Acting Monstrous: Staging the Creature in Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein
by Brittany Reid
[page 59] Closely following the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, an impressive tradition commenced of dramatizing the novel. Beginning in 1823 with Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, the Frankenstein myth became an imaginative preoccupation of the nineteenth-century theater. Despite Victor Frankenstein’s central role in the novel, his Creature attracted the attention of dramatists, especially those working in London’s minor theaters, such as the Royal Coburg or the English Opera House. Specifically looking at Peake’s Presumption, the novel’s first theatrical adaptation, which set the standard for the character’s subsequent portrayal, I will examine how Frankenstein’s Creature was reconceived for the English Opera House in 1823. By reading the play’s performance text and manuscript edition alongside Frankenstein, I argue that a foundational continuity in the Creature’s characterization is established, despite a change in genre from the psychodrama of the novel to the melodrama of the performance.
To that end, my study engages with two interrelated aspects of Peake’s Creature, as originally portrayed by Thomas Potter Cooke: iconographic appearance and performance style. While Cooke’s bizarre costume and silent portrayal mark an apparent departure from the novel’s detailed characterization of the Creature, a more nuanced reading of these tropes within the context of the nineteenth-century minor playhouses is needed to better understand their practical applications. By considering the play text alongside the generic conventions of gothic melodrama, performance reviews, cultural influences, and Frankenstein as source text, I contend that Shelley’s Creature is preserved on the stage, despite his altered mien in Presumption.
Illegitimate Gothic Melodrama: Traditions and Tropes
The adaptation of Frankenstein for the theater requires different modes of communication and new methods of mythmaking. For nineteenth-century theatrical adaptations, the change in medium required a contraction of Shelley’s narrative to suit both theatrical constraints and generic conventions (Hoehn 80). Unlike closet dramas intended for private contemplation, performance texts, such as Presumption, must necessarily be read alongside their performance histories and, in this case, within the context of the nineteenth-century minor theaters in London.
Until 1843, the London theater scene was distinctly divided. Because of the continuing dominance of the Patent playhouses, those sanctioned [page 60] and maintained through government control, a hierarchy persisted between the “legitimate” dramatic tradition and the “illegitimate” tradition of the popular but peripheral minor theaters. Maintained through government protection, the three Patent playhouses, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and the Haymarket, held exclusive rights to produce “serious drama,” including comedic and tragic works (Dromgoole 169). Forced to contend with these prohibitions, the unsanctioned minor houses needed to develop alternative practices and “to include elements that would safeguard the production from claims that it infringed on the prerogatives of those ‘legitimate’ theatres’” (Behrendt). From this place of creative restriction, the popular tradition of illegitimate theater emerged.
Gaining momentum throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, illegitimate theater marked a departure from the Classical forms and standards identified with the Patent productions. Unable to make use of traditional conventions and forbidden from staging “spoken drama,” practitioners in the illegitimate tradition were forced to find new styles and modes to remain creatively competitive and commercially solvent. In the face of these strict limitations, the minor theaters defied Aristotelian dramatic principles of plot, character, thought, and diction, choosing to privilege music and spectacle. This decision allowed illegitimate theater to stay within formal and content restrictions and, in the process, helped characterize it as a departure from the aristocratic associations of the Patent playhouses and an entertaining option for the general populace (Moody 12). From burlesques to pantomimes, comedic sketches to musical acts, the minor playhouses became home to a wide range of alternative performance modes.
But while each of these diverse theatrical forms played to success on the illegitimate stage, one of the minor theaters’ most popular genres began as an import from the Patent tradition: the gothic melodrama. Cannibalistic in nature and boasting a piecemeal aesthetic, the gothic melodrama borrowed heavily from other mediums, styles, and stories to become a dominant dramatic form in the nineteenth century. While it had previously thrived in the Patent playhouses, the melodrama’s formal hybridity and broad appeal made it an iconic fixture of the illegitimate theatrical tradition. Due to an increased emphasis on aesthetic appeal and audience accessibility, these melodramatic performances relied on impressive stage pictures, loaded gestures, and coded iconography to express meaning. Subsequent landmark advancements in technical theater, such as gas lamp lighting, detailed costuming, realistic set construction, and the capacity to create floods, avalanches, or volcanic eruptions onstage, increased reliance on stage craft helped to enable visual storytelling (Tanitch x).
