According to a handy, modern medical dictionary, a paroxysm is defined as:
- a sudden violent attack, especially a spasm or convulsion, or
- the abrupt worsening of symptoms or recurrence of disease.
In a broad sense, the first definition fits the 1880s meaning in terms of all outward appearances, but that’s not exactly what they meant by the word in those days – at least as it’s used in Sarah Ruhl’s play, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, currently on stage at the Pear Theatre. This work was inspired by Rachel P. Maines‘ research. Maines specializes in the history of technology and accidently discovered an odd connection between medical practice of late 19th century and technological advances in the use of electricity based on ads from numerous American women’s magazines from the era. The new gadget of the time was the precursor to the modern vibrator, and it was used to treat the nebulous, mostly female malady known as “hysteria” through “manipulation of the uterus” resulting in “paroxysms” that were supposed to fix the imbalance. Looking back from the present, it seems far more likely that the symptoms this 19th century device was supposed to treat resulted from taboos surrounding intimacy, ignorance, fiendish fashion norms, gender discrimination, and an extremely patriarchal society. Continue reading