Pamela Weaponized

The final scene in Martin Crimp’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: Twelve Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela turns on the question of what the journalist Gemma Hartley’s recent book calls emotional labor. “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up” reads the headline atop the excerpt published in Harper’s Bazaar, and after describing the cascade of domestic disasters that ensue when she asks her husband to take over not just household chores but the responsibility for those chores, Hartley considers why it’s so difficult to tell one’s spouse that one wants not to micromanage housework oneself but rather to work alongside “a partner with equal initiative:”

My husband, despite his good nature and admirable intentions, still responds to criticism in a very patriarchal way. Forcing him to see emotional labor for the work it is feels like a personal attack on his character. If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out—reminding him of his family’s birthdays, carrying in my head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit the kids when we go out, keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry—he would take it as me saying, “Look at everything I’m doing that you’re not. You’re a bad person for ignoring me and not pulling your weight.”

Fuller awareness of the gendered dimensions of domestic workload inequity doesn’t seem to eliminate the problem; I am slightly sick of hearing about it, but I am even more sick of being female, because that does indeed doom me to excessive quantities of emotional and domestic caretaking.

Titled “When It Comes to Picnics,” the final variation in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other opens as follows:

Woman (smiles): What?

Man (smiles): Oh – just about this picnic.

Woman: And?

Man: Nothing, nothing – it’s simply that whenever we have a picnic I make all the food and I also get the children ready. It takes me quite a lot of time and of course I’m not saying I’m resentful but for some reason I get the impression I’m being judged.

Is Crimp satirizing the typically female “emotional labor” argument, or destabilizing its certainties by showing the interchangeability of the parts with a view to breaking down the gendered division of labor? Hard to say. He certainly isn’t depicting an unnamed couple who have reversed the conventional gender roles. It’s just that in the idiom he’s developed over many years of writing for the theater, words tend to get allocated in unexpected ways. Here, Woman is “playing” Man and Man takes on Woman’s role. In Crimp’s earlier play Attempts on Her Life (1997), lines aren’t attributed to individual characters at all, and the playwright only instructs that it’s “a piece for a company of actors whose composition should reflect the composition of the world beyond the theatre;” in the script for The Country (2000), which casts three actors in the parts of Richard, Corinne and Rebecca, speeches aren’t assigned to named characters, although it is always clear whose words they must be.

Crimp likes to make his audiences more rather than less aware that role and character need not remain consistently aligned, and one riveting strand of the play’s spectacle involves watching the roles of Man and Woman pass back and forth between Stephen Dillane and Cate Blanchett, with shifts signaled by exchanges of clothing (the well-tailored suit, the French maid’s outfit with its pornographic associations) as well as by an actor picking up a mode of speech and body language we have learned to associate with their character’s cross-gender counterpart. Blanchett’s rangy height and lean, broad-shouldered figure are particularly effective here, and so is the magic of the transition of her voice and demeanor into that of Dillane’s Man, an unpleasantly privileged member of Britain’s elite whose accent and delivery would cause most of us to bristle if we encountered him in real life.

When word of this production started to spread in one of my preferred little corners of the internet, which is to say the Facebook group called Eighteenth-Century Questions Online (it includes close to eight hundred scholars interested in the literature and culture of eighteenth-century Britain), the idea that a major contemporary playwright was actually writing an adaptation of Richardson’s novel about a servant whose master sexually threatens her seemed literally incredible. Many of us teach this novel regularly, and write about it, but it can’t be said to have much of a following in the world at large; we knew we all desperately wanted to see it, but we didn’t figure there would be a serious run on tickets.

That all changed when the National Theatre announced that Blanchett would play the female lead, rendering my subsequent blundering attempts to obtain a ticket almost comically ineffectual. The show was scheduled for the Dorfman, the National Theatre’s smallest stage, and audience interest far exceeded the organization’s projections. First they announced that aspiring audience members would have to enter a lottery even to get the opportunity to purchase a pair of tickets, and the odds of that lottery were tough enough that neither I nor any of my other eighteenth-centuryist colleagues got tickets through it; press tickets (yes, I tried!) were reserved for national media exclusively; and when I checked in January, just after the show opened, all the online swap sites were full of people desperately begging for tickets, with not a single one up for grabs.

