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Early theatre and film adaptations


            Shortly after the publication of Frankenstein first theatre adaptations of the novel appeared although at that time the novel was widely criticised for being subversive and atheistic. William Beckford, writer of fantasy and travel literature, called it "the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times." (Baldick 1990: 56). Stage adaptations of Frankenstein were intended as commercial productions that should only entertain the audience. The writers of these adaptations had to bear in mind the conservative majority of their audience and therefore tried to include a morale which would satisfy less liberal views.

The title of the first Frankenstein stage adaptation, Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), clearly signals that it presents a morale fit for a conservative audience. Nonetheless so-called "friends of humanity" (Baldick 1990: 58) started a moral campaign appealing to fathers of families to boycott the play. Under such pressure the management announced the play with the following statement, " The striking moral exhibited in this story is the fatal consequence of that presumption which attempts to penetrate beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature." (Baldick 1990: 58). In order to appeal to his audience Peake changed the original plot of the novel. He introduces an assistant to Frankenstein, the bumpkin Fritz, who "prepares the audience to interpret the tale according to received Christian notions of sin and damnation by telling them that 'like Dr Faustus, my master is raising the devil' (Baldick 1990: 59). Immediately after Frankenstein has created the Monster he begins to regret his doings, when he describes its ugliness and wants to "extinguish the spark which I have so presumptuously bestowed." Other minor changes - Victor is in love with Agatha de Lacey, who falls victim to the Monster; Elizabeth becomes Victor's sister - were simply made to fit the play into the genre of melodramatic romantic theatre. But the most significant changes are the omission of the Walton subplot and - even more important - the muteness of the Monster. Peake made it a brutish creature with an infant's mind and unable to speak. It does not develop human emotions and is only capable of rage and violence. In Peake's version the Monster is no longer "a sensitive critic of social institutions" but has been "assimilated firmly into the traditional role of the monster as a visible image of presumptuous vice" (Baldick 1990: 59).
At the end Frankenstein and his Monster are buried under an avalanche.

Music. – Frankenstein draws his pistol – rushes off at back of stage. – The gipsies return at various entrances. – At the same time, enter Felix and Clerval with pistols, and Safie, Elizabeth, and Ninon following. – The Demon appears at the base of the mountain, Frankenstein pursuing.

CLERVAL. Behold our friend and his mysterious enemy.

FELIX. See – Frankenstein aims his musket at him – let us follow and assist him.(Is going up stage with Clerval.)

HAMMERPAN. Hold master! if the gun is fired, it will bring down a mountain of snow [on their heads.] Many an avalanche has fallen there.

[FELIX. He fires – ]

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.   (Peake 3.iii. 1823)


            Mary Shelley attended one of the performances but found that "the story was not well managed" (Baldick 1990: 58). This opinion is quite understandable considering the fact that the original's wide range of possible interpretations had been removed in favour of a moralistic reading of Frankenstein.

            Other stage adaptations took this simplification to an even farther extent when Victor Frankenstein was made more egotistic and ruthless by turning him into a typical mad scientist figure. This was the case in Henry Milner's Frankenstein or the Man and the Monster (1826), a minor work, which nevertheless is still known for being the first version that showed the creation/awakening of the Monster. In Shelley's novel the actual creation is only described in a few lines:

"It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." (Shelley 1992: 56)


            In Peake's Presumption the Monster is still created off-stage. At the end of the first act Frankenstein disappears to his laboratory. A servant watches him through a window, but runs off frightened when Frankenstein cries, "It lives!" A horrified Frankenstein reappears on stage when suddenly the Monster himself, throwing down the laboratory's door, rushes on stage and presents his monstrosity to the audience. Like Mary Shelley Peake did not reveal the secret how Frankenstein animates his Monster. (Download act I, scene III from Presumption)

Milner, however, provides exact stage directions for the creation scene in Frankenstein or the Man and the Monster:

"Laboratory with bottles and chemical apparatus. First sight of the monster an indistinct form with a black cloth...music....A colossal human figure of a cadaverous livid complexion, it slowly begins to rise, gradually attaining an erect posture. When it has attained a perpendicular position, and glares its eyes upon him, he starts back with horror." (Milner 1. iii 1826)

In subsequent years many stage and film productions of Frankenstein would present similar creation scenes.

             By 1826 Frankenstein had been dramatised in burlesque and melodramatic forms fifteen times. Even before first film versions appeared, Mary Shelley's creation was already popular in England and Europe. But by that time the "Frankenstein" myth had already been considerably changed. Mary Shelley herself changed her novel for the third edition (published in 1831) according to recent, more conservative readings and under the influence of the various stage adaptations. She strengthened the cautionary element of the story, introduced galvanism and even inserted the word "presumption" from Peake's play into one of Victor Frankenstein's speeches.




Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.


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