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:
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
or the Man and the Monster:
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
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
Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein.
London: Penguin Books, 1992.
Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and
Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press,