Novel into Drama and onto the Stage

Novel into Drama and onto the Stage

Because Peake's play was designed for presentation in an "illegitimate" theatre—that is, in a theatre other than Covent Garden or Drury Lane, the only theatres licensed to present conventional tragedy and comedy—it was necessary for its author to include elements that would safeguard the production from claims that it infringed on the prerogatives of those "legitimate" theatres. Chiefly, this meant that the play would have to include a significant amount of music, as well as elements of spectacle of the sort that were familiar features at venues like the English Opera House, the Royal Cobourg Theatre, or Astley's Ampitheatre. The resulting play was very much a mixed sort of production that combined elements of music, high and low comedy, and stage spectacle. In many ways the play may be said to prefigure elements that would later come to be associated with the English music hall, with burlesque, and with the modern musical comedy. To some, extent, then, Peake's play offered "something for everyone," although the result was that the play clearly lacks the sort of dominant aesthetic or dramatic unity we have come to associate with more modern versions of Mary Shelley's novel, and particularly with twentieth-century film versions.

We can get some sense of the way the play was performed from no less an expert on its source than Mary Shelley herself, who attended one of the early performances after having been told (incorrectly) that performances were such that women fainted and the audience was horrified. Writing to her and her late husband's friend Leigh Hunt, she had this to say:

Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama & was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English opera house. The play bill amused me extremely, for in the list of dramatis personæ came, ——— [i.e., the Creature] by Mr. T. Cooke: this nameless mode of naming the un{n}ameable is rather good. On Friday Aug. 29th Jane[,] My father[,] William & I went to the theatre to see it. Wallack looked very well as F[rankenstein]—he is at the beginning full of hope & expectation—at the end of the 1st Act. the stage represents a room with a staircase leading to F['s] workshop—he goes to it and you see his light at a small window, through which a frightened servant peeps, who runs off in terror when F. exclaims "It lives!"—Presently F himself rushes in horror & trepidation from the room and while still expressing his agony & terror ——— throws down the door of the labratory, leaps the staircase & presents his unearthly & monstrous person on the stage. The story is not well managed—but Cooke played ———'s part extremely well—his seeking as it were for support—his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard—all indeed he does was well imagined & executed. I was much amused, & it appeared to excite a breathelss eagerness in the audience.      (Letters, 1,378)

The Creature's love of music, and his remarkable responses to it, are retained from Mary Shelley's tale in Peake's Presumption, where music functions almost in the fashion of a leitmotif in marking the Creature's stage presence, his entrances and exits. But Peake adds a variety of vocal performances involving solos, duets, and choruses, all of which are shared among the central characters. Interestingly, the fact that the Creature is never given any music of his own—despite his obvious responsiveness to music—serves even further to separate and alienate him from the other characters in the drama. While it may of course be hard to envision a singing Creature, one can only be struck by the central dramatic and symbolic role assigned to music both in the first stage version and in the many cinematic versions that have followed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The songs are used both to "decorate" the story and to advance its plot. That plot features several significant alterations in the relations among the characters. Elizabeth Frankenstein, for instance, is presented simply as the "sister of Frankenstein" and not as the adopted Elizabeth Lavenza, thus precluding the possibility of maintaining her romantic role as Victor's betrothed lover. Instead, we are told that Victor's friend Clerval is "in love with Elizabeth," a situation that is an entirely logical development from Mary Shelley's novel, where Clerval and Elizabeth are in fact presented as such intellectual and spiritual soulmates that a physical relationship would seem to be the reasonable consequence, were it not for each one's continual protestations of love and admiration for Victor. Peake follow's Mary Shelley's lead to create a second couple by pairing Felix DeLacey and the "Arabian girl," Safie, who is reportedly to be "betrothed to Felix." Finally, to set up yet a third heterosexual romantic pair, Victor is made to be in love with Agatha DeLacey, whose departure from his vicinity is reported to have been a chief contributing factor to Victor's decision to throw himself into his wicked experiments with life, death, and creation. Early in Act II, after the Creature has escaped into the public world, Elizabeth reports to Victor that she has learned (from Safie) that Agatha is in reality only a few miles distant from them, to which news Victor responds: "'Twas her loss that drove me to deep and fatal experiments."

