by Stephen C. Behrendt
Richard Brinsley Peake's best remembered work is unquestionably Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, which first played at the English Opera House on 28 July 1823. In its earliest form the play ran for thirty-seven performances during a summer season that lasted only three months, after which it continued to appear (in various forms) at least through 1850. As a consequence of conventions dating back to the 1660s, including the award by Charles II of royal patents for the staging of dramatic works, during the Romantic period only the "Theatres Royal" of Drury Lane and Covent Garden were permitted to present conventional plays (known as "legitimate theatre" and consisting of dramatic tragedy and comedy) under the auspices of the Lord Chamberlain. All other theatres were restricted to alternative forms of drama—the so-called "illegitimate theatre"—such as melodrama, burlesque, pantomime, puppet theatre, musical entertainments, and spectacles. Adaptations like Peake's had therefore to include a good deal of music, pantomime, and spectacle to permit their staging in these alternative theatrical venues—some of which were ampitheatres and even equestrian arenas (e.g., Sadler's Wells, the Royal Circus Theatre, and Astley's Ampitheatre). Not surprisingly, a great deal of the most interesting and innovative—not to mention often undoubtedly radical and subversive as well—theatre of the Romantic period in England was to be found in this "illegitimate" theatre rather than in the safe, licensed venues of the patent theatres. Moreover, by the 1830s the minor and alternative theatres had begun with increasing success to challenge the virtual monopoly enjoyed by the patent theatres.
The English Opera House under the direction of Samuel Arnold had by 1816 acquired a license to stage musical farces and ballad operas during the summer months. Not only was the theatre (which was also known as the Lyceum) one of the first to feature interior gas lighting, a fact which it announced prominently in its playbills, but it boasted an unusually high rate of "hit" plays (Moody, 40). Given all of this, Peake's Presumption was a logical candidate for staging there in 1823. Interestingly, the playbill for the original 1823 version, which included music by a composer named Watson, used only the main title, Presumption, and referred to the play as a romance. The play apparently created a considerable sensation. As William St. Clair notes, the English Opera House could in 1823 seat some 1,500 patrons, which meant that a run of 37 performances could have made it possible for the play to have been seen by as many as 55,000 persons. Certainly the number was fewer, but even half that many viewers would have made a real impact. That there was in fact a popular impact is indicated by the fact that Peake's title was soon altered on the playbills to Frankenstein; or, The Danger of Presumption. Another sure sign of the play's impact was the appearance in rapid succession of several burlesques, which of course drew for their full effect upon their audiences' familiarity with Presumption and—to a lesser extent—with Mary Shelley's novel itself. As frequently happens with modern film versions of literary works, many audiences in the 1820s made their first acquaintance with Frankenstein not through the printed text of Shelley's novel but rather through one of the staged versions. For many such readers, as for readers today who have grown up on the dozens of twentieth-century cinematic versions of Frankenstein, their reaction if and when they read the actual novel must have been one of considerable surprise, for it surely delivered something very different from what their experience with stage versions must inevitably have led them to expect.
Meanwhile, a second play on the Frankenstein theme, Henry M. Milner's Frankenstein, or the Demon of Switzerland, had opened on 18 August at the still larger Cobourg Theatre (St. Clair, 52, reports that it could hold an audience of 3800!). This play, which drew upon both Mary Shelley's novel and a French work called Le Magicien et le Monstre (The Magician and the Monster), was followed in 1826 by an adaptation (also by Milner) called The Man and the Monster! or, The Fate of Frankenstein, which, like Peake's play, was subsequently retitled as Frankenstein; or, The Monster to capitalize on its sensational subject matter. Already by the 1830s, then, as St. Clair observes, the roles, characters, and identities of Victor Frankenstein and his miserable Creature had begun to seem interchangeable: "it was already common for the nameless monster to be called 'Frankenstein,' a deliberate confusion put about by the actors" (53). That this is so lends particular irony to the observations and predictions made by the reviewer for the Mirror of the Stage; or, New Dramatic Censor, who wrote in August 1823 that "this drama would perhaps have done very well as an afterpiece; but there is not sufficient interest for a first piece of three acts: it may live for a few nights, but it never can have a long run" (n.s. 3:13). For a work that the same critic called "the silly nothing at the English Opera" (n.s. 3:22), Presumption, together with all the subsequent stage and cinematic versions, became part of one of the most remarkable and sustained cultural phenomena of the modern world.
A Note on the Text:
According to its best modern editor, Jeffrey N. Cox, Presumption exists in two primary performing texts. The first is a text called "Frankenstein": A Melo-Dramatic Opera in Three Acts. This is the so-called "Larpent" version, the text that was routinely submitted for scrutiny to John Larpent (1741-1824), whose post as Examiner of Plays was roughly equivalent to that of government censor. The second text appears in a scarce collection called Dick's Standard Plays (c. 1865). The text that appears on this website is my own editorial reconstruction from these two sources and is based upon the text published by Jeffrey N. Cox in Seven Gothic Dramas, to which one should turn for the most reliable information about what, precisely, is in one version or another, or both. My aim in developing the present text has been simply to provide an accessible text for the generalist seeking some clear sense of the early stage incarnations of Peake's influential play.
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Stephen C. Behrendt is George Holmes Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. He has published widely on the Shelleys and on Blake, in addition to authoring numerous studies of relations among the arts. Recent books include Shellley and His Audiences (1989), Approaches to Teaching Shelley's 'Frankenstein' (1990), Reading William Blake (1992), and Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte (1997). His poetry has also been published widely and includes two books: Instruments of the Bones (1992) and A Step in the Dark (1996). His major current research centers on British women poets of the Romantic period; among projects in this area he is presently co-editing an electronic archive of Scottish women poets of the Romantic period (forthcoming, Alexander Street Press).