Contents Index

The First Season of Presumption!; or, The Fate of Frankenstein

Douglas William Hoehn

Theatre Studies, 26-27 (1979-81), 79-88

{79} The year 1823 witnessed the first adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, to the English stage. Mary Shelley's tale appealed to the imagination of early nineteenth-century theatre artists and audiences in a variety of ways. Integral to Frankenstein is a question of the moral boundaries to the human pursuit of knowledge. In the preface to her 1818 novel, Mary Shelley acknowledged the scientific inquiries of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, and "some of the physiological writers of Germany"1 as influences on her story. The fledgling natural sciences were making encroachments on a once static conception of the universe, and artists and social philosophers could not be unaffected by a prospective manipulation of Nature. Compounding the moral and social issues raised by the development of the natural sciences was the fruition of the Industrial Revolution. Advances in technology had facilitated the creation of a populous working class, and Romantic artists objected to the impersonal social order that seemed to be the afterbirth of national affluence.2 The combination of new understandings of the physical universe and a new relationship between human beings and their environment was countered by the urge of Romanticism to preserve a sense of mystery in life. A second feature of Frankenstein that attracted artists and moralists was the theme of the life-giver, the ideally responsible and benevolent creator and provider. This Promethean motif infuses the novel with an aura of the supernatural that in turn invites theatrical representation; it also introduces a significant question about the nature of evil. Frankenstein can be interpreted as an allegory of the relationship between Man and God. Consequently, the novel raises the question of the connection between a brutal and violent life and the withholding of love by an irresponsible parent-God figure. To educated people of the early nineteenth century this question was more than an abstract point of deliberation, as it had immediate bearing on the justification for social reforms. As important as either of these didactic considerations in bringing Frankenstein to the stage was the compelling character of the unloved monster. Frankenstein's creature, as presented in the novel, earns sympathy as a natural being who seeks approval and affection, only to be spurned because of his ugliness. The tale predates Victor {80} Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), perhaps the quintessential treatment of this subject in Romantic literature, but the creature of Frankenstein has its own precursors on the English stage, such as Bremo in Mucedorus (1598), and Caliban in William Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611). Frankenstein's monster fits into a tradition of deformed outcasts, although its character is molded by a particularly Romantic sentimentality.3 A fourth characteristic of Frankenstein that appealed to artists and the public of the 1820s, and which most lent the novel to theatrical adaptation, was its exotic atmosphere, including descriptions of extraordinary foreign terrain and thrilling action. It was this offering of entertainment that made the novel suitable for representation to the diversified audiences of London's burgeoning popular theatre. A stage version of Frankenstein might question or reinforce the moral values of its viewers, or it might move those viewers to admiration or pity for its sub-human Byronic hero, but most importantly, it would give them an evening of needed diversion. However, all of these features of Mary Shelley's novel can account for the influx of adaptations in the 1820s, and the varied interests to which these features appealed can be seen in the widespread popular approval and in the critical disapproval of the first dramatization: Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption!; or, The Fate of Frankenstein.

Presumption! appeared at the Lyceum (the English Opera House) in the late summer of 1823. During the autumn of the same year, other serious adaptations of Frankenstein appeared at the Royalty and the Coburg.4 The Coburg production has been wrongly identified as the adaptation by H. M. Milner, called Frankenstein; or The Man and the Monster, which did play at the Coburg, but not until the summer of 1826.5 Three parodies of the Frankenstein story appeared in London theatres in 1823. Frank-in-Steam; or, The Modern Promise to Pay, which played at the Adelphi, featured an overly-ambitious young medical student; the Surrey offered a character named Frankenstitch (the Needle Prometheus), who was a tailor with a plan for sewing together pieces of several bodies; and a monster played by a dwarf was the attraction of a burlesque at the David-Royal Amphitheatre.6 It is likely that the enthusiasm that made this variety of interpretations possible was due to the vociferous response accorded Peake's version during the summer. Presumption! was not only the first theatrical version of the tale to appear, but also, it played in the most respectable and publicized of London's minor theatres.

