Orgasm, said that because hysteria was considered a chronic, incurable disease, “the patient had to go to the doctor regularly. She didn’t die. She was a cash cow.” Not to mention that it was believed that up to 75 percent of all women were hysterical. Manual stimulation could take hours. Apparently, it was a particularly distasteful activity for doctors. The invention of the battery-driven vibrator in the early 1880s, soon after powered by electricity, sped up this process considerably, and doctors were much relieved.  

Award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl takes on this bygone era in In the Next Room, or “the vibrator play,” which opens Friday, March 4, presented by Santa Fe Performing Arts. Directed by W. Nicholas Sabato, the provocative farce centers on the home and medical practice of Dr. Givings (played in this production by Shawn Wayne King), a 19th-century doctor of hysterical women; his wife, Catherine (Megan Burns); and their relationships with his patients and staff.

In the Next Room had its premiere in 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and was published in late 2010. “I’d been hearing about the play for a while and found the subject matter riveting, so I was just chomping for it to get published so I could actually read it,” said Sabato, who has served as executive director of Santa Fe Performing Arts since the mid-1990s. Originally from New York, he attended the College of Santa Fe and has done theater in Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including at the well-known Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Illinois, where Ruhl, who is from Wilmette, Illinois, spent some time as a teenager. Ruhl went on to study writing at Brown University and was mentored by playwright Paula Vogel. Ruhl, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, is considered one of today’s most exciting young writers of new theatrical work. She is known for writing characters in a pre-Freudian manner, which means that the actors rely more on emotions presented on the page than on doing extensive work on the background and psychology of the characters.  “As actors, we strive to be present, and Freud is all about reflecting on the past,” Sabato said. “Ruhl’s work is present, so it demands the actors to be present. Sometimes when you work on a character that has many psychological aspects and you do all this research, it separates you from the actual craft-work of being in the moment. In life we don’t think about what we’re going to say next, and as actors we should strive for that as well. Ruhl’s work creates a vehicle for that.”

In the Next Room addresses myriad themes that are as relevant today as they were in the 1880s, including love, lust, passion, jealousy, the mind-body connection, the reality of women’s lives in the face of social structures and expectations, and the existential ennui of the upper classes, sometimes at the expense of those lower on the ladder of societal power. When a patient, Mrs. Daldry (Jody Hegarty) arrives for treatment in the company of her husband (John Rochester), Dr. Givings tells his wife to hide, as though her presence is so unwarranted as to be an embarrassment. Then, after a brief consultation about symptoms, in which Mrs. Daldry speaks of the weekly chores—the curtains, of being too tired to beat the ghosts out of them—and Mr. Daldry reminisces about the girl he first met versus the woman his wife has become, Dr. Givings reassures him: “You wife is suffering from hysteria. It is a very clear case. I recommend therapeutic electrical massage—weekly—possibly daily, we shall see—sessions. We need to relieve the pressure of her nerves. You will soon have your blooming wife back, she will regain her color, light and cold will no longer have the same effect on her. You will soon be wondering how it is that Mrs. Daldry looks so much like a 17 year old.” In the casting notes, Ruhl describes Mrs. Daldry as being in her early 30s—an age far removed from the teen years, especially at a time of early marriage and mortality, before the advent of penicillin and giving birth in hospitals. The farcical nature of the play prompts certain questions, including: Were medical orgasms a direct precursor to plastic surgery for women in a society that still often prioritizes what women seem like and whether or not this outward image is pleasing to others rather than who they actually are? 

After experiencing the treatment for the first time, Mrs. Givings has a chance conversation with a male patient, an artist who cannot paint. He is an open-minded fellow, and Mrs. Givings fairly begs him to stop chitchatting about the weather and speak to her honestly: “We talk, we talk, and we surround ourselves with plants, with teapots, with little statuettes to give ourselves the feeling of home, of permanency, as if with enough heavy objects, perhaps the world won’t shatter into a million pieces, perhaps the house will not fly away, but I have experienced something to shatter a statuette, to shatter an elephant. Here is my riddle: What is a thing that can put a man to death and also bring him back to life again. Will you answer?” 

This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 03/04/2011