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An Early Conflict Involving the Production of R. B. Peake's Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein

Steven Earl Forry

Theatre Notebook, 39 (1985), 99-103

In 1823 the English Opera House staged Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, the first dramatization of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818). The production unwittingly combined spectacular effects with moral controversy to achieve one of the most popular plays of the year. This controversy, the publicity it was accorded, and its unexpected appropriation by the notorious Alfred Bum form the topic of this paper.

Peake's melodrama opened on 28 July to mixed reviews. The Examiner (3 August) complained: "The dialogue, except on the part of Frankenstein, and probably his servant, is miserable prattle, and so divested of a judicious connexion with the main incident . . . nobody cares a tittle about hearing it." And the Morning Post (29 July) grumbled: "We have not that taste for the monstrous which can enable us to enjoy it". The production succeeded, however, largely due to the powerful performance of T. P. Cooke, about whom reviews were unanimous in their approval. For example, the disgruntled reviewer for the Examiner wrote: "T. P. COOKE, as the monster, exhibited the preternatural with much imagination, and the natural with truth". The Theatrical Observer (29 July) concurred: "Nothing could be more excellent than the acting of Mr. T. P. COOKE, as the nameless monster".

Nevertheless, Presumption was not to be accorded blind public acceptance. As early as the first performance scattered protests could be heard. "Though the progress of the performance was frequently marked with much boisterous applause", remarked The News (29 July), ". . . there was considerable opposition on the falling of the curtain, so much so, that it was a long time before Mr BARTLEY could announce it for repetition". And in the Theatrical Observer (30 July) the ever present "John Brown" -- in a reference to the greasepaint colour of the Creature -- was heard to complain: "I would not take my wife . . . to see this blue-devil".

No specific charges are levelled in the reports of these manifestations; however, their most likely source was the long-standing animosity that existed between certain members of the public and the Shelley circle (Percy Bysshe, Mary, William Godwin, Lord Byron). For example, {100} virtually every reviewer of Presumption prefaced its comments with allusions to Mary Shelley et al. The Morning Post sounded the alarm when on 29 July it warned: "To Lord Byron, the late Mr Shelley, and philosophers of that stamp, it might appear a very fine thing to attack the Christian faith . . . and burlesque the resurrection of the dead . . . but we would prefer the comparatively noble assaults of VOLNEY, VOLTAIRE, and PAINE". And the Sunday Times (3 August) reminded its audience that the play's inspiration could be "laid at the door of Mary Ann Wollstoncroft [sic] Godwin, who ere while drew in the yoke of matrimony along with the tuneful and lamented, but somehow eccentric Mr Percy Shelley". Even the normally equable Drama (August 1823) noted that Mary Shelley was "the widow of PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, and daughter of Mr GODWIN, the author of Political Justice, and other celebrated works. The novel itself is one of the boldest of fictions; and did not the authoress, in a short preface, make a kind of apology, we should almost pronounce it impious." Finally, when in 1824 Presumption appeared in Birmingham, the Theatrical John Bull (3 July) recalled the protests in London with the statement: Presumption "is taken from a Novel, by a woman who . . . is one of the coterie of that self-acknowledged Atheist, Percy B. Shelley, and the daughter too of the well-known Godwin -- a precious breed and association".

Thus, Presumption suffered from what can only be called guilt by association, despite its playbills, which fervently asserted: "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". Heated thus by reviews and by their own preconceptions, a small section of the London public mounted a protest centred on the supposed immorality of Peake's dramatization. Within one week of the play's debut, leaflets began to appear throughout the metropolis warning potential theatre-goers against attending performances. One such leaflet read:

Do not go to the Lyceum to see the monstrous Drama, rounded on the improper work called "Frankenstein." -- Do not take your wives and families -- The novel itself is of a decidedly immoral tendency; it treats of a subject which in nature cannot occur. This subject is pregnant with mischief; and to prevent the ill-consequences which may result from the promulgation of such dangerous doctrines, a few zealous friends of morality, and promoters of this Posting-bill (and who are ready to meet the consequences thereof) are using their strongest endeavours.
The protests continued, despite the assurances of the Theatrical Observer, which took it upon itself to inform readers (11 August): "The romance of Presumption thus has proved as attractive as ever, notwithstanding the extraordinary efforts of some puritanical zealots, who have attempted to persuade the public that it contains matter unfit for them in a moral point of view". This assurance did nothing to stop the flow of leaflets, and the management of the English Opera House was forced to act. In a letter dated 9 August and published in the Theatrical Observer on the 12th, Samuel James Arnold countered the protests on three fronts: {101} (1) the Lord Chamberlain would not have licensed an immoral play; (2) fashionable (i.e. morally sound) audiences attended performances of Presumption; and (3) not a single critic had protested the immorality of the piece. By seizing the initiative in a public forum, the English Opera House not only gained the moral high ground, but manipulated the protests to its own best advantage. The text of Arnold's letter reads:

WHEREAS a scurrilous Posting-bill has been industriously circulated throughout the Metropolis, intended to injure the interests of The English Opera-House, by gross misrepresentations respecting the new Romantic Dram, entitled "PRESUMPTION or, the FATE OF FRANKENSTEIN." The Public is respectfully requested not to suffer their judgments to be influenced by this malignant and unjust attack.