In the popular subgenre of gothic melodrama, this visual broadcasting through coded iconography included direct references to the [page 61] gothic literary tradition. Sparked by the work of writers such as Horace Walpole, Monk Lewis, and Ann Radcliffe, the resurgence of the gothic novel ignited theatrical interest that can be traced through frequent references “to this literary corpus which tended to improve the accuracy of scenic descriptions” (Ranger 6). In Michael R. Booth’s formative sourcebook, English Melodrama (1965), he describes the cross-medium adaptation of the gothic novel and its familiar features onto the nineteenth-century stage:
What the melodramatists did with the Gothic novel was to simplify and intensify: wherever possible sensations were elaborated and the supernatural emphasized. Improvements in stage mechanics facilitated a full display of ghosts, and where the novelist tended to suggest horrors the playwright made a satisfying physical show of them. (69)
Building on the gothic novel’s reliance on atmospheric terror, dramatists capitalized on the increased emphasis on stage craft throughout the nineteenth century to bring these tales of terror to the stage. By simplifying plots or characters and intensifying sensational or supernatural aspects, illegitimate theatrical practitioners successfully integrated the traditions of gothic literature and melodramatic performance. Developing from melodrama’s widespread popularity, the gothic melodrama also played to great success in the Patent playhouses; but its generic hybridity and visual spectacle made it an ideal fit for the minor theaters.
In the nineteenth century, the gothic melodrama became a fixture in minor playhouses such as the Royal Coburg and English Opera House. In keeping with continued restrictions on content, character archetypes, well-established generic conventions, narrative simplicity, gothic tropes, and a declamatory style of acting became the favored modes of communication in the genre (Dromgoole 168). In a direct departure from the Patent productions’ reliance on rhetoric and complex characterization, illegitimate gothic melodramas were designed to shock, thrill, and delight enraptured audiences. Capturing the imagination of the general populace through music, dance, spectacle, and horror, the gothic melodrama became a key dramatic form in the Romantic era, and it is out of this tradition that Peake’s Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein emerged.
Visual Iconography and Supernatural Archetypes
My appraisal of the Creature’s dramatization in Presumption begins with a consideration of his appearance and, in particular, Peake’s use of archetypal representation and aesthetic conventions from the gothic melodrama. Speaking to the importance of the Creature’s appearance to the Frankenstein myth, Albert J. Lavalley argues that “the emphasis is always on his hideousness–a hideousness that the stage and film [page 62] productions have always tried to exploit” (248). Because of the melodrama’s reliance on aesthetic appeal, elements such as costumes, gestures, poses, and stage pictures all contribute to the use of visual storytelling in this genre. Since they were unable to depend upon language like practitioners in the Patent theaters, illegitimate dramatists instead used visual cues to aid characterization and help delineate the hero from the villain or the rustic from the nobleman. To further assist audiences, dramatists frequently employed agreed-upon conventions and well-known references for their depiction of characters, events, or even entire plotlines.
In Romantic Drama: Acting and Reacting (2009), Frederick Burwick elaborates on this generic tendency by explaining how these melodramatic conventions and coded images were implicitly understood by minor playhouse audiences, thus allowing for simplified narrative strategies: “[w]ith an audience of frequent theater-goers who were alert to familiar tropes and situations, playwrights could easily engage in a conspiracy of allusions, knowing that many would perceive the cross-referencing and layering of sources” (57). Without the need for lengthy exposition or detailed characterization, this “conspiracy of allusions” permitted playwrights to distill language into key images, swap out rhetoric and monologues for action sequences and stunning spectacles, or broadcast a character’s social position, moral standing, or behavioral attributes through indiscrete visual cues.