{81} The play's author, Richard Brinsley Peake (1792-1847), was a prolific dramatist of the London popular theatre from 1818 until the time of his death. As a commercial dramatist, Peake was by necessity versatile in the forms of his dramatic output; his range included one-act and full-length farces, comedies, an extravaganza, and several melodramas. Presumption!was Peake's first melodrama. This play also was the first appearance of a sub-current of interest in the preternatural that would continue to display itself in Peake's work through the 1830s. Five years after the first season of Presumption!, Peake introduced The Bottle Imp, one of the most successful Gothic melodramas of the early nineteenth century. In 1831, the writer produced The Evil Eye, a melodrama of political intrigue with a preternatural sub-plot.7 The appearance of Presumption! at the Lyceum was not an unprecedented foray by that theatre into the realm of the eerie. Peake and the Lyceum manager, Samuel James Arnold, could not have been unimpressed by the extraordinary success of James Robinson Planche's The Vampire in 1820; that play thrilled audiences not only with its macabre motifs but with several novelties in special effects and stagecraft. The adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel was both a boost for Peake's career and a significant step in the growing trend toward spectacular and terrifying melodramas on the London stage.

Peake's adaptation alters Mary Shelley's text in order to have several love affairs in progress. Elizabeth, the adopted sister and bride of Frankenstein in the novel, is engaged in the play to Frankenstein's friend Clerval. Frankenstein is engaged to Agatha DeLacey, whose brother Felix is in love with the Arabian girl, Safie. This variety of romantic relationships alleviates the dismal ending of the story without modifying the retribution for Frankenstein's immoral actions. Frankenstein and his lover perish, but the audience is assured that the other couples will survive happily. Each of these relationships features songs as part of its development, in accordance with the stipulations of the license under which the Lyceum was operated.8 The music for these songs is attributed to a Mr. Watson, and Peake probably had a hand in writing the lyrics. Adding a fourth relationship and considerable comic material to the play, Peake created the character Fritz, a cow-loving former peasant who is now Frankenstein's domestic servant, and Fritz's wife, Madame Ninon, a brawny governess for Frankenstein's brother William,

There are a number of farcical moments in Presumption!, at times counterpointing the frightening aspects of the play, and at times contorting those aspects. When the violent action of the play is not immediately evident, as when Fritz paces nervously through Frankenstein's home on an unpleasant night, or when he confronts his wife on his return to the {82} countryside, the humor welcomely or unwelcomely disrupts the suspenseful mood. When the terrifying action is in progress, the humor becomes that of a black comedy or a deliberate self-parody. One instance of this intrusive mockery occurs when young William is carried off by the Monster, leaving Fritz as a distraught witness. His wife and the rest of the household join him.

Madame Ninon. I sent him to that Fritz, that he might be out of the way.
Fritz. Yes; and now he's out of everybody's way.9
Not all of the play's farcical dialogue is delivered by Fritz. At another tense moment in the play's action, the Gypsy Hammerpan describes to a horrified Frankenstein the passage of the Monster through the woods, and claims that he saw it with his "one eye"; the Gypsy explains that his other eye had once been struck by a pebble and that he has "been 'stone' blind ever since."10 Undoubtedly, the wordplay and exaggerated behavior of some of the characters in the play were introduced as much to utilize the individual talents of the Lyceum company as to display Peake's private sense of the ridiculous. This mixing of the grim and the comical in Presumption! may also be viewed as an effort to gain the widest possible range of audience enthusiasm, regardless of the cost to critical standards of generic purity.

Peake's adaptation leaves the Monster mute. The Creature of Presumption! signals both wonder and rage by means of pantomime, at one point in the play's action evoking audience sympathy by attempting to capture musical notes out of the air with his bare hands, and in another scene shocking the audience with an expression of macabre anticipation as he kidnaps the child William. In addition to the physical expressiveness of the Monster, the play calls for some practical scenery, special visual effects, and exciting stage action. Although the laboratory of Frankenstein is concealed from the audience, the creature has a startling entrance from the laboratory doorway on a gallery above the stage.

