In 1740, struggling publicist Samuel Richardson wrote a roughly 600-page book, his first original work, entitled “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded,” (colloquially known as “Pamela”), which went on to become a highly influential piece in the eighteenth century literary canon, spawning merchandise, parodies and fan fictions.
“It was huge. Nobody could have expected how huge ‘Pamela’ would become. But it spurred this entire cultural phenomenon,” senior Maddie Mondeaux said. “It was similar to how we talk about ‘Twilight’ now. Everybody was reading it, everybody was talking about it, everybody had opinions on it.”
For the past year, the story of “Pamela” has been a pivotal piece of Mondeaux’s academic career. Since spring term 2014, she has been preparing and working on her senior honors project: writing and directing an original stage adaptation of Richardson’s novel, its first stage adaptation in over 200 years.
“There were several stage adaptations of ‘Pamela’ written around the time that ‘Pamela’ was really big, but they were all comedies, they were all farces,” Mondeaux said. “The last one I believe was staged in France right before the French Revolution and it was actually shut down because it was considered too royalist. The entire cast and crew was arrested and we don’t really know what happened to them.”
Unlike her predecessors, Mondeaux never saw the story of “Pamela” as a farcical one. Rather, she saw the deeply impactful social relevance of the text. She recognized that “Pamela” examined important themes and social issues that remain relevant today. It was the story’s applicability to modern times that inspired her to write her own stage adaptation of the novel after reading it in a literature class.
“The first time I read ‘Pamela’ was in Professor Emily Anderson’s eighteenth century literature class, Virgins and Whores, and I hated it. It was really long and really dense, so I didn’t read the whole thing. But then once we started discussing it in class, I realized that I was really, really interested in the way that the patriarchal structures of eighteenth century society reflected in Pamela could be mapped onto our own society today,” Mondeaux said. “[When] I finished the book, I wanted to do something with it. I wanted to talk to people about this, but I didn’t want to make anyone read this book. I [wanted to] take this into a medium that is more accessible to the modern audience.”
During spring term 2014, Mondeaux began to design her honors project, petitioning the Theatre Department to have her stage adaptation produced in Studio Theatre and commencing the drafting process, a process that lasted from June 2014 to February 2015.
“Everything that happens in the play does happen in the book, and most of the actual lines in the play are directly lifted from the book. There are only a few places where I had to use invention in order to tell the story in a clearer way or to fix the narrative arc,” Mondeaux said. “When you go from one medium to another, the narrative is going to have to shift a little bit in order for the story to make sense.”
To Mondeaux, one important facet of the drafting process was examining the story’s social relevance from a contemporary perspective.
“I focused on the gender dynamics in the book as well as eighteenth century rape culture and how that rape culture maps onto our rape culture,” Mondeaux said. “In my humble opinion, Pamela is blameless. She’s a victim of the society she finds herself trapped in and I really tried to emphasize that in the way that I wrote the piece. I also wanted to spur discussion about the events and about the novel and how can we use the events of Pamela to talk about aspects of rape culture in our society that still happen today. I really wanted to use the story of ‘Pamela’ to bring those issues to light.”
By winter term 2015, Mondeaux’s vision for “Pamela” began coming to fruition. After finalizing her script, she began holding production meetings with designers and by the end of the term, she was holding staged readings with her cast. One important challenge the cast and crew faced during the eight week rehearsal process was the arduous and emotionally draining task of portraying assault and sexual violence on the stage.
“Sexual violence is very hard to stage. There are two scenes in the play that deal with assault. That was difficult for me to write and it was hard for me to strike that balance between what’s theatrically interesting and what is sensitive to victims of sexual violence,” Mondeaux said. “We also talked a lot about it in rehearsals. We would read through the scene and we would stop and talk about it and how to make it safe and sensitive for the actors specifically. Once we started staging it, we just built it up very slowly.”
“Pamela” is set to play in Studio Theatre from Thursday May 7 to Saturday May 9.