For minor theater audiences accustomed to this use of coded iconography and archetypal representation, the physical appearance of the ghost, ghoul, or goblin featured in the gothic melodrama was of chief interest. As a way of first bringing out these supernatural beings, dramatic reveals facilitated by technical effects were staged, such as the revelation of the Creature in Henry Milner’s Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster (1826) which calls for musical accompaniment as he “rolls back the black covering, which discovers a colossal human figure” (194). In accordance with this established convention, before the Creature’s first onstage appearance in Presumption, Victor’s vivid account of the character’s ghastly form would have helped build suspense for this grand entrance. In words lifted almost directly from the novel, Victor’s speech in the play’s first act prepares the audience for the Creature’s highly anticipated arrival by divulging details about his otherworldly appearance:
I saw the dull yellow eye of the Creature open, it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. What a wretch have I formed, his legs are in proportion and I had selected his features as beautiful–beautiful! Ah, horror! His cadaverous skin scarcely covers the work of muscles and arteries beneath, his hair lustrous, black, and flowing–his teeth of pearly whiteness–but these luxuriances only form more horrible contrasts with the [page 63] deformities of the monster. (Peake 143)
Peake’s decision to leave Shelley’s description of the Creature almost completely intact creates a link between the character’s fictional and theatrical embodiments. The effect of this textual retention is the establishment of an explicit and nuanced connection between the Creature’s fictional and theatrical embodiments, thus encouraging a comparative appraisal of the two distinct, yet fundamentally related representations of the character.
However, despite this liberal textual borrowing from Frankenstein, the physical realization of the Creature onstage was both discernibly and necessarily different from his imagined depiction in the novel and the written play text. Consequently, although the lifting of text from Shelley’s narrative helps reaffirm the connection between the Creature’s theatrical and fictional representations, the character’s onstage appearance in Presumption was significantly augmented in accordance with melodramatic conventions. This change to the Creature’s physical form can be observed through the stage directions for the Dicks’ Standard Edition of Presumption. In this version of the script based on the play in performance, the character’s suggested costuming defies Victor’s description from both the novel and play text:
Dark black flowing hair–à la Octavian–his face, hands, arms, and legs all bare, being one colour, the same as his body, which is a light blue or French gray cotton dress, fitting quite close, as if it were flesh, with a slate colour scarf round his middle, passing over one shoulder. (136)
In The Frankenstein Legend (1973), Donald Glut describes the combined effect of Cooke’s appearance as the Creature and his appraisal underscores the bizarre quality of the actor’s styling for the role: “His eyes seemed bright and watery and made a weird contrast against the yellow and green greasepaint that coated his face. The black hair was very long and unkempt. The lips were black and usually held in a rigid position. The arms and legs were an ugly shade of blue and extended bare from the crude, shroud-like clothing” (29). Although Peake took pains to retain Victor’s account of the Creature’s appearance from the novel, the directions from the Dicks’ Standard Edition and images from the production both suggest that the dramatization of the character deviated from this established aesthetic. Instead of calling for the “dull yellow eye,” “cadaverous skin,” or “teeth of pearly whiteness” indicated by Victor’s retelling, these stage directions primarily depend on archetypal indicators or melodramatic allusions for the character’s presentation. Taking into account gothic melodrama’s reliance on visual representation, these changes help inform the Creature’s characterization and must therefore be considered within the context of the illegitimate gothic melodrama.
For example, the use of the phrase “à la Octavian” in the suggested styling of the Creature is believed to reference “the wild dress of the Spaniard [page 64] Octavian in Colman’s The Mountaineers” (Forry 15). Based on Don Quixote, The Mountaineers was an exotic adventure-drama from the Patent playhouses. Premiering in 1793 at the Haymarket, the production played to great acclaim and its roguish hero, Octavian, quickly became a beloved dramatic figure (Forry 15). Peake’s stated goal of having the Creature’s appearance recall that of the handsome Octavian is telling and gestures back to the importance of visual storytelling in the melodrama. Rather than present the Creature as grotesque and corpse-like, as both the novel and play text would seem to suggest, Peake’s reference to Octavian is the first of many changes intended to enrich the Creature’s physical representation and visually undercut his apparent monstrosity. Choosing not to replicate the Creature’s proportions, yellow eyes, or musculature, the directions instead called for “a slate colour scarf round his middle, passing over one shoulder.” This description of the Creature’s clothing clearly evokes a robe or toga and additionally, images based on the performance reaffirm the costuming of the Creature in Greco-Roman attire.