The door of the laboratory breaks to pieces with a loud crash -- red fire within. -- The Monster discovered at the door entrance in smoke, which evaporates -- the red flame continues visible. The Monster advances forward, breaks through the balustrade or railing of gallery immediately facing door of laboratory, jumps on the table beneath, and from thence leaps on the stage.11
Later scenes represent the burning of the DeLacey cottage by the Monster and the daring escape of its occupants, and the climactic confrontation of Frankenstein and the Creature on the slope of a snow-covered mountain, which ends with an avalanche that buries both.12 However, there are no on-stage murders in Peake's adaptation. The Monster strangles William in {83} the woods and shoots Agatha with a stolen pistol, but the audience only learns of these killings by the reports of other characters. The principal reason for this discretion on the part of Peake may have been the writer's regard for the general pattern of taste in the middle class and upper class audiences of the English Opera House. By contrast, the adaptation written by H. M. Milner for the working class audience of the Coburg displays several brutal killings on the stage. Peake's version is more successful than Milner's in preserving the sense of mystery of Mary Shelley's novel, in which Frankenstein, as narrator, is witness to the aftermath of each crime.

The appearance of the Monster in the 1823 production was bizarre, but somewhat more ethereal than hideous. Like the "wretch" described by Frankenstein in the novel, the Creature of the stage version had lengthy black hair. The Monster's skin was light blue, perhaps to achieve a more striking effect than that which would have been produced by the jaundice described in the novel. The attire of the Monster consisted of a close-fitting cotton tunic and a larger robe or toga that was removed during the performance. The scanty dress of the Monster facilitated stage movement and served to display the physique of the actor chosen to play the role.

The part of the Monster in the original production was taken by Thomas Potter Cooke (1786-1864), a former sailor who had already earned popular and critical attention by his performance as Ruthven in The Vampire. T. P. Cooke would play the Monster in Presumption! and several other stage versions of Frankenstein for a total of three hundred and sixty-five performances by 1830.13 Every critical assessment of Presumption! gave credit to Cooke for his skillful handling of both strenuous physical action and moments of sensitivity. The actor was unimpaired by the complete absence of dialogue in the part of the Monster; in fact, Presumption! provided Cooke with a showcase for the athletic and expressive qualities that would later make him the first choice for the heroic sailor role of several nautical melodramas.14

The part of Victor Frankenstein was given to James William Wallack (1791-1864), perhaps the most recognized of the Lyceum's coterie of leading men. A robust and physically attractive performer, Wallack had already gained popularity with London theatre-goers by his performance in Planche's The Brigand at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1820. The role of Fritz was played by Robert Keeley (1793-1869), one of the most respected low-comic performers of the early nineteenth century. Keeley, one of Peake's favorite performers, offered the clownishness and mild pathos that would relieve the cheerless progression of Frankenstein's sin and self-destruction.

Presumption! opened on Monday, 28 July 1823, at the head of a program that included two farces, The Rival Soldiers and Sharp and Flat. That the opening night audience was more than satisfied with the novelties of the production was frankly, if disparagingly, noted in the reviews. The Theatrical Observer's reviewer pointed out the theme of man's irre- {84} sponsible use of science "in attempting to exceed the limits of man's prescribed powers, by trespassing on the work of the universal creator."15 However, the reviewer did not consider Peake's dramatization to be valuable so much for its moral content as for its diverting elements. The writer recommended that the melodrama should continue to be performed "as long as the town will come to see it," and suggested, with a note of disdain, that visitors from the provinces touring the Zoological Gardens near the theatre would be interested in seeing the Monster on the stage as well as the animals in captivity. The reviewer continued, "It was received throughout with marked attention, and although there was an opposition, the great majority were decidedly in favor of the repetition of this extraordinary affair. Nothing 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 newly-created faculties."

The review for the Times was hostile. Cooke was praised for his pantomimic abilities, but the reviewer found the Monster uncomfortably inconsistent. Demanding a more tangible moral statement from the play, the reviewer objected to the creature's moments of gentleness. The writer indicated no interest in the Monster as a human being with emotions; rather, he was concerned with the dramatic function of the Monster as the agent of the impious Frankenstein's downfall. This reviewer also assaulted Watson's music, complaining that it was dull, and that it contained "at least thirteen movements which we have heard in every melodrama for the last thirteen years."16 The scenery was faulted in this review because the laboratory was not depicted. In conclusion, the Times writer expressed his opinion that the production was artistically worthless, but, he added, "the galleries, when the curtain fell, called loudly for Mr. T. P. Cooke."

