To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Curator of Printed Books, Beverley Hart, explores the tradition of Frankenstein and his creature on stage.
When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, causing the temporary closure of most of European airspace, there was much meteorological debate about the extreme weather events this phenomenon might provoke. Just under two centuries earlier a different volcanic eruption had brought about the ‘year without a summer’ (cynics will sneer that Britain endures many of these). In 1816 at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva a party of travellers passed the time by making up horror stories. The contest between Shelley, his future wife Mary Godwin, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and Dr John Polidori would give birth to one of the most enduring tropes in literature.
Christopher Frayling has estimated that “in its first six years of public life, there were only 459 copies of Frankenstein in circulation” yet a stage adaptation was first produced in 1823, just five years after the novel’s publication in 1818. In this version at the English Opera House by Richard Brinsley Peake, entitled Presumption, The Creature played by T.P. Cooke, is notably less gruesome than its familiar Hollywood manifestation, and much closer to the description in the novel. Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein equips his creation with teeth “of a pearly whiteness” and “lustrous black” hair, but his inability to render eyes and skin human-looking is the point at which the description starts to sound less like an advertisement for cosmetics. Its “gigantic stature” contributes to his judgemental horror at the thing he has assembled from spare body parts. Illustrations of Mr Cooke in the part picture him towering over his cowering and repulsed creator, but he is not the thing of shreds and patches burned into our imaginations by Boris Karloff. Rather, Cooke’s Creature is classically clad, his skin seam-free, and devoid of neck-bolts.
Soon a rival production appeared, Henry M. Milner’s Frankenstein, or The Man and the Monster at the Royal Coburg Theatre in July 1826, loosely modelled on a French play, Le Monstre et le Magicien. This time the Creature was played by O. Smith. Both Cooke and Smith were commended for their ability to act a mute part, a contrast with Shelley’s increasingly articulate Creature. It is Milner who first puts on stage the scientific apparatus with which Victor animates the monster, now considered an essential dramatic component of any adaptation: “On a long Table is discovered an indistinct form, covered with a black cloth. A small side Table, with Bottles, and Chemical Apparatus, −− and a brazier with fire” [stage directions]. In Peake’s version this happens off-stage.
The story has often lent itself to light-hearted treatment, not least by Peake himself, who wrote a burlesque called Another Piece of Presumption. The idea of an artificially-created man turning on its creator had been playfully tried out over a decade earlier in the Drury Lane pantomime Harlequin Asmodeus, or Cupid on Crutches, in which Joseph Grimaldi’s character constructs a being from vegetables. Following the novel’s appearance Grimaldi’s character would sometimes be referred to as ‘Joe Frankenstein’.
Since the 19th century Frankenstein has been repeatedly re-imagined to entertain, enthral, or enlighten. The ethics and potential of organ transplants, in vitro fertilisation, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence have re-animated the novel. Lewis Aaron Wood’s A.D.A.M. – The Modern Frankenstein envisages ‘Victor Stone’ as a programmer who has crashed the stock market and now attempts to create artificial life. Selma Dimitrijevic’s version, Dr Frankenstein, has Victoria Frankenstein travel to Bavaria to study medicine, as women are unable to do in contemporary England, prompting the Guardian reviewer to observe that the novel “has been so often adapted, filmed and parodied that there can’t be many interpretive avenues left to explore”.
Nick Dear’s version for the National Theatre employed the gimmick of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Creature and creator. Forkbeard Fantasy’s Frankenstein: a Truly Monstrous Experiment, described as a “hideously unhinged reworking … a mix of cine-magic, hilarious horror and wild mechanical sets” was filmed by the V&A for the National Video Archive of Performance. The transvestite Dr Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show nods to and winks at Mary Shelley. Frankenstein has been a ballet, a burletta, a pantomime, a puppet-show, and still they keep coming. Frankenstein – the Final Blasphemy (Doo-Cot) combines “an 8-foot animated creature [with] live digital imagery and projection, a specially-composed soundtrack and choreography”. Indeed, the patchwork of techniques frequently stitched together to interpret Frankenstein resemble the methods of its eponymous anti-hero.
While many productions are deemed unsuitable for under-12s, others are cuddly enough to attract a panto audience. Nor is Frankenstein’s creation always the lonely, misunderstood character of the book; in Martin Downing’s take on it The Creature meets not only The Werewolf and the Phantom of the Opera, but Dracula. Frankenstein and vampires have been related since the infamous ghost story challenge at the Villa Diodati, which spawned Polidori’s The Vampyre, though the world would have to wait almost eighty years for Bram Stoker’s Transylvanian Count.
Adaptations flaunting their credentials of authenticity to the original tale often play up the connection with its author, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the title chosen for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film), to distinguish them from the many subvertings, spin-offs, and parodies. The most recent addition of these to the West End stage is the musical of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced Fronkensteen”): a version of a version of the vision of a teenaged tourist making up scary stories to forget about the weather.