by Richard Brinsley Peake | Stephen C. Behrendt, Editor
A Romantic Circles
The Cast and Characters
In the original version the part of the Creature
was played by Thomas
Potter Cooke (1786-1864), a popular actor who had in his youth
served in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The son of
a surgeon, Cooke entered the Navy after his father's death and at
the age of ten was present on the ship Raven during the siege
of Toulon in 1796. He participated in numerous battles thereafter,
building a reputation for courage and gallantry under fire, and
he was present at the blockade of Brest. He left the Navy after
the Peace of Amiens (1802) and began a long career in the theatre.
In what is believed to be only his second role he portrayed Lord
Nelson in a production at Astley's Ampitheatre. By 1820 Cooke had
successfully established himself as a melodramatic actor specializing
particularly in roles as vampires and monsters, undoubtedly capitalizing
in these roles upon his large and strong physique and great energy.
On 9 August 1820 Cooke enjoyed a huge popular success as Ruthven,
the hero of The Vampire, a play derived from the novel of
that name by Byron's friend John Polidori. The role in Presumption
was under these circumstances a logical one for him, and it firmly
established his reputation. Interestingly, like the mild-mannered
Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) who played the Creature in the
film versions of Frankenstein a century later, Cooke was
known off stage as a gentleman in every respect. Accoring to one
contemporary account, after the season closes at the English Opera
House, Cooke "generally returns to the [Royal] Cobourg [Theatre],
where he undertakes the duty of stage-manager, where his kind conciliating
manner and gentlemanly conduct has endeared him to all his brother
actors" (Mirror of the Stage, n.s. 1:19).
Because Peake's script presents a Creature who never speaks, Cooke
was hard pressed, having to make do with elaborate pantomime and
dumbshow in his portrayal. Peake radically reduced the Creature's
complexity (and therefore both his power and his pathos), leaving
him as little more than a brutealbeit one with a remarkable
susceptibility to the power of music. Nevertheless, Cooke scored
a coup in his portrayal, enduing the Creature with a "capacity
for intense feeling and psychological pain" (Moody, 94). Indeed,
the British Stage, which reviewed his performance, commented
enthusiastically on his ability to capture at once the Creature's
"great strength," "towering gait," and "reckless
cruelty," on the one hand, and his stunned and almost sublime
response to hearing "a concord of sweet sounds" on the
other (British Stage, and Literary Cabinet, 1823, 5:30-31).
In the original playbill the Creature is not even given a descriptive
name but is instead represented merely by a set of dashes, so thoroughly
has he been divested in Peake's script of any personal identity
or human dignity. One is reminded of Samuel Beckett's malformed
character, "the Unnamable." Interestingly, when Universal
Pictures produced the first widely successful movie version, James
Whale's Frankenstein (1931), the Creature was played by William
Henry Pratt, who was given the stage name "Karloff," without
any apparent Christian name to accompany it. In its choice of name,
Universal was probably capitalizing upon the still fresh Western
memories of the violence and atrocities associated with the Bolshevik
revolution in Russia and its Stalinist heirs, despite the rise in
Germany already at that early date of a more ominous and bloodthirsty
totalitarian regime. Only later was the Christian name "Boris"
added to the original profoundly Slavic invented surname "Karloff."