The reviewer for the Literary Gazette devoted some space in his account of the opening performance to a reassurance of himself and the public of the existence of a moral message in Presumption! but subsequently analyzed the production with more insight than that exhibited in either the Theatrical Observer or the Times. The first complaint of this review was that the production had been overrated in the management's publicity. The reviewer thought the play satisfactory, but undeserving of the excitement its producers had tried to engender. Although Cooke, Wallack, and Keeley were each enthusiastically praised, the humor of Keeley's character was treated as an annoyance. "To be relished this Drama ought to have been entirely of the preternatural and terrible cast, with such variety as softer emotions and music could have given."17 The Literary Gazette reviewer assailed the humor in the play not only because it created an emotional imbalance, but also because it contributed to a general lack of sensitivity in Peake's treatment of the characters. The reviewer was not inclined to feel sympathetic toward the Monster, and he found very little human feeling in the character of Victor Frankenstein.

{85} The Examiner critic also faulted the play for losing some of the compassion evident in the novel. In Presumption! the sudden deaths of both Victor and the "fiend" preclude the final regrets of both that Mary Shelley had used in the termination of the novel. The alteration may be a dramatic expediency for a faster-paced action; the focus of the play seems to be more on exciting spectacle and melodramatic conflict than on the development of either Frankenstein's character for elaborate regrets and moral commentary or the character of the Monster for great pathos and philosophical reflection. It is obvious that the majority of the theatre's patrons were satisfied with this balance of action and rhetoric, but the Examiner reviewer desired more sensitivity than sensationalism. "All the poetry of this eccentric flight is lost, and we merely witness a revengeful North American savage, painted blue, waiting about a house to kidnap a boy and murder a girl."18 The same critic experienced no difficulty with the humor in the play, and went so far as to praise the comicality of Fritz as one of the production's main assets.

Almost half of the space of the Examiner review was devoted to speculation about the moral questions raised by the subject matter of Presumption! The writer defended the idea of artificial procreation as both plausible and ethical, and reproached the author and the Lyceum management for their prudery, "We do not like the pursuit of attainable knowledge to be termed impious or presumptuous."19 In addition to this defense of scientific inquiry, the Examiner critic offered a novel interpretation of the character of the Monster.

We were half-disposed, on Monday night, to regard this drama as a satire on our Irish system, which creates monsters exactly like the overly-curious Frankenstein, and in the same manner runs about shooting them for being precisely what they have been made, and that with a persevering complacency. . . . The dramatic monster too was willing to work hard, to cut wood and bear heavy burthens, then; but the system stood in his way. His kindness was repulsed, his unavoidable prejudices treated roughly, and in revenge, he sets fire to a cottage! The disguise is too shallow; it is certainly a satire!
The political analogy drawn by this writer was far-fetched, but his eagerness to regard the Monster as a dimensional human being was representative of the interest that the play aroused on a level beyond those of sensationalism and moral platitude.

The 30 July issue of the Theatrical Observer reported that the second performance of Presumption! was greeted by a large and generally supportive audience. But that same periodical printed a letter from one of the play's hecklers, who condemned the character of the Monster as "a raw-head and bloody-bones" and vowed not to take his pregnant wife to see him.20 This patron's primary consideration seemed not to have been the morals or messages of Presumption! as much as the virile spectacle of the scantily-clad T. P. Cooke.

{86} The opponents of Peake's play were not satisfied with either support from critics or the publication of individual protests. By early August, a placard circulated throughout London, attacking the play as being of "a decidedly immoral tendency" and warning against its "dangerous doctrines."21 The group responsible for the denunciation of Presumption!, the self-described "zealous friends of morality," was immediately attacked by an irate Samuel James Arnold. Citing the remarkable attendance at the theatre by very respectable audiences and the official sanction of the Lord Chamberlain, Arnold undermined the self-righteous assault on the play and concluded with a threat of legal action.22 After the publication of Arnold's retort, the organized opposition to the play lost momentum.

