Given the play’s title, it is clear that one of the primary themes of In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play is sex. Ruhl attacks questions of sexuality from several vantage points without offering easy solutions to the problems presented. This is most evident in the way Ruhl treats the titular vibrator. Initially, the electric sexual stimulator seems to be the answer to some of the play’s problems. Since Ruhl makes it so clear that the women have little control or understanding of their sexuality, the vibrator represents an important force in their liberation. This shows up most significantly when the women use the vibrator without Dr. Givings. In these moments, the women are literally taking hold of their sexuality outside the control of a man. Deftly, Ruhl changes the meaning of the vibrator as the play progresses, suggesting that it may have serious limits in its ability to empower. By paralleling the women’s struggles with their sexuality with the development of electricity, Ruhl presents the vibrator as the beginning of depersonalizing sex. She also intimates that this depersonalization is initiated by men and indicates a distinct difference in the way the two sexes approach physical intimacy. The climactic tryst between Dr. and Mrs. Givings shows a reconnection between sex and love as well as male and female understandings (and misunderstandings) of sexuality.
Ruhl’s explorations of sex are closely linked to an interrogation of gender roles. Early in the play, Ruhl makes it clear that both Catherine and Sabrina are controlled by their husbands. Dr. Givings’s control is demarcated in the space itself—the titular next room separates his professional (and, Ruhl implies, masculine) world from Catherine’s private domestic one. In addition, Dr. Givings frequently exerts his control over the house by ordering Catherine to different rooms of the house. Yet Ruhl establishes Catherine’s dissatisfaction...
(The entire section is 800 words.)