Early Theatrical Productions of Frankenstein
written by Emma Jackson

(Information used is from The Frankenstein Omnibus, edited by Peter Haining)

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"I have just had a visit from Horace Smith who does not know much English news, except that they bought out Frankenstein at the Lyceum and vivified the monster in such a manner as caused the ladies to faint away and a hubbub to ensue - however, they diminished the horrors in the sequel and it is having a run."

A letter from Mary Shelley to the poet and essayist, Leigh Hunt. August 14, 1823.

Frankenstein had made it to the stage less than five years after its publication. In time the story would also be adapted for the cinema, radio and television but this would be the only theatrical medium that Mary Shelley would witness. She was only ever able to view one production and her novel had to be dramatically altered for it to get even this far.

The public flocked to see the play that achieved such a sensational debut but the finale was equally dramatic as the monster was plunged into a volcano! Mary Shelley finally saw a production on August 29th and was strangely impressed:

"But lo and behold I found myself famous! Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama and was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English Royal Opera House."

This production included James Wallack as Victor Frankenstein and Thomas Potter Cooke as the monster. Cooke had really caught Shelley's eye. A retired naval seaman, he had been shipwrecked in 1804 and thereafter decided to remain on dry land as an actor. He played many villainous roles but appeared as the monster a total of 350 times and was as much identified with the role as Boris Karloff would be a century later.

Mary describes the set:

"The stage represents a room with a staircase leading to Frankenstein's workshop, he goes to it and you see his light at a small window, through which a frightened servant peeps, who runs in terror when F exclaims, "It lives!" Presently F himself rushes in horror and trepidation from the room and while still expressing his agony and terror, the unnameable throws open the door of the laboratory, leaps the staircase and presents his unearthly and monstrous person on stage. Cooke played the part extremely well - his seeking as it were for support - his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard - all indeed he does was well imagined and executed."

A rare copy of this 'peculiar, romantic melodrama' by H.M Milner, a specialist in literary adaptations, still survives. It also includes the description of Cooke's make-up, consisting of lashings of yellow and green grease-paint, and details of his costume: 'Close vest and leggings of a very pale yellowish brown, heightened with blue, as if to show off the muscles. Greek shirt of very dark brown, and broad black leather belt'.

Many more theatrical representations of the novel followed in the years to come many of which many were to draw on Milner's concept. However, the most dramatic reincarnation of the monster was to be on the screen……

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