I was going to London anyway. I was halfway through a year in Paris as a research fellow at Columbia University’s new Institute for Ideas and Imagination, and I needed to examine the manuscript drafts of the memoirs of the historian Edward Gibbon at the British Library as well as visiting the Imperial War Museum to photograph two hand-made posters my Scottish grandfather created to advertise the theatrical productions he produced (admission: one cigarette) in the Italian prisoner-of-war camp to which he was transferred after having been captured at Tobruk. I thought it was still worth making the attempt to get day tickets for Crimp’s play, as the theatre sets aside about forty for each performance. Because I am a true obsessive with an unusual degree of persistence, I went so far as to book myself into the Premier Inn near Waterloo, as opposed to its more convenient Kings Cross counterpart, so that if I had to go and wait in line more than once it would not be too gruesomely horrible to drag myself out of bed in the dark hours of the morning and over to the box office on the South Bank.

So the box office only opened at 9:30am. How early would I need to be there? I am clearly too old to go and wait really early, 3:30 or 4am early, but further internet delving (the show was now in the third week of its run, with media coverage mainly centering on the fact that the production had so much blood and guts that an audience member had fainted the first week) suggested that as long as I claimed a place in the queue before eight, I would probably be OK. It was a cold rainy morning, and though anxiety woke me up around 6:45, it was at least an hour later before I actually joined the line of seven or eight wielding propitiatory black umbrellas and silver thermoses. At this juncture, I relaxed a little, and I calmed down even more at eight when the security guard unexpectedly let us into the building.

It was supremely English. We were told courteously that we could use the toilets, and offered chairs to sit on as long as we promised to put them back afterwards; when a relative latecomer (8:43am) arrived on elbow crutches, a second security guard actually went so far as to fetch him a chair personally. I exchanged pleasantries with a personable young man who took the place after me in line; a New Zealander completing an MA degree in directing, he was cramming in as much live theatre as he could during a brief London visit. As it happened the seats we chose turned out to be next to each other as well, so that in the evening we greeted each other as old friends. It was a classic “you put your chocolate in my peanut butter” situation, to quote the old Reese’s commercial: my seatmate knew a great deal about Martin Crimp’s dramaturgy and nothing at all about Richardson, whereas I had boundless Richardson lore to impart and (at that juncture) a near-total ignorance of Crimp’s body of work.

My Pamela, when I teach or write about Richardson’s novel, is the Pamela of resistance. I don’t care whether or not my students read much (any?) of the dreadful parts that follow Pamela’s acceptance of Mr. B’s marriage proposal. I refuse to foreground the fact that Pamela voluntarily marries her would-be rapist, or that the main work (the deluded and delusory work!) of the rest of the novel is retrospectively to redeem all that was violent, coercive, troubling in the relationship between the two. Before that, in the first few hundred pages, Richardson has brilliantly conveyed the moment-by-moment consciousness of a young woman under constant threat from the sexual predator who employs her. Here’s an early scene from the novel that always especially fixes my attention. Mr. B. kisses Pamela’s lips and says, “Whoever blamed Lucretia? All the shame lay on the ravisher only and I am content to take all the blame upon me, as I have already borne too great a share for what I have not deserved.” Pamela offers an effective rejoinder—“May I, said I, Lucretia like, justify myself with my death, if I am used barbarously!”—but her employer taunts her in response by noting that she is well-read and suggesting that together they will make out “a pretty story in romance”:

He then put his hand in my bosom, and indignation gave me double strength, and I got loose from him by a sudden spring, and ran out of the room! and the next chamber being open, I made shift to get into it, and threw to the door, and it locked after me; but he followed me so close, he got hold of my gown, and tore a piece off, which hung without the door; for the key was on the inside.

I just remember I got into the room; for I knew nothing further of the matter till afterwards; for I fell into a fit with my terror, and there I lay, till he, as I suppose, looking through the key-hole, spyed me upon the floor, stretched out at length, on my face; and then he called Mrs. Jervis to me, who, by his assistance, bursting open the door, he went away, seeing me coming to myself; and bid her say nothing of the matter, if she was wise.

The initial paragraph is exquisitely intense, the physical detail (the fabric of the dress trapped in the door, the extruding piece actually torn off by Mr. B) vividly underlining the real physical threat embodied in the pursuit. The final paragraph is in some ways even more ambitious, though it is executed with a degree of clumsiness; the phrase “as I suppose” shows us that the problem of the disorienting point-of-view shift—and of how to handle the break in Pamela’s consciousness given that she is our sole narrator—has at least registered with Richardson, but the effort it takes to reconcile third-person knowledge with the first-person epistolary mode shows when Mrs. Jervis has to be established as a second eyewitness, one who has told Pamela what she saw so that the details of her testimony can be reasonably incorporated into Pamela’s own account of the sequence.

