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The tortures of adapting Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’

The term “bestseller” is a bit of a stretch for the eighteenth century, when books were expensive (though widely shared), and information about print-runs is hard to come by. But if any early novel deserves the title, it’s Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, which on publication in 1740 rapidly caught the imagination of Britain, Europe, and indeed America (the Philadelphia printing by Benjamin Franklin was the first unabridged American edition of any novel).

The author of this innovative novel was a leading London printer, and also, it turned out, a brilliant ventriloquist, with an unrivalled understanding of audience tastes and desires in the marketplace for print. Narrated in the voice of its teenage protagonist, Richardson’s tale of a virtuous servant girl who strenuously resists the advances of her predatory master had something for every kind of reader. It was, as Ian Watt wrote in The Rise of the Novel (1957), “a work that gratified the reading public with the combined attractions of a sermon and a striptease.” It was also a work of ground-breaking psychological complexity in which, as Pamela’s persecutor Mr. B at last admits as the plot nears its scandalous conclusion of inter-class marriage, “we have sufficiently tortur’d one another.”

These words supply the title of Martin Crimp’s new play When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, which opens at the Dorfman Theatre (the most intimate of the National Theatre’s three auditoria) on January 16th. The play looks to Richardson’s novel for a fresh take on the conflicts of the #MeToo era. Crimp is only the most recent in a long line of playwrights to have exploited Pamela creatively—or sometimes, as Richardson saw it, merely cynically. One mark of the book’s bestseller status is the number of adaptations and other appropriations it inspired at the time: dramatizations, versifications, commentaries, parodies, sequels. You could visit a display of Pamela waxworks, flutter a fan engraved with Pamela scenes, cheer on Pamela horses at the Newmarket races—and all in an age that knew nothing of merchandizing rights. As a friend wryly commiserated with Richardson, the novel had been of great and lucrative service to his “brethren” in the book trade: “witness the Labours of the press in Piracies, in Criticisms, in Cavils, in Panegyrics, in Supplements, in Imitations, in Transformations, in Translations, &c, beyond anything I know of.”

Pamela lent itself especially well to the theatre, in part because of the novel’s epistolary form. One strength of letter-narration in Richardson’s hands was the intimate access it gave to the minute-by-minute flux of consciousness as crisis unfolded in an ongoing present. Another was the dramatic immediacy and vivid colloquial dialogue with which Pamela represented her encounters with Mr. B and other characters, including his “man-like” housekeeper Mrs. Jewkes, who leers greedily at Pamela’s body with her “dead, spiteful, grey, goggling Eye.”

Inevitably, Mrs. Jewkes was played by a man in the earliest stage adaptation by Henry Giffard, which also featured (as Mr B.’s young kinsman Jack Smatter) the rising star actor David Garrick, fresh from his breakthrough role as Richard III. Comic versions took a cue from Henry Fielding’s hilarious satire Shamela (1741), which turned Pamela into a devious social climber (“After having made a pretty free Use of my Fingers, without any great Regard to the Parts I attack’d, I counterfeit a Swoon’) and Mr. B into her dupe and target Squire Booby (“I have destroy’d her … Speak to me, my Love, I will melt my self into Gold for thy Pleasure”). The farces were still going strong a decade later, when A Dramatic Burlesque of Two Acts, Call’d Mock–Pamela: or, a Kind Caution to Country Coxcombs, Interspers’d with Ballads was performed in 1750 at Dublin’s Smock-Alley Theatre. Mock–Pamela survives today in just one known copy.

There were also adaptations by major continental playwrights, notably Voltaire with his three-act version Nanine (1749) at the Comédie française, and Carlo Goldoni with his more faithful Pamela nubile, which opened in Mantua in 1750 before a long and successful run in Venice. Goldoni later produced a sequel, Pamela maritata (1760). Perhaps the social and sexual charge of Richardson’s novel was eroded as it entered the cultural landscape as a fashionable play. But Pamela was always a lightning rod for anxieties about class mobility, and Goldoni made the defensive move of making Richardson’s plebeian heroine turn out, in a convenient last-gasp revelation, to be of noble birth all along. That was not the end of the problem, however.

When François de Neufchâteau’s Paméla, ou la vertu récompensée, a version modelled on Goldoni’s, was premiered in Paris at the height of the French Revolution in 1793, the Committee of Public Safety shut down the production. It was allowed to reopen when Neufchâteau restored Pamela’s original peasant identity, but then closed down again when a Jacobin zealot denounced a speech from the play promoting political and religious toleration (“Point de tolérance politique! c’est un crime!”). This time Neufchâteau and his actors were imprisoned, and the Comédie française went dark. Let’s keep a careful eye on the Dorfman Theatre this month.

Featured image credit: Pamela, 1745 plate. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

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  1. […] post that gives some sense of how often Richardson’s novel has been adapted over the years, Tom Keymer notes that in the most popular contemporary theatrical adaptation—that of Henry Giffard—Mrs. Jewkes […]

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