In looking at this image from the play in production, the Creature’s dominating stance, heavy brow, dignified expression, powerful frame, and ancient apparel defy Victor’s horrified recollection of a corpse-like monster, instead conjuring up heroic associations. Further to the point, this choice of costuming takes on greater symbolic significance when appraised alongside the Creature’s Classical education in the novel. Returning to Frankenstein, while Shelley dubs Victor “The Modern Prometheus” in the novel’s subtitle, in Presumption, Peake visually correlates the Creature with antique tradition, supernatural associations, and mythic origins. Moreover, in addition to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and Goethe’s Sorrows of Werter (1774), Plutarch’s series of biographies composed in the first century, Parallel Lives, has a formative influence on the fictional Creature’s intellectual, moral, and social development. Crediting Plutarch for teaching him “high thoughts” and elevating him “above the wretched sphere of my own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages” (153), the Creature is subsequently compelled by an “ardour for virtue” and an “abhorrence of vice” (154). By clothing him in Classical apparel, Peake implicitly acknowledges this important narrative thread in Frankenstein and visually realigns the theatrical Creature with this philosophical tradition. Resultantly, although the Greco-Roman influence on his costume is original to Presumption, the tie between the Creature and Classical tradition has initial precedent in the novel.
However, despite this thematic connection, the apparent disparity between Victor’s description of the Creature in the novel or play and his onstage appearance warrants further consideration. Although the Creature’s theatrical styling can be read as a nod to the importance of Classical ideas to his early development in the novel, Peake’s curious [page 65] additions of wild hair, blue skin, and ancient apparel still seem to counter the Creature’s described appearance and, for that reason, bear further critical attention. Recalling Victor’s vivid account of his progeny’s strange appearance, how did Peake ultimately negotiate Shelley’s initial description of the character in the novel with the costuming of Cooke in the role of the Creature?
An Engraving Depicting Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, 1826, Harvard Theatre Collection, Cambridge
By again returning Presumption to its medium and genre, these descriptive stage directions and Cooke’s styling speak to the melodrama’s reliance on coded iconography and highlight the importance of audience engagement in the illegitimate theater. Having heard an explicit description of the Creature before his arrival onstage, the audience would [page 66] have been expected to project this image onto the actor playing the role. Through Peake’s use of archetypal associations conventional to the gothic melodrama and his reliance on the “conspiracy of allusions” created through references to familiar characters and tropes, the actor’s physical presence and the Creature’s described features would have necessarily been reconciled by the informed audience. Mirroring the reader’s active role in imagining the Creature in Frankenstein, the audience would likewise make the connection between the stated vision of the Creature and his physical manifestation onstage, despite any objective dissimilarity between these representations. Because of Peake’s borrowed use of Frankenstein’s original description and its suggestion of the Creature’s intended effect, the English Opera House’s audience would have been complicit in the formation of the character’s theatrical counterpart.
Early reviews for Presumption reflect this sense of collective recognition shared in by audiences and critics alike. Immediately following the play’s premiere, a reviewer for The Theatrical Observer acutely observed the Creature’s complex duality and symbolic associations, thus indicating the audience’s complicity in the “conspiracy of allusions” established through the Creature’s archetypal representation: “[i]t would seem that the author wished to pourtray [sic] in this non-descript, the good and evil of man’s nature–his eagerness to associate, and use his powers, and his proneness to revenge” (July 29, 1823). Rendered otherworldly through his supernatural-Classical styling and the retention of Shelley’s evocative description from the novel, Presumption’s Creature had the potential to be dehumanized through his outlandish appearance and subsequently relegated to a simplistic, gothic melodramatic monster. But despite the Creature’s identification as a “non-descript” without a name, the nuanced associations of his archetypal representation, as enhanced through his performance, allowed him to transcend perceived generic limitations and continue to embody both the “good and evil of man’s nature.”
