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The Hideous Progenies of Richard Brinsley Peake: Frankenstein on the Stage, 1823 to 1826*

  • Steven Earl Forry (a1)

On 22 July 1823 William Godwin addressed the following in a letter to Mary Shelley, who was returning to London after five years on the Continent:

It is a curious circumstance that a play is just announced, to be performed at the English Opera House in the Strand next Monday, entitled, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein. I know not whether it will succeed. If it does, it will be some sort of feather in the cap of the author of the novel, a recommendation in your future negociations with booksellers.

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1. William Godwin, Letter to Mary Shelley, Huntington Library (HM 11634). I am indebted to Betty Bennett for directing my attention to this letter in her invaluable The Letters of Mary Wollstone-craft Shelley (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1981) i: 372, n. 8. All citations of the letters derive from this edition.

Prior to the present study four books have been published that devote chapters to the dramatizations. They are: Nitchie's, ElizabethMary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1953) 218–31; Glut's, DonaldThe Frankenstein Legend (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1973) 2857; Florescu's, RaduIn Search of Frankenstein (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975) 151–71; and LaValley's, Albert ‘The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein’, in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. Levine, George and Knoepflmacher, U. C. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) 243–89. Nitchie's early study contributes the most essential information on the dramatizations. Gordon Hitchens has written a generally weak and derivative article entitled ‘Breathless Eagerness’, published in Film Comment 6 (1970): 4951.

2. It must also be noted that in 1821 an anonymous French playwright undertook a melodramatization of Shelley's novel entitled Frankenstein; ou, Le Prométhée moderne. Never performed and written in response to the publication in 1821 of the translation of Frankenstein by Jules Saladin, Prométhée may be read in manuscript at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris (Ms. p. fol.,° aoust 1821./A.T. sc Ms carton 8). The play also forms part of an edition of dramatizations of Frankenstein that I am completing at Columbia University. Only one act (six leaves) and the first leaf of act 2 survive, although the drama originally contained three acts. (See Madeleine Horn-Monval, Repértoire Bibliographique des Traductions et Adaptations Françaises du Théâtre Étranger du XVe Siècle à nos Jours (Paris: CNRS, 1958) 5:180.) Unlike the Creatures of the early melodramas, the Creature of this piece speaks articulately, quoting dialogue from Saladin's translation. I remain indebted to M. J.-L. Garreta, Curator of the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, for his assistance in locating this manuscript.

3. An ad on the first page of the Morning Post (23 August) reads: ‘This day is published, in two vols., 12 mo., price 14s. in boards, a New Edition of FRANKENSTEIN; or, The Modern Prometheus. By MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY.’ W. H. Lyles is incorrect when in Mary Shelley: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1975) he indicates that this printing was a ‘reprinting of [the first edition’, using the same plates’ (6). See the descriptive bibliographies of Metzdorf, Robert F.The Tinker Library (New Haven: Yale UP, 1959) 381, and Wise, Thomas J.A Shelley Library (London: privately printed, 1924) 8.

4. In fact, as I write this the Inroads Theatre in Greenwich Village has just completed a two-week trial run of a new musical entitled Have I got a Girl for You: The Frankenstein Musical in preparation for an off-Broadway première in the spring of 1986.

5. I limit the subject of this essay to five melodramatizations of the novel produced between 1823 and 1826 although ten burlesques were also produced during the same period. Whereas the melodramas profoundly affected contemporary and subsequent interpretations of the myth by developing solcly its gothic aspects, the burlesques limited themselves to tepid mockery of the melodramas. Not until the mid-century, with gothic melodrama on the wane, would burlesques of the myth assert themselves. The first such production was Robert and William Brough's Frankenstein; or, The Model Man presented at the Adelphi Theatre on 26 December 1849. This period will be dealt with at a later date.

6. Levine, , ‘Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism’, Novel: A Forum on Fiction 7 (1973): 14.

7. I have been able to locate only one playbill for this burlesque. It may be found in the British Library (Playbills 170).

8. See, for example, Glut, Donald, The Frankenstein Legend 34; Nicoli, Allardyce, A History of English Drama: 1660–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1955) 4:356; and Connolly, L. W. and Wearing, J. P., English Drama and Theatre: 1800–1000 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1978) 222.

9. Theatrical Observer, 5 08 1823.

10. Appleton, William, ed., ‘Recollections of O. Smith: Comedian’, Performing Art Resources 5 (1978): 57. For a more thorough discussion of the protests mounted by the Society for the Prevention of Vice and of the Birmingham production of Presumption, see Forry's, Steven EarlAn Early Conflict Involving the Production of Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein’, Theatre Notebook 39 (1985).

11. In Annals of the New Turk Stage (New York: Columbia UP, 1928), C. D. Odell tempers this opinion when he writes of the same production: ‘A season so rich in novelty of superior quality signalised the first of January with a trying gift – a melodrama founded on Mrs. Shelley's gruesome story of Frankenstein. It was given five times within a week; the seventh performance occurred on January 15th. Assuredly they supped full of horrors in 1825’ (3: 145).

12. In her appendix to Mary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein Nitchie refers to ‘a poem often stanzas on “The Devil Among the Players” – Fausius, Frankenstein, and The Vampyre’ (220). Donald Glut misinterprets Nitchie's comments and transforms the magazine into a theatre and the poem into a full-length play when he writes: ‘A third play using the Frankenstein theme in 1826 was first presented on October 9 at the Opera Glass. Titled The Devil Among the Players, this poetic dramatization featured three characters of horror – Frankenstein (probably the Monster, as Cooke fostered the mistake in calling the creature by its creator's name), Faust, and the Vampire' (38). Florescu, who usually repeats Glut's errors, definitively places the poem among the dramatizations when he writes: ‘Another 1826 dramatization of Mary's story was The Devil Among the Players, and featured a trio of monsters: Frankenstein, Faust, and the Vampire’ (166).