It is to be remembered that the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain sanctioned the Piece by granting his License, which License would certainly have been withheld, had the Drama been of an IMMORAL TENDENCY. -- The piece also continues to be performed to crowded and fashionable Audiences; and whatever difference of opinion may exist respecting its merits as a dramatic work, not one Critic has objected to it on the score of morality.

The "Few zealous friends of Morality" are CAUTIONED, (under legal opinions) that although there may not be grounds on the part of the Theatre for a Prosecution for a Libel, yet an Action for a Con[s]piracy will perhaps effectually silence "the Promoters of a Posting-bill," distinguished by falsehood and hypocritical cant.

The theatre's strategy prevailed. No record exists of further protests in London. Presumption continued to enjoy success, running for 37 performances before dosing the season on 4 October. Mary Shelley attended a performance on 29 August and reported in a letter to Leigh Hunt: "I was much amused, & it appeared to excite a breath[le]ss eagerness in the audience . . . They continue to play it even now."1 Moreover, without encountering further protests, Peake's play was restaged every year in London-either at the English Opera House or at Covent Garden -- until 1830, and even then continued to be performed until 1840, by which time the Theatrical Journal (14 March 1840) was referring to if as "the now somewhat antique drama".

Although protests abated in the capital, the lessons of London were not lost on Alfred Bunn, "Poet Bunn" as Punch would have it, who in 1819 had succeeded Elliston as the manager of the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. When in 1824 Bunn wished to mount a benefit for Power, he would take to heart a comment made by a London journal in 1823 at the height of the furore over Presumption. In response to one of the leaflets circulated in London, the Theatrical Observer (5 August) questioned: "What wise-acres could have been at the trouble and expense of such a tissue of nonsense?' It will serve the house." Indeed, Bunn planned a campaign that would, he hoped, fill his theatre while it filled the town with controversy. As the Theatrical John Bull would later comment (3 July 1824): "You have only to tell a Cockney that an Exhibition is shocking -- abominable -- impious, and off he starts to bear witness to the fact, without. even staying to wash his face!"

{102} One week before the debut of Presumption on 18 June, leaflets mysteriously began to appear throughout Birmingham warning potential patrons of the impiety of the production (see Fig. 1). It was rumoured that a certain Reverend J. A. James was the author of the leaflets; however, as the Theatrical John Bull again inveighed: "It was certainly not Mr JAMES". The review goes on to state in unequivocal terms its own opinion that whereas in London the protests succeeded as a form of publicity, they would not serve the same function in Birmingham: "Some of the knowing ones tried the same Trick here, but it wax no go! Power offered Ten Guineas reward for the discovery of the rogues (see Fig. 2); ah! ah! we calculate that we could help him to guess a little!" Indeed, rather than attracting audiences, Bum seems to have alienated them. The theatre "was but thinly attended" we read in the same review, while on the same day the Spectator lamented: "We are absolutely angry with Mr Power for selecting such a Piece, and angry with ourselves for losing our time in witnessing it".

In truth, Bunn's production was doomed from the outset. Not only were costumes lacking for the cast (O. Smith, who played the Creature, was forced to wear a dress shirt with a plaid cloak pinned to his shoulders), but the theatre did not have enough white canvas to stage the elaborate {103} avalanche in which, at the play's conclusion, Frankenstein and his "unhallowed abortion" are destroyed. Rather, a large canvas elephant, which earlier that year had been commissioned for a performance of Thalaba the Destroyer, was white-washed and shoved over the flies followed by a quick curtain. Even this expedient miscarried, however, as a review for the Birmingham Spectator (3 July) notes: "Thunder and Lightning would have done better, had they been less metallic and smoky; and Avalanche (the Stage Elephant,) came down before the cue was given him, so that Franky and his Demon were obliged to seek death from some other source than excessive snow-ball".

Bunn's machinations had failed, but I think we all might agree that his efforts to promote Presumption rank among one of the most original methods ever undertaken by a theatre manager. To summarize Bunn's efforts in Birmingham, let us return to the words used by the Theatrical John Bull, which concluded its review of Presumption with the couplet:

Of Play and Players say no more than this,
That what escaped a groan deserved a hiss!


1. Betty T. Bennett, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1980, I, 378.