A fourth couple also figures in Presumption: these are the remarkable figures of Fritz, the Swiss servant, and his wife, Madame Ninon. Together they function for comedic purposes: partly they are a burlesque of the more romantic pairings represented by the three young couples, and partly they are an embedded "comedy team" within the larger design of the play. In their goading and bickering they replicate a familiar stock unhappily married couple of the sort that were a staple of the eighteenth-century comedy of manners but whose roots go back to the medieval drama and to the shrewish figure of Noah's wife. At the same time, though, they have one scene entirely to themselves, a scene that is wholly superfluous to either the dramatic or thematic design of Presumption, a situation that recalls the feature-length films of successful comedy teams like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, in which virtually stand-alone routines for the two comics appear in the midst of a pastiche of musical numbers, romantic comedy, and slapstick. In Act III, Scene II, left alone on stage after one of the blissful scenes featuring two of the young couples (Elizabeth and Clerval, Safie and Felix), they rollick through a pun-filled dialogue about a "beehive cap" that Fritz was supposed to bring his wife from "the milliner's at Geneva," a set piece that is followed by an obviously lively vocal duet. Interestingly, in a dramatic master-stroke, Peake allows the final moments of this undoubtedly uproarious scene to be witnessed by the Creature (identified by this time in Peake's stage directions as "the Demon"), who has crept in from one of the entrances. The Creature watches young William (who enters at the end of the Fritz-Ninon scene) now tease Fritz and engage him in a game of ball-throwing that concludes with the Creature's abduction from the stage of the young boy, who will die offstage.

In Fritz, Peake also introduces one of the most enduring features of dramatic and cinematic versions of Frankenstein: the assistant or servant. Like the character of Doctor Watson who later figures in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries both as the reader's representative and as—quite simply—someone with whom the otherwise silent and solitary figure can share his thoughts, Fritz performs a comparable intermediary function. Instead of being a direct and integral participant in the main action as Doctor Watson is, however, he is instead an observer, one of whose primary functions is to report his observations to others—most notably Victor's friend Clerval. In Presumption, Peake provided Fritz with both a sizable role and a set of distinctive eccentricities (most notably his ever-present case of "nerves"). Largely inexplicable when considered purely in terms of dramatic logic, this prominent role is explained by the fact that it was created expressly for the popular comic actor Robert Keeley (see also below, under Cast and Characters) as a vehicle for his particular talents.

Finally, it is worth noting that Mary Shelley's complex plot is radically simplified in Presumption, partly to make time and space more manageable and partly to accommodate all the additional material (especially the musical elements) that Peake introduced into his play. The play is set in "Geneva and its vicinity" and dispenses with Victor's and the Creature's extensive international travels. Likewise, Victor's childhood, youth, and university years are traced briefly in the dialogue rather than physically represented on stage. The framing narrative involving Captain Robert Walton and his polar expedition by sea is eliminated entirely. And Mary Shelley's psychologically compelling rendition of the conclusion of Victor's struggle with the Creature is altered into a relatively brief concluding scene in which the catastrophe is represented in terms of an avalanche brought on by Frankenstein's firing his musket at the Creature, which event is visible to the audience in the distance while it is being reported by Clerval, Felix, and the tinker Hammerpan. Lest this abrupt, contrived conclusion strike the modern reader as too "easy" and uninteresting, it is worth considering the stage directions that describe these final moments:

Music.—Frankenstein discharges his musket.—The Demon and Frankenstein meet at the very extremity of the stage.—Frankenstein fires—the avalanche falls and annihilates the Demon and Frankenstein.—A heavy fall of snow succeeds.—Loud thunder heard, and all the characters form a picture as the curtain falls.

Given that theatres in London at this time were physically equipped to stage volcanic eruptions, floods, battles, storm effects, and even side-by-side racing horses (this latter accomplished with sophisticated systems of treadmills), neither the heavy snowstorm nor the avalanche called for in Peake's script would have been out of the question. Spectacular effects of this sort were one of the chief features of the Romantic theatre—including the so-called "illegitimate" theatre—and were often put forward as one justification for theatres' decisions to charge higher prices for admission to elaborately staged or costumed productions.