Victor Frankenstein. Victor was originally played by James William Wallack (1795?-1864), who was in 1823 an internationally acclaimed actor whose American acting company would go on to produce many of of the most important 19th-century American stage performers. The son of a London stage family, he was by the age of twelve already acting in the plays of Shakespeare and Sheridan at Drury Lane, where he subsequently played many increasingly important roles. After an American debut as Hamlet in 1818, he returned to Drury Lane in 1820, reprising his performance as Hamlet before playing in the first performance of Byron's Marino Faliero in April 1821. By the time of his appearance in Presumption in July 1823 he was a well established supporting actor to leading stars like Edmund Kean and William Macready. Known for the "dignity of movement and majesty of action" he brought to his acting, Wallack was nevertheless faulted for a lack of dramatic fervor and for an inability to sustain touching pathos. A contemporary wrote in 1826 that while Wallack may well have been "the best practical actor in the world," possessing "capabilities for becoming the first light comedian in the world," "we are grieved to add, that genius and mind are attributes to which he has but slender claims." Indeed, this writer concluded, "it is fair to presume that he is now as good an actor as he will ever be" (Oxberry, 6: 188-90). In 1837, with his brother Henry John Wallack, he essentially left the English stage to assume the directorship of the National Theatre in New York, although in fact he continued occasional acting tours in the British Isles.
One contemporary observer gives this account of Wallack's performance as Victor Frankenstein: "Mr. Wallack's personation of the agonised student, whose fatal curiosity, and still more fatal success, was sustained with great feeling and talent. He appeared to enter into the realities and strong spirit of the character, and by his gracefulness of attitude, and transitions of countenance, rendered the part highly interesting and deeply impressive.
He look'd the student, whose all fatal daring
Wallack's physical attractiveness undoubtedly enhanced his effectiveness
as Victor Frankenstein. With his dark eyes and hair and his symmetrical,
attractive five-foot-eight frame, it is little surprise to learn
that he was called in his time "the most handsome man upon
the London stage" (Oxberry, 5:192).
Fritz. The popular comedian Robert Keeley first appeared in this part, which Peake is said to have written expressly for him (Oxberry, 5:151). One of sixteen children, Keeley was born in 1793, was apprenticed to a printer, and after some early work both on stage and as a printer for the theatrical writer and critic William Oxberry, finally was established on stage by 1817. In 1821 he was an enormous success in the role of Jemmy Green in a production at the Adelphi Theatre of Tom and Jerry derived from Pierce Egan's popular book, Tom and Jerry; or, Life in London. He was noted as much for his small stature (he was just over five feet tall) as for his comic roles, most of which werelike that of Fritzwritten for him and therefore tended to become ever more similar in nature and substance, so much so that he was regarded as a "mannerist," or what today is called a "stock" character actor whose roles become inseparable from the actor himself. A contemporary observed that "however he may multiply his characters, vary his dresses, his wigs, or his words, it is Robert Keeley, and nothing else" (Oxberry, 5:152). Keeley and his wife performed in a long series of farces and other "light" works; they later expanded their efforts to theatre management, involving themselves in the production of farces and burlesques whose generally popular success the more conservative and conventional theatre critics found utterly scandalous: "What a glorious opportunity has been thrown away . . . . [A]s they could not engross to the class of their own individual performance the entire intellectuality of the national drama, they tumbled into buffoonery" (Marshall, 107).
Keeley's portrayal of the eccentric, nervous Fritz
made the servant-assistant a fixture of subsequent stage and film
productions of Frankenstein, but it disappointed some who
observed it. According to one contemporary critic, "in Fritz,
(could we believe a Swiss peasant to be such a victim to nerves)
he is excellent, but he is not comic; the creature he creates, shocks
us; and we feel too much for the degradation of human nature, to
be amused" (Oxberry, 5:153). Interestingly, these comments
reflect the double-edged sword faced by most character actors, if
not by all actors generally: once one plays a role successfully,
one runs the risk of being so totally associated with that role
that any subsequent performance is measured by that earlier role
and found wanting to the extent that it deviates from the expectations
which that performance has established.
Bland" was probably James Bland. James Bland is listed as appearing
with Miss Povey in the very successful run of Gil Blas at
the English Opera House in August 1822, during a season when Mr.
