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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