Arnold's claim of support from fashionable quarters was supported in the Theatrical Observer of notables filling the galleries and private boxes. The fourth performance of Presumption! was attended by the Duke and Duchess of Somerset and several distinguished Lords and Ladies; the eighth performance was attended by such personages as the Countess of Stanhope and Lady Ellenborough.23 In addition to these members of England's social elite, the production was attended by Mary Shelley. The author of Frankenstein, in a letter to Leigh Hunt, expressed great approval for the performances of Wallack and Cooke and remarked about the excitement she found in the audience around her.24 Although Mary Shelley was not wholly pleased with Peake's dramatization, she was impressed by the amount of enthusiasm it engendered, and doubtless anticipated further public interest in reading the novel.

Presumption! continued to play with great success through the first half of August, always heading the program and followed by other melodramas, farces, or musical comedies. Its eighteenth performance, on Monday, 18 August, marked the first instance in which it concluded an evening's entertainment. This shift of the melodrama's position on the Lyceum bill was probably not due as much to a decrease in its popularity as to the arrival at the theatre of the well-liked performer Charles Mathews. Presumption! followed two of Mathew's vehicles: The Polly Packet and Monsieur Tonson. For the duration of the theatre's season, Presumption! was frequently played, but always as an afterpiece to the dramatic monologues and favorite roles of Mathews.

The success of Presumption! was very likely a major reason for a revival of Planche's The Vampire for two performances near the end of the 1823 season. Cooke returned to the role of Ruthven, the vampire, which he had made popular three years earlier. This revival was received enthusiastically by the public, and the first of the two performances was under the patronage of the Duke of York. The melodrama of the supernatural had attained a popularity that was not limited to any particular social class, and Presumption! was the most immediate cause for this widespread enthusiasm.

{87} The final performance of Presumption! for the 1823 season took place on the closing night of the theatre, Saturday, 4 October. The play followed a melodrama The Miller's Maid and preceded Gretna Green, a musical farce. This was the thirty-seventh performance of Presumption! The play later appeared in New York City in January, 1825, and at the Porte St. Martin in Paris in 1826 -- in both instances with enormous success with the public.25 In London, the popular and distinguished support for Presumption! had not abated by 1824, as it was performed three times at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden with considerable success. The Theatrical Observer reported the popular reception of Peake's play at the Covent Garden with the assurance that "modesty is as prevalent in this theatre as any one."26 The 1824 performances were presented by a substantially altered cast, but Cooke and Keeley continued in their roles from the previous season. The Lyceum occasionally revived Presumption! to be presented as an afterpiece. The play was performed for several evenings in 1827, with William Bennett as Frankenstein, Richard John O. Smith as the Monster, and, once again, Keeley as Fritz.

The significance of Presumption! from an historical standpoint lies in its relative importance in certain theatrical careers and in its relation to a trend toward melodramas of the preternatural in the London popular theatre of the 1820s. Of the careers most directly affected by the triumph of Presumption!, that of Thomas Potter Cooke deserves special note. Harold J. Nichols has defined T. P. Cooke's special asset as an "ability to strike effective poses or attitudes of both body and countenance."27 This ability to render a gamut of emotions while being physically capable of the most strenuous stage action made Cooke more than suitable for the role of the Monster. The success of the production as a whole, and the widespread critical acclaim accorded Cooke personally, securely established Cooke's reputation among both dramatists and the public. Before the end of the 1820s, the ex-sailor had been introduced in the most important role of his career, that of the sentimental and steadfast English tar William in Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan. While it is probable that the low comic performer Robert Keeley had more of a decisive influence upon the success of Presumption! than the play had upon his own career, the bountiful praise he received for his characterization of Fritz further insured his future at the Lyceum. Presumption! also initiated the mutually beneficial relationship of Keeley and playwright Richard Brinsley Peake, who would eventually supply Keeley with a dozen popular roles. As in the case of Keeley, for James William Wallack Presumption! was not so much a critical turning point as an additional achievement for an already productive career.