Rowbotham (see DeLacey, below) was also in the cast. Bland was one
of the sons of the talented singer and actress Mrs. Bland (née
Romanzini), whose notorious infidelities had led her husband to
abandon her and emigrate to America; she eventually went mad in
1824. James Bland seems to have been a relative newcomer to the
English stage in 1823; in1824-25 it was reported that he "performed
at the English Opera last season; but his efforts were not very
promising." Commenting on the 1824 season at the English Opera
House, Oxberry's Dramatic Biography reported that "Mr.
Bland [presumably James] is melancholy about his reception
last season" (Oxberry, 2:191). Another "Mr. Bland,"
George, was also active in the 1820s; this may have been another
of Mrs. Bland's several children, and perhaps the one of whom the
same source noted that "theatrical report speaks highly"
Felix DeLacey. The role of Felix was played by William Pearman, who was most active c. 1810-24. Pearman was born in Manchester in 1792 and, like Thomas Potter Cooke, served in the Navy, retiring after being wounded in the leg. A small man (said to stand only five foot three), Pearman carried himself with such grace that the lameness that resulted from his wound was seldom apparent. He attempted a career as an actor, with little success, but he gradually became known as a singer in theatres outside London, despite having only limited vocal abilities; his low tenor voice was narrow in range, and too soft to be effective in larger theatres. Nevertheless, by 1822 Pearman was accounted "first singer at the English Opera," which led to an unsuccessful engagement at Covent Garden.
Given the grace of his bearing, the delicacy of his
voice, and a countenance that was described at the time as "decidedly
foreign" (Oxberry 1:151), it is not surprising that Pearman
was selected for the romantic role of the young French exile, Felix
DeLacey. While it may be mere coincidence, it is worth noting that
among the actors and actresses about whom I have been able to discover
significant information, Pearman, Robert Keeley (who played Fritz),
and Mary Ann Povey (Safie) are all described as very short or (in
Povey's case) petite; their relatively small physical size as members
of a stage ensemble would naturally have served to emphasize
even more the comparatively large physical stature of Thomas Potter
Cooke, who at nearly six feet in height was playing the Creature.
have been unable to learn much about the "Mr. Rowbothom"
identified with this role on the 1823 playbill, although he is mentioned
in connection with several productions at the English Opera House
during the 1820s. Samuel Arnold, who managed the theatre, had annoyed
the orthodox London theatre establishmentand delighted many
crtiticsby enlisting the talents of a considerable number
of provincial actors and actresses (William Pearman is a good example).
Rowbotham was one of these, known for his versatility within the
confines imposed by essentially similar character roles. The Mirror
of the Stage reported in 1824 that "this gentleman is at
the head of that corps of actors denominated 'useful;' like
the Duke Aranza's cottage furniture, serving a dozen purposes
with equal propriety." The Mirror's writer found Rowbotham
too methodical, too studied, and too much lacking in spontaneity,
however, even likening his talent to "the carved work of a
bed post." But the same writer observed nevertheless that his
forte was the portrayal of patriarchs: "we identify Rowbotham
with vigorous old age: the gnarled oak, boisterous in nakedness,
and we wish, with all the imperfections of this actor, that the
Minor Theatre had more of his quality" (Mirror of the Stage,
n.s. 4:129). Given the nature of the elder DeLacey's role, it is
not hard to understand why Rowbotham was cast in the part.
William Frankenstein. The
role of Victor Frankenstein's young brother was played in 1823 by
a "Master Boden," about whom I have been unable to learn
anything substantial. Presumably he was a child or adolescent actor.
1823 playbill lists "Miss Austin," who was probably the
Elizabeth Austin who is also called "Mrs. Austin" during
the same year, 1823. She appears to have been a familar actress
and singer in productions at Drury Lane. Surprisingly little information
exists about her or her stage career.
Agatha DeLacey. The
original production included Miss L. Dance in the role of Agatha.
