August 28, 2008

Mary Shelley Meets Frankenstein

On this day, August 28, in 1823, on the eve of her twenty-sixth birthday, young Mary Shelley attended a performance of Presumption, or The Fate of Frankenstein, the first play based on her novel.

Mary had arrived in London just three days earlier, having lived in Italy for a whole year since her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had drowned there in August 1822. That she fairly rushed to see the play, so soon after a grueling trip, speaks to curiosity no doubt amplified by the astounding popularity of the work. “Lo and behold,” she wrote, “I found myself famous!

Presumption had opened a month earlier, July 28, to immediate success, and inevitable controversy. Morality groups passed out handbills calling the play immoral, impious, horrid and unnatural. Man creating man was a blasphemous concept — one London paper called it “an attack on Christian faith” — and improper entertainment for God fearing folks, but the crowds came (and apparently escaped with their souls intact), making the unusual melodrama a summer sensation. Soon, the company would be forced to move from the English Opera House to a larger theater.

Critics praised the actors. The London Morning Post reported that James William Wallack as Frankenstein, “displayed great feeling and animation”, and T.P.Cooke, the handsome actor who transformed himself into the leering Monster, “well pourtrays what indeed it is a proof of his extraordinary genius so well to pourtray—an unhappy being without the pale of nature—a monster—a nondescript—a horror to himself and others”.

Mary agreed. She commented in letters on the actors, especially Cooke for playing the unnamed Monster “extremely wellHis seeking as it were for support, his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard, all indeed he does was well imagined and executed.

Mary must have been impressed, as well. The creation scene, featuring elaborate stage effects, would still thrill today…

A blue flame appears at the small lattice window above, as from the laboratory.

FRANK. (Within.) It lives! it lives!

FRITZ. There’s a hob – hob-goblin, 20 feet high! wrapp’d in a mantle – mercy – mercy –

Sudden combustion heard, and smoke issues, the door of the laboratory breaks to pieces with a loud crash – red fire within.

FRITZ. Oh – Oh. (Runs out hastily)

Music. The Demon discovered at door entrance in smoke, which evaporates – the red flame continues visible. The Demon advances forward, breaks through the balustrade or railing of gallery immediately facing the door of laboratory, jumps on the table beneath, and from thence leaps on the stage, stands in attitude before Frankenstein, who had started up in terror; they gaze for a moment at each other.

FRANK. The demon corpse to which I have given life!

Music. – The Demon looks at Frankenstein most intently, approaches him with gestures of conciliation. Frankenstein retreats, the Demon pursuing him. Its unearthly ugliness renders it too horrible for human eyes! [The Demon approaches him.]

FRANK. Fiend! do not dare approach me – avaunt, or dread the fierce vengeance of my arm wrecked on your miserable head –

Music. – Frankenstein takes the sword from the nail, points with it at the Demon, who snatches the sword, snaps it in two and throws it on stage. The Demon then seizes Frankenstein – loud thunder heard – throws him violently on the floor, ascends the staircase, opens the large window, and disappears through the casement. Frankenstein remains motionless on the ground. – Thunder and lightning until the drop falls.

Equally spectacular was the grand finale where Frankenstein confronts the Demon on a snowy peak, pistol fire triggering a murderous avalanche of stage boulders and fake snow.

For all the changes made to her story, the songs inserted, characters mixed up (Clerval marries Elizabeth, and Frankenstein is betrothed to Agatha DeLacey), Mary seemed genuinely happy with the play, writing, “I was much amused, and it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience”.

Playwright Richard Brinsley Peake had reduced the novel to its simplest argument and his work became the template for subsequent adaptations, including the films made a century later. It is Peake’s version, not Mary Shelley’s original that, even today, most people are familiar with. Gone is the Arctic framing sequence. The Monster is made mute. The story focuses on a spectacular creation sequence, The Monster escapes at large, a child is menaced, a wedding day is ruined, and Frankenstein pursues his creation to final confrontation. Peake even introduced the character of Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz, as comic relief.

In a direct connection with the James Whale film of 1931, T.P.Cooke’s name was replaced by an empty space on the playbill, much like Boris Karloff’s name was replaced by a question mark in the film’s opening titles. Mary loved it: “The playbill amused me extremely… This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good.

The success of Presumption was such that rival versions quickly proliferated. A parody called Humpgumption premiered on September first, followed by a drama called Frankenstein; or, The Demon of Switzerland. By October, even Peake got in on it with a broad farce of his own, Another Piece of Presumption, featuring a climactic avalanche of cabbages and cauliflowers. By year’s end, five different Frankenstein plays had appeared. Yet another version played New York in 1825, and T.P.Cooke caused a sensation with his blue-skinned Monster in Paris, in 1826.

Copyright laws were very rudimentary at the time and books were turned into plays without permission asked or royalties due. Authors could profit indirectly by issuing new editions of their books. Even so, Mary’s new Frankenstein reprint had to compete with Peake’s published play (see illustration at top), its cover showing the now famous creation scene. Peake’s book, in turn, was plagiarized in 1825 by a cheaply done, anonymously written novel called The Monster Made by Man; or The Punishment of Presumption.

Richard Brinsley Peake’s theatrical adaptation ignited a Frankenstein frenzy. Five years after her Frankenstein was first published, five long and terrible years darkened by unimaginable personal tragedies, Mary Shelley was in attendance that Friday night, in the Strand, as a triumphant witness to the nascent popularity of her creation.

Resource: The excellent Presumption pages edited by Stephen C. Behrendt on Romantic Circles, featuring the complete text of the play. Click around to read wonderful biographies of all the actors, and early newspaper reviews.

Cover of R.B.Peake's book from Frankenstein, A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock. 

Related Posts:
The First Monster: T.P.Cooke
Happy Birthday, Mary Shelley


AndyDecker said...

Great reading. I always assumed that Hollywood was the culprit for introducing things like Fritz and generally dumbing the story down.

Professor Pepper said...

Great article. Up until now I hadn't been able to find that much on the Peake play, although I have held one of the original 'Dick's Standard Plays' Frankensteins in my own fair hands. Slightly odd that the 'monster' has a rather intriguing feminine look to him! Have you ever come across one for sale or is the image from your own copy?