Playing the Part
Moving from the Creature’s appearance in Presumption, I now look at the effect of performance style on the character’s continued complexity. Following Presumption’s 1823 premiere, critics, audiences, and even Shelley herself were enraptured by the Creature’s dramatic representation. In a well-known letter to Leigh Hunt, Shelley was quick to observe the subtlety and clarity of Thomas Potter Cooke’s silent performance as the unnamed Creature: “Cooke played the part extremely well–his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard–all indeed he does was well imagined and executed.” She even goes on to document her own enjoyment of Cooke’s acting in particular, as well as the audience’s collective approbation: “I was much amused and it appeared to excite breathless eagerness in the audience” (1: [page 67] 378). However, despite the character’s landmark success in the illegitimate theatrical tradition, his silencing has led many modern critics to chide Peake for stifling the Creature by reimaging him as a mute monster.
In his book In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (1990), Chris Baldick rejects Presumption’s speechless Creature as a perversion of Shelley’s initial conception of the character: “[f]rom a sensitive critic of social institutions, the monster has been transformed into a rampaging embodiment of Victor’s unleashed ‘impiety,’ who is never given a hearing” (59). Forry contextualizes the Creature within Presumption’s generic conventions but contends that the novel’s philosophical overtones are entirely lost in the story’s cross-medium adaptation into melodrama: “[m]elodramatizations, concerned as they were with action, did not really desire to exhibit the mind of the Creature coming into Lockean awareness” (22).
But although the Creature’s role as “a sensitive critic of social institutions” is not reinforced through enlightened dialogue with Victor, as it is in the novel, his silence in Presumption should not be misread as his subjugation, nor as a lack of character development, social impulses, or attempts to self-actualize. On the contrary, highlighted through a different performance style and melodrama’s use of visual storytelling, the mute Creature takes the leading role in Presumption. Consequently, the silencing of the character in the drama allows for the regeneration rather than the reduction of his fictional characterization. His silent expression in Presumption transcends these apparent limitations through the use of a particular acting tradition interconnected with the illegitimate gothic melodrama. Without the ability to verbally articulate his anxieties and ambitions as he can in Frankenstein, the dramatized Creature must instead express his internal struggles through the art of pantomime performance.
Characterized by broad gestures and musical underscoring, pantomime was a well-established performance mode in the nineteenth century and its borrowed use in melodrama was a common occurrence by 1823. As Emma Raub observes, “melodrama was a genre born of, and intimately tied to, language restriction” and, because of these limitations on language and an increased reliance on silent performances within the gothic melodrama, “the mute role, in a sense, exemplifies and encapsulates the genre as a whole” (443). An ideal complement to the melodrama’s visual emphasis, broad appeal, and reliance on musical interludes, the pantomime imbued movement and gesture with greater symbolic and narrative significance. In keeping with the constraints on staging “serious drama” in the minor playhouses, the pantomime’s inherent physicality and use of corporeal communication helped evade strictures placed on lengthy monologues, heightened language, or advanced rhetoric. As Jane Moody observes in Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840 (2000), the movement from traditional drama in the Patent [page 68] playhouses to more alternative performance modes in the illegitimate theaters coincided with a linguistic shift, in which “the predominance of language and rhetoric in tragedy and comedy gave way in illegitimate culture to a corporeal dramaturgy which highlighted the expressive body of the performer” (242). Resulting in what she calls “Melodrama’s ‘mummery,’” dialogue and lengthy speeches were replaced by detailed pantomime performances as a way of evading Patent restrictions while still broadcasting characters’ thoughts, feelings, or ideas to complicit audiences (83).
Bearing the long history of this generic convention in mind, in addition to the practicality of the decision, Peake’s employment of the pantomime tradition for the dramatization of the Creature is symbolically and thematically essential to the reading of Presumption in performance. Robbed of speech, Cooke in the role of the Creature had to physically express the character’s feelings and intentions, rather than verbalize them as he does in the novel. But rather than be relegated to a supporting role as a result of this major shift, the Creature comes to the forefront in the drama through this innovative mode of communication intended to directly appeal to the audience through clear, iconic expression. Commenting on the expressive potential of the mute figure in melodrama, Raub observes how “through silence, the mute figure conveys more, not less, because he or she is constrained to communicate using the genre’s own privileged languages” (443). Consequently, by adapting the Creature for the gothic melodramatic mode through the use of pantomime performance, Peake endowed the character with an innate complexity and the potential to communicate in a manner particular to the play’s genre.