This is Louisa Dance, who had made her debut at the English Opera
House in The Marriage of Figaro. Like "Miss Austin,"
she remains relatively elusive. She seems to have been another of
the singer-actresses who performed frequently at the English Opera
House, with some additional regular-season work in Drury Lane or
Covent Garden. The Mirror of the Stage wrote of her performance
in The Marriage of Figaro in 1823 that her vocal abilities
were insufficient to the demands of such a musical work, partly
owing to her limited range, though it held out hope that practice
might yet make herif not perfect, at least "valuable"
as a singer (n.s. 3:11). She is described as tall and vivacious,
with a "lady-like and elegant" bearing (Mirror of the
Stage n.s. 2:202).
Povey" would seem to be Mary
Ann Povey, who later married a son of the Drury Lane figure,
Knight. Born in Birmingham in 1804, she gained an early reputation
as a vocalist. Surviving a potentially career-ending illness in
1821, she became a regular at Drury Lane. She also performed regularly
at the English Opera House, where in 1823 she was cast in the role
of Safie. A student of the Irish musician, actor and singer Thomas
(Tom) Cooke (who was born in Dublin in 1781 and who in 1823 had
recently performed prominently at Drury Lane in Carl Maria von Weber's
Die Freischütz), she enjoyed mixed critical success,
as is evident from comments that appeared in 1825. There her manner
of singing is described as "infantine and unsustained,"
characterized by a continual "effort to do that which, in fact,
from natural qualifications, she could do without any effort at
all." Nevertheless, the same critic says this about her stage
presence: "Miss Povey's figure is extremely petite;
her countenance is very pleasing, though not strictly beautiful;
her manners are unassuming; her voice, in speaking, very enchanting,
though too childish to be effective on the stage" (Oxberry,
2:234-38). These characteristics, together with her admitted skill
at ballad-singing, suggest why she may have been a good choice to
play Safie as Peake's drama represented her.
Madame Ninon, whose rather formal name seems
an odd fit with her status as the wife of Fritz, the servant, is
perhaps meant to suggest Ninon de Lenclos, a 17c. Parisian salon
leader and freethinker who had gained something of a legendary status
as a sexually active older woman (Reiman and Fraistat 318). According
to the 1823 playbill, the character was first played by a Mrs. T.
Weippert, about whom I have been unable to discover more than a
few tantalizing details. In its notice of the play in August 1823,
the Mirror of the Stage; or, New Dramatic Censor found Mrs.
Weippert (whose initial it gives as "I.") of particular
interest: "as a singer, this lady's merits are not above mediocrity;
but whenever she is put into characters suited to her talents, such
as pert servants, or romping hoyden's [sic], she displays
considerable vivacity and spirit." This suggests that she was
in fact a relatively well known minor actress familiar to London
audiences for her performances in "character roles." Oxberry
mentions a Mrs. J. Wieppert whose maiden name was
Stevenson and who was active as early as 1817. Despite the apparent
confusion about her Christian name (and its initial), this is probably
the same actress. She was almost certainly one of the provincial
actresses and actors hired by Samuel Arnold for performances at
the English Opera House (Oxberry, 1:147). I especially regret the
lack of more extensive information about this intriguing actress,
since Madame Ninon is a lively, feisty, argumentative character
whose stage ancestry seems likely to extend all the way back to
Noah's shrewish wife in the medieval drama.
Actors, and Actresses.
These were all minor, stock actors
and actresses of the sort that "fill out a company." Those
whose names are given on the playbill (Shield, Salter, Phillips)
were undoubtedly what are today called "bit players,"
as is evident from the minor nature of their roles and the actors'
virtual absence from most records of the period. Salter, for instance,
like Mrs Weippert (see Madame Ninon, above) was another of the provincial
actors signed by Arnold at the English Opera House to frustrate
the monopolistic practices of the so-called legitimate theatres
when it came to "off-season" employment (Oxberry, 1:147-48).
The Mirror of the Stage, in 1824, called Salter's a "general
and useful talent" adept at a variety of roles and character
types "without being actually great in any thing"
(Mirror of the Stage, n.s. 4:20).
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