July 28, 2008

The First Monster: T.P.Cooke

It was on this day 185 years ago — 28 July, 1823 — that the first performance of the first Frankenstein play was given in London. The first actor to ever play Frankenstein’s Monster was T.P.Cooke.

Thomas Potter Cooke, born in 1786, served in the Royal Navy as a boy. He was still a teenager when he quit the sea and embarked on a stage career that, over a span of 56 years, would make him one of the most popular actors of his century. His specialties were monsters and sailors.

In what seems like an endless repertoire of nautical dramas, Cooke became known as “the sailor of the British stage”. His heroic sea-farers so captured the popular imagination that, according to Maura L. Cronin, “the actor became the embodiment of a ‘national son', a patriotic figure with cross-class appeal.” His success was such that it inspired early forms of merchandizing. Fans could purchase colored engravings or porcelain figurines of the actor posing in sailor roles such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Long Tom Coffin. Yet, in an era when actors embraced typecasting as a ticket to fame, Cooke boldly jumped genres and enjoyed equal success playing supernatural villains.

In August 1820, Cooke took on the part of Lord Ruthven, Polidori’s Vampyre, first imagined by Lord Byron on that fateful stay at the Villa Diodati that provoked Mary Shelley into writing Frankenstein. Cooke dressed his Ruthven in a silver breastplate, a kilt, sandals and a feathered hat. A vanishing trick using a puff of smoke and a breakneck trap door caused a sensation. After his 1823 Frankenstein, Cooke would play Vanderdecken, the “Balzacian, diabolical genius… a half-living, half-dead, rational lunatic” (J.Q.Davies, The Opera Quarterly, 2005) in the 1826 production of The Flying Dutchman; or, the Phantom Ship, penned by the notorious “Fitzball”, Edward Ball. The New York Times reported that a ghostly magic lantern effect in this one was “a marvel of stage illusion”. Back in 1823, the winning illusion of Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein was Cooke himself.

As The Monster, Cooke wore a wig of wild hair, a tight-fitting tunic, and exposed skin colored a light blue. In various reviews, Cooke’s face is said to have been white, blue or a pale green. A fellow actor, William Oxburry, wrote that “T.P.Cooke gave the charnel house monster a green, putrescent hue.”

Confusion about Cooke’s exact facial coloring would persist (it could have changed over his numerous returns to the part), but reviewers were unanimous in praise of Cooke’s performance. The London Morning Post report was typical: “T.P.Cooke 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… Too much cannot be said in praise of T.P.Cooke, his development of first impressions, and naturally perceptions, is given with a fidelity to nature truly admirable. Take for instance the pourtraiture of his first sensations on hearing music, than which nothing can be finer.

The music scene, often praised, was an inspired piece of pantomime where The Monster, hearing a flute, snatches at the empty air and holds his fists to his ears. Mary Shelley herself, attending the play in late August, was delighted with this. Cooke’s Monster was mute, and his whole performance relied on what was then called “dumb show”.

The most memorable scene in the play would be The Monster’s spectacular entrance, stumbling out of the laboratory and crashing through a high balustrade to the ground to confront a dagger-wielding Frankenstein. Oxburry recalled, “What can be more dreadful than his manner of walking against the balustrade…

An engraving (reproduced at top) immortalized the scene. It shows The Monster in streaming light, towering over its disarmed creator, the sword snapped in half. We get a fair idea of The Monster’s toga-like costume, but the face is an idealized portrait of the actor, not a representation of his Monster who, reviewers said, had a shriveled, ghastly complexion with straight black lips. Images of Cooke in his numerous roles are all more or less the same (see a large selection here). He always appears dead center in an operatic pose, legs wide apart, arms raised, dressed in different costumes but, for all the different hats, wigs or occasional whiskers, the face is always the same, natural and recognizable.

The play was a phenomenal success. It quickly moved to a larger theater to accommodate the crowds, and copycat versions were hitting London stages within a month. By year’s end, five different versions — including burlesque parodies — had been fielded. Over the next three years, no less than fourteen versions were staged in England, France and America. In a revival of Peake’s version, actor Richard John O. Smith, a reliable stage villain who had often played the dastardly pirate to Cooke’s noble sailors, would inherit the part and, in turn, achieve a degree of fame as The Monster, though not as indelibly as T.P.Cooke.

In July 1826, Cooke traveled to Paris to appear in a new version of the story, Le Monstre et le magicien, at La Porte Saint-Martin. James Robinson Planché, recalled, “his success was so great that “monstre bleu”, the color he painted himself, became the fashion of the day in Paris.” Blue or green, color confusion continued as Le Journal des Débats reported, “we saw with pleasure that the monster, so frightening with his green skin and counselor’s wig, had very good manners…”. In England, Punch noted that Cooke was “the original Monster in Frankenstein — and a very original monster, too, who made a furore in Paris, and gave the color to gloves, Vert de monstre (monster green)”.

In an October 1853 article, The Illustrated London News calculated that T.P.Cooke had portrayed The Monster 365 times, “a whole year in the company of the Monster”. The writer recalled Cooke’s Monster as “that shape-less, sightless, speechless, mass of movement without thought, that glides forward rather than walks”. Cooke’s unique approach to supernatural roles was praised: “Others played ghosts and demons with unquestionable success; but how mechanically, and solidly… It was he who first infused them with a true poetic element – gave them a dreamy indistinctness – a vague suggestive shadow, which, while it chained the sense, set the imagination loose… proof of how art – which is so powerful in giving beauty its due force – can even serve to redeem the gross, and throw a charm over the appalling!

T.P.Cooke and his Monster are forgotten now, but Cooke’s performance was, for a time, the unavoidable influence, the template for Frankenstein’s Monster. You can still see a reference to it in Charles Ogle’s wild Monster of the Edison Company’s Frankenstein film, in 1910.

For a century, no less, Cooke’s Frankenstein Monster was an image as pervasive and iconic as the flattop and bolts version of Boris Karloff, in Jack Pierce’s makeup, is to us, today.


A detailed remembrance of T.P.Cooke, by Maura L. Cronin.

Text of the play, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, and the first reviews.


rob! said...

its posts like this that earned you that "scholarly frankenstein" honor!

ariadne said...

Please check out Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein, a new novel by Molly Dwyer on the life of Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein. It won the 2008 Indie book award for Historical Fiction. http://www.mollydwyer.com