Although Presumption! was not the first successful Gothic melodrama of the 1820s, the popularity it achieved had an immediate effect on London theatre managements. In 1824 the Adelphi Theatre produced Val- {88} mondi, which was described by one reviewer as "one of the most terrific pieces produced on the stage."28 The Lyceum in the same year featured T. P. Cooke in an adaptation of Weber's opera Der Freischutz, a spectacular tale of demonic connivings and vengeance. Presumption! had helped to illuminate a public appetite for horrifying stage fantasies with morally unambiguous resolutions. The play is exceptionally noteworthy among the Gothic melodramas of the 1820s because of its controversial subject matter. In a manner that was muted by the demands of sensational theatricality, this melodrama presented to the public the philosophical questions of Frankenstein. The degree of perspicacity among the Lyceum patrons was understandably varied; most spectators accepted Presumptions!'s warnings against interference in the affairs of Nature on face value, while some either railed against the Lyceum for its own presumption in opening the question to deliberation or chastised Peake for failing to articulate the more sensitive moral and social implications of Mary Shelley's story. While the first season of Presumption! was not a theatrical milestone by any estimation, it caused a furor that was certainly atypical for the inoffensive London stage of its time.


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (New York: Airmont Publishing Co., 1963), 9.

2. The concern of Romantic writers for grisly social realities was no less than that of the Naturalists who were to follow them. The relation of the Romantic imagination to contemporary problems is examined in M. H. Abrams, "English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age," in Romanticism: Points of View, ed. Robert F. Gleckner and Gerald E. Enscoe (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), 314-30.

3. The character of the Monster virtually embodies the sense of social alienation experienced by the Romantic artists and the characters of Romantic fiction. Morse Peckham offers some insights into the Romantic temperament and its appearances in the "anti-roles" of early nineteenth-century fiction in "The Dilemma of a Century: The Four Stages of Romanticism," in The Triumph of Romanticism: Collected Essays by Morse Peckham (Columbia, S.C.: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1970), 40-42.

4. Elizabeth Nitchie, "The Stage History of Frankenstein," South Atlantic Quarterly 41 (1942), 386.

5. Originally published in London by J. Duncombe; available in microduplicate in The Ohio State University Theatre Research Institute, McDowell Film Archives: F. 378.

6. Donald F. Glut, The Frankenstein Legend (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1973), 34.

7. The author presents a more detailed study of Peake's work in "The Life and Plays of Richard Brinsley Peake (1792-1847)" (Thes. The Ohio State University, 1979).

8. Prior to the passage of the Theatres Regulation Act in 1843, the minor theatres of London were permitted to produce legitimate drama only on the condition that the performances feature songs and musical accompaniment. For a description of this "burletta" form, see Ernest Bradlee Watson, Sheridan to Robertson: A Study of the Nineteenth Century London Stage (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1926), 40.

9. Richard Brinsley Peake, Frankenstein (Acting edition of Presumption!) London: Dick's Standard Plays #431. McDowell Film Archives, P. 1470, 14.

10. McDowell P. 1470, 11.

11. McDowell P. 1470, 7.

12. An 1826 revision of Presumption! presented an alternate ending, in which Frankenstein and his creature perish on a sinking ship. Nitchie, 390n.

13. Glut, 28.

14. A survey of Cooke's career and principal characteristics is available in Harold J. Nichols, "The Acting of Thomas Potter Cooke," NCTR, 5 (1977), 78-79.

15. Theatrical Observer, 29 July 1823.

16. The London Times, 29 July 1823, 3.

17. The London Literary Gazette, 2 August 1823, 493.

18. The Examiner, 3 August 1823, 504.

19. The Examiner, 505.

20. Theatrical Observer, 30 July 1823.

21. Theatrical Observer, 9 August 1823.

22. Theatrical Observer, 12 August 1823.

23. Theatrical Observer, 7 August 1823.

24. Nitchie, 385.

25. Joseph N. Ireland, Records of the New York Stage From 1750 to 1860, (New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1966), I, 437; Henry Barton Baker, History of the London Stage (New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1968), 284.

26. Theatrical Observer, 12 July 1824.

27. Nichols, 78.

28. Theatrical Observer, 26 November 1824.