As far as I know Cooke never publicly called the Creature by any name, although in a satirical peerage Punch in London (14 01 1832) labelled O. Smith ‘Lord Frankenstein’. See also Ketterer's, DavidFrankenstein's Creation, 118–19, n. 10 and, on the selection of ‘Frankenstein’ as the surname of Victor, de Palacio, Jean, Mary Shelley dans son auvre (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969) 93–4, n. 5.

13. Anonymous review in the Enthoven Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum [18 September?] 1837; Theatrical Journal, 14 03 1840.

14. Leathers, Victor, British Entertainers in France (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959) 56.

15. The six burlesques are: Nicolas Brazier, Guillaume Dumersan and Gabriel-Jules-Joseph de Lurien's Les Filets de Vulcain; ou, La Vénus de Neuilly (Théâtre des Variétés, 5 July), which took its title from a recent production of Mars et Vénus at the Paris Opéra; Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Antoine-Jean-Baptiste Simonnin's Le Petit monstre et l'escamoteur (Théâtre de la Gaîté, 7 July); Claude-Louis-Marie de Rochefort-Luçay, Esperance-Hippolyte Lassagne, and Mathurin-Joseph Brisset's La Pêche de Vulcain; or, l'île des fleuves (Théâtre du Vaudeville, 10 July – the printed play incorrectly lists the premier as 5 July); the anonymous Le Présomtueux (Théâtre de M. Comte, 11 July); Carmouche's Les filets de Vulcain; ou, le lendemain d'un succèss (Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin, 15 July); and the anonymous Le Monstre et le physicien (Théâtre de M. Comte, 3 August).

16. Irving, Laurence, Henry Irving: The Actor and His World (London: Faber, 1951) 687.

17. A playbill for a performance at Covent Garden on 13 December 1830 advertised: ‘Among the many striking effects … A Schooner in a Violent Storm, in which Frankenstein and the Monster are destroyed’. Although performances of Presumption adopted the boating conclusion, in about 1865 John Dicks printed Peake's play, incorporating the avalanche conclusion because he probably employed as copy-text the 1823 Lord Chamberlain manuscript (now located in the Huntington Library LA 2359) or a copy thereof, either of which would have contained the original conclusion.

18. For respective descriptions of plates I and IV see Hall's, Lillian ArvillaCatalogue of Dramatic Portraits in the Theatre Collection of the Harvard College Library (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1930) i: 286; 4:79.

19. Percy Shelley, who had already published two unabashed works of gothic fiction, also contributed gothic elements to Frankenstein by altering Mary Shelley's prose. To cite but one example from E. B. Murray's fine study, ‘Shelley's Contribution to Mary's Frankenstein’, Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 29 (1978): 51–2, Shelley altered ‘the moon arose and shone … upon the daemon who fled’ to ‘the moon arose upon his ghastly and distorted shape, as he fled with more than mortal speed’.

20. Wilt, ‘Frankenstein as Mystery Play’ in The Endurance of Frankenstein 31.

21. Pixérécourt, Théâtre Choisi de G. de Pixérécourt (Paris: 1842) 3:576.

22. Mary Shelley would comically employ the Rosicrucian theme in ‘The Mortal Immortal’ (1843) in which Winzy, the assistant of Cornelius Agrippa, drinks an elixir of life thinking it is a love potion.

23. Tropp, Martin, Mary Shelley's Monster: The Story of Frankenstein (Boston: Houghton, 1976) 52; Ketterer, David, Frankenstein's Creation: The Book, The Monster, and Human Reality (No. 16 ELS Monograph Series; Victoria, Canada: English Literary Studies, U of Victoria, 1979) 9; Florescu, Radu, In Search of Frankenstein 234.

24. Shelley's novel argues very ambiguously for the moral code adopted by the dramas. ‘Learn from me, if not by my precepts,’ Frankenstein tells Walton, ‘… how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native, town to be the world, than he who is aspiring to become greater than his nature will allow’ (48). Yet in the conclusion of the novel, Frankenstein's final statement – ‘yet another may succeed’ – belies any return to or substantiation of a moral order. The dramatizations ignore these ambiguities and take at face value Frankenstein's earlier statement to Walton: ‘how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge’, etc. Citations from the novel derive from James Rieger's edition reprinted in 1982 by the University of Chicago Press from the 1974 Bobbs-Merrill plates.

25. Quoted from Booth's, MichaelEnglish Melodrama (London: Jenkins, 1965) 15.

26. Hume, Robert, ‘Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel’, PMLA 84 (1969): 286.

27. Compare Martin's speech in Act III – ‘Od-od-od! how my teeth chatter! Every whisper of the wind, and every crack of this damn'd rotten old mansion, makes me feel as if I had an icicle in my belly – I'm afraid to look around for fear of saluting a tall skeleton’ – with the opening lines of Fritz in Presumption: ‘Oh, Fritz, Fritz, Fritz! what is it come to! you are frightened out of your wits … Oh, anything frightens me now –I'm so very nervous! … I jump like a maggot out of cheese! How my heart beats!’

28. Mayer, , Harlequin in his Element 6. Dalton Gosse and Mary J. H. Gosse suggest that Grimaldi's famous Covent Garden performance in Harlequin and Asmodeus – which ‘contained a scene in which Grimaldi constructed a monster from vegetables– only to have the monster come alive, fight with him, and drive him off the stage’ – served as a possible inspiration for Mary Shelley. See Notes & Queries 28 (1980:403404.

29. See Dickens, Charles, ed., The Life of Charles Mathews (London: Macmillan, 1879) i:.50–3.

* This work was supported by a grant from the Mrs Giles Whiting Foundation.

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