Ink Blots, Pin Holes
- The Original ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley, with Percy Shelley, edited by Charles Robinson
Bodleian Library, 448 pp, £14.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 85124 396 9
Strongly fancied at the start of 1833 to win the Great Doncaster St Leger, Mr Gully’s bay colt Frankenstein (by Young Phantom, out of My Lady) failed to live up to expectations. Beaten into fourth place at the York Spring Meeting by Muley Moloch, Satan and Lot, in October Frankenstein, by now renamed Deceiver, finished last but two in the worst St Leger the Sporting Magazine’s correspondent had ever seen: ‘There was no necessity to re-name Frankenstein Deceiver; I think his abilities are so bad that he never could possibly deceive any one.’ It’s not clear whether Mr Gully’s Frankenstein was called after Mary Shelley’s novel, its over-reaching protagonist, or his monstrous creation. By the early 1830s, the tendency to confuse Frankenstein and his creature was already well established. Letters to the Times on the 1832 Reform Bill used ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ almost interchangeably as shorthand for an unwieldy and dangerous entity created from ill-assorted bits and pieces. As Charles Robinson notes in his new edition of the novel, such confusion set in soon after the book’s first publication in 1818. In October 1823, at a masked ball in Liverpool, a local newspaper reported: ‘Mr Harris, of Preston, personated (we are told) Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. His appearance was most singular. His dress was of variegated colours, one half dark, the other light. His face was of different hues, the colours running insensibly into each other, and producing an effect at once singular and curious.’
Despite the newspaper’s reference to the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Mr Harris’s costume and make-up probably owed more to stage adaptations of Frankenstein than to the novel itself. Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, which opened on 28 July 1823, ran for 37 performances in London, with Mr T.P. Cooke a great success in the role of –––, as the play called Frankenstein’s creature. Mary Shelley, who went to a performance at the English Opera House on 29 August, and wrote appreciatively to Leigh Hunt about Cooke’s acting, clearly liked ‘this nameless mode of naming the unnameable’. She told Hunt that William Godwin, her father, had brought out a new two-volume edition of the novel on the strength of the interest generated by the dramatisation. Three more stage versions of Frankenstein had opened by early September, including the burlesque Humgumption; or Dr Frankenstein and the Hobgoblin of Hoxton, and the short-lived Presumption and the Blue Demon. ‘In the course of three years, from 1823 to 1826,’ Steven Earl Forry wrote in his 1990 study of the dramatisations of the book, ‘at least 15 dramas employed characters and themes from Shelley’s novel. Whether in burlesque or melodrama, things Frankensteinian were all the rage on stages in England and France.’
In June 1824 Alfred Bunn staged a disastrous one-off benefit performance of Presumption at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. Lacking sufficient white canvas to allow Peake’s avalanche ending, Bunn decided to repaint a large canvas elephant left over from a performance of Thalaba the Destroyer earlier that year; on the night, a stage carpenter in the flies let go too soon, as the Birmingham Spectator noted: ‘Avalanche (the Stage Elephant) came down before the cue was given him, so that Franky and his Demon were obliged to seek death from some other source than excessive snow-ball.’
Stage versions of Frankenstein offered numerous sources of death: Henry Milner’s The Man and the Monster; or the Fate of Frankenstein (1826) ends with the monster fatally stabbing Frankenstein before leaping into the crater of Mount Etna; John Atkinson Kerr’s The Monster and Magician; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1826) has Frankenstein and the monster grappling in a boat which is struck by a thunderbolt: ‘the waves vomit forth a mass of fire and the Magician and his unhallowed abortion are with the boat engulphed in the waves.’ Peake’s self-parody, Another Piece of Presumption, staged at the Adelphi Theatre in October 1823, has a tailor called Dr Frankinstitch who kills his nine assistants in order to construct his creature (on the proverbial grounds that ‘nine tailors make a man’); it ends with the nine ghosts demanding their various body parts back, the body of the Hobgoblin disappearing ‘a la Vampire’, and the supposed author of the play, Dramaticus Devildum, admitting candidly to the audience that his drama is ‘a farrago of perfect nonsense’. Yet, as William St Clair wrote in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, ‘Every single night when one of the Frankenstein plays was performed brought a version of the story of the manmade monster to more men and women than the book did in ten or 20 years.’ The London theatres could hold anything from 1500 to 3800 people and theatre seats were available for as little as a shilling; the first two editions of Frankenstein cost 16s. 6d. and 14s. respectively.