In Crimp’s play, Pamela is a concept or a persona rather than a character as such. Man has weaponized the part of Pamela, but Woman is equally capable of calling forth Pamela to wound Man and even perhaps to overpower him. These are the play’s opening words, spoken by Man (the set is a cluttered garage, parked car and all, and against this naturalistic background the stylized and bizarre nature of the human proceedings becomes even more pronounced): “Let’s face it, Pamela: you’re a child—and I’m a man. I have power and you have none. I could lock all the doors now and strip you naked—but I’m giving you the chance to come to me of your own free will.” Crimp’s Pamela (the novel, not the character) is read retroactively through the screen of Sade’s tortured heroines, the most logical culmination of the line of representation that begins in Richardson’s less sophisticated drama of female pain. Crimp builds, too, from the emptying-out of character on the stage pursued by Ionesco and Becket and then taken over by experimental fiction; the text I was reminded of most often over the course of the evening was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s brilliant Project for a Revolution in New York, a favorite novel of my teenage years and a close intellectual and tonal equivalent for When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other.

Why Pamela? I had thought of it as a puzzle that seeing the play would let me solve, but that was quite mistaken. Crimp’s audiences leave the theater with questions rather than answers. The critic Aleks Sierz quotes Crimp saying in an interview, “Writing is an investigation, a pushing back of barriers. I believe that’s how you discover things.” The erotic charge between Man and Woman is augmented rather than precluded by the venomous dislike they mostly manifest for one another, a spectacle as gripping as it is uncomfortable to watch, but there is one very beautiful exception to the play’s prevailing vitriol. As Mrs. Jewkes, Jessica Gunning presents an alternative to the poison of the play’s primary heterosexual relationship. Gunning has a beauty of face and voice whose sweetness has the power of neutralizing the cruelty of Man and Woman’s interactions with one another.

One of the peculiarities of Richardson’s novel is the redundancy with which the novelist creates not one but two estates in which Pamela is immured by Mr. B., not one but two housekeepers to supervise her imprisonment. The first housekeeper is Mrs. Jervis, a kind older woman who is devastated to have to obey Mr. B’s orders; the second is Mrs. Jewkes, hideous, masculine and possessing a quasi-lesbian passion for Pamela (Pamela to Mrs. Jewkes, who has squeezed Pamela’s hand and offered to kiss her – this is Richardson, not Crimp: “I don’t like this sort of carriage, Mrs. Jewkes; it is not like two persons of one sex”) that is entirely compatible with her role as Mr. B’s chief henchperson. In a blog 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 was played by a man in drag, with the actor’s real-life wife playing his more feminine counterpart Mrs. Jervis.

The Mrs. Jewkes embodied on this stage is nothing like Richardson’s. She is in love with Woman, it seems, or rather with “Pamela,” with whom she has slept in a bed for many nights as part of the surveillance Man levels on the female protagonist. Over a lovely slow scene, Mrs. Jewkes gently tries to seduce Woman even as she prepares her mistress to don the inevitable wedding dress. And variation eleven, titled “Epithalamium or The Girl Who Loves the Bride” (a epithalamium is a poem or song that precedes a marriage), is like nothing else in the play.

It is a simple song, sweet and haunting. Gunning’s voice is as lovely as her face. Both her beauty and her fat body are written into the script: and how often are we so fortunate as to see a fat and beautiful young woman in a major role on stage? The funny little song Mrs. Jewkes sings serves as the aesthetic and moral eye of the play’s hurricane, and its words are as banal as they are moving: “This is just a little love song / from the girl who loves the bride: / I hope that you’ll be happy / but can’t say I’ve not cried and cried.” Her pain feels more real than anything in the flashy bloody altercations that have gone before, and Crimp finally doesn’t withhold a sweeter, more old-fashioned emotional stimulus from an audience battered by the deliberately meaningless violence it has also witnessed.*

Jenny Davidson is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Jenny writes about eighteenth-century literature and culture; other interests include British cultural and intellectual history and the contemporary novel in English. She is the author of four novels, and she has published two books about eighteenth-century literature. Her Reading Style: A Life in Sentences was published in 2014, and her latest book of criticism is Reading Jane Austen. Jenny is currently at work on a short book about how Edward Gibbon came to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, among other long-term projects.

*Martin Crimp’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: Twelve Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela ran from 16 January to 2 March 2019 on the Dorfman stage at the National Theatre, London. The printed playtext is available from Faber & Faber. Aleks Sierz’s The Theatre of Martin Crimp (London: Methuen, 2006) provided useful orientation as I came to grips with this material.

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