Without the use of speech, the actor playing the role of the Creature had to physically express the misery, longing, and alienation so often lamented by the character in the novel. Reconceived as both uneducated and pre-verbal, the Creature of Presumption relies instead on corporeal expression and an innate musicality, thus allowing him to operate on a different theatrical plane than the other characters. While he is not able to speak or sing, the Creature’s innate lyricism, rhythmic physicality, and fascination with song mark his characterization as distinctly melodramatic. This propensity is particularly exemplified through the stage directions at the end of Act Two, Scene One, which describe the Creature’s delight at his first encounter with music: “[h]e hears the flute of Felix, stands amazed and pleased, looks around him, snatches at the empty air, and with clenched hands puts them to each ear–appears vexed at his disappointment in not possessing the sound; rushes forward afterwards, again listens, and, delighted with the sound, steals off, catching at it with his hands” (Peake 147). Through the incorporation of the communicative abilities and artistic appeal of dance, music, and gesture, the Creature’s agency is maintained in the drama through his innovative physical expression. [page 69]
To better understand how pantomime performance helped the Creature transcend his mute presentation, it is again necessary to read Presumption alongside its performance history. Celebrated for his athletic prowess and physicality on stage, Thomas Potter Cooke was a noted stage actor before appearing in Presumption as the first person to play the unnamed Creature. After acting in Presumption’s initial run at the English Opera House in 1823, Cooke was cast in Merle and Beraud’s French adaptation Le Monstre et le magicien in 1826. Following this, Cooke returned to the English Opera House in 1826 for Presumption’s successful remount (Forry 35). After Presumption’s premiere, critics were quick to laud Cooke’s masterful performance and mute communication of the Creature: “[n]othing could be more excellent than the acting of Mr. T.P. Cooke, as the nameless monster, in marking the first effects of some of the most striking objects of art and nature upon his new-created faculties” (July 29, 1823). A later review noted how Cooke “represents in dumb show with infinite accuracy, the varied feelings supposed to arise from the extraordinary condition of his nameless character” (August 13, 1823). As these early reviews suggest, Cooke’s captivating portrayal was a key component in both the initial success and endurance of Frankenstein’s dramatic legacy. In particular, his pantomimic performance received nearly universal acclaim and set the standard for how the Creature would be played for years to come.
To see how Cooke’s silent expression could have effectively conveyed the Creature’s nuanced emotional state, one need only look at Peake’s elaborate stage directions for Presumption. In comparing Presumption’s original manuscript with the Dicks’ Standard Edition based on the performance, Cooke’s ability to provide character development and exposition without the bolstering effect of language can be clearly observed. For example, confronted by Victor and the DeLaceys in an adapted scene, the Creature is attacked by his desired protectors and responds with violent force. In the original manuscript edition of Presumption, the scene plays out with minimal suggested directions: “Music.–Felix discharges his gun and wounds the Demon, who writhes under the wound.–In desperation pulls a burning brand from the fire–rushes at them” (413). However, in the Dicks’ Standard Edition based on the play in performance, the stage directions are significantly developed to reflect Cooke’s silent yet physicalized subtext. These detailed additions include subtle emotional turns, such as the Creature wanting to attack Felix but being “deterred by repetition of the wound,” a sympathetic appeal where “The Monster rushes up to Frankenstein, and casts himself at his feet, imploring protection,” or a complex bit of pantomime in which “Frankenstein endeavors to stab him with his dagger, which the Monster strikes from his hand–and expresses that his kindly feeling towards the human race, have been met by abhorrence and violence; that they are all now converted into hate and vengeance” (153). These extended stage [page 70] directions for the performance edition reflect Cooke’s expressive abilities and speak to the sophistication of his pantomime. Furthermore, as acknowledged by contemporary performance reviews, Cooke’s striking portrayal helped nuance the Creature’s characterization while still appealing to the sensibilities of the minor theaters’ audiences, thus resulting in the creation of a viable theatrical complement to Shelley’s fictional character.
