As much progress society has made in the last century, one question still looms large “what do women want?”
In the Next Room or the vibrator play is at heart, a play about how men and women relate to each other. Dr. Givings is a gynecologist who treats women for “hysteria” in his operating room located just off his living room. His young wife, Catherine (desperately wants to be acknowledged and loved, by him and by her new baby, who she is having trouble producing enough milk to feed. Troubled by the fact that her baby needs a wet nurse and having her husband infatuated with his new science and love of electricity, she is alone and in need of any kind of stimulation.
Mrs. Daldry is brought to see the Doctor by her husband Mr. Daldry who is fed up with her nervousness, sensitivity to light and more importantly, to his touch. As he explains to the Doctor, “There is very little sympathy between us”. Dr. Giving’s assures Mr. Daldry that he and his assistant Annie have been very successful at curing women of their hysteria by inducing a “paroxysm” in them and that soon Mrs. Daldry will be acting like she once was before.
As Dr. Giving’s, Gercke is amusing in his portrayal of an educated man that has no clue what is going on. For a scientist who is interested in observation and figuring out the answers to puzzling questions he completely misses the fact that his wife is slowly withering of loneliness and envy from lack of attention from him. It becomes apparent that even though they have a child, the good doctor has never thought to truly look at and see his wife. At the end of the play, you sense their awkwardness with each other as they truly have a chance to truly look at each other for the first time. He is equally clueless with his patients as he recites stories about Thomas Edison and electrocuting elephants while in the middle of a treatment on a patient.
Personally, I loved this character. Here is an educated man who hasn’t figured out that he knows nothing about what counts, which is mainly everything in his life, including his wife. He is a gynecologist who doesn’t understand women, asking the husband of his patient what is wrong with his wife instead of her. Grated, some of this is the time in which it is set, but the other is that he is a man who observes but doesn’t really seem to see the people around him.
Catherine, who hires a wet nurse for her baby named Elizabeth (finds herself at loose ends with both her baby and her husband occupied. She befriends her husband’s patients as they come and go through her living room and overhears the interesting sounds coming from the next room, and finally succumbs to her curiosity of just what her husband is doing in there. As Catherine, she is funny and energetic in direct contrast to her husbands somber detached scientific approach. Her character is someone the audience can relate too, even with the period setting and societal rules. Who hasn’t wanted to feel loved and involved in their partners life?
As for what’s going on in the next room? The machine that lies at the center of this play looks like a giant cumbersome box on wheels that has a tendency to short out the electricity in the rest of the house. It is more fascinating as the technological advance that it is for the time, alongside the light bulb and the light switch than it is for the “miraculous properties” it might bestow upon the patients.
While the play does not provide all the answers to the infamous question of what women want, it makes it clear that something that would help is that same old answer of “love and attention”, but also shows that a paroxysm or two couldn’t hurt along the way.
This play does have some nudity and adult situations, so it’s probably best to leave the kids (or the more immature) at home.