In addition to situating the Creature within the gothic melodramatic tradition, the use of pantomime helped compensate for many of the events and ideas put forward in Frankenstein that were unable to be included in the stage version. Through this silent storytelling, significant moments or concepts from the novel, such as the Creature’s Classical education, could still be retained despite the cross-medium adaptation and subsequent reduction of the narrative. Through the distillation of Shelley’s rhetoric into meaningful gestures underscored by suggestive musical leitmotifs, Frankenstein’s Creature and his associated ideas are maintained in Presumption. The success of the character’s adaptation can be observed by comparing exemplary moments in the novel and play, such as the Creature’s discovery of fire. I quote the following section at length to emphasize Shelley’s thorough description of this episode and the importance of this passage to the Creature’s early characterization:
One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects! I examined the materials of the fire, and to my joy found it to be composed of wood. I quickly collected some branches; but they were wet, and would not burn. I was pained at this, and sat still watching the operation of the fire. The wet wood which I had placed near the heat dried, and itself became inflamed. I reflected on this; and, by touching the various branches, I discovered the cause, and busied myself in collecting a great quantity of wood, that I might dry it, and have a plentiful supply of fire. (130)
In Frankenstein, the Creature’s first-person account of encountering fire is both thorough and highly contemplative. His intellectual process and emotional response are chronicled through his lengthy description and his conscientious attention to detail speaks to the formative influence of this discovery on his nascent development. In Peake’s treatment of this same event in Presumption, the shift in medium requires new modes of expression, but the Creature’s acquisition of knowledge through experience is still preserved: [page 71]
Hammerpan and the Gipsies shriek and run off. The Demon descends, portrays by action his sensitiveness of light and air, perceives the gipsies’ fire, which excites his admiration–thrusts his hand into the flame, withdraws it hastily in pain. Takes out a lighted piece of stick, compares it with another faggot which has not been ignited. Takes the food expressive of surprise and pleasure. (403)
Although this pantomimic sequence alters the scene from the source text, changing it from a contemplative recollection to an immediate staged experience, Peake still retains this significant event and the Creature’s responses from the detailed account found in Frankenstein. Even though the Creature is silenced, his words from the novel are here used to inform the loaded gestures and enlivened actions of the pantomime. Viewed through the lens of gothic melodrama and the illegitimate theatrical tradition, this seemingly minor piece of stage business would have been used to communicate the same meaning as the lengthy account found in the novel, thus reaffirming the innate connection between the Creature’s fictional and theatrical representations.
Considered through Presumption’s performance history, Peake’s decision to render the Creature mute helps approximate his complex characterization in Frankenstein. By taking into account the long history of pantomime, the gothic melodrama’s emphasis on action and gesture, and Cooke’s highly-praised performance, the Creature’s muteness in Presumption is shown to be the result of cross-medium or cross-generic adaptation and, much like the visual iconography employed for his onstage appearance, should not be read as a simplification of his fictional characterization.
In the years following Mary Shelley’s completion of Frankenstein in 1818, an impressive tradition of dramatizing the novel commenced which has continued into the twenty-first century. Beginning in 1823 with Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, the Frankenstein myth and its supernatural Creature were quickly re-appropriated for dramatic purposes and became imaginative preoccupations of theatrical practitioners throughout the nineteenth century. In this article, I engaged with this dramatic legacy by arguing for the continued complexity of the Creature on the illegitimate stage. Looking at how his rich characterization in Frankenstein is preserved through the coded iconography of the melodramatic tradition, I investigated how the character was reimagined for a new genre and adapted from page to stage. Through an emphasis on performance history, critical accounts, and close reading of stage directions, I have shown that, thanks to Frankenstein’s melodramatic adaptation, the Creature and his theatrical legacy remain very much alive. [page 72]
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MLA citation (print):
Reid, Brittany. "Acting Monstrous: Staging the Creature in Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein." Supernatural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 59-72.